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Forsaking all others

There are moments when the New York Times style section lives up to its reputation as a morally relative mirror for shallow, wealthy white people so perfectly that you have to wonder if they're doing it on purpose. This week's "Vows" column is one of those times.

"Vows" is a weekly feature on the "Weddings and Celebrations" page. Sometimes sweet, often obnoxious, it blows up one of that week's wedding announcements into a soft-focus feature story, telling how the couple met and got engaged, with the wedding as the happy ending. Usually the couple has a once-in-a-lifetime meet-cute tale or a quirky wedding ceremony, but sometimes they're just notable and/or well-connected people who apparently like publicity. And sometimes, selling the fairy tale requires papering over some inconvenient facts along the way -- like when you can't explain "how they met" without admitting that one or both parties were in other relationships at the time. Past "Vows" columns have tried to wave those details away -- the conceit is that this couple, now getting married, are obviously Meant For Each Other, and everything else is just water under the bridge. New York magazine's "Daily Intel" blog noted this last year and pronounced it "Gross."

This week, an update: "Times No Longer Even Euphemizing Spouse-Dumping." That's not quite true -- the NYT's capsule summary of this installment of "Vows" is nothing if not euphemistic. "After a first attraction when they were each married to someone else, a couple are married after intervening years." Despite those two "afters," you'll find their how-we-got-together story is really more "during." You really have to read this one to believe it, so I won't spoil the details. But besides the obvious "What were they thinking?" I am also finding myself wondering what the writer was thinking -- the writer they convinced to write this self-justifying and tin-eared press release -- and, even more, what the editor was thinking. Somebody read this pitch, and then read the finished copy, and said, Yes, this is the sort of thing we want to feature in "Vows." Is it possible they couldn't predict the response (revulsion, in most quarters) -- did they really not know that readers would identify with the jilted spouses and resent the attempt to sell the "happy ending"? Or did they know and run it anyway, as a kind of attention-getting prank? Which is worse?

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Aside from the issue of sacramentality, this is why many who have the office of presiding at weddings hate them.

I felt really sorry for their kids.

Okay.These people have bought into the cultural mythology of relationships. Not surprising given that she was a tv journalist and he's an executive in public relations. Good-looking people, too, but I also have little doubt their first spouses were attractive also.I don't know if their first marriages were sacramental or not, so I'm not going to get into the possibility that while more sentence-finishing and reflected glow might be afoot in the new mix, there might have been more grace available in the former.Getting back to the myth, it is possible--even likely--that we find attractive people once we're married. But the person who shines so brightly it turns us into a planet in reflected glow can be a good friend, a boss or a colleague, or a bridge partner. There's nothing wrong with basking, if it's done in another important context of one's life. And yet the culture wants to sell us the unlikely notion that we can get a one-stop-shopping life partner, someone who looks good in newsprint color, who performs in bed, who will cook our breakfast, who will blow them away in the corporate world, and who will play Wii with our kids and make nice with them. I'm sure it happens every once in a while. But it also produces forty-something adolescents who can't make a commitment because they're too picky.I want to know what happens when one of these people loses their job and spirals into depression or substance abuse, or when somebody gets cancer. When the glitz is gone and the person has no energy to speak to finish the other's sentence, will they be up for the task of having and holding? Because, honestly, their track record indicates someone might be looking for the next perfect partner. Importantly, the point of love and marriage is not to love someone for what they can do for me. The point is to live in sacrifice for the person I've committed to, and what I can do for them. Lastly, would the NYT consider running the story on the abandoned spouses? ...No. I didn't think so.Footnote: I don't see much difference here from the situation when the Congregation of Bishops comes calling to shift a shepherd from, say, the cathedra of Salina to Oklahoma City, or from Portland to Chicago, or from Milwaukee to New York. Both situations of starter spouses seems well-integrated into the surrounding culture. Both worthy of feel-good powder puff features.

"Soul-mates!!" They must be very spiritual.

....But not religious.

Thanks for reminding me why I never read this feature. I teach at a college that has a large population of older students, and when they have trouble with their school work, it's usually because their marriages are busting up. I have a lot of students who are returning from tours of duty in the Middle East and can't deal with their families (or have spouses who can't), or long-term joblessness has driven them to the point where they can't hold things together.I've suggested Retrouvaille to some of them, but it's a highly impractical program for people who have several young children, and whose time is already overstretched with work and school. So sad.

