The most fascinating thing about The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker’s now viral tweet about Vice President Mike Pence’s marriage has been the response. Last Wednesday, Parker tweeted, “Mike Pence never dines alone w a woman not his wife, nor does he attends events w alcohol, w/o her by his side.” While Parker presumably sought only to encourage the Twitterverse to read her new profile of Second Lady Karen Pence, she unwittingly uncovered a stark cultural divide about marriage and fidelity.
On one side are those who find such personal rules ridiculous. This group reflects a secular, egalitarian mindset and worries aloud—or at least publicly on social media—about how Pence’s observing such rules might negatively impact the careers of women who worked for him.
On the other side are those who are either religious believers or are familiar with traditional religious communities and their practices. These respondents either think the Vice President’s behavioral rules wise or at least deem them perfectly understandable.
As a practicing Jew, I find myself in the latter category. I respect the couples’ self-imposed boundaries. They also do not strike me as odd, perhaps because I’ve seen similar things in my own community.
During high school, I participated in an Orthodox Jewish youth group, and I remember hearing the dating stories of our early 20-something youth leaders. For this crowd, dating wasn’t some aimless past time. It was about finding a spouse, so discussions quickly turned to practical questions, like how many children you wanted to have. And perhaps even more importantly, given recent news coverage, all dates happened publicly—whether in crowded restaurants or in bowling alleys. Dates weren’t meant to be romantic, so much as honorable. By choosing well-lit public locations, there would be no scandal, nor any cause for gossip, as you became acquainted with a possible future spouse.
Jewish law includes the concept of Yichud, which establishes rules for how men and women—who aren’t married to each other—should behave. In short, you’re not supposed to be off alone together. The rules exist to prevent everyone from even coming near prohibited sexual behaviors (see Leviticus for details).
We don’t know the genesis of the Pences’ particular behavioral rules, but their practical wisdom is clear, especially when we consider both human nature and larger societal trends. On the latter point, we should start by acknowledging that it’s difficult to find accurate statistics about infidelity for two reasons. First, not everyone agrees on the definition in our digital era—especially among Millennials—and not everyone willingly admits to cheating, even in anonymous surveys.
That said, existing data is striking enough that it should grab the attention of any adult hoping to maintain a healthy marriage. Looking back to an earlier era, "Alfred Kinsey found that married men cheated at rates of around 50 percent. In 1953, Kinsey showed that 26 percent of married women had also been unfaithful.”
More recently, the National Healthy Marriage Center reported:
One study found that about four percent of married men and two percent of married women had admitted to infidelity within the previous year. Long-term survey data (1972–2006) collected by the National Science Foundation (NSF) places the rate somewhat higher, at about 12 to 13%. Other studies find that over the length of a marriage, about 25% of men and 10 to 15% of women report having had an affair.
Layer on top of those likely underreported numbers these findings from a University of Washington study: 62 percent of men and 46 percent of women who cheat did so with someone at work. It’s clear that modern workplaces are filled with potential marital landmines.
That is especially true in Washington, DC, where power, “the ultimate aphrodisiac,” flows freely. Men and women work long hours in close quarters with passionate, like-minded people. After hours, there is a vibrant happy hour culture, where alcohol regularly fuels regrettable decisions.
It’s not only the city’s most famous residents, including President Bill Clinton and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who are affected. The siren song of adultery is apparently so strong that Washington, DC, and neighboring Arlington, Virginia, rank fourth and fifth nationally as the locations listed among Ashley Madison subscribers.
A therapist writing in The Huffington Post observed, “Affairs aren’t spontaneous; they require planning and decision-making.” Given that, it makes sense for couples to plan not only who to marry, but how you and your spouse will protect and prioritize that relationship, so you can keep it.
Whether or not a couple adopts the vice president's rules, every lasting couple needs some version of them, whether formal or otherwise. And for a public figure whose reputation can be quickly sullied and a spouse publicly humiliated by an out-of-context picture on one stranger’s phone, formal rules are actually quite smart. Because the goal of every married couple should be finding happiness—not headlines—together.