The Governor’s Mistress: A Bermuda Love Triangle

8 years ago

It was an affair that started online, one of those flirtatious friendships between people who live far away and are very different that turned into a level of honest communication in can be hard to have in everyday life, in real time. Two people far away who emailed and chatted and shared their hearts, taking about the love they wished for and were seeking but did not have and how this chance to connect online, through chats and photos and emails, gave them each something that felt really good.

Only as time went on, their relationship moved into the real world. What had been a dream connection, a cyber-love, turned into a real love. A love that, because it was so unexpected by the two people involved, became even more treasured for its passion. A love that proved to him something essential was missing from his life till now, and proved to her that deep, transformative love still existed.

Only how could these two long-distance lovers allow their relationship to evolve? Living two different lives, thousands of miles apart, how could this successful man, married, a public figure with kids, and this beautiful woman, divorced, with children, and a career woman herself, figure out a way to go forward that would not destroy everything else they had?

The plot of a Danielle Steel novel? The latest plot line from The Hills? Jodi Picoult’s newest short story?
Nope, this is the story of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, a proposed Republican Vice Presidential candidate in the 2008 elections, and his relationship with Maria Belen Chapur, an Argentinean divorcee and television reporter for whom Sanford went “disappearrado” for four days in June  2009 when he flew to Buenos Aires to see her without telling anyone where he was going and without leaving anyone else in charge of his state (What if he had been Vice President and done that?)

“He’s hiking the Appalachian Trail,” his (hapless) staff told the press, though it soon came out Sanford has flown south with the knowledge of his wife, determined to end an illicit relationship that fed his heart but conflicted with both his marriage vows and his morals.

Women—and men—in South Carolina are flocking to support Jenny Sanford, the Governor’s wife, who told press she asked her husband to move out two weeks before his trip to Argentina, and who refused to play the supportive wife at a press conference with her (repentant) spouse, instead telling the media, “His career is not a concern of mine. He's going to have to worry about that. I'm worried about my family and the character of my children.”

A recent profile in the Washington Post painted Jenny Sanford as an adultery survivor, refusing to condone her husband’s mistake. However, reports that Gov Sanford has known and corresponded with Maria Belen Chapur for many years, the friendship turning physical in 2008, makes me wonder how much Jenny Sanford knew and condoned, and how much this relationship was conducted with her awareness.  

Certainly, the media reported that Sanford’s trip to Buenos Aires was the second in a year, with the earlier trip made with Jenny Sanford’s approval since the intent of that visit was to break the adulterous couple up (that clearly didn’t work.)

Is it possible that Jenny Sanford kicked her husband out of the house in June 2009 not because he’d fall in love with—and gotten physical with—someone else back in 2008, but because the world had found out?

Could it be that Jenny Sanford’s need to focus on her own character—and step away from her partner-- was a response not to her husband’s loss of romantic love for her (which she had to have experienced MUCH earlier), but to how the world might judge her if she did otherwise--especially since a set of emails between her husband and his lover had been acquired and published in the local papers that made it clear how her husband was deeply smitten with Maria Belen Chapur.

Or, to put it another way, how much was the conflagatory infatuation between Sanford and his paramour a symptom of the death of the Sanford’s married romance, and how much was it the cause?

Reading the week’s worth of love letters  from July 2008 made public and published by The State newspaper in June 2009, the themes that strike me are Chapur and Sanford’s surprise—and deep appreciation—at experiencing ]love (or deep infatuation) at such an unexpected time, their gratitude for the strong, empathic connection their friendship and lovemaking had forged, and their mutual acknowledgement that it may be impossible for their relationship to be anything more than stolen moments, treasured sensuality, and shared compassion.

In a July 8, 2008 email, Sanford writes: “….our visit in some ways for me was as well less of a holiday than it was uncovering and realization of some things and feelings that again are worth longer conversation.”
A few days later, in a July 10th note, he says “unfortunately all the feelings you describe are mutual, and three where do we go from here?” and “As I mentioned in our last visit, while I did not need love fifteen years ago — as the battle scars of life and aging and politics have worn on this has become a real need of mine.”

Sanford goes on to say he doesn’t know how their “special friendship” moved so quickly into love, and to wish he could “put the Genie back in the bottle,” noting “In all my life I have lived by a code of honor and at a variety of levels know I have crossed lines I would have never imagined.”

His lover, Maria Belen Chapur, writes back “I wasn’t aware till we met last week, the strong feelings I had for you, and believe me, I haven’t felt this since I was in my teen ages, when afterwards I got married. I do love you, I can feel it in my heart, and although I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to meet again this has been the best that has happened to me in a long time You made me realized (sic) how you feel when you realy (sic) love somebody and how much you want to be beside the beloved.”

