October 16, 2014 by rebelwithalabelmaker
In my Church world, the incoming President of a seminary that trains a lot of Unitarian ministers has let the community know that he had an affair a while back. This has raised all kinds of debate, questions, and feelings. And decisions – how do we respond to this kind of news from a clergyman? I will let wiser minds than mine talk about how we should respond to the pain in this recent history…..because I am most concerned with the pain that might happen in the immediate future. Or not. Depending on what happens next.
Here is the thing. Every time I hear about a story like this, I think “There but by grace go I.” Not God’s grace so specifically, but grace in the sense of receiving that which I do not deserve and can never repay. There but by a good chunk of luck go I as well, I might add. And my own hard work. And Gary’s.
I bring this up because as this conversation picks up steam, I read it with the eyes of me seventeen years ago, wrestling with the idea of marrying Gary and thinking “Oi. One person for the rest of my life? I am a pretty flighty person. How exactly is this going to work? Am I strong enough to keep these vows? What is it like? How hard will it be? How do I do it right?”
I am a good person, and I adore my husband. Even so, I wasn’t sure I was equal to this task. I was afraid, and rightly so. I was looking for tools, and wisely so. And what I found was a culture that spoke about infidelity solely in terms of sex (and sometimes love) or lack thereof, of blame and guilt and if we are lucky restitution and forgiveness. What I found was a culture that was aware of an epidemic of broken promises and betrayal and treated each one as though it was the failing of an individual. And I was wise enough to know that if this many good people were not up to the task, I was going to need more than some crap about love being all you need. I was going to need TOOLS.
If we care about these stories, if we truly see pain and harm caused by this pattern, and we want to prevent it, we will not frame this conversation solely in terms of what this guy did wrong (not that there isn’t a place for this conversation, but that place sure isn’t my blog). We will ask what better support and context we can provide people as a community to support them in building relationships that are loving, sustainable, honest, and rewarding. We will talk real stories and real life.
Because this matters WAY too much to waste time getting judgemental when we could be getting creative and wise.
You get where this is going.
Me: I don’t know how to start telling our fidelity story.
Gary: Let’s start with Scripture. I will pull up the Oxford English Dictionary.
Me: Ha ha. Anyways, everybody knows that fidelity means not cheating.
Gary (googling): Nope, that’s what it doesn’t mean.
Me: There’s no other way to define fidelity, really, because—
Fidelity, definition: “Faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support”.
Gary: Yep. You should write about that.
So, this is our fidelity story.
I am a flighty person. I love new things, and I tend to obsess. There are constants in my life, of course, but they are like a canvass over top of which I have various passions –hobbies, friends, ideas, and…
I also get crushes. Not that often, but every now and then I become infatuated (sometimes romantically, sometimes platonically) with another person. I always worried that this would make me the cheating type. When Gary and I got married, somewhere in the back of my mind there was this idea that this would be my Achilles’ heel.
I had the story all laid out in my head. I’d meet some guy, and the attraction would build. And I’d be determined to squish these feelings, but they wouldn’t go away. I’d hide it, to keep from hurting Gary. I’d feel alone. My willpower would crumble… and one day… The Hollywood Nightmare.
And then the horrible painful awful conversation that would have to follow because I am a highly transparent person and hiding an affair is way beyond both my temperament and my logistical skills. I knew I could never lead a double life, so the end of the story in my mind was always this crushed betrayed expression on Gary’s face.
To be clear, the story in my mind was disproportionate in comparison to the story in my life. The vast vast majority of the time, my obsessions are for things like Lego or trapeze or learning how to rap. I don’t usually even notice men particularly. But I lived in fear of those few times when I do, because nobody tells stories about how so-and-so had a great marriage until his wife collected one too many knitting patterns.
The first significant crush happened on a holiday, a couple of years into our marriage. About the time I fell in love with trapeze, I also developed a significant crush on one of the trapeze artists. I was determined not to let this story play out the way it does in the movies. Committed to honesty, I did let Gary know how I felt, and reassured him that while I couldn’t control my feelings, I could and would control my actions. And then I protected him by keeping him as far away from what I was going through as humanly possible.
We fought. Gary felt like I was disappearing from him. He felt cut off. Confused. Alone. Unloved. Angry. Betrayed.
I was faithful, though. If you define faithful as not cheating. If you define it as “Faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support”… well, then… not so much. I was slowly fading away from him. My own sense of guilt and fear was so strong that there was no room in my mind for reaching out. For acting as a team.
Me: What right do you have to feel upset? I haven’t DONE ANYTHING!!! I’ve been perfect. I’ve controlled everything I can control, but how can you expect me to govern my feelings? What, do you want me to lie or hide how I feel?
This may be the single stupidest thing I’ve said in our entire marriage.
The “I can’t be expected to control my feelings” part is fine, but the “so you have no right to be upset” part is a bit of a double standard, don’t you think?
He wasn’t accusing me of anything, he was trying to share his experience. Trying to connect. To have me walk along beside him as he processed his feelings about what I was feeling. And I, out of my own fears, was turning it into a legalistic battle about whether I’d done anything “wrong”.
I saw the issue in terms of the Bad Things I had to avoid, rather than the Good Things I had to feed and nourish. I saw it in terms of proving I wasn’t one of the Bad Guys who was Unfaithful, which was about me and not about him. Or about the marriage.
If I could go back in time, I would walk up to old me right about the time I was yelling “But what do you expect me to DO???” and administer a sharp smack on the back of old me’s head and say “I expect you to sit down, shut up, look your husband in the eyes and listen to him while he is talking. That is what you do in this particular situation. Also, in most of the other situations you are having trouble with. In fact, try that first in any situation that seems more emotionally charged than ordering a pizza.”
