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Does the Celebrity Break-Up Have Anything to Do With Our Own Marriages?

September 24, 2011, 4:01 AM


It's hard to normalize the celebrity marriage and divorce for the rest of us.  After all, we're highly unlikely to end up married to an immigrant ex-bodybuilder, mega-Hollywood action star turned Governor who impregnates a member of our full-time housekeeping staff.

These divorces should be consigned to the marriage equivalent of a Special Victims Unit.

But ironically, despite their entirely unique and privileged circumstances, it's these very high-octane marriages among politicians, potentates, and stars by which we gauge and draw conclusions in the world of tweets, blogs, and water cooler gossip about the institution of marriage generally.

To be sure, we're not all in the same marital state. There's an unprecedented class divide in marriage patterns today. Lower-income Americans and those at those at the extreme margins of wealth are getting and staying married less successfully than the middle and upper-middle class.  One elegant conclusion to draw from this fraying of marriage at the extremes of wealth is that marriage works "best"--has the most utility and logic--for those in the middle class, neither dirt poor nor filthy rich, who can achieve economies of scale through marriage and enhance their quality of life. Marriage is a riskier, more fragile proposition both for those who have a great deal to lose financially, and for those who have nothing to lose financially. 

So the Schwarzeneggers, unique as their personal circumstances were, are part of a trend of the post-millennial divorce culture.

Another trend is that Americans over 50, like the Schwarzeneggers, have the fastest-growing divorce rate in the country. "Forever" keeps getting longer on us, as we live healthier into our later years.

Presumably these divorced spouses are anticipating--reasonably so--another chance at a marriage, or a single life, after having raised children together, very much as the Schwarzeneggers have. They still enjoy good health, and no longer feel stuck lying in the bed that they've made with their first spouse, feeling that it's too late to change things, whatever the horrible spousal behavior or betrayal.

Moreover, our marital expectations seem to be trending toward the possibility that we won't necessarily see these mid-life and late-stage divorces as failures. Maybe we can have a few "successful marriages" in one lifetime.  Maybe some marriages come to the end of their natural shelf lives, particularly if the marriage was principally for raising a family.

Finally, what's the deal-breaker in a marriage today? When does an errant spouse get forgiven--when does a wife stand by her man, and when does the marriage dissolve? One can't help but notice that in two of the most high-profile recent divorces-- Schwarzenegger and Edwards--the marriage ended only when the husbands confessed that they had fathered children with other women or their mistresses, in Edwards' case. Meanwhile, the Clinton marriage has endured through serial cases of infidelity.

Maybe the act of having a child out of wedlock is the "new cheating," the transgression that really forces the divorce, just as plain old infidelity or cheating might have done in the past.

This might resonate with marriages on Main Street, too. To be sure, cheating, betrayal, and infidelity are major crises for any marriage, and many of us profess an unyielding "One Strike and You're Out" policy. But in real life, as I've sensed in conversations with wives and husbands doing research for a book, there exists a cautious spirit of more tolerance for the occasional act of infidelity that probably wouldn't apply, at all, to illicit procreation. In more and more non-celebrity cases, after the affair trauma, couples seem to find ways to forgive, move forward, adapt, and live in a shade of gray.

The late Elizabeth Edwards was sometimes accused of being an "enabler" of her husband's infidelity when she stood by him, but I probably would have done the same thing--and, when John Edwards started a new family with his mistress, I probably would have done as Elizabeth did, too, and left the marriage at that point. Sometimes we're more imaginative and tolerant about marriage in real life than we are in our imaginations.  Until the housekeeper's out of wedlock child starts to look exactly like our husband.



Does the Celebrity Break-Up...

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