"All they had were their feelings" -- Huh? Spouses and children count for nothing?"WHAT happens when love comes at the wrong time?""From their perspective, the drama was unstoppable.""The connection was immediate"."They got each others jokes and finished each others sentences. They shared a similar rhythm in the way they talked and moved. The very things one hopes to find in another person"."Their options were either to act on their feelings and break up their marriages or to deny their feelings and live dishonestly.""It was a gift, she said. Were we brave enough to hold hands and jump?""soul mate""I am flawed and not perfect, but also deeply in love,This is life, said the bride, embracing the messiness.They believe in true love. They sound like teenagers.

A short time ago the Styles section had a feature on a gay porn star turned high-end NYC real estate broker. I could only smile to myself at the unremarked upon continuity of this career path.

Todd: Your comment: excellent! Particularly: "I want to know what happens when one of these people loses their job and spirals into depression or substance abuse, or when somebody gets cancer. When the glitz is gone and the person has no energy to speak to finish the others sentence, will they be up for the task of having and holding?" From my perch as a social worker on a psychiatric ward: the devastation is enormous and ripples far and wide.Your footnote: not so much. Not much difference between this tragedy and bishop transfers? C'mon. Isn't it possible that catholicism doesn't run the table on every category of depravity?

Meeting someone who knocks you emotionally off-kilter, even wallops you - that happens in a marriage. People in their 40s seem vulnerable to this sort of thing.A NY CEO and a NY television news anchor ... if their personalities conform to the type, then they both are extremely career-driven and career-focused. Career first, all else secondary. Squeezing in spouses and childrens seems to be a challenge. The Hollywood model suggests that such marriages frequently don't last.The current of, 'I know what we're doing is totally, horribly wrong but we can't help ourselves' - there is a sort of honesty in that.A religious person who finds himself in such a situation might pray for grace. Lead us not into temptation.

JimI don't buy it. Things like this aren't some uncontrollable force - they don't "just happen." It's not honesty, it's an excuse. If I can't help myself, well, then I can't be fully responsible for all the damage I am doing. In my experience, people who have this situation decided not to avoid it when they recognized it developing.It reminds me of a conversation I once had on this subject involving a colleague. A mutual friend said, "Doesn't he have a right to be happy?" To which I responded, "No one has a right to be happy. He has a responsibility to his family, and if meeting that means he dies miserable, so be it."Harsh as it sounds, if you believe it, IMHO your chances of actually being happy are far better than if you run around trying to be happy.

Jim P is correct in that certain jobs and lifestyles make these choices almost inevitable. One of Aquinas' mantras, I aways found helpful. 'you become what you know'.

In the comments at the NYT and elsewhere, there have been a few more-open-minded-than-thou types saying things like, "Oh, come on, at least they were honest!" As if there were anything honest about lobbying the NYT to publish a one-sided and completely (if unconvincingly) self-justifying account of your decision to break up two families -- plainly disregarding the pain it might cause the exes and children, even as you profess to be totally concerned about their well-being.

I pity this couple. Now they are going to have to be preternaturally good in all other parts of their life. Or at least appear to be so (which may be even tougher). Since this one spectacular incident is so public they wont be able to enjoy all the conventional vices they otherwise could have indulged. Instead it willl take heroic efforts to redeem themselves in the eyes of their immediate acquaintances and now the wider public. If they had wanted to ignore the morality of the liaison they still would have been wiser to follow the worldly advice of an (im)moralist like La Rochefoucauld -- It may be much the more prudent course to cultivate many vices moderately rather than one immoderately. What often prevents our giving ourselves up to a single vice is that we have several. Maxim 195 Alas I think the main lesson that similar couples will draw in the future is not that this kind of behavior is immoral but that one shouldnt notify the NYT about it. But for now La Rochefoucauld bids the rest of us to be grateful:If we had no faults we should not find so much enjoyment in seeing faults in others.Maxim 31

Patrick Molloy, I couldn't agree more with your Rochefoucauld citations. I would disagree, however, the other couples will draw a lesson from this. There are many, all too many, eager to be in the next "Vows" feature, I have no doubt.

