As Kay Hymowitz points out in a must-read piece in Commentary magazine, Europeans tend to scoff at our National Adultery Ritual (the contrite press conference, “torrent of mockery” on late night TV, etc.) as proof of how hopelessly provincial we Americans are. Europeans are proud that, unlike us hicks, they consider the sexual affairs of politicians irrelevant.
But Hymowitz thinks that the National Adultery Ritual reflects something good about the American view of marriage:
What is unusual in the human record is not men stepping out on their wives. What is unusual is the model of faithful monogamy, a model that takes for granted the importance of women’s experience, not just men’s. Before the 18th century and outside of Western Europe, marriage was a social and economic as well as sexual arrangement; it had little to do with love and companionship, and no one much cared about whether women were fulfilled or not. But with the emergence of what sociologists and historians refer to as companionate marriage, intimacy became the marital ideal. Instead of arranged unions, the young made their own choice of mate based on shared interests and deep affection rather than on social requirements. Fidelity followed naturally, or so it was hoped, and it meant that, yes, people gave a merde.
Companionate marriage was a remarkable moral advance in social history, particularly for women. The American founders understood this. Rejecting the cynical, paternalistic arrangements of the ancien régime, they saw in the intimate, quasi-egalitarian relations between husbands and wives a reflection of democratic ideals. The model found its perfect expression in the relationship between John and Abigail Adams portrayed in the PBS series a while back. We don’t see John cavorting with prostitutes in his many months in Philadelphia away from his wife, his dear friend, though surely his fidelity was something unusual.
To be sure, the model was often little more than a nodding tribute from vice to virtue. Even in the mid-20th century, and especially outside the middle class, men strayed and women knew it. JFK’s Camelot, for instance, was a land of male sexual privilege, as Jackie Kennedy? well understood….
The article is also worth reading because it is a hilarious treatment of the National Adultery Ritual, including how it was altered by Silda Spitzer and Jenny Sanford, who took decidedly different approaches to their roles as wronged wives.