Should We Be Happy For Cheaters Who Find Love Again?

In light of Mark Sanford’s announced plans to marry his longtime mistress, Hugo Schwyzer asks: Is it wrong to rejoice in their union?

Cheaters never prosper, the saying goes. But what happens when they do? Should we rejoice with them? Those old questions are worth asking again with the news that former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford plans to wed his longtime mistress, Maria Bélen Chapur.   

Three years ago, Sanford—then a rising conservative star and a serious potential 2012 challenger for the Republican presidential nomination—went missing for five days. The married father of four told aides he was hiking the Appalachian trail, but instead flew secretly to Buenos Aires for a steamy rendezvous with Chapur. Sanford was disgraced, censured, and soon divorced by his fed-up wife. Upon leaving the governor’s office, he became a Fox News contributor. No wedding date has been set for the Chapur-Sanford nuptials.

That politicians have extramarital affairs isn’t news. That men who cheat end up marrying their mistresses subsequent to a divorce isn’t an unfamiliar story either; the best-known modern example of that practice is perhaps Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles. The interesting challenge is how family and friends (and in the case of well-known figures, the public) respond.

Infidelity hurts. The fact that cheating is invariably banal and terribly common does little to soothe the shock that comes with learning that a partner has been unfaithful. It’s axiomatic that sexual betrayal causes ripples of damage; children are often devastated, family members deeply hurt, friends confused and disappointed. Few reading this come from families completely untouched by the trauma of extramarital affairs. And whether we regard cheating as the inevitable byproduct of our absurd insistence on monogamy or as a grievous sin against the sacred institution of marriage, we’ve read about, gossiped about, and devoted acres of bandwidth to writing about the devastating impact of marital infidelity on our lives.

Not all extramarital affairs lead to divorce, and far fewer still result in re-marriage between the cheaters. Sometimes, these new marriages are disasters; other times (as appears to be the case with Charles and Camilla) they are far happier unions than their predecessors. While in the case of public figures we’ve never met, their private lives are none of our business, if we’re dealing with a loved one who has married their illicit paramour, it’s almost impossible not to have conflicted feelings. As all the songs go, cheaters often wonder, “how can something so wrong feel so right?” The family and friends of cheaters who end up marrying may wonder, “how can something that started so wrong ever turn out right?” When and how should folks segue from expressions of disappointment to proffering congratulations and best wishes?

In an August 24 piece defending her viral article “I Wish My Mother Had Aborted Me,” fellow Role/Reboot contributor Lynn Beisner explained how one could both rejoice in one’s life while wishing, for at least one particular reason, that one had never been born.  Lynn wrote about a story I’d shared with her about my family. As I told Lynn, my parents divorced when I was 6, following my father’s affair with a young graduate student in his department. He and this young woman fell deeply in love, and ended up getting married a couple of years after my mother left him. My Dad stayed married to my stepmother for 30 years, until his death in 2006; they were very, very happy together. My brother and I have two half-sisters born from that marriage, and today, we’re all very close.

There is no contradiction in wishing that my father had never cheated on my mother and at the same time, rejoicing in my relationship with my two half-sisters. Just as Lynn can both wish that she had been aborted so that her mother could have had a better life and still take delight in being alive, so too my brother and I can both wish that our own parents had stayed together while loving our step-mom and our sisters wholeheartedly. Media reports have suggested that Princes William and Harry feel very much the same about their father’s second marriage; they grieve what was done to their mother while also feeling genuinely glad that their father has found happiness with his former mistress.

Not everyone is so “lucky.” I might have felt very differently about my father’s re-marriage had my mother not been so forgiving and generous toward both my dad and his new wife. I had to process through my own conflicted feelings without needing to grieve my mom’s wounds as well. Princess Diana’s untimely death means her sons don’t witness any ongoing conflict between their parents, making their embrace of Charles’ marriage to Camilla that much easier. 

It isn’t always so. While happiness is rarely a zero-sum game, it’s certainly true that the cheater’s contentment with his or her paramour can add additional injury to the initial insult done to the betrayed spouse. Rielle Hunter and Elizabeth Edwards had nothing but mutual contempt for each other, a dislike that seems to have endured even past the grave.

For a crushed and furious partner, for heartbroken children, it’s cruel to prescribe a timetable for healing. Forgiveness is a gift, not a right. At the same time, it’s not easy to wish a lifetime of misery on the people who hurt us. Most of us understand that good things can and do evolve out of tragic, cruel, or dishonest beginnings. My father was wrong to cheat on my mother—but he did so to be a superb husband to the dear woman with whom he cheated, and the best possible papa to all of his children. The wonderful example of that relationship doesn’t erase all of my childhood pain that came as a result of my parents’ divorce. It does, however, provide me with overwhelming evidence that what began in furtive betrayal can end in an honest and public joy so strong it warms all who witness it.

It is better to keep one’s promises than to break them. It is better, perhaps, not to make them at all if one has no reasonable likelihood of keeping them. And while for some, the first deception just makes the next easier, for others that act of betrayal can lead—eventually—to lasting happiness. I’ve seen it in my own family, I’ve seen it in the Royal Family, and I wish it for Mark Sanford and his family as well.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

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