Monday, October 24, 2011

Marriage and Fidelity: Debunking the Mythological Past

The same guy I've been debating from the last two posts raised the following question in his current response to me:

"If people in the past never married for love but right now people are currently marrying for love, how would you explain the escalating divorce and infidelity rates?"

First off, I never said people "never married for love" in the past, but that's how this guy read me apparently. Moving on, let's consider the second half of the question a little more closely, because I do think a lot of people believe that there's much more cheating going on today than in the past. And there is no small amount of "alarm" about divorce rates.

Simply put: a lot of folks are pretty ignorant about history. Just look at the records of the more powerful from the past. In terms of the U.S, many of our early Presidents and/or Congressional leaders cheated on their wives, some multiple times. And infidelity amongst men was socially sanctioned and even encouraged in some circles. Furthermore, although it was potentially much more dangerous for women to cheat, some still did, even those in prominent places.

Here are some rather dramatic examples that resulted in major political scandals:

In 1796, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton (the guy currently pictured on the $10 bill) had an affair with Maria Reynolds while both were married to other people.

There has been ongoing revelations about President Thomas Jefferson's parentage of multiple children with his slave Sally Hemmings.

In 1831, Robert Potter, a Congressman from North Carolina, resigned from Congress after castrating two men he believed were having an affair with his wife.

During the same year, the husband of Margaret "Peggy" O'Neale, later Margaret O'Neill Eaton, was alleged to have been driven to suicide because of her affair with Andrew Jackson's Secretary of War, John Henry Eaton.

In 1859, Daniel Sickles (D-NY) shot and killed the district attorney of the District of Columbia[325] Philip Barton Key II, son of Francis Scott Key, whom Sickles had discovered was having an affair with Sickles's young wife, Teresa.

An additional note about this case was that Sickles was tried and acquitted in the first use of the temporary insanity plea.

Well known early 20th Century President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a long standing affair with his wife Eleanor's secretary Lucy Mercer, which led to Eleanor offering a divorce, and Lucy (a Catholic) declining to marry FDR.

Those are just a few of the more salacious examples from the record. There are plenty of "garden variety" affairs to be found as well, if people just stop and read their history a little closer.

None of this, of course, suggests that no one married for love, or stayed committed for a lifetime. Many couples did, but my point is that the levels of infidelity have not skyrocketed in the ways right wing social conservatives are fond of suggesting.

As for the rising divorce rates, again, consider the fact that less than two generations ago, women were rarely in a financial or even legal position to file for divorce. In fact, throughout the 19th century, if a woman wanted to file for divorce, she would loose both the custody of her children and rights to any property she had. Furthermore, depending on one’s religious affiliation, divorce was, regardless of gender, not really a possibility. Thus, many people stayed married out a sense of duty to their religious beliefs.

Although some of this information might puncture holes in a nostalgia for a "romance like those of the good ole days," I actually find it oddly comforting, because it shows that relationships have always had their complications. The problems of today might be different than those of yesterday, but I don't think we've gone on a terribly slide downward when it comes to love and commitment.

*Photo: FDR with girlfriend Lucy Mercer and cousin-wife Eleanor, in 1929. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library)


  1. Globally, marriage for love is an anomaly. Most people are married by parental, community, royal or economic arrangement. This was also true in Europe(still happens there sometimes)until around the 19th century when enlightenment philosophy began to have an effect on social values.

  2. So, I agree with your premise, but hate the way you argued with the dumbass...

    Divorce rates are NOT increasing (US Census data):

    I can't speak to infidelity rates, but I strongly suspect he's working with antiquated stereotypical thoughts with no grounds in current reality.

  3. Is that who I think it is? He's got to be kidding. Infidelity used to be socially acceptable 30-40-50 years ago. It's right up there with smoking and picking your nose in public now. What escalating rates is he talking about??

    As for rising divorce rates... people divorce more now for one reason only, because they can. With no-fault divorce and dissolution of marriage allowed, it is a lot easier on the couples financially. Not to mention that most women are now able to support themselves, whereas back in the day, almost none could.

    We have become more free and honest with ourselves when it comes to love and commitment. I see it as improvement, not the other way around.

  4. Heck, at least 50% of traditional songs originating in the Middle Ages are about sexual infidelity of some sort or another (just one example, "Raggle Taggle Gypsy").

    Infidelity is nothing new. People married for property or status and then went and got their love/jollies elsewhere, and has always been thus since recorded history began (the recording of history having begun after the farming revolution made property and status far more important, and relegated women to the kinder/kirche/kuche roles familiar today).

    Heck, The Iliad, one of the oldest literary works in Western culture, deals with the consequences of a woman married for property/status, and running off with someone else.

  5. Maxwell, I really tried to hold back from blasting the crap out of the guy. And indeed, that holding back probably led to a weaker set of statements overall against his nonsense.

    I agree with all the points everyone else is making. And I actually was going to bring up literature and the arts - which have always been littered with stories like those I pulled out from the U.S. political record - but didn't want to make this post any longer.

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