If I go there will be trouble
An' if I stay it will be double
A woman I know claims to have had three marriages—all with the same man. There is the marriage when they were young, combative, volatile, restless, when her husband was climbing, building, stretching, his energy threatening to consume her. That was the marriage into which their children were born. Then there’s the second marriage in which their children were raised. It was the time in which she learned to draw boundaries, to claim the mother ground within her and to stand fast. To let him be what he is and learn to live with his very nature, and to find her own life. Now, there’s a third marriage—they’re older, the children raised and lovely; her husband’s inexhaustible supply of energy seems to have settled to a steady flow; he’s divesting himself of his companies, talking retirement, and she’s talking about it in some beautiful, foreign shore, like Majorca, or Monterey Bay, or Rio de Janeiro—if only her dogs didn’t have to go into quarantine for six months. We’ve always believed they’ve loved each other; now, they seem to actually like each other.
In the novel Divining Women, Kaye Gibbons presents the dilemma of two people who enter marriage with assumptions they thought were so perfectly clear, they never needed discussing. But, when the husband takes his young wife to India for an extended honeymoon because the husband “wanted to see what they thought mattered in Calcutta,” the marriage is doomed. In Calcutta, the husband discovers that what matters in Calcutta is “not whether the fricassee was prepared right.” He remembers, “so many things made an impress on me. Manners meant dignity and not causing another person pain. But I was certainly causing my new wife pain. Poor thing, she hated it, and hated me for taking her. I was leaving her asleep in the mornings and walking out to the river and weeping. I wished I’d found out everything I did before I married her, but we all learn what we need at the right time, when we can bear the news. If she and I had been able to let one another be, things would have worked out differently.
The wife, however, cannot forgive him for being who he is. She “was determined to make him pay for, as she described it, one day marrying her in high Episcopal style, with the promise of including her in the exquisite Washington society he had always known, and then announcing right after ‘that strange honeymoon trip to India, of all places,’ that he was now ready to explore some nontraditional interests he had been hoarding. . . . She was angry that he could not simply be satisfied with the vision of the two of them floating forever on a river of inherited family money. By her lights, he could work in the mornings, managing investments, have lunch at a club, and then come home and tell her how handsome she looked in her new clothes. She had everything sorted out.”
The young husband tried to tell her, “he had not duped her or misled her.” But “she would not let herself understand that he was only searching for an identity beyond his family’s wealth and position. He could not make her see that he would be a happier man if he could satisfy his vivid curiosity and that they were both blessed that he had the means to do it while keeping her beautifully clothes and shod.” He tried to explain “a hundred times in a hundred ways that they could each do everything they wanted to do, individually and together, that he had realized how unfair it was for one of them to wither while the other thrived.”
I’m of the mind that when we marry, we marry a creation, fired mostly by the hopes and dreams which started long before we ever stopped at that library table on the fifth floor of the Harold B. Lee. Then, as the husband in Diving Women said, we learn things about them and they learn things about us, “when we can bear the news.”
My question is, “What does it mean to ‘bear the news?’”
I’ve often thought that I agreed to be married to Kevin more than once. The first time, I did it publicly, kneeling across an altar, and promising to give myself to him and create a union with him. The other times were just between me and myself. Those moments when, looking at the situation, you agree again, in your heart and mind, to be married this new particular way. You know, when you see that, no matter what you thought and hoped and dreamed, he will never sing you to while he plays the guitar and the two of you stare into the flames of a campfire he has started himself. I remember one night when we had been married about eight months (which means I was about seven months and three weeks and five days pregnant), we were awakened to footsteps on our roof. I nudged Kevin, and said, “Go out there. See who it is.” He replied, without hesitation, “You go out there. I don’t want to go out there.” Moments like that, when the heart of a lion you always imagined shows itself to be, in this particular situation, the heart of a lion cub. That’s when you think to yourself, “Hhmmm . . . That’s how it’s going to be.” The corollary is one of two possible responses. Either, “I suppose I will agree to live with that.” Or, “That I cannot do.”