And then I’d add “And, stop feeling so bad about yourself. It’s not helping. More importantly, you don’t deserve it. You’re giving this everything you’ve got, with the tools you’ve been given. You’re a good wife, and he’s a good husband. You’ve got honesty, you’ve got love. Keep applying them liberally, and you’ll get this. Hang in there.”
Despite the lack of time-travelling head-smacking wise future self, we did get there eventually. We learned better tools for communication. We built trust in ourselves, in one another, and in our marriage. Next time the Great Crush assaulted (a few years later), I was better prepared.
This one played out exactly like a movie scene, right down to a moment at two in the morning where we were saying good bye outside Great Crush’s hotel room and suddenly I realized that this was IT. The Kiss or No Kiss moment. The pivotal part of the story, when I chose between the Tale of True Love Triumphing, and the Tale of Temptation That Ruined Everything. And, I have to tell you, it was every bit as tempting as I had been afraid it would be.
And yet, like a movie playing on the guy’s forehead, I could see the expression that would unfold on Gary’s face as I told him about The Kiss. Every ounce of pain and betrayal that would be there. And I couldn’t live with that. I couldn’t live with the idea of telling Gary a story that ended in anything other than “I said good night and walked away.”
So, I said good night. And walked away.
I still remember standing in the elevator, staring at my own reflection in a daze. And there was this sudden swoop of joy, as I realized in a huge rush that the thing I thought for years was stronger than me wasn’t stronger than me. I chose fidelity. Not because I didn’t kiss the guy, but because of why I didn’t kiss the guy. It wasn’t about what obeying some rule to make myself one of the good guys and buying a happy ending. It was about “Faithfulness to a person… …demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support”. It was about picturing Gary’s face and thinking about his feelings and his needs. And, in our specific marriage, that meant not kissing people, and it also meant coming home and communicating openly. And listening listening listening.
So, the real fidelity happened the next morning.
Me: I need to talk to you. I’m really attracted to that guy. We were alone and I had a chance to kiss him and I didn’t. And I feel proud but also guilty and scared and… I want to be honest with you but I also want to protect you.
That’s when Gary stopped what he was doing, walked over to me, and set beside me on the bed. He took my hand in his, and said “Tell me more about what you are going through.”
Fidelity: Faithfulness to a person… demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.
And in that moment, in that split second, everything changed. I told him the whole story… the story I didn’t even realize was there. The one that moved beyond “This is what I did or said” to “This is why and this is how I feel and this is what I am afraid of” and he listened.
And then I listened, while he talked.
And then we went on long walks in the evenings when we got home and talked some more and watched our two little boys roll up and down the hill in the park and talked some more. And I was ready for the conversation about how he felt hurt and disconnected and jealous, because that’s what happened last time. But this time it was different. He did feel some of that stuff, but not as much as I was braced for. Because we weren’t disconnected. We were a team.
Turns out, fidelity wasn’t a thing I did or didn’t do in the hallway of the hotel. It was a thing that we built, over months and years of thinking about the other person’s needs, and talking, and lying there holding hands on the riverbank and watching the kids pick dandelions. Fidelity is not a list of who gets to do what—there are a whole spectrum of relationships in the world with all kinds of different guidelines ranging from “cover everything but your eyes” to totally open relationships. Assuming that all parties have a full voice, what matters is not the specifics of what you decide on, but the pattern of mutual strength and caring that you build over time.
I wasn’t scared any more. I was no longer dealing with an extramarital crush. WE were dealing with an extramarital crush. He was no longer dealing with jealousy. WE were dealing with jealousy. And all that seemed very small and manageable when you set it beside the amazing thing that was our marriage in that moment.
I am not telling you that the key to a happy marriage is to think of fidelity the way I just described it. I’m not telling you the key is to “just be honest”, or to think in terms of “both of you against the problem”. I’m not telling you the key is to think creatively, to start from scratch and figure out what the covenant of marriage looks like in your own specific lives. These are all things that we found useful, but the details of our story are specific to us and not nearly as important as the act of realizing that We Need Better Tools. We need to get past the Crap Story that we are handed about how “good” marriage has got to look, and spend less time locked in shame and more time focussed on how we can more deeply love and care for one another.
I don’t know if any of this applies to the President of that Seminary. Who knows, maybe in that case it was a simple case of selfishness or dishonesty or entitlement. Maybe it was some completely other type of story I can’t imagine. Good people need to work on what happens next in that story, but that’s not going to be me. Because I am, in this moment, a lot less concerned with what happened yesterday than I am concerned with what might happen tomorrow.
I know enough about statistics to know that there will be multiple people reading this post (and all the other blogs about this story) who are struggling right now, today, with a crush or with fidelity. Thinking that it is all about whether they are a good person or a bad person.
And it is about personal responsibility, absolutely. But it’s also about tools.
It’s about whatever strategies are the ones that are right for your relationship and who you are. My story may resonate with you—great. If it doesn’t, keep looking. Keep asking. Keep learning. Don’t settle for that Hollywood garbage. Don’t settle for platitudes you know aren’t true. Don’t stop until you find the tools you need.
Editor’s note (Okay, it’s not the editor, it’s just me again):
Liked this post? Check out…
Chrysalistenning: A poem that I thought was about finding the meaning in one’s crushes, and everyone else thought was about love outside of marriage.
Branch: This is the one that *I* thought was about love outside of marriage (although, it’s about love of music and trapeze… which are a bit of a metaphor). It has not been very popular. I’m just telling you this up front. But I like it, so it makes the list.
The Week Gary Didn’t Die: If you’re interested in Gary’s and my adventures, you might like this post. It has all of it–the struggle to communicate (in this case somewhat literal), life and death (ending in life but it was touch and go for a bit), snotty comments about Mike’s driving. Everything a post should be.