News that Mike Pence avoids dining alone with other women or going anywhere with booze without his wife, Karen, in order to “build a zone around his marriage” — a nugget dug up from a 2002 interview and then recirculated in a recent profile of Pence’s wife — has hit the internet with the impact of a meteor. Sure, they’re conservative evangelical Christian jerks whose feet should be held to the fire for their anti-gay, anti-woman nuttiness, but how crazy is it to implement some kind of guidelines to dodge temptation in romantic relationships? Most couples probably do, even if it’s they’re unspoken or just a lot more laid-back.
The internet didn’t see news of Pence’s arrangement that way, with lots of hilarious, snarky tweets about it:
To be clear, criticism of Mike Pence in any form, but especially on this note, is valid and worthy. What about doing his job as vice president and occasionally dining with women who are politicians, aides and world leaders? And of course the rule smacks of a retrograde notion that women are harlots and temptresses who must be avoided.
News that the whole idea is actually called “The Graham Rule,” named after evangelical Billy Graham, did not help engender support. Pence’s lady-and-booze-avoiding strategy is drawn from a set of rules Graham devised in the late 1940s in Modesto, California, to help other traveling pastors not fall into sin while away from their families. “We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion,” evangelical blog The Gospel Coalition reports on the guidelines. “From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.”
Okay, but hold up. While everything about Pence’s relationship — he calls his wife “mother” after all — seems backward and sexist, lots of civilian couples have some kind of understanding about what they do or don’t do so as not to find themselves in a situation that would undermine the premise of their avowed fidelity. Broadly speaking, most people probably try to trust their partner to handle themselves when they’re out on the town or world alone, but under that umbrella, people either individually set their own limits or come to an understanding of them together.
Maybe that means you keep in touch with a spouse or partner when you’re out alone at a party. Maybe it means you’d only put yourself in situations you could comfortably tell your mother about. Maybe it means you’d only do anything you could tell your spouse about truthfully. Maybe it means stopping after three drinks because you know drunk-you is dumb as shit.
Last year, Slate, a decidedly liberal site not pushing any Christian agenda, ran a piece about how married couples navigate being alone with other people’s spouses. These situations arise on playdates with other children, or because of work situations where married people find themselves alone with members of their preferred sex — single or attached — and have to navigate a few boundaries. Some men, the story notes, feel weird about their wives even being alone with a cable repairman. Others might not be cool with a spouse going alone to a single colleague’s house to wrap up a work project. God wasn’t involved in any of the angst here, but the notion of simply not putting someone you care about in too much turmoil while you spend time with someone they might not be too jazzed about was a recurring theme. Ben Mathis-Lilley writes:
What if your life partner and an acquaintance, sports fans both, watched the Big Game by themselves? What if an attractive area parent brought his or her kid over for a play date while you were at work? What if you were out of town for the weekend and your spouse and a single friend went to see the buzzy movie du jour?
He polled friends and colleagues to get a feel for what the reactions might be to such perceived threats. “Several said they’d be uncomfortable if their spouse or partner engaged in certain interactions without them and/or felt their spouses might not be happy with them if they did the same,” he wrote.
The reasons were myriad, ranging from low-simmering jealousy, fear of infidelity or just annoyance that a spouse was having fun without them. Most of them admitted that they would be far less worried if the stranger or acquaintance was not that good-looking. No one copped to implementing a strict rule about avoiding temptation. And the piece didn’t get into any hard-and-fast rules for how couples navigate these situations; many even said they would probably just pretend they were fine with it and just stew alone or vent to someone else about it later.
But it’s not as if — as many responses to the Pence news suggest — that everyone else is so evolved that such situations never raise hackles. Most of us probably don’t outright forbid our partners to go to places that make them uneasy. But that doesn’t mean we’re all diving, drunk and naked, into hot tubs full of hot single people because we are beyond temptation. In other words, there are plenty of understandings going on designed specifically to avoid the appearance of impropriety or otherwise needlessly stir up jealousy or suspicion for our partners. You don’t have to be a conservative evangelical weirdo to need one. Theoretically, if you’re in a trusting relationship, you could sit in a room masturbating surrounded by hot singles and never cross a line, but we’re also humans, flesh and blood.
And there’s another angle here: Women, specifically, often navigate so-called friendly or professional situations with men that veer into something more — it’s likely every woman you ask has a story of a man whose allegedly totally platonic or professional friendship was not that platonic at all. He was waiting for her to be single, harboring feelings all along, or he pushed or wholly violated the boundaries of a professional relationship. That being true, most women still venture forth because career opportunities hang in the balance. That doesn’t mean we don’t deal with a lot of shit along the way.
That’s certainly not to say that married men are supposed to do what Pence and Matt Walsh do and avoid those friendships outright — most of us prefer trust to leashes. And no one is suggesting that When Harry Met Sally is right that men and women can never be friends because sex. They can be; they are. But even guides online for maintaining opposite-sex friendships that have no Christian agenda still suggest treading carefully, because while “being friends with the opposite sex isn’t impossible,” Madame Noire writes, “just because of pure human nature, there are ingrained systems, thoughts, and impulses within that can make male-female friendships often confusing.”
People are people, cases are individual, and we are not always living in a world of perfect trust and purity where men and women grabbing dinner is invariably innocuous. Of course it usually is innocuous, and no one needs rules about never standing next to a woman or a bottle of beer without supervision. It’d be crazy to tell your girlfriend she could never dine with a single male colleague — but it’d be normal to check in with her at the end of the evening to ask how it went. You might ask where they ate and if she had a good time, and you might, in some roundabout way, fish for a little reassurance that it wasn’t a sex thing. That would not make you crazy — it would make you human.