Sean, I agree with you, but I think that the perspective that puts commitment to others ahead of pursuit of apparent happiness is counter-cultural.

Words escape me. There's nothing I can add in terms of criticism of this couple's actions.

I second Sean. Ah the old "it just happened" refrain. People who say that are either lying or completely and totally not self aware.Besides, cut it however you want, and dress it up as soul-mates, or any number of other self-deluding narratives people want to tell themselves, it is still cheating.Also, following one's "uncontrollable" passion leads inexorably to one place.The finest story of following an uncontrollable passion remains Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Anna followed her passion (Count Vronsky) at the cost of her husband and her family. There was indeed an uncontrollable force. Totstoy was not moralizing at the end of the novel. When asked why he threw Anna on the train tracks at the end of the book, Totstoy replied that he did not throw Anna on the tracks, she threw herself on the tracks.Great book to read on the subject!!

Golly. It becomes very clear to me now why my male partner of 38 years and I can't get "married." 1. We could NEVER emulate what so many straight folk seem to take as acceptable behavior.2. Our model of relationship longevity might actually have to be held up as an ideal -- and then what would "Holy Mother" Church do about its continued intransigence?But she is welcome to continue to try to convince us that we cannot have a real relationship because we can't procreate - and we will continue to say "ho-hum - whatever."

Claire - it sure is countercultural - at least counter "popcultural"But most good things are

If you truly love someone you don't help them to break up their marriage, especially where children are involved. Where do these people get these notions? Have they no sense of justice or fairness? This is a strong saying, but this groom is not much different from the guys want to marry their dogs. They've reduced a human relationship to an animal-level one. Will she be his pet?? And he hers? If I were either one, I would worry about the other's loyalty, though. Not on a par with the doggie's.

Apologies if I led readers of my comment to suppose that I was defending this couple in some way. I was sharing my reaction to reading through the piece. I'm not a big believer in "it just happened". Nothing of this sort happens without the two principals blowing right through all the stop signs.These could be the two worst people in the world - or they could be escaping from the two worst marriages ever. Or somewhere in between. We don't know, so I'm hesitant to comment on that aspect of the situation.I do see something human in the experience of being knocked right out of orbit and careening though space, of becoming suddenly corny as Kansas in August and high as a flag on the Fourth of July. That's a different phenomenon than, 'that new woman in the next cubicle - she's pretty hot. I wonder if I could take her out for drinks next Friday without my wife finding out.'That doesn't absolve them from moral responsibility. Marriage is for life, not until one of the spouses falls suddenly and precipitously in love with someone else. Just commenting that people do fall, hard. Even when they've been married for fifteen or twenty years.

I don't have the papal text, but I read that JPII once observed that people make their own hells.Is this marital relationship a "hell-in-the making"?Stay tuned?Or tune out?

"Marriage is for life, not until one of the spouses falls suddenly and precipitously in love with someone else."Actually, I believe the subjects of the story are New York residents which just (12 October 2010, I believe) became a no-fault divorce state despite "...misplaced opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and some advocates for women." (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/19/opinion/19sat4.html)

Whether one agrees with the decision of the second marriage couple, why are we knocking the newspaper. The Times is just reporting something without approval or disapproval. Unless we are dead practically all of us have met one or more persons who seemed to be able to give us what our spouses do or will not. It is natural to be attracted to other people. Maturity realizes that the chemistry wears out in any marriage and one has to adjust to rekindle the initial flames. Generally, except in abusive relationships, the same pitfalls are experienced in the second or subsequent marriages. It is a feature in a newspaper for heavens sake. Not a recommendation. I don't agree with the couple's decision. But the story is a recounting of what happens too often in life. The regrets are usually more devastating than any disappointments experienced with the first spouse.

MAT, what problem(s) do you have with "no-fault" divorce?

