But it doesn’t matter whether Beyoncé has been there personally. The more important part is that she’s making us — her listeners, her fans, and even those who haven’t and won’t experience “Lemonade” — talk and think about love, infidelity and marriage.
It’s impossible to watch “Lemonade” and not feel, just a little bit, as if you, too, have been betrayed by your one big, true love. (Even if you’ve never fallen in that deep — the album is that immersive and effective.) It’s impossible to watch Clinton on the campaign trail and not think: Why is she still with him? Can’t she see he’s doing more harm than good?
And it’s just as impossible to imagine Hill without Bill. In Clinton’s 2004 memoir “Living History,” she writes that “the most difficult decisions I have made in my life were to stay married to Bill and to run for the Senate from New York.”
Perhaps running for president belongs on an updated version of that list, too. But, from her telling, she didn’t stay in the marriage passively. “I knew I wanted our marriage to last if it could, because I loved Bill and I realized how much I cherished the years we had spent together,” she writes of how she felt in 1999, after the impeachment hearings and before beginning her Senate campaign. “I had no doubt that I could construct a satisfying life by myself and make a good living” — two truths that Bey acknowledges throughout “Lemonade” as well — “but I hoped Bill and I could grow old together.”
Clinton and Beyoncé make the voter and the viewer realize: No amount of glass-ceiling-cracking or record-sales-shattering guarantees you a true love that’s truthful. No amount of fame or accomplishment guards against getting your heart broken. If it could happen to a first lady (or a future president), if it could happen to Queen Bey, it could most definitely happen to you. No matter how hard you work, by the way. Grinding from Monday to Friday, from Friday to Sunday for money, power or love, that last one is the hardest to predict, control or keep.
Those systems are rigged against you: You’ll be paid less than men; judged by higher standards; if you’re a person of color, you and your children are more susceptible to harm. But don’t let any of that keep you down. Both Clinton and Beyoncé embody those dichotomies.
Infidelity is another aspect of American life when women get the raw end of the deal. The numbers vary. (Who can expect survey takers to be completely reliable when disclosing their own infidelity?) In her book “Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray,” biological anthropologist Helen Fisher cites studies finding that 20 to 40 percent of heterosexual American married men have had extramarital affairs, while 15 to 25 percent of women have cheated.
Whether infidelity is committed or not, its threat is ever-present. “In a series of recent studies,” Fisher notes, “50 percent of the participating Americans said that they had tried to ‘poach’ a member of another partnership; 80 percent had had someone try to seduce them away from their partnership, and 25 percent had lost a partner to someone who engaged in ‘mate poaching.’ ”
But what to do — stay, go, or laugh all the way up the music charts, to divorce court or to the Oval — is not clear-cut. If you watch the first half of “Lemonade,” and you’ll think the story is heading toward divorce, not reconciliation. But that turnabout is realistic, too: Infidelity is among the leading causes of divorce, but researchers have found that about half of couples who experience infidelity stay together. In the moments after Hillary Clinton learned the truth about her husband’s infidelity, she writes that she “didn’t know whether our marriage could — or should — survive such a stinging betrayal.”
At its strongest, a relationship is a tight cone of intimacy, two people bound together against the world. “Where do you turn when your best friend, the one who always helps you through hard times, is the one who wounded you?” Those are Hillary’s words, but “Lemonade” has versions of them, too.
Although I’ve never been married or deeply betrayed, I think this is part of what makes infidelity so difficult to handle: You and your lover have created this private world, thought to be inhabited by just the two of you. When that’s permeated by another person, you know that additional connection couldn’t be as good or as deep. “Hold up, they don’t love you like I love you,” as Bey puts it. “Slow down, they don’t love you like I love you.” And it could feel tempting — and empowering — to walk away.
As I watched “Lemonade,” I felt more convinced by Beyoncé’s angry, self-assured and “boy, bye” personas than by the happy resolution portrayed at the end. But I also thought about how it’s impossible to know what’s going on in anyone else’s marriage and difficult to fairly judge the choices people make within a relationship, reminders “Lemonade” makes in the album’s final sips.
When I interview couples, I look for outward signs of intimacy: a meeting of the eyes or a loving touch of the hand during a difficult moment, rituals they’ve created to make each other feel safe and cared for. But I can’t look to a quarterly earnings report to quantify their love; there are no inspectors general investigating the true leanings of a person’s heart. It’s impossible for me to know: Did she settle for him? Is he still in love with her?
Neither Clinton nor Beyoncé, from what we can see, have chosen marriage by default or stayed in it passively, even though they both seem to have struggled with its constraints. In a 2015 treatise, journalist Rebecca Traister deems Clinton’s devotion as retro: “Returning to [Bill’s] side may be a reflexive habit developed in the era in which Hillary was raised and less well suited to the one in which she wants to become president, but it’s one that she — and he — need to break.”
But it may also be modern. She and Beyoncé are both telling us that love is flawed, that no matter how much money, power or fame you have, none of that can make you invincible. You, too, could have your heart broken at any moment. And you may be even stronger for it.