Friday, May 17, 2013

The advice they give

Update: the comments below feature some harsh language that I regret. I regret it mostly because I detracted from my own point that we go to great lengths to avoid holding women morally accountable for affairs by using it (an argument that is mostly strengthened by the other comments). However, I did say it and then it was later commented upon so it would deeply dishonest to remove it now.

Here's the question:
A few months ago, my husband uncovered an affair I was having with an old flame. He moved out and initiated divorce proceedings, but in the time since, I was able to convince him that I am truly repentant and to give our marriage another chance for the sake of our children. The problem I have now is that he says that if we are to stay married, he wants it to be an open marriage. I've tried to tell him that I've gotten that out of my system and I don't want to be with anybody other than him, but he says there just isn't any way he can ever trust me again, he doesn't feel an obligation to be faithful to me anymore, and at least this way we're being honest about it. Prudie, it makes me ill to think about him being with another woman. I just want things to go back to how they used to be. How can I convince him that we need to be completely committed to each other in order for this to work?
Prudence, whose advice column it is, is rather hard on this woman and good for her. The level of selfishness displayed here is mind-boggling. That said, it's pretty typical for modern liberalism. This should remind you of the Clinton years: "Okay, I did it, now can we just move on!" Emily Yoffe (AKA "Prudence") quite rightfully castigates this woman for just wanting "things to go back to normal" but that's all Prudie herself has to offer. She is full of self righteousness but that is all you'll get from her.

What do I mean? Well, look at Prudie's advice. She gives some way at the bottom of the column when she finally finishes heaping moral abuse on the woman who wrote the question I cite above. If we isolate that advice, we can see how utterly useless it is:
It could be that you and your husband should simply be separated for a while—without the threat of divorce hanging over your heads—to see how each of you feel about this new status. While you do that, I will naturally recommend couples counseling. It sounds as if you both need a third party to help you communicate and to hold a mirror up to the consequences of each of your actions.
Tell me, how is there separating a little while "without the threat of divorce hanging over your heads" different from open marriage? "Just go away for a while and then come and start fresh," is all Yoffe has to recommend. And if that doesn't work, you can try a marriage counselor.

The thing that is missing from all this is actual stuff that the wife might do. And that is what is needed. The first point here is that she screwed up and it is up to her to beg forgiveness. He has no obligations towards her at all. He certainly isn't obliged to actually forgive. Forgiveness that isn't freely given is no forgiveness at all so he has to be perfectly free to dump her or else the whole exercise is pointless.

And if you notice one thing about this question and the advice given by Yoffe in response it is that neither woman is willing to give this man the dignity of granting him the moral freedom to forgive or not forgive. From the very start this woman acts as if he is under some sort of obligation to her, to their marriage and to their children. She is the one who betrayed his trust and destroyed everything their marriage was supposed to be and yet she hammers over and over again on his responsibilities.

Just read the narrative carefully and you can see this. Let's pull out all the "I" statements:
  1. I was having [an affair] with an old flame. 
  2. I was able to convince him that I am truly repentant and to give our marriage another chance for the sake of our children. 
  3. I've tried to tell him that I've gotten that out of my system.
  4. I don't want to be with anybody other than him ... it makes me ill to think about him being with another woman
  5. I just want things to go back to how they used to be. 
  6. I [want to] convince him that we need to be completely committed to each other.
That's the real story. It's the story of what she did, what she wants and the real reasons she wants these things. Everything she says about him is some responsibility she wants him to accept. Everything she says about herself is something that she wants or once wanted.

Look at #2 for example: he is under a moral obligation to work at the marriage for the sake of the children.

Look at #3: It was something she had to get out of her system! In #2 he was under a moral obligation to forgive her but she doesn't see her affair as a massive betrayal of trust but as something she had to "get out of my system".

#4 It makes her ill to think of him with another woman? Then why the hell isn't she groveling in front of him? She should be begging and pleading for a chance to win him back; begging not to get him back but just to be given the chance to try and win him back.