In other words, campers, while these two may be caught up in deep romantic infatuation—and expressing pent-up sexual energy—this don't sound like no fling. The language here is of two adults, long known to one another, who’ve found a depth of connection and passion neither expected to find again—with anyone, not just one another—and who are treasuring that power while puzzling how to move it ahead (or even keep it going at all.)

Given Sanford’s disappearing act, his seemingly impetuous rush to Buenos Aires after a tough budget session, it appears to be  Maria’s “particular grace and calm” that he turned to for emotional replenishment.
Could it be that another reason his wife finally asked him to leave—more than a year into the outside relationship—was that the message embedded in his flight—that Sanford didn't look to his wife for emotional support at a tough time—also carried the message that he no longer valued her as a partner and political wife?

Wasn’t it a deeply public betrayal for Sanford of his spouse to take off, abandoning responsibility for everything he and his wife had worked for over the past 15 years,  because he felt his emotional needs were not being met?  Didn’t it signal that he —he preferring to  run to the one person who could fulfill his emotional needs—valued that more highly that the professional and family commitments he and his wife had made?

In other words, why should her husband’s career continue to be a concern of Jenny Sanford’s when his behavior indicated he no longer cared to go on as they had been and clearly didn’t hesitate to question these things?

It’s easy, when adultery is involved, to focus on the sin of the cheating. Breaking vows  is wrong, and being silent about it is evil. But in the case of the Sanfords, it seems that there was a long-ranging discussion occurring about the condition of the marriage, the partners’ emotional health, and their mutual wish to bring into their relationship more of what the Governor enjoyed with Belen Chapur.

But it’s more truthful, in my view, to look beyond the cheating, while not condoning it, to the issues in the marriage that led to a long friendship, one conducted mostly online and via email, to turn both romantic and sexual, and to gain an intensity, even the parties involved discussed dialing it down, that made it heat up even further.

Despite the tremendous irresponsibility he exhibited as an elected official- and the complete rejection of the values of his office his disappearing act exhibited—Sanford seems like someone who feels his public prominence is forcing him to choose between what he should do—stay with his family and love his wife—and what his heart says to do—join with a woman with whom he’s rediscovered deep empathic love and intense sexual passion.

If Sanford was a successful corporate lawyer, or a wealthy businessman, would he be under the same pressure to resolve these choices? Would there be a higher tolerance for his living two lives, as so many Americans do, publically espousing monogamy while privately practicing a don’t ask, don’t tell version of non-monogamy?

The answer has to be yes.  As a Republican, as a Governor, and as an emotionally driven man whose behavior brought his personal crisis to a head—and into widespread public attention, Sanford lacked both public role models and a safety net for maintaining two relationships. Ultimately, it seems that he also lacked the emotional resources to manage such a complicated situation without acting out (which he did, in so many ways).

South Carolina officials, many Republican, are now investigating Sanford  and the Latin American trips he took, to make sure no more of them mid-used public funds. Asking him to resign has been discussed, but the situation is still very much in play.

What is clear is that we have a man here who opened his life to love and passion, but felt he should stuff his feelings back into a box he never truly wanted to once again fit. Could anyone who listened to Sanford tell the media his affair was “the great love of his life”, but that he was trying once more to “fall in love with his wife,” actually believe this strategy would work? Or that a woman as bright and accomplished as Jenny Sanford would want to stay married as the sloppy seconds?

The messy second act of Sanford’s affair reminds us that emotional needs are powerful, and that even powerful, successful men sometimes are driven to act from the heart.

What do you all think about this love triangle? Comments, please.

Blogosphere goodies worth a read:

Lawyer Mama: Life is Not Black and White
“People hate me.  Not just hate what I've done, but really truly hate me.  That's a new one for me, but entirely expected.  As a result of my actions, someone I love is getting divorced.  Now, intellectually I know that I didn't really have much to do with it.  It would be the height of arrogance to claim that I am the sole cause.  I may have helped the process along, but M was going to be divorced before long no matter what.  No one can stay married without love for long, no matter how hard the two parties try to pretend for their families and friends.”

Joanne Bamberger, Huffington Post: Jenny Sanford -- The Political Spouse Role Model for My Daughter
“You had to guess that there was something up with the story of South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his quick "decision" to change his trip from the Appalachian Trail to Buenos Aires! When the truth came out, as it always does, it was refreshing not to see his wife at his side, silently condoning what he'd done and the lies he had told.
That's the example I want my daughter to see.”

the (secret) lives of postmodern women: The Cat’sPajama’s
"Many of the women in my life who are with younger men seem to speak apologetically about their choices. They say things such as "He has a lot of life experience" or "He is more mature than his years". On the other hand, some have also raved about the great sex after making their apologies. Other mature women have spoken of the looks they get and whispers that follow from the younger women who lust after their younger men. Still, others have been disappointed for a variety of reasons by the arrangement altogether. Their relationships with younger men are not entirely different, in this way, from relationships with men in general."

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