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SANDY BANKS

Taking infidelity to a new level

If you're the wife -- but not the soul mate -- why even bother to try to recover?

July 04, 2009|SANDY BANKS

I suppose a woman could take some comfort from the predicament of the governor of South Carolina, who vanished last week for a secret tryst in Argentina with his lover.

For once, a married politician's sexual transgression didn't involve hookers, sex tapes, young interns, homosexual confessions or anonymous encounters in bathroom stalls.

Instead, we have Mark Sanford waxing poetic -- often publicly, and at length -- about his paramour's grace and kindness; intelligence and sophistication; warm eyes, gentle kisses and "erotic beauty . . . in the faded glow of night's light."

How sweet to imagine that a hard-charging, tough-talking politician could be so in touch with his romantic side; that a middle-aged man could finally meet the one woman who makes him feel alive.

Except that Sanford's "soul mate" is Maria. Not Jenny -- his wife of 20 years and the mother of his four young sons.

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It's been more intriguing than Jon and Kate, and easier for voyeurs to take sides.

Mark Sanford is a dope, a hypocrite and a blabbermouth who certainly embarrassed his family and probably committed political suicide.

Jenny is every middle-aged wife who put her career on hold for a man: raised the kids, ran the house, organized the birthday parties and sent out the Christmas cards.

Now she has to settle for being known as the "gracious [and] wonderful Christian woman" (her husband's description) who can't hold a candle to his lover, the passionate divorcee, who likes to work out, play tennis and jog.

The affair unfurled like a steamy romance novel, making it perfect water-cooler fodder and raising questions that other politicians' tawdry sexual escapades haven't.

Or as one male colleague asked me when the subject came up: What's worse to a woman, an Eliot Spitzer consorting with prostitutes, or a Sanford, who is over-the-moon about his lover.

Sanford, by a landslide.

When I read the account of his rambling news conference, it was the "S-word" that hit me in the gut. Soul mate, he called her; his once-in-a-lifetime, magical lover.

It takes infidelity to a whole new level. If you're the wife -- but not the soul mate -- why even bother to try to recover?

I remember having a soul mate once. After a while, in the words of my therapist, the neurotransmitters in my brain calmed down and the intoxicating addiction wore off. The love was still there, but the passion was gone.

"A 'soul mate' is what happens when a person discovers a part of themselves that's been missing, and it's so exhilarating, so rejuvenating . . . you're not willing to give it up for anyone or anything," said couples' counselor Veronica Thomas.

In middle age, a soul mate often shows up through an affair, "because this person is the escape," she said. "The spouse is the burdensome reality. With new love, you can be young again."

It's the "soul mate" phrase that made wives gag.

When the governor emoted for the TV cameras, he was showing respect for his lover. "He didn't want to devalue it as a cheap affair," Thomas explained.

"But I wish he'd said something more psychological," Thomas told me. "Like 'I found something with her that I long to have with my wife. Now we're going to recapture what's been lost.' "

Instead, like a teenager handed an onerous task, he promised "to try to fall back in love with my wife."

I don't think I could take a husband back after being publicly humiliated like that.

But anyone who's been married long enough has drawn a line and then erased it. You can make all the rules you want, but you don't know what you'll live with until you have to face it.

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Maybe Jenny Sanford doesn't need a soul mate. In every interview she's given and statement she's released, she talks about her Christian faith, her responsibilities as a mother and her husband's need to "toe the line" so that he can come home and be a respectable father.

She has decided to forgive him, she said; to believe that his "determination to save our marriage" can overcome his soul mate lust.

I admit I was pulling for her to leave -- not just because her husband lied or committed adultery, but because he protected his lover and sacrificed his wife's honor. But maybe the man I see as a hypocritical, narcissistic wimp is, in his wife's eyes, a naive man with a tender heart, in the middle of a midlife identity crisis.

Jenny had discovered Mark's affair in January, when she found a letter her husband had written to Maria. She ordered him not to see the other woman again and expected him not to defy her.

"I didn't think he had it in him," she told reporters. "It's hard to find out your husband is not who you thought he is."

It must be even harder, I imagine, to find out what your husband thinks of you.

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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