Sunday, December 19, 2010

Think of the children. For real. UPDATED

I always find it icky when wedding announcements mention the couples' previous loves - anything from 'The bridegroom's previous marriage ended in divorce' to a cutesy anecdote about how when the couple met, they were both involved with other people. It's not that I think there's anything remotely icky about having been involved with others prior to meeting your spouse. It's that I think it's wrong to involve these other parties in the story, as though their role in the world, their only reason in all likelihood for ever getting written up in a newspaper, is to be the nameless loser who failed to impress.

(Also icky: announcements that mention the 50 times the couple broke up and got back together again. Not confidence-inspiring. Also: announcements that mention how one or both parties were 'not attracted to' the other for the first 15 years - or 15 minutes - they knew each other. Perhaps this is meant to show that theirs is a deeper love, but it always comes across as insulting. Count me in the Dan Savage camp of thinking it's if anything a good sign for its longevity if a relationship begins based on mutual physical attraction.)

These tales are particularly upsetting when young children from the previous relationship are involved. Even Dan Savage thinks couples should at least try to stay together for the sake of the children. Remember, social conservatives, rah-rah support of parents who 'follow their hearts' is not part of any reasonable socially liberal stance, either. In the 1980s, perhaps, but not for a generation who knows how this plays out.

This week's Vows, however, takes it to a new level.

Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla met in 2006 in a pre-kindergarten classroom. They both had children attending the same Upper West Side school. They also both had spouses. [...]
But it was hard to ignore their easy rapport. They got each other’s jokes and finished each other’s sentences. They shared a similar rhythm in the way they talked and moved. The very things one hopes to find in another person, but not when you’re married to someone else. [...] 
In May 2008, Mr. Partilla invited her for a drink at O’Connell’s, a neighborhood bar. She said she knew something was up, because they had never met on their own before.
“I’ve fallen in love with you,” he recalled saying to her. She jumped up, knocking a glass of beer into his lap, and rushed out of the bar. Five minutes later, he said, she returned and told him, “I feel exactly the same way.” Then she left again.
As Mr. Partilla saw it, their options were either to act on their feelings and break up their marriages or to deny their feelings and live dishonestly. [...]
The pain he had predicted pervaded both of their lives as they faced distraught children and devastated spouses, while the grapevine buzzed and neighbors ostracized them.
The couple left roadkill of their families, but just had to put their wedding in the Times, for others to celebrate. Celebrate, or judge - whereas if they'd simply gone and done this, others would only judge if they knew the couple personally, now it's universal fair game. The paper made the unusual move to allow comments on the announcement. Many of which say, in essence, that the couple are selfish narcissists. This was not a case of divorce as a result of abuse, verbal or physical. It was a straight-up case of grass-is-greener - a fine reason to end a relationship at 17, but a truly upsetting one in a case like this. Blech.


And there are Jezebel commenters, seemingly planted by Withywindle, to prove once and for all that society's going to hell in a handbasket, and perhaps that they don't make things like they used to. Even leaving aside the commenters who can't tell the difference between having broken up with one guy to date another and leaving a spouse and children, or who think it's so so wrong to judge, even though hello, they put it in the newspaper, there's a whole lot of impressiveness. The couple's relationship is "authentic," according to either two commenters or one especially prolific one, I don't remember. But my favorite of all, from a commenter who makes clear she definitely does not want anyone thinking of the children: "I understood making fun of the cluelessness of the article and the yuppiedom of the couple, but y'all...they did not personally cheat on you." Yes, "the yuppiedom of the couple." Because that's the issue here.


Withywindle said...

"Remember, social conservatives, rah-rah support of parents who 'follow their hearts' is not part of any reasonable socially liberal stance, either. "

Umm ... isn't part of the point of social liberalism that it opens the possibility to this option, as social conservatism does not? (For definitions of liberalism and conservatism in the last half century in the United States.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Liberals did and do support the right to divorce. No reasonable liberals would read that announcement and say, good on them for chasing their dreams. (A supporter of gay marriage, for example, might take the opportunity to point out that if this is what straight marriage looks like, how on earth could gays ruin it. I support gay marriage but I can predict the socially-conservative retort, about how gay marriage is yet another step in the 'wrong' direction, and I don't feel like having that argument.)

