Turning a Blind Eye

So what do Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn have in common? Both have made headlines this week, though the circumstances are dramatically different; Schwarzenegger has admitted to a love child, and Strauss-Kahn has allegedly committed assault. But they are public figures, and I think we can agree, powerful men.

With the current media swirl around Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver splitting, not to mention (now former) IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accused of sexually assaulting a chambermaid – I set aside other topics for the morning. I’m headed into murky waters, and no doubt, some controversy.

Let’s add another ingredient to this emotional mix, shall we? How about a debate on the Huffington Post Divorce page on proposed divorce reform, intended to reduce divorce in “low conflict” marriages where children are involved?

When marriage ends

A last item, and the one that sparked my musing: this article on the New York Times Opinion pages on French women and their tolerance for marital infidelity.

What are we really talking about here?

Men and sexual appetite. Powerful men and sexual entitlement. We’re also in the land of marital expectations, marital duties, extramarital affairs, and more importantly – the realities of human behavior, the reasons we disassemble families, and the complicated legal institution that we call marriage.

We don’t always know why a marriage ends; assuming that either or both of these unions do terminate in divorce, we will certainly have some idea.

Cultural determinants of amorous advances?

I’ve written about my enjoyment of French culture and French men. Yes, I make my home in the U.S.; my children are here, my life (now) is here. This is our home. But it is multicultural, and yes, tolerant.

One of the reasons I’ve found common ground with French friends has to do with value systems – those important to me – honoring the family unit being one of them. And then there is savoring life’s pleasures (food, drink, and sex among them) as counterbalance to hard work. There is also taking satisfaction in the spoken and written word, the well crafted argument, and living out the reality that bigger is not necessarily better.

This is my experience over the years; I claim no “representative sample.”

Sex, seduction, and swagger

Looking at the Times article (and related discussions), I nonetheless see much that rings true for me. That includes a reference to “French admiration for sexual swagger” along with literary and historical roots of appreciation for seduction, and comprehension of prolific male appetites. Then there’s this, by (female) French journalist, Laurence Masurel:

French women don’t tolerate what Dominique Strauss-Kahn is accused of doing. But in France, we are perhaps less puritanical than Americans about sexual matters…

Is this recognition that sex is not lovemaking, and that an extramarital liaison is not reason enough in and of itself to break up a family? Is it recognition that an adult having only one sexual partner for forty or fifty years is – at the very least – unrealistic?

As for infidelity, I’m not condoning it. I wouldn’t tolerate Jesse or Tiger, Kelsey or Arnold. Should the allegations prove to be true, I surely wouldn’t tolerate Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But I am saying that statistics and studies bear out a declining frequency of marital sex as unions wear on, and staggering numbers of extramarital adventures. In fact, it is so common as to be – dare I say it – normal?

Marital vows, human imperfections

If turning a blind eye can keep an otherwise strong marriage together, why wouldn’t we go the way of the French? Or are we already doing so, but simply not talking about it?

Some of you may be shaking your heads. Some of you may be asking – where do we draw the line?

  • One affair? One affair in 10 years? Sex, but no love?
  • Anything, as long as our health is protected and it’s out of town?
  • Anything goes, as long as there isn’t a love child?

I can’t answer those questions. Only you can answer them. But I do believe that marriage is hard. Loving is hard. Understanding is harder.

Marriage, loving, and understanding are worth fighting for – with or without the piece of paper that make this emotional and economic union legal.

Divorce debates

Frequently, divorce debates turn into a free-for-all of comparative heartbreak: he did this to her, she did this to him. You have only to look at almost any article on a Divorce Forum; it’s almost always about sex – and bucks.

Grow disenchanted? Withdraw.

Fall out of love? Stray.

Fall in love with someone else? Pursue your happiness – whatever it takes. And children are caught in the crossfire.

Does this mean I think we shouldn’t have divorce?

I’m a divorced woman; of course not. But I do believe that we enter marriage too lightly, and that there is merit – in some circumstances – to turning a blind eye.

Blind eye

I would venture that turning a blind eye to infidelity is how our grandparents managed their long-term marriages, while still honoring the essence of their vows. And remaining devoted to each other and the family unit as they grew older. I also believe that many of us go into marriage naively; certainly I did, though I was in my thirties. Wouldn’t speaking more openly in a less puritanical environment serve our families?

