Friday, February 26, 2010

Is It Therapeutic to Tell All?

When a woman discovers that her husband has cheated, she will feel humiliated. She will want to right the wrong she has suffered and to exact revenge on her husband.

Revenge may be the Lord's to dispense, but a wronged wife may happily elect herself his earthly agent.

How should she go about righting the wrong and exacting revenge? Should she write a tell-all memoir, where she displays all of their dirty laundry in public, thus subjecting him to the humiliation that he has showered on her?

Will she feel better once she knows that she has returned the favor, and that now he really knows how she feels?

These questions define the scope of Julia Baird's excellent column in the new Newsweek: "Our Era of Dirty Laundry: Do Tell-All Memoirs Really Help Heal." Link here.

Not only is Baird's column beautifully written and cogently argued, but it addresses many of the concerns that have animated this blog from its inception.

When a woman discovers that her husband is cheating she will weigh any number of possible responses. Often she will turn to the culture for guidance. By culture, I mean the customs and values that determine how community members ought to behave. The culture, as I am using the term here, tells you what is right and wrong and tells you the right way to behave.

As Baird notes, way back when, the culture dictated that a wronged wife should suffer in silence. It rejected the notion that she should abandon all pretense of modesty and air the couple's secrets in public.

This form of revenge was considered to be beneath her dignity.

But then two forces converged to cause a shift in the culture's values. As Baird says, these two forces were psychotherapy and feminism.

Psychotherapy introduced a value system and a new set of prescribed behaviors that can best be summarized in four words: repression, bad; expression, good.

People were told that if they kept their emotions bottled up inside they would become neurotic or depressed or get cancer. Therapy and the culture it fostered has insisted that you should express all of your feelings, regardless of the consequences.

As Baird describes its influence: "We often assume that public anger, spite, or exposure is a healthy form of self-healing, despite the fact that there is little evidence for this."

Then, Baird continues, feminism came along to introduce a variation on this theme. Feminists declared that women had been covering up for their men for far too long. Women had become complicit in promoting perfidious male behavior.

Feminism declared that it had to stop. It told women to step forth, to open up, to show the world what these men were really like, and to give them a taste of their own medicine.

Besides being consistent with the values of the therapy culture, this new rule makes women into avenging angels and allows them to exact a rough but true justice.

Surely, a woman who has been wronged by her husband's adultery needs to restore her dignity. She might also want to make her husband pay for his dereliction, but the two, as Baird says, are not necessarily the same thing.

In her words: "If the primary motivation after leaving a relationship is to embarrass someone who did not deserve your love, that's easily done. But if your goal is to heal, recover, and move on, is the confessional going to help, or will it deepen or extend your pain? It's rarely clear who really ends up benefiting from any kind of tell-all, and how long the satisfaction can last when you have exposed your family to even greater public scrutiny, prolonged widespread discussion of your marital problems, and further tied your identity to that of the man who failed you as a husband."

When a husband cheats the wife is not responsible for his behavior. When a wife writes a book she is fully responsible for her own behavior. Unfortunately, if she decides to tell all she will be compromising her own dignity, acting as though she is embracing the humiliation that her husband had visited on her.

As Baird suggests, this is not the royal road to cure.

It is, however, a way for her to make herself a martyr in the culture wars. She will have sacrificed her dignity to advance a cause, here, the cause of indiscretion and social dislocation.

Baird also examines another question that has been of great import for this blog. Does psychotherapy work? Do you do better to enter into the kind of therapy that will teach you that repression is bad and expression is good, or would you do better to employ your own considerable moral resources to solve your problems.

Citing research about grief counseling, Baird asserts that those who undergo counseling after having lost a loved one did worst than do those who do not.

In her words: "A study undertaken in 2000 found that almost 40% of the people who were grieving a loved one felt worse after going through therapy; they were more depressed, their grief lasted longer and was more acute than those who had no counseling."

This tells us that Shakespeare was right when he said that: "The better part of valor is discretion." Isn't he saying that it takes more courage and more character to be discreet than to be indiscreet?

Shakespeare may not be telling a wronged wife what to do when she discovers that her husband is cheating, but at least he has told her what not to do. He has simply said that you cannot restore your own sense of dignity by sacrificing it to avenge a wrong.

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