The great heresy of our time: sex isn't everything

Knee-jerk moralists have been floored by Hillary's refreshingly open approach to the weak, straying male
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It is a scary moment when a writer approaches the big, climactic scene in a narrative. It looms ahead, like a tricky combination of fences at the end of a tough show-jumping course: meet it wrong, too fast, too slow, too tense, too relaxed, and all the other lesser obstacles which have been cleared count for nothing.

So Hillary Clinton and her ghostwriter must have been nervous when the key, pivotal episode in her $8m memoirs Living History approached. It was time for Bill's big confession scene.

How to play it? A tone of cool, gimlet-eyed rage would imply - confirm for many - that Hillary was an icy, de-sexed career politician with a calculator where there should be a heart. Blank-eyed, knee-buckling despair was hardly the thing either: future presidents must never appear weepy or weak, whatever the circumstances. The temptation to record the scene as it actually happened was an obvious non-starter. Marital confessions are riddled with cliché, testaments to the inadequacy of language. He would have used words like "needy", "lonely", "meaningless", "physical release" while her response will have made reference to "squalid", "irresponsible", "lard-ass kid", "pathetic little blow-jobs", and "mid-life crisis".

So, faced with the literary challenge, the Hillary Clinton writing team came up with a mélange - a bit of anger, some pain, but dignity and even a bit of wit. "I could hardly breathe. Gulping for air, I started crying and yelling at him. 'What do you mean? What are you saying? Why did you lie to me?' I was furious and getting more so by the second. He just stood there, saying over and over again, 'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I was trying to protect you and Chelsea.'"

It will hardly go down as one of the great scenes of marital conflict. Strindberg and Edward Albee can rest easy. But the truly interesting part of the First Lady's story was never going to be that moment of crisis so much as what happened next. "As a wife I wanted to wring Bill's neck," she now writes. But "over time we began to relax." In the end, deciding to stay married was among "the most difficult decisions of my life."

But the Clintons did stay married, and Hillary has joined the growing number of strong, dignified women in public life who have dared to articulate one of the great heresies of our time. They have said, openly and unashamedly, that sex is not everything.

It has become fashionable among know-all commentators to describe the Clinton marriage as "odd". Journalists (whose lives are, of course, models of quiet rectitude) have liked to portray the relationship as cold and functional, the triumph of mutually held public ambition over private feeling.

The truth, more complicated and interesting, is that every long-term marriage is odd in its way. As the years go by, people discover that their partner is weak in certain areas, that there are sides to his or her personality that they do not understand, or understand all too well.

The three famous women have recently admitted a degree of tolerance towards their husband's or partner's misbehaviour are utterly unlike one another in every other way. After Jeffrey Archer's brief and scruffy liaison with Monica Coughlan, Mary Archer pointed out that sexual infidelity was not the most serious thing that could go wrong in a marriage.

This week Nancy Dell'Olio, the glamorous long-term girlfriend of Sven-Goran Eriksson, took a similarly sensible line, but gave it a more romantic and poetic spin. "Infidelity of the soul is much worse than physical infidelity," she said, referring to her partner's brief bunk-up with the queen of kiss-and-tell, Ulrika Jonsson. "Men don't need to have an emotional relationship to have an affair."

The knee-jerk moralists of the press have been floored by this refreshingly open approach towards the weak, straying male. In a prurient and perversely puritanical culture, we have been taught to believe that sex matters more than anything else, that unfaithfulness is a cluster bomb that will destroy every area of a relationship.

This distinctly odd team, Hillary, Mary and Nancy, have contradicted these crass preconceptions by pointing out what millions of less publicly exposed couples have discovered for themselves. Marriage is complicated. It is a marathon, not a sprint. Lust can make fools of us all. People make mistakes.

None of the three women is presenting herself as a doormat nor is seedily complicit in some kind of cynical arrangement, giving her man carte blanche to play away from home in the future.

They are simply behaving like grown-ups. The question now is: would Bill, Jeffrey, Sven or any other husband be as adult and mature if betrayal were to happen the other way around?