As for the French women I’ve known, I believe they make decisions that focus on family – and equally – the stability of the home, economic security, and possibly – whether or not the same sort of liberties are accorded them. Some of you may argue that this isn’t marriage.

I would disagree.

Redefining marriage

If friendly cohabitation keeps homes intact, I for one, would be for it. I would even go so far as to say that as long as there is no abuse involved, and discretion to protect children, I see it as a viable means to accept human behaviors for what they are – complex, and yes – at times hurtful.

Naturally, the reasons for divorce are many. What we hear about most often, however, is infidelity. In my opinion, there are far more compelling reasons to end a marriage, and it is with sadness that I read the news about the Arnold-Maria split, and with mixed feelings that I read about Strauss-Kahn – outrage if the accusations are true, and contempt for the political process if the situation is a setup (he was a French presidential contender).

As for Strauss-Kahn, his wife is, for now, standing by him. According to the press, she is known to turn a blind eye. Perhaps she did so too often.

I don’t know. You don’t know.

Only those involved in a marriage know what is truth, for them. And even then – there are variations on truth – each individual, with his or her perspective.


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  1. says

    Here is my opinion on infidelity. I think that sex is rarely just sex, though if that is ‘all’ then without lies I can see how discretion might be the better part of valor. However, I think there are reasons for straying that betray a deeper rift. I think we look for someone who sees us as we long to be, and often our spouse has seen too much of our foibles and faults. And with that full knowledge of our darkness, their eyes don’t shine back the light we hope to see.

    As to why marriages end, well, I agree we don’t often know the reasons, except in our own worlds. And I agree that we go into marriage naive (how can we be anything else?), the years bring new surprises and challenges. I do wish there was a way to help preserve the family, the stability, the economic ties when the marriage falls apart.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Fascinating feedback, Kate. You are agreeing that sex (which is purely sex) may be tolerable, if discretion is involved.
      Kristen, you’re bothered by the secrecy, and would prefer openness of intentions.
      Pauline, you are recognizing the considerable difference between a single indiscretion and serial sexual encounters – not to mention the destruction that can ensue (in either case, if found out).
      Gandalfe, you are giving (male) voice to the very real (very human?) male propensity for sexual action. You’re also giving voice to the male capacity for intelligent use of reason along with respect for marriage.

      I’m oversimplifying your reactions, I know. I will be interested to see what others think. And also, if you pop over to Huff Post and read the proposed Divorce Reform legislation (and comments) – what you think. And thank you for joining in what is a problematic discussion – always emotional, and highly personal. But I do think it is worth discussing. Including how we can strengthen marriages with education (in the early years), and perhaps learn to be a more tolerant society in many ways – in the interest of containing the devastation that often results from divorce.

  2. says

    I wonder, D: do you watch The Good Wife? If not, you must (and not only because its subject matter is very germane to this discussion).

    In general, whenever I hear about an extramarital affair, I feel most enraged by what seems to be the lack of respect shown to the offended partner by the offending one. If a couple agrees to pursue sexual dalliances during their marriage, that’s one thing. If one partner betrays the trust of the other, that’s another.

    I suppose the key here is openness. If you wish to have an open marriage and are open about your intentions to your partner – and he or she accepts it – then I am far less horrified than I would be if everything is done in secret. (That secrecy, I believe, suggests that the offending partner knows what he/she did is wrong.)

  3. says

    Thoughtful, and provocative post indeed! I think there is a huge difference between a marriage with one infidelity, or a marriage that is entered into with agreement that it will be “open,” and a marriage in which one person’s extramarital compulsive and outlandish sexual activities create shame and destruction. I would characterize Arnold’s behavior as “eroticized rage,” a term used in sex addiction therapy to characterize how sex addicts act out their anger against their partner/women. I know many women who have “looked the other way” in long-term marriages, and they usually have no self-esteem, have chronic health problems, or are afraid to leave because they are financially dependent on their abusive husbands (which is an argument for why married women should never stop working, but that’s a subject for a different post). The French philosophy you are describing may be employable by some couples, but I think it is a more of an ideal than something attainable for most. And in Maria’s case–where her husband was so out-of-control that he impregnated the household staff virtually at the same time he impregnated Maria–I don’t see how she could stay. What message would she be sending her sons and daughters? That women should put up with anything? That men don’t need to be accountable? Your point that sexual satisfaction is hard to sustain in long-term marriages is accurate, but I think the answer is more in working on intimacy within a marriage, redefining what healthy sex is, than in societal messages that tell women they suffer silently through men’s infidelities–or have affairs of their own.