Bill:Based on the tone an tenor of the article, I would say that the writer tacitly approves. It appears that the purpose of the "Vows" section is a kind of fluff piece - intended to be one of those how we met stories and maybe have some quirky turns. And there is a certain irony to the section and the story that is all to obvious.Obviously situations like this occur but they are (I don't think) such standard fare in American experience that people can kind of chuckle it off. The situation and what gave rise to it are very unconventional and there is real live suffering that accompanies the hijinks of these two star cross lovers as they live their happily ever after tale. Any journalist should look at the content and realize that perhaps this isn't the best fare for this particular section. There is a legitimate question of editorial judgement. If the editor believed that there would be no visceral reaction against the couple, he or she is totally out of touch with the mores of most of the readership.

"MAT, what problem(s) do you have with no-fault divorce?"None. I am indifferent to how the State regulates contracts involving marriage and related combinations of contracting parties.

George,Your point would take if the article were in the Catholic News, Commonweal and the like. In a society where 50% or more are divorced this is censorship. My sense is that the couple's comment are so positive even though unrealistic which seems to hit a nerve. Years ago people used to throw divorce parties which is bad taste to say the least. When we choose one person for life we automatically exclude every other possible spouse. Mostly everyone comes to a point where s/he meets someone who seems better than the spouse. People who opt out usually find disaster no matter how promising the second spouse appear. The fact that we are threatened by this couple tells us more about ourselves than them. We criticize judges who inject their person opinions into law. This is Americ after all. Or do we want people like the rulers in China and Russia tells us how what we can read?

No, Bill, when it comes to the NYT you're asking the wrong questions. This has nothing to do with "censorship." No one is saying the NYT should refuse to acknowledge divorce, or even that they should have refused to run the wedding announcement (which they do all the time, by the way). But they did more than run an announcement; they went out of their way to tell us about this couple's fairy-tale romance in precisely the way this couple wants it to be seen. This is not a news story; the paper was in no way obligated to feature it; it was not "reported" as news. It's publicity sought out by the couple in question, and provided by the writer and the paper because they thought it would be entertaining. Both sides showed a remarkable insensitivity, obvious to pretty much anyone who reads the piece; hence the reaction.

I find it difficult to be hard on these kinds of shallow-seeming couples, because I don't see them as entirely wrong; nor do I see their critics as entirely right.The Romanticism (as a development of Western thought) that these people seem to be expressing wasn't simply some bad event that transformed peoples individualistic emotions into a new moral base line. I think that we may recognize that the thing these people are trying to describe using the term "soul mate" is in fact the reflection of tangible qualities or at least the tangible potentials of love. I believe that these people are seeing something that is there. The question to me isn't about how they construct family destroying rationalizations to pursue each other as much as the question of how we can cultivate this sort of intimacy in our permanent commitments. I don't think it is enough to contrast supposed fools who irresponsibly disrupt and destroy their own prior commitments to people of supposed moral integrity that hold their relationships together (especially when they do it "for the sake of the children").We in the West have a problem with the idea of commitment. We value both romantic love and individuality on one hand and commitment on the other. But our ideas about how these are to be integrated in fact are culturally pretty weak. It probably makes sense that when one chooses a partner with whom to commit, one should look for the qualities of the "soul mate" and should one find this person, people would consider them lucky.But what if, in fact, that is the point; that they are just lucky? Where does this leave commitment for people who have not had this kind of luck? Is commitment something for the sake of the children or for those who are still waiting for their luck to change or for those who are too timid or discouraged or lazy to do anything? Is commitment often reduced to just a symbol, the mere skeleton of something else that we once really valued? Aside from the array of bad things that are supposed to happen to people who don't value commitment, is there a role for commitment as such for human flourishing to occur?I would argue that this flourishing is the goal and commitment, like any other moral rule, is requirement for flourishing. But our culture seems to want to say that the flourishing needs to come before the commitment. Commitment is viewed in our society as a reduction of our personal freedom (and the seriousness of commitment is reflection of our real value which is freedom). We no longer easily allow our freedom to be reduced by commitments to our extended families, nor to any place, not even to religion (since our obsession with religious rules seems an exercise in setting the boundaries on where freedom begins and ends.) So often in our society, commitment seems to be treated as part of some sort of transaction. "Show me the money" in the form of love, beauty, compatibility, and potential and I shall invest some of my asset called freedom in a contract, knowing that if two people pool their resouces they will get a higher net return than each one could alone.I think that the couples in the NYT and their detractors probably share the same underlying assumptions about freedom, individuality, and commitment. And since we don't talk practically very much about how commitment may not only be desirable but necessary for the fulfillment of our individuality (and flourishing), debates such as the one above look to me to be (by and large) between semi-committed people trying to start over again (but do it right this time) and semi-committed people who have accommodated their freedom and individuality to some minimum definition of commitment. They are both sides of the same aluminum coin.