The incident on the roof is small compared to finding out your wife is cheating on you, or your husband has a longstanding addiction to pornography that he cannot, and seemingly does not, want to break. But I think the question one faces is the same: “What do I do now?” I know there are some people who have said, only half in jest, “If you cheat on me, I’m cutting it off.” But, I’m not so sure the next action in a marriage when you run up against the line you’ve drawn is a given. You don’t have to stay—as you might feel pressured into by your faith. You don’t have to leave—as you might feel advocated by your parents and close friends. You can choose to leave or you can choose to stay. Either choice is a valid choice. Perhaps not the choice that would be made by your husband, or was made by your mother who encountered something similar, or that is advocated by your local minister who, in a spirit of full disclosure, is mandated to advocate for the preservation of the marriage and the family. But either choice is a valid choice. Neither one is an easy choice or the end to all your troubles. Both choices have work attached to them.
Here’s what I would think about if I were at what I thought was a marital crossroads:
1) I take me with me.
I do know that if I left Kevin today, I would take with me my insecurities; my almost pathological need to eliminate all financial risk; my weird wiring when it comes to intimacy and sexual fulfillment and its direct correlation to the size of my stomach; my shoe fetish; my seeming inability to pack away laundry and throw away old issues of Sunset magazine because I might need to know the location of the west’s most beautiful secret campsites which have now been revealed to 235,000 readers and which, if I’m married to Kevin, I’ll never need anyway; my longing to be somewhere else other than where I am that rears its ugly head every few months; and my inarticulate love for him in the face of his actually requesting to be told by me that I love him. I’ll take all of me with me. And, when or if I start again with somebody else, it will be with me still. That’s the news of me. So, even if Kevin did go out and hire the entire Laker Girls team, I’d still be taking me with me if I left. (Just to put the record straight, in our marriage, it is far more likely that it would be me hiring Michael Flatley and his flock of Riverdancers.) And this man, flawed as we both are, loves me and the junk in my trunk.
2) The news is not altogether unexpected, and cuts right into the heart of our own frailties.
As much as we try to pretend we are shocked at what our spouse has done, the news is, more often than not, not altogether surprising. Their acts seem to be attached by a nylon cord right to the very center of our own frailty. Their act/tendency is what we have seen and refused to name because by naming it, we have to acknowledge that there is this thing about our spouse that really makes us feel nervous, unloved, unwanted, threatened, or even fearful. I have found that there are certain qualities in Kevin that I am attracted to, which, in their unadulterated, pure state also happen to unnerve me. I’ve come to understand that, in some strange cosmic algorithm, we choose partners whose strengths cut into our weaknesses, and who will force us, just by being who they are, to move out of our comfort into new and better ways of being—if we so choose.
3) Most acts don’t have automatic consequences, especially not the ones we want to be affixed.
There’s a legal concept called strict liability. It means that once the act is done, the punishment is affixed. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t mean to do the act or you didn’t know the act was a crime. If you do it, you’re guilty. For example, speeding is a strict liability crime. It doesn’t matter if you thought the speed limit was 85, and so kept it at 84. All the police officer needs to do to prove you guilty of speeding in a 65 mile per hour zone is clock you going over 65.
Adultery doesn’t work that way. Being the wife of an adulterer does not mean you get out of the marriage free. Nor does being the husband of a shoplifter or a manic depressive. There aren’t many strict liability crimes in the gospel law reporters. Nor have I found a gospel sentencing guideline that mandates that some acts are just so much worse than others. What makes a seeming inability to turn away from pornography more abhorrent than a woman who refuses to give herself willingly and joyfully to her husband, choosing instead to lie in the bed made for her by some abusive male in her past. Tell me why an inability to stop spending on credit cards to fill the emptiness inside is less troubling than the man who is still playing Modern Warfare 3 at the age of 37. The impact on the other spouse is equally as painful in each circumstance. However, when it comes to sexual improprieties, our community seems to think that the particular piece of news of infidelity is an instant get out of jail free card.