    You’ve raised compelling questions–I’ll be interested to read the other responses.

  4. says

    This might start up a maelstrom amongst your readers. It is so hard to decide where to draw the line and determine what works for a couple. Most men wrestle with this daily. Why do I want to do it with another woman when I already have the perfect woman? What do I lose if I pursue and get caught?

    I have so many friends who are divorced and subsequently have their lives torn apart emotionally and financially. I suspect that because this topic is so painful, most won’t go there. How do men train our genetic propensity to spread our seeds outside our marriage so that we don’t fall to temptation.

    Mermaids, sirens, and other myths seem to talk to this. Anyone remember Hylas and the water nymphs? The John Waterhouse picture of that hangs over my bed.

  5. Wolf Pascoe says

    Call me old-fashioned, but, this excellent discussion aside, I think Arnold’s behavior here is the business of his family and his “other” family, and nobody else. I wish it had remained so. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, assuming he proves guilty, is another matter entirely.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      The French would agree with you on that one, Wolf, relative to Schwarzenegger. As they did with Clinton. But media being what media is (and sensationalism being what it is), for public figures these days, privacy is a thing of the past.

  6. says

    I believe that as advanced as we are, genetically, we have the obligation to temper those basal needs–like sex whenever we want–with actions like commitment and saying no.

    Sure, we could look the other way and keep the family together. But, would trust remain in the relationship? I can’t speak for the couples you mentioned above, but it would seem Strauss-Kahn’s wife turned a blind eye because it was something she knew came with the territory. That’s her choice. But for me, and most of the friends I associate with (on a daily basis, in person I mean), we married our husbands for love. To have him betray that love by sleeping with another woman? That would also betray trust and everything else that we vowed when making our marriage commitments. Shoot, if you can’t commit–why marry? Isn’t the very idea of marriage to commit solely to each other? At least that’s what I interpreted from the many marriage ceremonies I have attended.

    Also, for these men to fool around on their wives speaks to something even bigger: How do they view women? As intelligent, wonderful beings? Or as sex objects? As for their wives, why should these men be allowed to fool around while they twiddle their thumbs at home? Isn’t that just propelling the 50’s back into our lives?

    To disagree with Gandalfe specifically: though men are biologically set up to spread their seed, does that mean they should? They are also biologically set up to kill when necessary–is that something you should also act on? To look at nature, we must remember evolution when making our assumptions. As advanced a species that we are, we no longer need to only worry about survival. We can worry about complex issues like marriage. And we also notice that a family unit works more effectively when both spouses are fully committed to each other–sexually and in other ways.

    Still, good discussion brave Wolf.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Interesting argument you pose to Gandalfe, Amber – juxtaposing the needs to reproduce and to kill. But I would assert that it doesn’t take much for many people to let loose their sense of obligation, their filters, their inhibitions – particularly in a culture that increasingly excuses bad behavior. And yes, bad behavior is a judgment on my part.

      As for men who fool around – personally, I think those who slip once or twice over the course of the years are in a different category from those who routinely indulge. I wouldn’t necessarily think they take all women as sex objects, and nor is “intelligent, wonderful being” exclusive of playing the role of sex object – or as I would prefer – object of desire.

      Back to the 50s? I think monogamy is a tough road, and always has been. For some, more than others. All good intentions and commitments aside.

  7. Madelia says

    Indeed, this conversation has provided me a new insight that I am perhaps lucky. My husband of many years, many affairs (unknown to me until recently), chose to abandon the family, not just me. He packed his bags, quit his job, and slipped out in the wee hours of the morning, leaving us a note. So my decision to divorce was made easy. It wasn’t about infidelity, which in my youth I admit I tolerated as “an adventure” when my friends undertook it.

    Being on the other side of it now, considering the emotional damage of the utter disrespect paid to you by the person with whom you held promises of love and fidelity—not just wedding vows, but whispers of devotion in the most intimate moments of your shared life together—I would not be so cavalier in my assessment. There is pain and betrayal in any relationship, often not deliberate, but the goal is a happy devotion, the well-being of the other and the family, and if you both hold the other dear enough, it can be done.

