Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fidelity and betrayal

There is hardly anything you can read about Elizabeth Edwards's book Resilience that will add any insight or value. Most of it, in fact, will be appallingly insensitive and just plain wrong (really, Randy Cohen? You can be bad if the execution is really good?). Maybe Edwards invited the scrutiny/scorn because of her book. Better is the critical but nuanced take of the women of XX Factor and Salon's Rebecca Traister: yes, Elizabeth Edwards has always been, if anything, too honest and revealing, but for that we admire her more than her duplicitous husband. Where she stops short of that revealing honesty is where we are most likely to criticize her, albeit gently (certainly I would not heap scorn upon her the way I would John Edwards), for betraying herself as much as us. Normally, I wouldn't care much about the sexual habits of politicians, except when they use their character as a central part of their platform, and when the prime example of that character they trumpet is their steadfast devotion to their cancer-stricken wife with whom they endured the greatest tragedy that can befall a parent. But John Edwards did. And his wife is in a more difficult position than I can fathom, so I hesitate to pass judgment or wonder why she did this and not that.

One thing that is heartbreaking to learn is that Elizabeth asked only one present of John on their wedding day (the day he could barely afford the motel in which they spent their honeymoon, or the slim gold bands that they exchanged): fidelity. It seems like such a simple gift, too obvious to ask for. But it's not so simple, and it's not so easy (those who don't think monogamy is a part of marriage or those inclined to think polyamory is the way to go: I respect your opinions, but in this present example, let's leave that debate aside). Betrayal of that sort is one of those things that is so easy to imagine, but too horrible to contemplate for very long. I will confess that one of the few movies that stayed with me long after I watched it was Adrian Lynne's Unfaithful. The guilt and delight that flittered across Diane Lane's face after her first betrayal was unnverving. I could understand both feelings: of course it must have felt simultaneously so good (the only way to describe her expression is "tickled") and so terrible that this was the way to get to feeling that good. The way the infidelity destroyed her life was shocking (of course, it doesn't always have to end in murder). But in considering, again, the example of the Edwardses, I feel the same level of horror and sympathy. It's hard to fathom in one way, and so easy in another. I guess you don't know till you get there.

Fortunately I'm racked with so much horror and preemptive guilt over anything approaching infidelity that it would take a lot for me to get to anywhere near. But part of that also is fearing such a betrayal at the hands of someone else. Again, with intimacy comes trust, and it requires a suspension of disbelief. Or at least the belief that even given the appalling failure rate and the propensity for human weakness, that your relationship will be different.