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The Monitor's View

'Petraeus scandal' as a mirror on marriage

As the 'Petraeus scandal' widens with probes and politics, it should also throw a spotlight on the state of marriage.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / November 13, 2012

In this 2011 photo, Gen. David Petraeus walks with his wife, Holly, past a seated Paula Broadwell (r.) as he arrives to testify before a Senate panel.

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Before Washington goes off on too many tangents of the “Petraeus scandal” – we shouldn’t forget that this high-level affair is only the latest public example of the state of marriage in America.

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Marriage rates have fallen in the past decade even as one public figure after another – John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, to name a few – have had their infidelities revealed. More than 40 percent of people between ages 18 and 29 now see marriage as obsolete.

The extramarital affair of Gen. David Petraeus with his official biographer, Paula Broadwell, stands out even more because of the trust that he earned in the military and national security fields. Yet now trust in his marital fidelity has failed. So his resignation as CIA director was necessary. Why? Because his willingness to privately harm his family could result in his harming others in his official duties.

The general admitted as much in his resignation note: “After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization [CIA] such as ours.” 

Restoring trust in a marriage after an act of infidelity isn’t easy. Only about a third of couples succeed, most notably Bill and Hillary Clinton. Perhaps David and Holly Petraeus can do so now, given his public act of contrition. The larger task for America after this latest marital shock is to restore trust in marriage itself.

The ideal of marriage as a lifelong union to the exclusion of all others has eroded. In 2010, barely half of American adults were married, down from nearly three-quarters of adults a half century ago. The current figure could now be below 50 percent. And a recent study at the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project found that the happiness of marriages for moderately educated Americans has dropped while their divorce rates are up.

The state of marriage as a public issue rarely has staying power. Yet stable marriages are the bedrock of both society and the economy. And, writes Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, marriage is “the single most compelling metaphor for the relationship between God and us – because it involves commitment, a mutual pledge of openness and trust, a promise that neither will walk away in difficult times.”

Fidelity in a marriage relies on the binding of each spouse’s higher qualities for mutual support. That is the best guard against a wandering eye. Others can support those bonds through various means, such as spiritual advice, while government policies can bolster the economic and legal conditions that help maintain marriage.

No single event may finally force attention on the marriage crisis in America, although the Petraeus affair comes close. Before the official probes and the politics of this scandal go too far, perhaps Americans should focus on the icing that’s been melting off the wedding cake called marriage.

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