Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger: A political odd couple that worked

Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger announced their separation Monday. Despite being a prominent Democrat, Shriver was crucial to her Republican husband's political success.

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    In this Sept. 16, 1983, file photo, actor and bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger shows off his new US citizenship papers as Maria Shriver looks on at the Shrine Auditorium in Hollywood, Calif. Schwarzenegger has announced Monday that he and Shriver, his wife of 25 years, are separating.
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Less than six months after former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger left office, he and his wife, Maria Shriver, have announced that they are separating after 25 years of marriage. The announcement, so soon after the end of Mr. Schwarzenegger's term, has led to retrospection on her crucial role in his rise to the governor's office as well as speculation as to whether she was fulfilling the role of the political "good wife."

From the beginning of their marriage in 1986, Ms. Shriver and Mr. Schwarzenegger were ribbed for being a political odd couple, because of Schwarzenegger’s Republican leanings and Shriver’s connection to one of America’s Democratic family dynasties as daughter of the late Eunice Kennedy Shriver.

Now, after the separations of several high profile politicians, including John and Elizabeth Edwards, Al and Tipper Gore, and Mark and Jenny Sanford, there are questions about whether Shriver stayed with her husband to help him further – or not damage – his political career.

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To be sure, she was integral to it. Indeed, there is the sense among many political analysts that, if it weren’t for Shriver, Schwarzenegger might not have made it to Sacramento in the first place.

During California’s 2003 recall election – in which Schwarzenegger was a candidate – the Los Angeles Times printed a series of articles alleging that Schwarzenegger had groped women. Shriver's defense was seen as crucial.

The allegations "show why really good people don't want to go into politics anymore," she told reporters. "As I say to my children, it always takes great courage to do – stand before anybody and apologize," she said. "I think that's what Arnold did today. I think he handled it, and his statement speaks for itself."

Governor's 'greatest asset'

Even in Sacramento, "she was his greatest asset," says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento.

Her political pedigree, along with her professional credentials as a former reporter for NBC’s “Dateline,” offered her unique opportunities.

As Schwarzenegger’s bid to reform state politics through ballot initiatives failed, his fortunes began to fall. Meanwhile, Shriver became one of the more prominent first ladies in state history, promoting volunteerism and assuming control of cultural institutions like the state history museum in Sacramento. She also presided over the state's annual California Governor's Conference on Women and Families.

But as her time in Sacramento ended, Shriver offered hints at the difficult personal transition ahead. In March, she posted a YouTube video asking for thoughtful input from supporters who had faced difficult transitions in their own lives. She spoke about the stresses of her husband’s exit from office and the uncertainty she felt about moving on to the next phase of her life.

Noting she herself had written a book entitled, "Ten Things Wish I'd Known Before I Went Out Into The Real World," she asked viewers bluntly: "How did you get through it? What were three things that enabled you to get through your transition?"

'Gray divorces'

Such feelings are not uncommon in so-called "gray divorces" – divorces of couples that have been together more than 20 years. With more and more women now financially independent and living longer, the incentive to bear with a unfulfilling marriage is declining. The US Census Bureau reports that in 2008, one-fourth of new divorces involved couples married 20 years.

“I am not surprised at all that Arnold and Maria are separating now," says Mary Ellen Balchunis, a political scientist at La Salle University in Philadelphia who teaches classes on women in politics and media and politics. "He finished his … terms as governor, her Catholic parents are deceased, and their children are almost all grown.”

She adds: “Maria had an impressive national career as a journalist that she had to put on hold because of the appearance of conflict of interest while her husband was governor. She had to deal with numerous stories of her husband’s unsavory behavior. Her care-giving role to her parents are over, and her parenting role has greatly decreased. She doesn't need the support of her husband. She is very articulate, bright, and charming."

Shriver moved out of the couple’s Brentwood, Calif., mansion several weeks ago, and they have released a joint statement: “This has been a time of great personal and professional transition for each of us. After a great deal of thought, reflection, discussion, and prayer, we came to this decision together. At this time we are living apart while we work on the future of our relationship.”

The statement goes on to say: “We are continuing to parent our four children together. They are the light and center of both of our lives. We consider this a private matter and neither we nor any of our friends or family will have any further comment. We ask for compassion and respect from the media and the public.”

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