    Sadly, not so in my case. I filed for divorce yesterday. My husband is just gone. I have lost him, and my sons have lost their father. I’m sure there is another woman or women involved, but it is the abandonment that made my decision a clean one. I will not have to face the infidelity question. How lucky am I?

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Madelia, thank you for sharing your story. You’ve really been given no choices in your situation, have you. Unilateral withdrawal of one party from the marriage contract – but worse than that – from the family. This is heartbreaking. Please know that there are many resources online to help you with your road ahead. There are many here – and in other online communities – who will listen and help. And behind the online communities are real men and women who understand what you’re going through, and what your children will have to go through.

      If you need us, we’re here.

  8. says

    We focus so much on divorce, but not on why people get married in the first place. I think we rely too much on fantasy when it comes to love; fantasy weddings, fantasy marriages, and blind faith that we won’t be having to ask ourselves any of these difficult questions. I think getting married should be harder, not divorce.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      So glad you raised the fantasy aspect, April. I’m not sure why we still cling to that, knowing what we do about divorce rates, and remarriage/divorce rates.

  9. says

    I wouldn’t share my underwear with anyone else, and I wouldn’t share my husband (or partner) with anyone else. If we respect each other, if we respect our relationship, we need to keep it at home. If we can’t do that, it says to me the relationship and the partner are not that important, and it would be best to end it.
    I agree with April, I think getting married should be harder. I think more thought is required before entering into a commitment. Make sure you like each other as well as love each other and share the passion, then commit. If you can’t truly commit, then get out of it.

  10. says

    Facts aside (as I have no clue what they may be), I do think it important to differentiate love affairs and passion from sexual coercion (where power dynamics are completely uneven) and sexual assault (where a crime of rage born of inadequacy makes use of sex to hurt another).

    The notion of so-called “powerful” men being inexorably drawn to not nearly so politically or economically powerful women hints at some sort of sado-masochistic dynamic, perhaps one where the secretly inadequate man projects his shadow onto an objectified target and then tries to either unite with this forbidden aspect, or perhaps to assault it (in an act of self-loathing and clueless narcissism).

    Perhaps it’s exactly when love has left the building that morality, rules and discord over sex and money rush in, rippling from squabbles in kitchens to world economies hovering on the brink.

  11. says

    You challenge your readers with this one. Good. How does monogamy fit with our ideas on marriage (I prefer the word monogamy rather than adultery, a terrifying word to older wives)? Best anyone could seem to say was “turn a blind eye to it” which seems to me an unwillingness to deal with the topic. I try to follow “Open and Honest” in all significant areas of my life (which is NOT irresponsibility, but taking responsibility; in marriage this would likely decrease straying if folks took it seriously – search my blog). “Open and Honest” is VERY challenging, but what I put forward for any relationship. Fran and I have chosen to be monogamous, but we understand that if either of us became incapacitated, we would, in a loving fashion, certainly support the other getting the physical fulfillment they deserve. I certainly believe in the white lie and romantic speech in the right place, and don’t care for those who claim honesty as an excuse to hit you with their selected version of brutal truths and lies.

    My past experience in this regard. Ahem. I’ve had relatively few partners (single digits), all for more than a year and still my friends. I was married part of that time, but claim to have never “cheated” on anyone — meaning lied to anyone on this issue (excepting the desired white lie). Some things partners might desire to be left unsaid (definitely the case), and I’ve certainly respected that. When my former wife declared, at some point after marriage, that married couples didn’t have sex and that I could take it or leave it, and I couldn’t leave my children with her considering that she had serious mental issues – I had to respond to those circumstances. I had expected to be monogamous when I got married (good sex was the reason I married her – live and learn). I told her in that case some changes would have to be made, and I entered new territory. Getting this across to my children gently but realistically was VERY interesting. Mentally ill parents/family can be a challenge to children when they don’t understand what is happening, and families are often unable to deal with it.

    I think I’m unusual in this — took a lot of thinking to get to this place. Partners with secrets ultimately found their double life to be very difficult for them. I’ve seen strong women fall apart.

  12. BigLittleWolf says

    I love the honesty of your response Paul. Thank you.

    Bruce makes a reference to “when love leaves the building” – and perhaps that’s the case the for some, but for others there may be reasons that are not simple to slot. In my opinion, only those involved could shed light on why they do what they do – or don’t.

    Perhaps this is one more reason that “absolutes” don’t belong in most realms of human interaction? That we shouldn’t judge others, and tolerance of many sorts might be the better path?


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