If, in the face of our spouse’s infidelity or unceasing bad moods and inability to love and appreciate us or our long-standing unhappiness, we choose to leave a marriage, the choice is actually ours. That’s an important distinction to make. Their act might have driven you to ask the question, “What do I do now?” The answer to the question is not an automatic “This marriage is over.”
4) The invitation to become “even as I am” is never more meaningfully issued than in a marriage between two equally flawed partners.
At times, it would appear that the choice before you is completely clear. It’s those times when your stomach’s heaving, and your mind recoils at what has been done. At this moment (and in those other moments where the rage will rear its head and infect your present), you want to rip his head from his shoulders, kick it down the stairs, and then stop to bandage the wound. At this particular moment, the need to inflict equal pain to the pain you feel is probably the overwhelming urge, followed by waves of an almost self-pitying, “How could I let this happen to me? How could I have been so blind? I’ll never be able to trust him again. ” Even in this moment, when face to face with your partner’s frailty, that has, it seems, ripped through the heart of you, one very real option is to stay and to learn, with this person, what it means to be married “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for time and eternity”.
In reality, ninety-nine percent of what the human mind can conceive of doing is forgiveable, and the doer redeemable. Even by us. Christ forgave the adulterer a.k.a the cheating spouse—real or virtual. He embraced the unbeliever, a.k.a. the non-church attending spouse or the one who left the fold even when she promised she wouldn’t. He welcomed the thief a.k.a the spouse who takes what is not his; and forgave the betrayer and his accusers, a.k.a. the spouse who puts other interests before his/her family and the spouse who believes every false rumor and innuendo. Christ forgives them all. He does not refuse them membership in his church, or entrance into his temple. He allows their lives to go on, and continues to bless them in accordance with their efforts and best intentions. The quality of His mercy, like Portia describes, “is not strain'd/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath.”
This concept of Christ’s mercy is what I would think long and hard about the most. Because, long after Christ and my spouse have worked their issues out, I might be standing, with my arm raised, waiting to be called on to offer my opinion as to the injustice of it all and the appropriate punishment. I would be waiting for the pound of flesh that is never taken. And I would have missed completely the invitation to become even as He is.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, tired of being persecuted for being a Jew by the Christian merchant Antonio, writes a contract the breach of which allows him to take a pound of flesh from Antonio. Salerio, his friend, asks Shylock why he would write such a contract. What would he do with a pound of flesh? Shylock replies: “To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.” I suspect there’s many a good woman who stands with her broken marriage contract in hand waiting for God to take his pound (two would be better) of flesh out of the man who broke her heart and broke up their family. And she keeps on waiting. God, it seems, allows the man to go forward with little or no apparent consequence for his actions. It’s rather a conundrum to find oneself in: watching as a man who promised to love you and honor you and be faithful to you breaks his promise, then gets only what appears to be a disciplinary slap on the wrist, while you are left with the kids, and he remarries—in the temple! Hardly seems fair; his probation doesn’t seem equal to the pain he caused you. Yet, on he goes, while you stand helpless to stop his progress and unable to gain fitting revenge.
The conclusion to Portia’s speech on mercy is particularly poignant here: Mercy “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
I suppose what I am trying to say is that at the moment where we see clearly the particular news of our marriage, there is a very real opportunity to step forward into a new space, to stay and work through this with the one person to whom we have bound ourselves in a union larger than our present, individual feelings and needs. I don’t believe that extending mercy means we have stay. It’s not mandatory. But there is always contained within the act of one who hurts us, an invitation to forgive. When it’s our spouse, the invitation to forgive includes an invitation to stay. And, if we do, I sense that there could result from that decision a kind of union that many of us perhaps never reach. Imagine the relationship that is forged between those who chose to remain married, and honestly work through each other. Imagine the intimacy, the depth of feeling. It could be, I think, a sweet, deep and powerful life together.
Title: “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” by The Clash.