Savage's argument, and one I don't think he's alone in but anything's possible, is that social conservatism has given us the idea that anything short of monogamy is disastrous, that a moment of infidelity should end a marriage, regardless of whether children are involved.

I'm not on board with all of that, but I think the notion that family stability matters more than purity is fundamentally socially liberal. Such as, if some experimentation in late teens and early 20s allows 30-somethings to be content in monogamous marriages (Leon Blum's argument), so be it. Such as, supporting same-sex marriage so that more children are raised by married couples. Such as, better to have sex and use birth control properly at 17 than to have a baby ala Bristol. It all depends what's most valued - it's not that religious or socially conservative ideals never end up promoting stability. It's that for stability and not-harming-others to be the central goals, other goals... can't be central. Now, not all social liberals are Savage-esque pragmatists. But the stance I'm describing is far more socially liberal than socially conservative.

PG said...

Social liberalism advocated for no-fault divorce law, which does allow for immediate, unilateral withdrawal from marriage by one party without having to prove adultery, abuse or addiction. But as many have noted, conservatives have made very little effort to roll back such laws (now the rule in every state except South Carolina, which requires parties to live apart for one year before granting divorce without proving fault), because they're well aware that it's easier to target The Other (homosexuals who wish to marry) than to attack rights that the majority enjoys (pretty much all of us know someone who's gotten a no-fault divorce).

Personally, I see no inconsistency between having the law allow me to get divorced without proving in court by a preponderance of the evidence that my spouse is abusive, adultering, etc.; while simultaneously being socially super-judgmental toward couples who get divorced because something shinier walked by. (Though I'd note that Ayn Rand was all for people abandoning their current relationship if someone superior came along.) I take the same attitude toward using abortion as one's sole method of birth control: the law lets one do it, but that doesn't make it a good thing to do.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Spot-on with the abortion analogy. I think this comes back to the idea of stability-promotion vs. purity-promotion.

In terms of something-shiner break-ups, I think they have their place, and their place is before marriage preferably, before kids definitely.

Flavia said...

My own personal fiance and I spent 30 minutes today talking about this hideous Vows column.

It's not so much the shittiness of breaking up two marriages, with kids, that gets to me (although that's not irrelevant); the bride & groom's union may in fact work out, and in any case there's no reason to think that anyone's life is going to be RUINED FOREVER as a result.

But the fact is. . . no one knows that their marriage will work out. And by featuring this story in the Vows column, the Times is asking us to share the bride & groom's narcissistic fantasy that everything they did is okay, and indeed worth it, because they did it for love.

They're allowed to believe that themselves, I guess, and if the Times wrote their story up 25 years from now, after they've grown grey together and their kids are all totally well-adjusted, I might find it a refreshing story about the messy imperfections of real people, the resiliency of children, and maybe even the wisdom of sometimes following your heart.

But as it is? I'm not buying their narrative. And I resent being asked to believe that their tedious self-absorption is something special, or interesting--much less something to celebrate.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Every time the Vows profiles a couple whose previous serious relationships (marriages especially) are mentioned, whose exes are still living, something's taken away from the myth. You're right that a problem with this one was the insistence of Eternal Love, paired with the reader knowing full well these two would have spouted just the same clichés upon meeting their previous spouses, or even just not knowing that this second attempt will last forever, and suspecting that it won't.

As for why I picked the think-of-the-children angle, which I realize is not a typical one for this blog... The resiliency of children can certainly be underestimated (for example, what's going on here?), and I've seen plenty of kids grow up bizarre out of 'intact' families, intact out of scattered and miserable ones. And of course there are situations in which staying together for the children would be disastrous for those very children. But yes, situations like the one described here can have a permanent impact on children. Not in terms of making them screw-ups - this could if anything make them, for example, take marriage more seriously - but I could imagine some or all of the children involved learning more about what happened and not speaking to one of their parents. And even if all ends up well, everyone has a big family reunion when the kids are grown, there's a good chance this is upsetting for them now.