I echo what Mollie wrote and would add that she wrote in the introductory piece that "There are moments when the New York Times style section lives up to its reputation as a morally relative mirror for shallow, wealthy white people so perfectly that you have to wonder if theyre doing it on purpose."This is another issue that could be explored. Hans Kung is currently working on a project for a new global ethics and discussed his work with Pope Benedict. A new global ethics is an important direction and contribution that the Church can make in terms of forwarding or at least supporting the development of a moral consensus that can reach across religious or non-religious boundaries.Granted the conduct of the couple in question is a private matter. However, as Mollie notes, the paper printed it as publicity that the couple themselves sought out. There are moral consideration with respect to being complicit in the exploitation of children for publicity purposes. According to the article posted by William the ex-husband of the wife who left, stated that her daughter did not give permission (and as the parent he did not) to be in a photograph publicy dispalyed as an accessory to something that she may not fully agree with.

Mollie, I guess we can agree to disagree. Communication is perception. In this story the perception is intriguing. For example, in Catholic land no one has a more positive image than Doris Day who was married at least three times. So she is admired or sympathized with because she was traumatized after their failures. No little schadenfreude in that. This couple is not the first to manipulate a newspaper. Are you saying the newspaper should have sought out the disappointed spouses? The paper is not obligated to feature 70% of its stories. What's your point?This couple will learn some things after she starts to get bored or tired or his "exploding" into a room. Trouble is those agitated by the ad fear that their spouses may jump too. Schadenfreude rules.

Bill, my point is not complicated. The "Vows" editor should have looked at this pitch and said, "Pass" -- if not out of basic concern for the people it would hurt, then because the writeup is a total failure as a "Vows" column, because it completely fails to sell the idea that the couple did something honorable and romantic (as they are plainly anxious to believe).

PSThere is a picture of the new husband and wife and family. This is what the husband objected to. His daughter did not give permission. So there are some ethical and maybe even legal issues that the paper should consider when photographing minors - namely do they want to be photographed, do both parents give permission and are they being used as props.

One parent can give consent. But certainly the husband should have been consulted about the involvement of the children. I hope it is clear that by no means do I believe this publicity seeking couple are to be admired. As far as what a "Vows" column should be like, unfortunately, most Americans make a farce of that every day.

What about the children? I mean, the real children, not the adults acting like ones.BTW, not being familiar with the NYT Style Section, I was surprised to hear they do not cover non-white people.

My difficulty with this article is that it only interviews the new husband and wife, giving the reader a myopic view of the truth. This is the problem when a fluff piece stops being a fluff piece - we start to enter the realm of what marriage is, and this is much more nuanced than "what color does the bride like? or "how did he pop the question?"Some missing questions that could have been asked might have been directed toward the new couples children..." how did your father's abandonment make you feel?"Or to the other spouses, "did your divorce make you as a less trustful person?"I have no problem with the NYT writing such an article, but they need to be real journalists, asking the tough questions, which included the destructive effects of divorce.

Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.If this new pairing cheated on their previous spouses, what's to stop each of them from falling into the temptation to cheat on each other once the luster wears off and reality sets in?HUBBY AT BEDTIME: "Is wifey being faithful to me?"WIFEY AT BEDTIME: "Is hubby being faithful to me?"Ouch.

This couple was confronted with overwhelming emotions that seemed to cry out for fulfillment -- regardless of the consequences. This is a perfect example of why we shouldn't rely simply on extremely strong feelings as a guide to right action.

Credit Mollie for tweaking my curiosity about the Vows section. Today is probably one we would all like except those who believe "extra ecclesia nulla salus." The groom is Jewish, the bride is Iranian and the ceremony was presided over by a Catholic priest and rabbi. Nice story and no one was the victim. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/26/fashion/weddings/26VOWS.html?ref=weddings