A sad defense of marriage

The New York Times reports that couples are surviving infidelity. Should we be celebrating?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published June 29, 2009 9:30PM (EDT)

From John minus Kate to Gov. Mark Sanford, last week was a rough one for the institution of marriage. The New York Times, however, points out a silver lining in this cultural rain cloud: Divorce is on the decline. The article, awkwardly titled "Marriage Stands Up for Itself," explains that while we are inundated with tales of high-profile infidelities, research actually shows that marriages today are more likely to weather such storms. At least for a little while.

Every year, roughly 10 percent of married people admit to having cheated on their spouse and it is "one of the most common reasons cited by people who divorce." But the Times reports that most people stand by a cheating partner. One study found that "76 percent of both men and women [who were cheated on] were still married and living with that spouse years later."

Good for them, I guess? Only, there's no word on where these couples were a decade or two down the line, though. Nor is there any mention of whether these relationships ultimately recovered from the betrayal or why the spouses decided to stay together -- was it for the kids, their finances, religious beliefs or something else entirely? But, I digress. The short of it, according to the Times, is that while there are plenty of lies, betrayals and Argentine lovers with sexy tan lines, worry not, because most couples manage to endure.

That's a bleak silver-lining, no? Defending the institution of marriage by citing the percentage of couples who are able to persevere -- as opposed to the percentage of happy and fulfilled long-term partnerships -- seems pretty cynical. Is that really the kind of marital strength we want to celebrate? Stamina rather than satisfaction? The article does propose a couple optimistic hypotheses for why the divorce rate is on the decline and relationships are more resilient in the face of infidelity: Marriages are more likely to be egalitarian these days and folks are tying the knot later on in life after several years of dating.

Those are things worth celebrating, not the type of marital martyrdom that values sticking it out no matter what. Is it really so reckless to aim for a happy partnership, instead of a partnership that simply endures?

Tracy Clark-Flory

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