I suppose what I'm getting at is, inspired by Dan Savage, the idea that values have to point somewhere, and family stability is a better goal than the various purity-related ones floating around. So while I wouldn't fault the couple for having slept around in their single days, I've discovered that my own brand of social liberalism thinks (from the information provided in the Vows, along with the fact they wished to be profiled) they've done a crappy thing to their families.

Flavia said...

Oh, sure. I don't disagree either that the existence of children makes this story much, much worse, or that family stability is an important and indeed intrinsic value for liberals as well as conservatives.

Perhaps I'm just echoing your point that the problem here is acting like this is something to celebrate, rather than doing it quietly, with (at least seemingly!) genuine concern and respect for the pain they've inflicted on others.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Yep - it's the celebration angle, theannouncement angle, that makes it so ridiculous. Which means, as easy as it is to judge the couple, the Vows editor is perhaps the one we should really be taking issue with.

The fact that the paper allowed comments for a marriage announcement of non-celebrities, then (I think it was after?) put this ostensibly unrelated debate about remarriage online, suggests the goal wasn't so much to celebrate the happy couple as to get a discussion going. Sort of like the usual Style-section approach, profiling rich people in a way that makes them think they're being honored, but that encourages readers to mock. Just more extreme, because what's being showcased goes beyond, say, the purchasing of $100 cotton t-shirts.

Withywindle said...


1. "No reasonable liberals would read that announcement and say, good on them for chasing their dreams."

This leaves a world of wiggle room, including the possibility that the subset of reasonable (=agrees with Phoebe) liberals is vanishingly small. And it is in any case a red herring: the question is whether one's constellation of values is such that you advocate a right of no-fault (limited fault, any at all) divorce, and say it is better, all in all, than the alternatives. Save for the matter of small, saving hypocrisies (see below), to say that you tolerate, but do not celebrate, a particular divorce, is of relatively small importance.

2. "Savage's argument, and one I don't think he's alone in but anything's possible, is that social conservatism has given us the idea that anything short of monogamy is disastrous, that a moment of infidelity should end a marriage, regardless of whether children are involved."

If this is Savage's argument, is a gross misstatement of the position of most social conservatives throughout history, and indeed now. One very important strand of social conservatism is indeed one of saving hypocrisy -- precisely that one should ignore fidelities so as to preserve a marriage. (I would see a continuity between this brand of hypocrisy and the hypocrisy of tolerating but not celebrating divorce.) This is distinct from the contention that anything short of monogamy is disastrous--where monogamy and fidelity are not identical. For that, the arguments are endless, but si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

3) The opposition of family stability to purity, just to continue this, is very largely an artificial one. But let us consider that the sinful always argue the difficulty of virtue, when it may be surprisingly easy to achieve. Also that high standards, rather than the soft bigotry of low expectations, may conduce to greater achievement and stability in all realms, including the marital and familial.

4) Your examples include a long series of "if-thens" that lack universal assent.

5) "Stability" is a very late argument -- natural law and prudence disentangled from morality, and forced to stand on its own as a secular goal. No, stability is neither reason nor revelation. But I don't think you're mapping the concept very well onto "socially liberal" and "socially conservative." And I do very strongly suspect you of using "socially liberal" as "I think" too much of the time.

PG: 1) "conservatives have made very little effort to roll back such laws (now the rule in every state except South Carolina, which requires parties to live apart for one year before granting divorce without proving fault), because they're well aware that it's easier to target The Other (homosexuals who wish to marry) than to attack rights that the majority enjoys"

In the face of an ongoing assault against marriage, they're concentrating on defending the shreds of what remains then on going on the counter-offensive. The exercise of prudent tactics does not invalidate the goal sought. I would appreciate a more whole-hearted defense of marriage, but faint-hearted friends are still superior to enemies.

2) "while simultaneously being socially super-judgmental toward couples who get divorced because something shinier walked by."

One trusts you mean that divorcees should be fired from their jobs and socially ostracized. Otherwise, "super-judgmental" is hollow.

3) To tolerate abortion but think it is a bad thing cuts little dice with anyone who considers abortion murder.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Allow me to focus on what is, I think, our main disagreement.

