The surprising secret to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s marriage

Updated 8:23 AM EDT, Thu July 28, 2016
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Story highlights

Peggy Drexler: Bill Clinton's personal recounting of his life with Hillary Clinton spoke volumes about the modern marriage ideal

Drexler: The Clintons' tricky marriage appears to have lasted because of respect, love, coming together when it really matters

Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

Tuesday night, Bill Clinton took the stage at the Democratic National Convention to make the case for another Clinton: the former U.S. Secretary of State– and his former First Lady – Hillary Clinton, as the next President of the United States.

It was a politically historic speech – the first time a former commander-in-chief would speak on behalf of a life partner who herself had made history as the first female nominee of a major party.

Bill Clinton has always been a gifted orator and this address was no different; it was powerful, convincing and heartfelt. But it was more than just a speech to satisfy an agenda; far more than a means to a political end. Loving, respectful, proud, and very human, his speech spoke volumes not only about his wife, the candidate, but, more notably, about the modern marriage ideal.

There was firstly, and undeniably, love. Before millions of viewers, Bill Clinton spoke of the first time he saw Hillary. He described, in personal detail, the qualities about her that he believes make her a good candidate for President and how they are similar to the qualities that make her a good wife, mother, friend.

He spoke of why he respects her as a person, but also why he loves her as a partner. He spoke of their history. “Through joy and heartbreak…” he said, “we built up a lifetime of memories.” It was a speech that, at times, would not have seemed out of place at an anniversary dinner with family and friends in attendance.

And yet, of course, the Clintons’ very public marriage has not been a universally smooth one. It has endured career ambition, extramarital affairs, numerous relocations, children, grandchildren. It has most certainly been tested, both publicly and privately. It is not perfect.

But few – and even “few” may be generous – marriages are. While the cynical might look at the Clintons’ marriage as one that turns on political gain, one in which each has garnered power from the other, isn’t that the whole point of marriage? To boost one another? To support the other despite his or her flaws, or perhaps because of them?

The fact is that the Clintons’ marriage has survived, perhaps even thrived, to become a very real and modern testament to the marriage bond. There is sacrifice, but there is also a notable lack of sacrifice. Hillary supported Bill for many years, but not while abandoning her dreams entirely. He either didn’t ask, or she didn’t comply. Either way, they made it work, through challenges and successes.

Now, some 40 years in, the Clintons’ marriage has emerged to serve as an example: partnership can take many forms, and sacrifice, while important, needn’t be absolute.

And it’s just not a marriage for show – gifted orator or not, last night’s speech proved that. When Bill Clinton talked about his wife, he did so from the privilege of really knowing her and it’s clear they do far more than simply put up with one another. It’s said, too, that Bill is one of Hillary’s most trusted advisers; a recent golf outing of his included several calls and emails from her by the time he reached the 14th hole. This is trust. This is family.

It’s easy to judge others’ relationships, especially at a time in our social history when many couples are quick to call it quits.

This is not to say that all marriages should endure, even through the sorts of hurtful times the Clintons experienced. But it is to say that all marriages tell multiple stories, and that, in the end, the marriages that last are the ones that can count on mutual support, respect, love, and coming together when it really matters.

Marriage, like many jobs, is tough work. If Hillary works as hard at running the country as she and her husband have at maintaining their family unit – and there’s every reason to believe she will – there’s reason to believe the United States will be in very capable hands.