In a weekly column titled “Vows,” the New York Times tells about newly-married couples and how they got together. Most of these are what I’d call “fluffy love stories”–your local newspaper may run articles like these.

On one level, the December 17, 2010 “Vows” column on Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla was typical of these articles. It spoke of their impressions when they met and how their feelings grew over time. It described their small wedding ceremony, in which “Ms. Riddell donned a Nicole Miller strapless gown …”

But there was one big difference, and it generated a storm of controversy. Riddell and Partilla were each married to someone else when they met.

This was a love story about two people who had to divorce their respective spouses so they could marry each other. The writer set the tone with the article’s opening sentence: “What happens when love comes at the wrong time?”

The two lovers met at a school function–their kids attended the same private school in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Quoting from the article:

… Ms. Riddell was surprised to find herself eagerly looking for Mr. Partilla at school events — and missing him when he wasn’t there. “I didn’t admit to anyone how I felt,” she said. “To even think about it was disruptive and disloyal.”

What she didn’t know was that he was experiencing similar emotions. “First I tried to deny it,” Mr. Partilla said. “Then I tried to ignore it.”

But it was hard to ignore their easy rapport. They got each other’s jokes and finished each other’s sentences. They shared a similar rhythm in the way they talked and moved. The very things one hopes to find in another person, but not when you’re married to someone else.

The story is told entirely from their perspective—their ex-spouses are not named. And it’s interesting to see the amount of rationalizing they’ve done to convince themselves they did the right thing. Following are five common rationalizations of couples who desert their spouses for each other, and how this particular couple fits them:

Rationalization #1: “We’re soul mates, and it would be wrong to ignore our feelings.” Partilla is quoted as declaring, “I didn’t believe in the word soul mate before, but now I do.” According to the couple, “their options were either to act on their feelings and break up their marriages or to deny their feelings and live dishonestly.” Or, as Partilla puts it, “‘Pain or more pain.'”

Rationalization #2: “We’re actually the victims here.” Riddell recalled crying out, “Why am I being punished? Why did someone throw him in my path when I can’t have him?”

Rationalization #3: “We know it will hurt our children, but they will come out all right.” As they went through the process of informing their spouses of their new love and then obtaining a divorce, Partilla would tell Riddell, “Remind me every day that the kids will be O.K.” She would say, “The kids are going to be great, and we’ll spend the rest of our lives making it so.”

Rationalization #4: “What we did took courage.” Riddell says she realized their relationship “wasn’t a punishment, it was a gift … But I had to earn it. Were we brave enough to hold hands and jump?”

Rationalization #5: “Yes, we feel bad about the pain we brought to our families. But life is messy, and we’re only human.” Explained Riddell, “My kids are going to look at me and know that I am flawed and not perfect, but also deeply in love. We’re going to have a big, noisy, rich life, with more love and more people in it.”

There was no shortage of criticism on the Internet after the story appeared. A number of people felt the Times was irresponsible for printing it. But most of the disapproval was directed at the newly-married couple. Many readers and bloggers asked why they would want their story to appear in a newspaper—didn’t they realize how much damage that could cause their families? One reader commented, “If the couple had a sense of decency and wished to truly respect the feelings of their ex-spouses, they would have denied themselves the pleasure of having their 15 minutes of fame in the New York Times.”

Other readers saw through the rationalizations and realized that the article was a portrait of two self-centered people who pursued their own desires regardless of how they would hurt others. “So you’re telling me, as long as I’m happy, who cares what happens to my legally wedded spouse and kids?” one wrote. “This story reeks of selfishness.”

Another commented:

As a sad divorcee after many years of marriage, I can only say that there is value to loyalty and vows for life. There will always be someone more attractive, more interesting, someone with more sparkle.

Marriage is about working to make a relationship have the depth and intimacy with your spouse to resist that fact. That is what you promise to do when you take those vows.

I couldn’t have said it better.

© 2011 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.