If I understand you correctly, you see social conservatism as setting a higher standard than family-stability pragmatism. As I see it, it sets a different one, punishing people for all kinds of behavior that is harmful neither to other individuals, nor to society, but that happens to contradict this or that religion, this or that Golden Age nostalgic ideal about The Family. For instance, with this Vows couple, one socially liberal take - and if you want to think I'm the only one who would ever think this, fine, but I doubt it - is to wish that these people had had a few more emotionally fraught romances in their younger, premarital days and gotten this out of their systems, realized that 'new' in and of itself is exciting, and that one should not confuse novelty with having found one's 'soul mate.'

The negative response to this particular wedding announcement - not just my response, not just the response I imagine Dan Savage would have - was coming from a place of social liberalism, from an audience of social liberals, of readers prepared to respond sympathetically to stories of failed marriages, certainly to adults who've had multiple romantic partners in their lives. Readers happy to cheer for same-sex couples, mixed-race couples, brides and grooms who've slept around prior to settling down, etc. It's impossible, unless we're to believe that the NYT commenters are all closet social conservatives, that I'm alone in thinking this announcement fails on account of, it showcases behavior that clearly harms innocent bystanders, as opposed to because divorce is inherently sinful. It would seem that those who interpret social liberalism to mean saying this couple 'followed their hearts' and so should be celebrated are in the minority.

My reason for bringing the left-right spectrum into this wasn't to provoke social conservatives such as yourself, but to point out that there's a place in social liberalism for judging the life choices of others, that the social liberalism of anything-goes is itself a myth, or at least an anachronism.

Anonymous said...

For me the most damning part of the item was: "The connection was immediate, but platonic. In fact, as they became friends so did their spouses. There were dinners, Christmas parties and even family vacations together." Beyond inappropriate and an extra dollop of disloyalty. I wonder who edits the "Vows" column? Perhaps this person should do a spin-off called "Now" for those who desire someone new. JM

Withywindle said...

1) Social conservatism embraces the arguments of moral order and stability. They are supposed to reinforce, but they have different bases. (As do those of liberal philosophy and stability.) Definitions of harmful vary.

2) I'm sure social liberals judge; whether there's anything in their philosophy as such on which to base such a judgment is a different question. But even if there is - so what?, unless such judgment has a follow-up to provide concrete social or governmental sanctions to express that disapproval.

3) Why not believe that this couple is the future of liberalism? They are unselfconscious; so too is the Times about publishing them. Soon (I am perfectly willing to believe) it will be passe. Everything else past liberals claimed would never come to pass (mass divorce, abortion, what have you) have come to be.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

1) "Definitions of harmful vary."

Right - there's the socially conservative, abstract, 'gay marriage doesn't harm individuals but it harms the institution of traditional marriage and in doing so harms individuals who can't marry because OMG the gays have ruined it' kind of harm. There's also the harm this couple is inflicting on exes, children, by what they did and by publicizing it. I mean, it's true that 'harm' has no absolute definition, but it's possible to divide harm between universals and less-universals. As in, reasonable people disagree about who abortion or banning it harms, whereas reasonable people don't disagree that what happened in this situation sounds nasty.

2) The 139 comments, most of which express horror at what this couple did, aren't an example of social sanctions? In terms of government intervention, the idea is, every case is different, and the harm done by banning the option of no-fault divorce would be greater than that of allowing the occasional pair of selfish narcissists to make a spectacle of themselves.

3) What, what, what on earth do these two people have to do with liberalism, other than that they're liberal with their self-indulgence? Their emphasis on the fact that they didn't consummate their relationship till leaving their spouses, and their need to solidify their new relationship in marriage, suggests a whiff of social conservatism, if hypocritical social conservatism. Their behavior - leaving aside the selfishness, speaking only of the divorce - is not representative of coastal liberal elites, who are apparently not divorcing much at all these days. I'd consider that a good argument against assuming this couple represents anything other than their own ridiculousness, and the tendency of newspapers to publish anything that will drive traffic.

Flavia said...

Yeah. The Vows columnist has a lot to answer for.

Interestingly, last week's NYT Style section had a piece that makes for a nice counterpoint to this Vows column and the self-indulgence of its two principals--and that also has the distinction of being one of the few "Modern Love" columns that hasn't made me want to throw up.

PG said...

One very important strand of social conservatism is indeed one of saving hypocrisy -- precisely that one should ignore fidelities so as to preserve a marriage.

