Vows made to be broken

The New York Times' marriage announcement page also has a feature called "Vows" where one of the lucky couples has their story told by a reporter. Weddings are rites of passage where ghosts abound. But usually these stories are sappy lovey-dovey accounts of how romance blossomed. Last week's Vows section is no exception. And boy is it one for the ages. Now, I was absolutely horrified when I read it (linked on Twitter by John Podhoretz with the note "Boy is this going to be discussed at my kids' Upper West Side School this week, and discussed, and discussed."). He was right. The story lit up the twitterverse and blogosphere and made it into other media coverage, too. Reporter Devan Sipher tells the story of Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla. They met in pre-kindergarten. Not their own, mind you. Their children attended the same Upper West Side school. They were both married and had five kids between the two couples.

WHAT happens when love comes at the wrong time? ...

Part "Brady Bunch" and part "The Scarlet Letter," their story has played out as fodder for neighborhood gossip. But from their perspective, the drama was as unlikely as it was unstoppable.

They both noticed each other and were intrigued at first sight. They became friends, taking vacations, having dinners and going to Christmas parties with their whole families. What could go wrong when two people who are attracted to each other enmesh their lives in this way? From the perspective of the newlyweds, they did everything on the up and up. She longed to see him and missed him when he wasn't around but she didn't admit these feelings because they would be disloyal. The piece goes on to explain how well they got along but they didn't actually knock boots until they separated from their spouses. Mr. Partilla invites her for a drink at a neighborhood bar to confess he's fallen in love with her:

As Mr. Partilla saw it, their options were either to act on their feelings and break up their marriages or to deny their feelings and live dishonestly. "Pain or more pain," was how he summarized it.

"The part that's hard for people to believe is we didn't have an affair," Ms. Riddell said. "I didn't want to sneak around and sleep with him on the side. I wanted to get up in the morning and read the paper with him."

With that goal in mind, they told their spouses. "I did a terrible thing as honorably as I could," said Mr. Partilla, who moved out of his home, reluctantly leaving his three children. But he returned only days later. Then he boomeranged back and forth for six months.

At this point, you're probably wondering why two people who did this to their children and the spouses they vowed never to leave would be publishing their story in the New York Times. You're not alone.

Now, a lot of people have criticized the reporter for this piece. Is it indecent to be party to the further humiliation and pain of the wronged spouses? Apparently this isn't the first time Vows has embraced this type of story. New York Magazine chronicled the growing trend (warning: salty language) last year ("Gross: People Who Reveal in the 'Vows' Column How They Cheated on Their Previous Spouse") and had some questions:

Do the people who tell these stories really realize this stuff is going to end up in the Times, really? Do they worry that it's going to ruin their wedding announcement by making them sound awful? And what do the exes think? What's their version of events? Frankly, we think they should be called for comment. It's not really fair to them to not. Why shouldn't the reporting in "Vows" be as rigorous as it is elsewhere in the paper? So, yeah. Get on that, Clark Hoyt.

Over at Politics Daily a correspondent asks if there was a newsroom debate at the Times "about the pain such a big story might inflict on the children and the aggrieved exes?" Was there any "attempt to contact the unnamed first spouses?" Before I realized that The Times was doing this regularly, I thought it was a very tricky way of making two homewreckers seem awful. Apparently not. The paper put out a statement in response to some of the criticism for running the story:

"The Vows feature gives a close-in account of a wedding every week . . . We don't attempt to pass judgment on the suitability of the match, the narrative of the romance, the quality of the ceremony or the flavor of the wedding cake.

Still, the story of people throwing away their vows to change spouses on the basis of a feelings change is, sadly, a common story. I think many people agree that it should be told. Whether it should be told in a celebratory column of prime media real estate is another question altogether. One of the criticisms above was that the betrayed parties should have been contacted. I thought the reporter's lack of quotes from the wronged parties actually made their presence felt more. (The subtle emphasis on the power of "feelings" over vows was a nice twist, too.) Still, Politics Daily and Forbes spoke with the wronged husband and he termed the piece "revisionist history" and thought the paper should not have run it on account of the children. (Here's the wedding announcement the Times ran when he married his former wife.) The newlywed groom, for his part, says he wouldn't have set himself up as half of the nuptial couple of the week if he'd known it would have caused so much angst. (Here's his first wedding announcement in the Times.)

One of the other interesting media questions surrounding this controversy is why the Times opened up comments to this particular story. Here are the first three:

1. wow......this one deserves a follow up in 5 years

2. How sad. I do not know this couple, and I'm sure that they are excited about their love for each other and their future together. But in this case, where others were so hurt, perhaps a New York Times feature was not the most graceful choice.

3. Why does the Times glorify home-wrecking? Is it a sign of our times that personal responsibility to one's spouse and children takes a back seat to selfish, self-centered love.

There are hundreds upon hundreds of such comments, some of them heartbreaking and full of discussions on morality and virtue.

To be honest, I'm surprised by the outrage. I think it also took the Times by surprise. If personal happiness is the most important thing in marriage -- the underlying principle that seems to be the basis of much media coverage of the topic these days -- what's the problem?

There is so much to be said about marriage today. There are the two recent studies showing how the institution is suffering in America. Media sites are spending much more time discussing baby boomer concerns. The Huffington Post has its new divorce section and the New York Times regularly features topics such as "Why Remarry?"

But as for this story, should they have published it? Should they have published it without quoting the other parties? Did celebrating this marriage cross the line? And what can the reaction to this story tell us about what the media are missing in general marriage coverage?

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