It’s hard loving a married man. One who is far away, with a life structured by family and history and expectation, who dreams of freedom but needs the chains.

It’s hard being that needed chain, the wife, icon of the known world, blameless victim whose sympathizers nevertheless cannot help daubing with the colors of failure. Poor thing…

It’s not supposed to be hard being the married man with the lover and the wife and the life. That’s the life!–until he gets caught. Then the slurs come swiftly, predictably: narcissist, cheater, hypocrite, pig.

In the latest political sex scandal, which isn’t a scandal at all but a circumstance as old and common as time, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, Jenny Sanford and María Belén Chapur have provided an edifying example of pain as a condition of life, love as both a drowning pool and sustaining spring, adultery as the monogamy system’s disowned twin. And all that liberals can talk about is what a fraud he is. No sooner had Sanford made his forced confession than the knees of the righteous, in this case Rachel Maddow, Maureen Dowd and legions of Democratic water-carriers-cum-bloggers, snapped in unison. “Hypocrite!” they didn’t quite thunder. Christians thunder; liberals sneer, but it amounts to the same thing, counting sins.

They got quite a lot wrong. In South Carolina politics, Sanford has never been known as a “Bible thumper,” and he recently irritated those who are by not signing a bill that would have welded I Believe to the state license plate. He wasn’t elected governor in 2002 pushing family values; he ran as a vague libertarian and was elected because a lot of Democrats, blacks especially, abandoned the odious incumbent, Jim Hodges, who got into office powered by black votes and then engineered an immense transfer of wealth from the poor and black to the better-off and white via his education lottery. Sanford didn’t “lead the charge” against Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair; he said Clinton had lied (he had) and, like a dutiful low-level Representative in a party of discipline, voted for impeachment (along with five Democrats). He is no more of a right-wing, hate-filled moralist than most anyone in the party of Barack and Bill, the party of “don’t ask, don’t tell”; the Defense of Marriage Act; and Personal Responsibility in the form of lectures to teenagers, lectures to poor single mothers, lectures to black men on Father’s Day and laws that make life harder for them all. He could not “embarrass” the State of South Carolina, itself an embarrassment since slave times, enabled quite effectively in that condition over the years by politicians regardless of party.

None of this says much for Sanford, but it says a lot worse for his liberal scolds. They profess to be cosmopolitan, above the mumbo jumbo of religion, vanguardists for self-determination–to know better, in other words, all the while arguing the case for compulsory monogamy and just punishment for sexual sin more vigorously than the religionists they laugh at. “The travel partners of infidelity are shame, deception, embarrassment, hurt and heartache–ugly, negative, soul-diminishing feelings,” intoned Mark Lett, executive editor of The State, in explaining why it was so vital for South Carolina’s main newspaper to publish private communications between the governor and his lover. “There is no joy among responsible journalists in telling stories about infidelity and its seat mate, personal failure.”

Of course, there is terrific joy among journalists. Nothing sells papers like a good sex scandal. But it isn’t just business or just the general degradation of the political culture that has encouraged almost everyone in public life to seat themselves in moral judgment. It is also the resistance, forty years after Woodstock and Stonewall, forty-plus after the Summer of Love and the long debates on liberation and desire, to look love and marriage plainly in the face as the often embarrassing, sometimes tragic, messy, reckless, ecstatic, devastating, humdrum human endeavors that they are.

It is as if so many years of self-help, so many versions of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, so many couples counselors and Oprah shows and feminist promises of pleasure, so many exhortations from the Dr. Phils of the world that Yes, you too can be happy; you just have to want it, have rendered many people stupid, believing in uncomplicated happily-ever-afters, if only one works hard enough at it.

Into this multiply-reinforced delusion, the Sanford affair has arrived as a clarifying wind. Like most men, the governor didn’t think the years of correspondence with Chapur, the regular exchange of views and observations, the small change of life passing between them, meant anything. Who knows what had become of conversation between himself and Jenny, bounded by concerns for the children and the property, politics and the next campaign? And who knows that his pen pal didn’t actually help the marriage work for a time, like a release valve, allowing the homely business to prosper. He and Jenny always seemed so happy, people have said. Maybe they were. Maybe Maria had a part in that. If Jenny had had a boyfriend at arm’s length, maybe it would still be working.

As the governor tapped the innocent e-mails, the ones before he “crossed the ultimate line,” he probably believed distance was a prophylactic. But it was a leaky one, because by the time he and Chapur consummated their affair, they were longtime intimates, “the heart,” as he said, making its insistent claims, and all that was left was to negotiate the terms of surrender or renunciation.

Clearly Sanford thought those were the only options, as once returned to South Carolina in the summer of 2008 he mounted his heavy equipment and went about digging holes on his plantation in a frenzy of frustration. On the one hand there was love, on the other the life; maybe he needed both and could imagine no way to reconcile the two. Now Sanford’s friend and spiritual adviser Cubby Culbertson says that the Sanfords are no longer linked by feelings, that they persist in their marriage “out of obedience instead of out of passion.” It is easy enough to scoff at that, easy enough to say one or the other should walk away, and maybe they should. But what is compelling about this story is its familiarity. People are foolish sometimes, or wiser than they know; sometimes they’re trapped, or fearful, usually both. People who should walk away never do, and sometimes it’s not so simple to say their reasons are baseless. Only a misanthrope would damn them with irony and condescension.

It would be nice to say that there is some political solution for all the Jennies and Marks and Marias, some variant on self-help in the form of open marriage, polyamory and the like. Some answer. Some sexual accommodation that vanquishes the possibility of pain. And there is, sometimes. But not always. Sometimes sex does change everything.