This seems to be a strand espoused mostly by conservative men who would like their own peccadilloes ignored. Among socially conservative women, you have very prominent voices like Kathryn Lopez at National Review, declaring that if a dude watches porn, he's about to commit adultery and that in turn will shatter your marriage.

There isn't any hypocrisy in saying that the government ought not bar us from doing X-generally, while socially condemning those who do X-specific-bad-use-of-liberty. (Such condemnation probably includes ostracism from social events -- I doubt the Vows couple are very popular with their ex-spouses' friends -- but is less likely to extent to job discrimination, because the market sphere has little reason to be cognizant of emotional infidelity. Someone who is disloyal to a spouse probably also will be disloyal to friends, whereas she's not particularly more likely to take money from the till.) The private choices of people on how to conduct their marital life are not comparable to determining what the law should be.

As for those who claim to perceive abortion as murder, the widespread failure to press for abortion bans that would make the pregnant woman legally on par with someone seeking the services of a hitman have left me unimpressed by such rhetoric. Pre-Roe, abortion was not codified as a form of homicide in U.S. law, but instead treated as an offense to public health and morals. The claim that an embryo/fetus is legally a person originated mainly after Roe necessitated a Constitutional counter-claim sufficient to surmount the "right to privacy." In short, I'm uninterested in whether I cut dice with people who use the rhetoric of "abortion is murder" while simultaneously claiming that they're *really* looking out for the interests of the prospective murderess.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


There was speculation in the comments to one of the many accounts of this fiasco (NYMag? Gawker? it's not important) that the couple printed the thing in order to tell their side of an event that had caused them to be shunned. Since I can't find where exactly this was in the time I care to allot to this quest, I don't remember whether their jobs were said to have been under attack, or just their social lives.

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I don't see what the big deal is. I divorced, not for love, but because I couldn't stand to live with my wife. I raised two kids. They are grown, I helped raise them, big deal.

I can trace divorce, early spouse death, and abandonment back five generations in my direct family. We seem to have held together sufficiently otherwise I wouldn't have that consciousness.

I think they would have been better off just maintaining their friendship. Why should their spouses mind? Well, OK, maybe their spouses _would_ mind, but then let the spouses demand the divorce.

Look. The only real deal-breaker in marriage is sex. The only real reason for marriage is kids. If I am married to s.o., who can't have kids, I will probably cheat until I find s.o. who can. On the other hand, just because I am married to s.o. does not mean I should be required to spend a lot of time with them. People have to grow up a little bit. As long as the kids are taken care of, who cares?

Lee said...

You want a socially-liberal position, here's one and may you choke on it. The real tragedy here is the notion that you can't love more than one person at the same time. In a sane society, both families would have been able to blend into one, with the new relationship taking neither a superior nor a subordinate role to the existing ones.

Think it's impossible? Think again -- there are a lot of people out there making such arrangements work, despite the current legal and social difficulties arrayed against them. But first you have to be willing to admit that love doesn't work by the rules of Noah's Ark.

PG said...

Loads of societies have had people "loving more than one person at the same time." Indeed, in allowing for men to take up to four wives due to the shortage of men in a heavy-war-casualty era, Muhammad said that a man shouldn't do this unless he could love and treat all his wives equally. Yet even with a rleigious injunction to do so, most multiple marriages in the Islamic world do devolve into hierarchies where one spouse is better than the others, whether because she is first, most attractive, wealthiest, produced the first son, etc. On a large scale, polgyamy has always had such results. Indeed, even in Western societies where people choose to be in multiple relationships simultaneously, there is frequent use of terms like "primary." (Of the people I know who are polyamorous, none claim that *all* their relationships are equal.)

As for making such arrangements work, I'm always curious as to which partner will be given the power of plug-pulling; that is, in situations of medical decisionmaking, who will be entrusted with the decision? You can't give it to multiple people, because as the Schiavo situation demonstrated, they may disagree and end up litigating to the Supreme Court. (The Schiavo disaster really only occurred because while the courts were saying, 'Well duh her husband ought to be stating what her wishes were,' the politicians kept bawling about her parents' desires, legally irrelvant though they were.)