Beyond extreme insecurity over their appearance, I have also noticed interesting dynamics in the relationships of European couples. With respect to the couples I have known, the men seemed to call the shots disproportionately. While women worked hard to not get fat and to dress in an impressive manner, many of the men I met overlooked anniversaries, said unkind things about their wives’ appearance (even in front of other people), and felt free to wander from their relationships. And much more so than in the United States, I have known a lot of Europeans in May-December romances. It seemed to me to be tough to be a middle-aged European woman.
I didn’t understand why the European women I knew put up with such ca-ca. And I often thought that the American women I knew would not put up with it.
Certainly, things are not perfect on this side of the pond. Plenty of American women complain that their partners are not always thoughtful. And infidelity also occurs in the United States. But when I’ve known American men who leave their wives for another woman, in some ways it wasn’t a shock. Either the men were always jerks and their wives were saints to put up with them. Or the men had some mental illness or addiction such that they weren’t acting rationally.
By contrast, I’ve just been shocked by otherwise kind and generous European men I’ve known who were without any mental illness or addition but who’ve suddenly left marriages or other long-term relationships without any real reason or even warning. And at least in my observation, their partners seem to not be terribly upset or shocked by such things. Maybe they are, but they hide it well. Maintaining dignity seemed to be a huge priority to the European women I knew. The attitude I observed was if a man got bored or was no longer interested, so be it. That happens. No crying over spilt milk. Don’t let them see you sweat. As an American, I found this a curious response. In my observation, American women are more likely to raise a fuss and not take it lying down.
Also insightful, in the 1990s, when I lived with a French family for a year, I remember comments about how Europeans don’t understand Americans’ fascination with political candidates’ spouses. It really annoyed them apparently. Hillary Clinton was first lady at the time, so the issue was a big deal back then for the Europeans I knew.
I began to think about why we Americans pay attention to political spouses—apparently more than Europeans. After reflecting on the difference, I have come to suspect that it has something to do with our American attitude that families are a unit and a central part of our lives. In that context, marriages are partnerships. As such, a candidate’s spouse is an important reflection of the candidate and may also be an informal advisor behind the scenes.
By contrast, the Europeans I knew explicitly and emphatically told me they thought the candidates’ spouses were irrelevant in politics. They told me family was separate from how one did one’s job in office. I thought that delineation was odd. I couldn’t imagine such a complete lack of integration of one’s private and public life.
In the 1970s, I grew up with Rosalynn Carter as first lady. She used to attend her husband’s cabinet meetings. She took her role as helpmate very seriously. In my teen years, Nancy Reagan had been first lady. She was known for playing an active role in her husband’s work. She reportedly had great influence in the people with whom he surrounded himself, as well as the schedule he kept. Barbara Bush had been first lady when I was an undergrad and had a more hands-off approach, but that was a brief anomaly in my view. When Bill Clinton ran for president, he suggested it was a “2 for 1” deal because we’d get brilliant, articulate Hillary for free. Indeed, at least initially during her time as first lady, Hillary took an even more formal role in advising her husband.
But in Europe, the idea that a spouse may give advice (official or unofficial) to a politician was rejected out of hand by the people I knew. Indeed, several French women told me that Francois Mitterand’s wife, Danielle, was an ideal political spouse because she “stayed out of the way.” That sounded rather dismissive and insulting to me, but at the time I didn’t know much about Danielle Mitterand.
However, not long thereafter, Mr. Mitterand died and like many Americans I was horrified that next to Danielle and her children were Mr. Mitterand’s shadow family (i.e., his long-time lover and her children with the former president). To me, that familial structure spoke volumes about the low status of women in France. Perhaps polygamy was not legally permissible, but it was apparently practiced in a de facto manner.
That was a while back, but more recently Nicolas Sarkozy was elected to the same office and displayed similarly repulsive attitudes towards marriage—and arguably by extension similarly repulsive attitudes towards women generally. Already divorced once when he was elected to the presidency, Mr. Sarkozy and his second wife, Cecilia, were viewed initially as a power couple. She actually had a role in his administration as a chief aide. However, she left him in 2005 and they divorced in 2007, not long after he was elected president. Less than a month later, Sarkozy met a singer/model, Carla Bruni, whom he married the next year. Cecilia Sarkozy was about the same age as Nicolas; Carla Bruni was over a decade younger than her husband.
I doubt an American president would ever do such a thing. He would be reviled for it and it would ruin his political career. I know plenty of American women who loathed Bill Clinton after it became known that he had cheated on his wife during his White House years. As if his infidelity was not bad enough, the lying was worse. Who can forget Hillary defending her husband and blaming right wing conspiracies on national television? To betray and humiliate a women of such high intelligence and compassion is pretty horrific. I actually know women who were so deeply repulsed by Bill Clinton’s disgusting behavior that it prompted them to leave the Democratic Party and refuse to vote for Democratic candidates in the future. Imagine how much worse the reaction would have been if the Clintons’ marriage had ended and Bill had married Monica Lewinsky or another young woman.
But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.