What should she do? Here's the alternative narrative she should be living.
  1. She should tell him that she doesn't want an open marriage but she understands perfectly that he is going to need some time and space if he is going to get over this. It's only been a few months since this affair! 
  2. She needs to make it clear to him that she understands that even if he leaves her she still owes him a long and grovelling apology because she betrayed him
  3. She should tell him that she will be perfectly faithful to him and she should make it clear that she will make her life perfectly transparent to him so that he will be able to rest easy knowing that he will never have any reason whatsoever to even so much as suspect that she is seeing anyone else.
  4. She should make it clear that she is going to cut this old flame completely out of her life and that she won't even acknowledge this other man's existence if their paths cross.
  5. She should say that while it would torture her to think of her husband with another woman, she understands that she has destroyed the trust between them and that she realizes she has no right to expect fidelity from him now.
  6. She should promise that she will begin, as of right this moment, proving that she loves him by giving him the best sex he could imagine without any expectations of a commitment from him.
  7. And she should say that she while she is pleading for forgiveness and will continue to do so so long as he doesn't completely shut the door that she understands that it is entirely up to him to forgive or not to forgive.
If he forgives, they can return to the sort of mutual obligations, especially sexual fidelity, appropriate to marriage but for now all the responsibility is in her court.


  1. Here is another jaw-dropping Ask Prudence column. How inconvenient it must be when your "soul mate" becomes disabled.

    1. That's a tough one. I have two friends whose fiancés broke it off after they were injured.

      This sort of thinking follows pretty naturally if you believe that marriage is all about self-fulfillment and about nothing else. And that is the way most people see it nowadays.

    2. Its not that black and white an issue, as I think I articulated in my comments below. Self-fulfillment is certainly part of the equation, as it should rightly be, but its not the only factor that needs to be considered. According to the Church, the "marriage debt" is that the wife and husband have an obligation to provide for each others' sexual needs. If that can't be done or one refuses to do it, then I believe that is grounds for annullment. Nobody talks much about it so far, except Pat Robertson, but the Church is ahead of the curve in this regard.

  2. These are both interesting cases, and probably not all that uncommon these days. I'll deal with the second case first. 25 or so years ago when I was taking a degree in Ethics, the subject of a disabled spouse came up in class. Opinions were divided about what the obligations of the able-bodied spouse were, especially if the disability occurred at a fairly young age. As we began to parse and dissect what marriage is supposed to mean, it became clear that fidelity can manifest in many different ways, and that sexual fidelity is not necessarily the most important especially in the case of a disability. Some in class began to see that it might be permissable for the able-bodied spouse to have another relationship with someone of the opposite sex while still remaining married to the disabled spouse. As long as other needs were provided for, e.g., housing, home care and assistance if needed--which is another manifestation of fidelity--if the disabled spouse was unable to have sex anymore then for the able-bodied spouse to have sex with someone else to meet his needs would be morally permissable. The Rev. Pat Robertson--hardly a liberal icon--said the same thing not long ago in reference to a spouse with Alzheimer's. As far as the Church is concerned, there's the thorny issue of the "marriage debt." If the wife can no longer pay the "marriage debt" then what is the obligation of the able bodied spouse to remain? I think that this might be grounds for a Church annullment because of the inability to meet the "marriage debt" but I'm not sure.
    Similarly, in the first case this woman strayed and was found out. It appears as though she has repented and is asking for forgiveness. I don't think that we can or should expect her to grovel or beg for him to take her back, this is 2013 and despite what she did she too has dignity as a human person. The Church teaches that the husband in this case would be under no obligation to forgive her. However, the Church also teaches that if he does forgive her it must be genuine and he can never again hold his unfortunate incident over her head, or impose conditions, e.g., the open marriage, on their continuing to remain married. I'm not about to speculate on whether either couple needs counseling, or if it would do any good if they got it. People can often figure these things out for themselves, a third party can sometimes exaccerbate the situation or create problems where none existed. I've seen that happen.

    1. I don't know how I missed this initially, but this guy--the husband--is using his wife's infidelity as an excuse or justification for his own prospective (or possibly even retrospective) adultery, hence his request for her to agree to an open marriage. He might be coming from a place of hurt, but two wrongs don't make a right. Unless he can put this behind him--and it doesn't sound like he can--she's probably better off without him. Makes you wonder what kind of marriage they had prior to her infidelity that caused her to stray in the first place.

    2. I think the key sentence here is: "He moved out and initiated divorce proceedings, but in the time since, I was able to convince him that I am truly repentant and to give our marriage another chance for the sake of our children."

