The Mark Sanford Affair
In 2013 the media was full of reports about (former South Carolina Governor) Mark Sanford’s attempt to employ a new staffer to run his campaign for the vacant South Carolina Congressional seat - his ex wife.
During 2009 during his tenure as governor of NC, Sanford went missing for several days and eventually surfaced to admit that he was with his mistress. His wife filed for divorce in the months that followed.
The NY Daily News ran a story about an interview with Sanford in 2009:
“Though we both know how impossible our distances are, how different our lives are, all those different things we know in my professional work, my family, all those different things,” a clearly emotional Sanford told The AP, “I will be able to die knowing. …”
(Here the governor broke into heaving sobs before stammering,)
“… that I had met my soul mate.
“Even if it was a place that I could never go. But it’s one of those things. I knew the cost,” he added before bursting into more tears. “Everybody makes their different choices in life.”
Affairs and Cognitive Choice
Notwithstanding my eye rolling for the cliched use of the term ‘soul mate’ (a term that so many have heard their cheating partners use), this article clarifies that Sanford was entirely aware of the cost his choices would have to his wife, his family, and his political career. It’s a fallacy that those who choose an affair do so without understanding the consequences to them and others. The cheater chooses a path that they know will cause damage - they simply consider that damage as acceptable collateral damage.
It’s also untrue that no affair relationships work out. Sometimes the cheater leaves the faithful spouse for a life with the affair partner. Having an affair is not an honorable, respectful or honest way to exit a relationship, however, the choice to exit the marriage is not the nefarious part of an affair. The damage an affair causes stems from manipulation, duplicity, and the selfish disregard for the consequences to the spouse and family.
An affair is essentially a planned, cognitive, guerrilla-style attack on the spouse’s emotional well-being by misrepresentations, manipulation, lies and deceit, abuse of trust, disregard for health, redirection of financial resources, and in some cases, physical and/or emotional abuse.
Punishing Cheaters as Bad People
An affair is one aspect of a cheater: It represents poor judgment and selfishness, and other negative characteristics, and those aspects of themselves influenced their choices. It speaks to character, yes, but it is not the total sum of them as a person.
To condemn a whole person by their affair choices is flawed thinking. Poor behavior in some situations doesn’t make someone a wholly “bad” person, any more than exemplary behavior in certain situations makes someone a wholly “good” person. Someone can behave abominably in a relationship and still be a kind, generous, defender of others, for example. Judging someone as wholly reprehensible for not ending one relationship before embarking on another is not a reasonable standard, in isolation, by which to judge a good:bad ratio.
Yes, our flaws are rarely confined just to one aspect of behavior so we should be aware of how flaws manifest in questionable behavioral patterns in other ways. Unfortunately, most faithful spouses dismiss the notion that there were character issues in their spouse prior to the affair.
Sometimes we have to accept that good people do bad things, make poor choices, act in their own interests, and hurt other people, and then go on to live a life that’s both good and bad, just as we do.
Punishment in Perpetuity
Of course, some affair relationships do have longevity, and life for former cheaters can appear to be happy and unmarred by their affair. Sanford’s political career continued regardless of his affair and he got engaged to his former mistress (though that was called off in 2014) - for most cheaters life continues with relatively little damage. For a faithful spouse hurt by an affair it an be almost intolerable that there is a lack of clear karmic or divine retribution exacting justice for the crimes.
The betrayed spouse’s life, lifestyle, dreams for their future, love for the cheater … it all comes crashing down around them, leaving them resentful, bitter, distrustful of others, and hurt; they feel that they are permanently scarred. To want the cheater to experience the devastation they inflicted upon the faithful partner is a fairly typical response, and most have an acute sense that it isn’t fair that the faithful spouse is hurt while their cheater gets off scot free.
The sense of injustice the betrayed partner feels when they see their cheater seemingly happy, relatively unscathed, and worse, in the arms of the affair partner, can be unbearable. It’s understandable to want justice or even some form of tit for tat, but is it reasonable to believe that someone choosing an affair must be punished in perpetuity for their ‘crimes’ against their spouse/partner?
Should the world condemn a cheater forever? Should careers, public perception, personal lives be forever judged by all through the lens of ‘HERE STANDS A CHEATER’? What about those that marry their affair partner - should the world boycott their wedding and not recognize their marriage? Most faithful spouses will respond with a vehement, “Yes!”
An even more difficult question is, ‘should people ever be happy for cheaters who find love with their affair partner?‘ If you are in post-relationship stasis, frozen in the aftermath, still suffering pain, the answer will probably be, “Oh hell no!” And yet affairs don’t make a person wholly bad - yes, their choices might not have aligned with your desires and expectations of them, and you might feel vindictive and hateful towards them, but that does not make them undeserving of support and happiness in every aspect of their lives.
Living the Post-Affair Life
We have to live with our own understanding of the world. Mine is this: If your partner left you for the affair partner, acknowledge it as a horrible end. Get help and support for the personal fallout on your emotional health. Make choices in the wake of the storm that move you closer to your personal goals, dreams and ambitions - if you don’t have any that weren’t tied into your ex, then get some. Then live.
Live a life as if a relationship you loved ended because it wasn’t right for either of you, because it wasn’t right for one of you. Don’t allow you shackling yourself to your cheater to be an option.
Don’t live it in perpetual mourning for a person who didn’t want their life with you. Live instead choosing to accept that relationships have to work for both parties. Accept that breakups are frequently instigated by one person when the other wants to stay together, and that is entirely normal. Breakups happen, and we deal and get over them.
Separate the breakup from the affair. Do what you need to do to deal with the emotional consequences of anyone you trusted lying to you, deceiving you, manipulating you, disrespecting you. If you were treated that way by a friend, you would likely end the friendship yourself and walk away without a backward glance, because you instigated the end of the relationship as a result of their behavior.
Sanford Affair Post-Script
The votes he received have been largely attributed to her shrewd political strategies and visions - she was one of his top advisers, and she managed his subsequent successful campaigns. Sanford’s former press secretary stated, “There’s absolutely no way he would have ever won the congressional seat or been governor without her.” There was even speculation that Jenny Sanford might run for the NC seat herself, but she chose against it.
Sanford’s recent attempt to hire his ex wife to manage his campaign, in the midst of his wedding plans to his former mistress, shows him as a shameless careerist. I admit that I rather enjoy the subtext that he fears he might not be elected a) without her and b) without her implied ‘forgiveness’ of his affair if she took the job.
I am further amused at the reports that he has asserted that this time, he will pay her.
I am applauding her response. She declined.