What Hillary and Bill Clinton’s Marriage Can Teach Us

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The conventions are long over and there were a few speeches that will never be forgotten, Melania Trump‘s for one and Michelle Obama‘s for another. And then there was Bill Clinton’s about his wife and Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Of course Bill praised his wife. But as he did, many couldn’t help but wonder about their marriage, given his many public scandals over his indiscretions (and who knows how many private ones), and the fact that Hillary has continually stood by her man.In fact, Bill addressed that directly: “She’ll never quit on you.”

Which, of course, perplexed and irritated many from the beginning, and it was even a topic in the primaries when Hillary was accused of enabling Bill’s infidelities by Donald Trump and Ben Carson. Then GOP presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina questioned if the Clintons have a real marriage, stating, “If my husband had done some of the things Bill Clinton had done, I would have left him long ago.”

Making many of us once again wonder, what is a “real marriage“?

Writing in the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg calls the Clintons’ marriage “incomprehensible.” While she says she believes Bill loves Hillary, she “cannot comprehend that he has subjected her to the humiliations she suffered through the years.” Still, she comes to an important conclusion:

The harder the Clintons have worked to preserve their marriage, the less easily that marriage has fit into easy stories about what true love should look like. … If I hated the choices Clinton’s husband, other politicians, the media and the American public forced her to make in the 1990s, the Clintons’ marriage also taught me that marriage is a mystery — not merely in that it’s perplexing, but that its power lies in part in the fact that any given marriage is not comprehensible to outsiders.

Thank you! Because it’s true — not every marriage fits into what we think, or have been told, “true love should look like” and, yes, relationships are often incomprehensible to those outside them. The problem isn’t with marriage and relationships per se; it’s more about the collective belief that there’s any “should” when it comes to love and marriage. Love is complicated and hard to define, so how can it look like one thing for all of us? And that means living with a partner’s sexual transgressions isn’t all that bad for some people as long as they’re getting other things from the marriage.

What we think about infidelity

Whenever we learn of an affair, we look for someone or something to blame. If someone dates or marries a cheater and then gets cheated on, we smugly say, “Well, what did you expect?” Once a cheater, always a cheater, and all that. But sometimes, if we know of a bad marital situation, we’ll excuse an affair, believing the person was driven to cheat because his/her spouse failed him/her in some way. If we ourselves have cheated, we’re more likely to be sympathetic to a friend’s marital straying.

In other words, we easily make exceptions when it comes to infidelity, based on certain knowledge or experience or both. So why would we be so harsh (and in Hillary’s case, cynical) if a wife or husband stays in a marriage touched by infidelity?

The implication is that staying with a cheater, as Hillary has, is worse than if she divorced him — even though many of us are still conflicted about divorce. As Ada Calhoun writes in Cosmopolitan:

This cheating-is-worse-than-divorce assumption is baked into mainstream society. People from across the political spectrum say that cheating should be a marital deal breaker, and that to tolerate or repeatedly forgive infidelity — especially someone as much of a hound as middle-aged Bill Clinton has often been painted — is to be a doormat, a punching bag, a fool. But that doesn’t have to be true. … We’ve done a good job getting rid of the stigma around divorce, but in doing so, have created one around the decision to keeping your vow to stay together no matter what.

We have traditionally vowed to stay married “for better, for worse.” Keeping a vow to “stay together no matter what” could be dangerous thinking, yet that’s what many promise each other when they wed. So what’s all the judgment about marriages we find incomprehensible — even ones that actually stick to their vows?

Each marriage is unique

Maybe the Clintons didn’t put a high premium on sexual fidelity. Maybe they did for a while until Bill realized that sexual fidelity is easier in concept than in reality. Maybe they did or a while and Hillary decided, when things didn’t turn out the way she thought, that no matter what anyone else says she “should” do, this was the man she wanted to be married to and that’s that. Who knows? Does it matter?

From Bill’s speech, it’s apparent that the Clintons were attracted to each other together because they shared many similarities, “a mutual desire for a truly equal partner, of equal talent and aptitude,” writes Jill Filipovic in Time. In that, they are truly matched.

“For all of his shortcomings — and they are myriad — there is little doubt that Bill respects and admires Hillary not just as a wife, but as an intellectual equal,” she continues.

Some might say the fact that he has strayed means he doesn’t respect her: How can a husband respect a wife if he cheats on her (or vice versa, or the same-sex variation)? Some consider infidelity abuse. Was Hillary abused by Bill?

That doesn’t seem to be the discussion here. Still, people just don’t understand what the Clintons’ marriage is about — or they project their ideas and beliefs about what their marriage “should” be. They foolishly want to fit the Clintons into a one-size-fits-all box. But each of us gets to choose what goes into our own marital box; if we all could just accept that then we would finally be able to stop trying to comprehend other people’s marriage and go about the most important relationship task at hand — figuring out what we want from our romantic partner and then making it happen.

Hillary has done that; she stuck to her vows. GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump hasn’t, but he’s chosen what’s gone into his marital box nonetheless — by being the cheater and leaving two of his three marriages despite his vows. And yet both the Clintons and the Trumps have “real marriages,” no matter how incomprehensible they may seem.

Written by

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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