      That sets the context. He'd given up on her and she is using guilt to get him back into the marriage: "for the sake of the children". (When you hear that phrase guys, reach for your wallet.) As far as he was concerned, the marriage was over.

      His point is this: if all she can offer him as reason to come back is a guilt trip about the children, then he wants to have some fun. Quite frankly, I think more men should drive this sort of bargain.

      If she wants him back, she should grovel, beg, plead and offer to make his life so blissful he'll want to stay.

  3. I can't believe that you--a Catholic--actually believe what you're saying! I don't think that staying together for the sake of the children is a guilt trip. "The children" is a legitimate reason for married couples to stay together even when they'd rather go their separate ways. We've all read the studies of children of divorce, among other negative consequences the children invariably--invariably--blame themselves for their parents breakup. I don't think she should grovel, it should be beneath her dignity to do so, and for him to demand that says a lot about his character and its not good. I just wonder how they would react if the shoe were on the other foot, if it was he whose infidelity was found out and she was faced with a choice, stay and move on or leave. Perhaps his ego won't allow him to accept what happened, genuinely forgive her, and move on. He might also try looking at himself to see if his actions in any way might have contributed to her infidelity, a lot of men would do that. In any case, it doesn't sound like he wants to be in the marriage anymore, and under those circumstances she is better off without him, and the children will just have to deal with the fallout from that. Sad.

    1. Sexual betrayal in marriage is a very serious thing. It's up to her to make it up to him. In her note, all she talks about is what she expects and wants from him and not about what she owes to him, and she owes him a lot in this situation. She says she just wants things to go back to normal. Well, it takes a lot of hard work to make things go back to normal and she is the one who crapped all over everything that was supposed to matter to her.

      If the shoe was on the other foot, people would have no trouble at all speaking of all he owes her and how it will take years of hard work for him to rebuild the trust and so forth. Yes, I do believe she should grovel. There is no indignity in repentance and this calls for very serious repentance. She should forget about her dignity and think about what she did to his his dignity by having an affair.

  4. Her infidelity did not occur in a vacuum. All we're getting here is a thumbnail sketch of this marriage, I strongly suspect that there's more to this story than the wife might even be aware of. In this case counseling might help them if they were open to honestly looking at themselves. The infidelity is a symptom of something that isn't right in the marriage. The years of hard work has to be done by both of them, not just her, he has to be an active participant in this as well. Repentance and groveling are two different things. If he truly loves her he would not want to rob her of her dignity. These two sound like children to be honest with you, they both need to grow up.

    1. Just as terrorism is caused by terrorists, infidelity is caused by cheaters. You're so eager to exonerate this woman that you are now imagining extra evidence to get her off the hook.

  5. No, if indeed "the two become one flesh" then he's part of this as well. Just as she would be if he had cheated.

    1. She cheated and he's part of it? Sorry, that's crazy talk. Moral responsibility in marriage is meaningless if every time one partner to marriage grossly betrays the other it becomes a "we problem".

      It's her fault and it's 100 percent up to her to clean it up. He has a responsibility to forgive her but absolutely no responsibility to trust her again until she earns that trust and he has every right to withhold that trust until she really proves that she is willing to earn it back. Groveling is just the start of that.

  6. Well, you apparently have a blind spot on this issue. A marriage is a union, like it or not what one does affects the other, and of course its a "we problem." Anything involving both spouses--and this involves him because it puts their union in jeopardy--is a "we problem." He can either be part of the solution or a passive observer, which amounts to abdicating his role in the union. Or he can be a warden, making her grovel, telling her what she can and can't do, what he will or won't do. Helluva marriage.

    1. Helluva a marriage? Well yeah. What part of "the worthless slut cheated on him" don't you understand?

      The point is not that he should make her grovel. She should do it without anyone having to tell her so.

  7. The "worthless slut" is your characterization of her. We don't know that based on the information provided, there's no indication that she has a history of having affairs. Her sentence at the end is right, they need to be totally committed to each other for the marriage to survive, and want what is best for each other within the context of the marriage and family they have created. Maybe its me, but this just seems like a no-brainer to me.

    1. "I'm finished having my affair and now WE have to work together on this marriage." If a guy accepts that, then no-brainer is just the right term for it.