Jenny Sanford strikes back

Is the governor's wife really a "role model for wronged spouses"?

Published August 18, 2009 1:19PM (EDT)

In this month’s Vogue magazine, curious readers are treated to yet another installment in the ongoing novel that is the Mark Sanford affair, this time from the perspective of his wife, Jenny, now playing the role of betrayed spouse. I still have mixed emotions about the fact that each and every one of us had the opportunity to read her husband’s electronic missives of love in a national newspaper. God knows I don't understand why he felt the need to cast reporters from our national wire services in the role of marriage therapist or minister, and to broadcast his confessions in a press conference longer than most any I've seen on healthcare. But like it or not, Vogue has concurred with the Washington Post in naming Jenny Sanford “a new role model for wronged spouses,” and deemed her worthy of a feature-length profile, complete with a fashion photo spread.

While her husband wanted us to believe his was a tale of forbidden love between star-crossed soul mates, Vogue reporter Rebecca Johnson brings us back to basics: Jenny is an “unlikely heroine,” “pious without being smug, smart without being caustic,” who had the spine to kick out her “lying bum” of a husband, but the grace to offer him forgiveness. While this version seems as true as the other, it relies on the same black-and-white moral principles that made her Republican husband seem like such a hypocrite in the first place.

She frames his affair as a moral failing (“The person I married was centered on a core of morals. The person who did this is not centered on morals”) and concludes that “these affairs are almost like an addiction to alcohol or pornography.” She explicitly blames his affair on his wordly ambition, in contrast to her humble concerns for home and family: “Midlife aging is different for men than women. Mark is worried about what his next job is. He worries about making money, running for office again, his legacy. I know my legacy is my children. I don’t worry about that.”

There are plenty of things to see in Mark Sanford’s ill-advised affair -- hubris, dereliction of his gubernatorial duties, betrayal of his marriage vows -- but when a Republican politician goes full speed ahead into an international affair at a time when he has good reason to think he just might be the next nominee for vice-president, it’s hard to believe he’s thinking much about his career. It also seems wildly inaccurate to compare his resolute, naively romantic, perhaps goofy belief that one particular woman is his soul mate -- whatever we think of the likelihood the relationship will succeed -- to porn and substance abuse, especially considering the long line of politicians who have chosen to cavort with prostitutes, interns and multiple lovers. (Also: It doesn't seem particularly kind to one's children to imply, while talking to a reporter in a national publication, that their father doesn't also consider them his legacy.)

What’s more, the rest of the piece only seems to confirm Mark’s assertion that he was a man in a marriage based on mutual respect, obligations and allegiance to moral propriety who somehow found himself gobsmacked by the kind of reckless love usually found among teenagers. Jenny’s good friend says he was never much of a playboy (“We all know men who drink too much at a party and flirt with women -- Mark was never that guy”). Jenny herself seems to admit that they never had much passion between them, even as young lovers. “We weren’t madly in love, but we were compatible and good friends. I like to think we balance each other out. I’m a conservative at heart, but I’m not passionate like he is. I’m better at making the trains run on time ... At heart, I’m an old-fashioned woman. If the Lord blessed me with children and family, I knew that would be my calling.”

This, to me, sounds an awful lot like the practice known as “settling,” and about as romantic as planning a corporate merger. If that’s what it was, they both had a pretty sweet deal: She was an heiress who became a “stay-at-home, full time mother”; he benefited from her acumen as a former investment banker (“I loved it, and I learned a lot, but some of the things I learned there about greed and power, I wish I hadn’t,” she says) when she became his campaign manager. Still, I find it troubling that Johnson seems to think their problems started when his wife went to work for him:

Mixing work and love as the Sanfords did in their campaign, first for Congress and then for governorship, might be practical -- Sanford likes to joke that he hired his wife because ‘the price was right’ -- but it can be lethal to marriage. Eroticism is fueled by mystery, and it can be hard to feel that about a person who is overseeing the latest returns from the fifteenth precinct.

If eroticism is fueled by mystery, then certainly a beautiful divorcee living a continent away must count as the ultimate prize. But the truth of this story seems to be that both sides are true. No doubt Jenny feels betrayed by being publicly humiliated by the father of her children and the man for whom she worked tirelessly to advance his career while giving up her own. And no doubt Mark feels like a man who has forsaken what he thought he held dear -- his principles, his reputation, perhaps his career -- for some kooky, all-consuming mid-life passion. But neither has a lockdown on righteousness.

Marriage therapist Ruth Bettelheim had an interesting piece on our summer of marital sin in last month’s Huffington Post. “In the articles about extra-marital affairs, there is always a perpetrator and a victim,” she wrote. “These are stories about Good and Evil, the righteous and the sinner.” But this story, she says, is “fundamentally false ... It is likely that both wives and husbands betrayed their vows to love, honor and cherish, and provide each other with real sexual satisfaction, long before the extra-marital affairs occurred ... When a marriage isn’t working anymore, both spouses need to take steps to repair the marriage, leave it, or agree as reasonable adults that the important needs (including sexual ones), not met within the marriage will be satisfied elsewhere.” When we think only in terms of “victims” and “perpetrators,” she says, “it’s impossible to see our partner as our ally in solving the problems of marriage. We are no longer seeing our spouses as companions in confronting the difficulties of life together, but as adversaries.”

Those of us not currently married to or romantically involved with a Sanford should have little stake in the outcome of this particular marriage. But for those looking to find “role models,” or an example of some abstract moral principle on marriage, here’s one: The moral is there is no moral. Just two versions of the same story of a marriage in undeniable trouble. 

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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