On Friday night, I watched Sean Hannity interview former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, and I just about threw up. If Sanford’s name isn’t ringing a bell for you, it’s probably because he’s just another philandering politician in a seemingly endless parade of them. Sadly for the country, such stories have become so routine that I normally wouldn’t dedicate an entire blog post to this one — I’d normally just mention, as usual, the following:
1) that a voter shouldn’t trust a guy whose own spouse can’t trust him,
2) that a guy who betrays his family’s and the public’s trust to have an extramarital affair is likely to be a narcissist who routinely puts his own interests above the public’s,
3) that a guy who puts his family and career at risk to have an extramarital affair probably doesn’t have the kind of judgment that we want running our government, and
4) that a guy who has an extramarital affair while holding public office subjects himself to blackmail, both by the woman involved and by anyone else who discovers the affair, which puts the public at risk
(and yes, female politicians can do all of that same stuff, and if they do, they’re just as bad).
But Sanford’s interview with Hannity disgusted me more than usual, so I’m writing more than usual. Why? First of all, Hannity asked the former governor repeatedly what was going through his mind when he was putting his promising political career, not to mention his family, at risk by having an affair, to which Sanford just replied, “I fell in love.” The operative word there is “I.” It was all about him — not about his family, not about his constituents, him. Apparently Sanford believes that if he falls in love, then he’s entitled to act on those feelings regardless of the damage that it does to his spouse, children, constituents, staff… . That’s the narcissism that I’m always trying to point out in these guys, but this guy actually came right out and articulated it!
Here’s the most disgusting thing about it, though — the effects that it probably has had and probably will continue to have on the children involved. Throughout the interview, Sanford seemed to keep trying to intimate that he and his wife had some kind of an “open marriage” wherein it was somehow OK for him to do what he did. I don’t care what kind of marriage he had; he didn’t have an “open fatherhood.” As a child custody expert, I’d like to tell you about what I see as a glaring disparity in our efforts to protect children from parental abuse: If I find out that a father involved in a child custody battle backhanded his minor child, giving the child a black eye, and I report that to the judge, that father is likely to have his custodial time curtailed — at least supervised, at most eliminated — in very short order. But if I find out instead that the father had an affair, which caused the divorce and all of the ugliness that comes with that, the father could easily end up with 50/50 custody. In my view, the affair is probably actually more abusive to the child than a single backhand. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that physical abuse isn’t serious or that it shouldn’t be seriously punished. It is, and it should be. I’m saying that the emotional harm brought on by parental infidelity can be be every bit as painful and take far longer to heal.
If this happened to you as a kid, then you know what I’m talking about, and if it didn’t, just imagine: One day, you’re living under the same roof with both parents; the next day, your father moves out; now, instead of having fun with your friends, you get to pack up and go visit your father at his cramped apartment on weekends and Wednesday nights; when you spend the night at your father’s place, you have to get fully dressed before you walk to the kitchen in the morning because you might run into a strange woman along the way; when you do things with your father, he brings his girlfriend and her kids along, so you get to watch him play “dad” to her kids when he hasn’t been much of a dad to you lately; eventually, you get to attend your father’s big wedding, after which you get to start visiting him at his new house with his new wife, where you’re treated like a transient visitor while her kids are treated like residents; then, you get to watch your father have a new kid with his new wife and dote over that kid while he tells you that he doesn’t have enough money to pay for your soccer camps anymore. Sound like fun?
No, the above didn’t happen to me. I know all about it, though, because as a psychologist, I’ve seen the fallout of it more times than I can count. Just the other day, I was in my car listening to Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s radio show, and three callers in a row were having adult relationship problems stemming from almost exactly what I described above. “Fathers” like Sanford (I use the quotation marks because I call them “fathers” in the biological sense only, and yes, “mothers” who ruin families with affairs, too) are child abusers in my opinion — malignantly narcissistic child abusers who do extensive short- and long-term damage to their children for disgustingly self-indulgent reasons — and as a child custody expert, I urge judges not to overlook that just because the wounds aren’t visible.
As if that weren’t enough to make me want to dedicate an entire post to my disgust with Mark Sanford, he didn’t stop there! He went on to tell Hannity what he’s “learned” about how to have good Christian marriage and family relationships. Yes, that’s right, Sanford’s supposedly become an expert on how you can live a more holy life. Now I don’t claim to be an expert on Christian theology myself, but I’m pretty sure this guy has no business telling the rest of us how to be more Christ-like. I am an expert in psych0logy though, and I’m absolutely sure I haven’t seen a more disgustingly, shamelessly narcissistic load of verbal diarrhea dumped on national television in quite some time. Mark Sanford is unworthy of ever having the public’s attention or trust again, and he ought to use every moment of his freed-up time to try to mitigate the damage he likely has done to his kids.