The Clintons’ Marriage: A Very Hip Arrangement!

You don’t often find the President of France, Jacques Chirac, and former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown celebrating together, but that’s what happened after Hillary Clinton’s strong statement of loyalty to her husband on Jan. 27. “Convey my admiration to Hillary Clinton,” Mr. Chirac said in a telephone conversation with the President of the United States. And when I spoke to Helen Gurley Brown, she seemed to feel that Hillary had made us all better lovers.

“Everyone has acted grown-up,” she exulted. “Sex is not necessarily concomitant with love and marriage. Sex is happening very agreeably with a lot of people who are not married to one another, are married to someone else.”

We’ve always known that Bill and Hillary have some sort of deal. What Hillary’s brave stand suggests is that the deal is not cynical, but a mature and loving deal that she cut with a sense of her soul mate’s limitations. When Gary Hart betrayed Lee Hart 10 years ago, his wife was so obviously distraught that it was easy to take her side and judge him as a bad husband. Hillary Clinton has given no one else that power. If the Lewinsky affair changes attitudes toward the media and sexual harassment-and finally exposes the black depths of President Clinton’s abuse of power, as I hope-it could also have a bracing effect on American attitudes toward marriage.

“It’s naïve to think there’s only one kind of marriage,” said Peter D. Kramer, psychiatrist and author of Should You Leave? “There are people who come to discover things they value about each other and the relationship, and some of the rules don’t apply to them. They stay together based on a mature assessment of what’s possible in life. Not from a tortured reason to stay married but because they want to stay married. A lot has been written about Franklin and Eleanor [and his infidelity]. But I don’t sense that Eleanor was permanently pained or regretful.”

The notion of a forthright deal in which married people countenance extramarital sex is the stuff of many a state marriage and abandoned social experiment. George and Nena O’Neill, the exponents of Open Marriage, are now divorced. Seventies key parties and Updikean entanglements seem quaintly ridiculous. Some feminists have cast the suicides of Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf as judgments on bohemian social arrangements, while Simone de Beauvoir’s famous pact with Jean-Paul Sartre to tell one another everything has been portrayed as hugely hurtful (the promiscuous Sartre badgered her with disgusting physical details of his liaisons, according to Deirdre Bair’s 1991 biography of de Beauvoir).

But as Hillary Clinton has shown, who are we to judge someone else’s marriage? Sartre and de Beauvoir’s relationship yielded them full, interesting lives, and the logic of their deal still holds appeal. “‘What we have,’ [Sartre] said, ‘is an essential love, but it is a good idea for us also to experience contingent love affairs,’” de Beauvoir recalled in The Prime of Life . “We were two of a kind, and our relationship would endure as long as we did, but it could not make up entirely for the fleeting riches to be had from encounters with different people.”

As the boomers wander out into middle age, there are plenty of signs of greater tolerance toward adultery. There’s been an increase in the numbers of women who say they are unfaithful. Studies show that people who have had premarital sex are more open to the extramarital variety. And now and then therapists are quoted saying that adultery may enhance a marriage.

“I don’t think anybody reading this should say, ‘Let’s get to it,’” Dr. Kramer said. “But I think there can be sense of security, safety-yes, emotional safety-even with infidelity, after long enough.”

The discovery of disloyalty surely brings great pain to a marriage, but the great majority of adulterers say that they want to stay married, and if the marriage dies, who can say for sure that the infidelity is what killed it? As a mature marriage achieves a sense of partnership, with the shared belief that it is serving the partners’ larger individual interests, infidelity may even approach so-what status for some.

There are intellectual trends to consider. Though psychologists have often been very judgmental about adultery-adulterers are “infidels,” by one leading therapist’s description-social scientists have lately grown more tolerant. Some treat adultery and lying as normal activities rather than as social pathologies. Meanwhile, evolutionary psychologists have pointed out that monogamy is unnatural.

“Have I seen couples remain erotically involved with each other all their lives? Yes, but it seems a little odd, doesn’t it?” Dr. Kramer said. “There’s an idea among evolutionary biologists that monogamy produces unsatisfying sex, that nature means to make such sex pedestrian. And if one gets very objective about the biology in this, absolute monogamy is an uphill battle.” Dr. Kramer cited a study showing that among birds that mate for life, 20 percent of the female’s offspring have an outside father, while 20 percent of the male’s offspring are with outside mates.

Doing it only with each other may mean not doing it at all. Sexual apathy is prime fare at marriage clinics, and some people seem to reason that the price of staying sexually attractive to one’s mate is remaining sexually attractive to others. According to the book Adultery in the United States: Close Encounters of the Sixth (or Seventh) Kind , by Philip E. Lampe, one scholar has argued that if the terms of a marriage are negotiated on a different basis from strict sexual loyalty, adultery may not even count as infidelity.

How do people strike such a deal? Tacitly. Even if the deal is complicit, it is rarely open. “The idea that we can tell each other and all be friends leads to hysteria and breakdown,” said Susan Squire, who is writing a book about marriage. “People can’t do that. Successful adultery depends on a deceptive temperament.”

I called two French people to ask how they do it over there.

French source No. 1 (Sylvie Kauffmann, Le Monde ‘s New York correspondent, who has reported on the scandal): “I have friends who have strong marriages and who feel that as long as it’s not a serious relationship, they may have something on the side from time to time. But it’s not something they would brag about or recommend. From society’s point of view, it’s morally wrong. And it’s a very tricky situation. It’s very dangerous. Some of my friends have found that it’s not as easy to handle as they thought.”

French Source No. 2 (Anonymous): “There’s no search for the truth on the part of either party. They know it happens, but they don’t want to learn, and they’ll forgive without knowing. They’ll tolerate and they’ll forgive. The only thing that can hold the tolerance aspect of the relationship is not investigating.”

Of course those are the French, members of a traditional Catholic society, comfortable with hypocrisy. We’re a younger, fairer, more idealistic society. The seemingly inherent sexism of infidelity-men screw around more than women-concerns us. And it’s not just feminists who have politicized these matters. The Wall Street Journal , The New Republic and The McLaughlin Group have all lately offered shaming lectures about adultery as bad for the American family, and even the First Couple must feel the lash. Bill Clinton cheated himself of who knows how much pleasure for the sake of a dubious oral-sex doctrine. And even if Dick Morris is right and Mrs. Clinton has had love affairs, there’s surely been a big downside for her, too.

“Is she in pain?” said Helen Gurley Brown. “I’ve heard that she was. Would she rather he not be that way? Of course, I can say, conjecturally. And I think it’s humiliating. Is this the best you can do- Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers and this new one? I wouldn’t be able to stand it. But who needs anyone to talk subjectively. The world is willing to let Hillary keep her own counsel.”

In spite of the best efforts of Cosmopolitan and half the married population, the shame in adultery won’t disappear. It’s “deviant” behavior, it goes against social norms. Mr. Lampe’s book says this is one reason why so many novels and movies have adultery as a theme; fictional narratives offer comfort to people who feel themselves to be socially marginalized.

In the end the greatest power of the Clintons may be precisely in that realm: They’ve taken the fictional mythologies of my generation and given them life. That sounds grand, but it surely mirrors the grandness other boomers have about themselves as 70′s rebels in big houses. The Clintons’ transformation from idealists who named their child after a Joni Mitchell song to a power-greedy couple who got insider deals on cattle futures resonates in countless boomers’ bosoms, and explains why the Clintons’ private lives are so widely storied.

Now and then they have even shown flashes of nobility. Monica Lewinsky gave Hillary just such a turn. And who knows, she may be a liberator.