Saturday, May 13, 2017

Can This Marriage Be Saved?

I promised yesterday that I would say a few encouraging words about Ask Polly’s latest column. So, I will. The letter-writer, who calls herself Frustrated and Guilty (FG) is a single woman who has been friends with a married couple, named Mike and Sarah. Apparently, Sarah complains to FG all the time about her husband’s behavior… behavior that one might easily characterize as male chauvinism and sexist. FG agrees with Sarah that Mike behaves appallingly, but she does not know what to do about it.

FG describes Mike in these terms:

Mike is very kind, well-intentioned, generous, and is deeply supportive of Sarah’s professional aspirations. He is also a quintessential mama’s boy who I strongly suspect never did a load of laundry or prepared a meal for himself until he left home for college (his mother is a sweet woman who wants the best for her children, which sometimes causes her to overreach to a degree that is no longer appropriate or necessary now that they are grown). He works full time in tech, while Sarah is in a competitive STEM graduate program. Her graduate stipend pays their rent, and all the rest of their expenses are covered by his income. Despite also working full-time hours, Sarah does the lion’s share of the domestic tasks in their apartment. He will do whatever is asked of him without complaint, but he does not take initiative to cook or clean or do anything else and claims ignorance of how to do the simplest tasks and how frequently they need to be done. He is a man who programs computers for a living but claims he is unable to follow an easy recipe. When Sarah left town for several weeks for a conference, his plan so that she’d come home to a clean apartment was to hire a cleaning lady rather than to just fucking clean the apartment himself. Upon her return, “they” (read: she) had to redo the loads of laundry he’d done in her absence because he forgot to fold everything and it all got too wrinkled.

Doubtless FG has absorbed all of the psycho literature and agrees that she should not be judgmental. Hah! When it comes to Sarah’s marriage, she is nothing but judgmental… on good feminist grounds. Apparently, being a feminist means that you have the right to interfere in other peoples’ private lives when they do not live up to feminist ideals.

FG writes:

This situation is troubling to me for reasons that I assume are apparent. He seems to believe that being a responsible adult and equal partner starts and stops with being able to support the household financially. Though he doesn’t take advantage of her on purpose and claims to be a feminist, he is also extremely comfortable letting his wife cook his meals and clean his bathroom and arrange his fucking dental appointments because he can’t be bothered to do any of those things himself. There are also elements of class dynamics here (the thing about the cleaning lady especially rankles).

Anyway, like a light shining into the darkness Polly gets this one right. She tells FG to mind her own business. And she tells her again and again to mind her own business.

In Polly’s words:

Here’s what you should do: Nothing.

Your friend Mike is just doing what he does. His wife, Sarah, is doing what she does. There is nothing you can do to fix their marriage. Unless one of them is being abused, the dynamics of their marriage is none of your business. The division of labor in their marriage is none of your business. His preference for staying up until 2 and sleeping until noon is none of your business. Even if they’re both making it your business, it’s still none of your business. You have to stay out of it.

But then, why is FG in the middle of her friends’ marriage? And, by the by, what is her own relationship status? We do not know. If she keeps going out with a couple as the third wheel—keep in mind that three is an odd number and that there’s a reason why such numbers are called odd—what does that do to the various relationships? Does it feel like FG and Sarah are ganging up on Mike, thus pushing him to reject the more politically correct behaviors that they want to impose on him? Does it feel like FG and Sarah simply exclude him from their conversation? We do not know.

Anyway, Polly waxes philosophical about all of it, correctly, I would say:

The most likely outcome here is that they both keep living exactly the way they’re living now for the next decade, then maybe they have kids or Sarah gets a stressful job or some other factor changes and suddenly they have to make some major adjustments to keep their marriage together. Or, nothing changes at all and yet, somehow, they stay together and seem happy. Or nothing changes and they seem mildly miserable but they stay together anyway. Or they break up at some point. But nothing you do now or later will affect this outcome in any way.

I differ slightly here.  FG has been advising Sarah and she has probably been advising her to be intolerant of her husband’s household habits. This might affect the outcome. Perhaps Sarah will leave her husband and run off with FG. Polly does not consider this possible outcome, because she is a nicer person than I am.

Next, Polly asks another salient question. Why does any of this matter to FG? Is she playing the role of therapist for the two of them? Is there an attraction between her and one or the other or both of the spouses?

Polly says:

Instead of asking what you can do to change their marriage, I think you should ask yourself why their marriage has become a problem for you.

Naturally, because Polly is still Polly she stoops to regaling us with tales about the marriages of people in her family. Apparently, no one really likes anyone else. Might I suggest that she would have done better to keep such personal information out of the pages of New York Magazine.

She is correct to say that members of her family do the right thing by not talking about each other’s marriages. It is decidedly refreshing to see an advice column, one with a therapeutic bent, offer the possibility of simply shutting up.

We find each other’s marital dynamics puzzling. We keep our mouths shut, but it’s obvious. My mother and her sisters have to go out to dinner alone one night just to talk shit about all of us.

I do not want to belabor the obvious, but Polly has compromised her excellent advice—to keep one’s mouth shut—by sharing it all in a magazine. This way she can embarrass everyone in her family.

Then Polly errs in offering a psycho explanation for the behavior of her parents and siblings. She blames it all on shame.

In her words:

These days, I think of all of us as being very judgmental and also very ashamed of ourselves. We are judgmental BECAUSE we’re swimming in shame. But also, it’s just hard to be close to your family. Even when we’re all behaving perfectly, three or four days into our vacation, I get a little bit depressed. Everything feels sad and HEAVY. I am a little bit flinty and impatient. I am a little disgusted by myself and everyone else, and I’m furious at myself for that.

If Polly had a functioning sense of shame, if she had not left hers in her therapist’s office, she would know better than to compromise family secrets. Then again, perhaps Sarah would do better to keep her complaints about her husband within her marriage. How does poor Mike feel about sharing brunch with a woman who knows all of his secrets? How does he feel about knowing that he cannot trust his wife to be discreet? Some of these people would do well to grow back their sense of shame.


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Look at the first sentence of FG's letter and contrast that with the remaining balance of drivel about stuff FG doesn't think is with the times, which is the locus of her conundrum. This is a living testament of the problem of our times, making miserable zombie busybodies and aspiring spinsters into the army of the vaginal proletariat, chanting their monologues. It is all so unseemly and consumes the most miserable with great excitement while their own lives are static or falling apart.

This is a component of the self-congratulation of the morally magnificent.

What is also striking is how there is no talk of the results of the domicile when Sarah returns home. It's not that Mike didn't get things done, it's that they were not done HER way. So it's not about the desired ends, but instead the process. Metaohorically, it's not about the hanburger, it's about having the wrong number of pickles on top, so we re-cook the whole meal. Mike's attempt at domestic reengineering is not of Sarah's process, nor does it conform to Sarah's exacting standards (she is, after all, a STEM graduate student in a competitive program, wow). To make things worse, it's clear that a controlling Sarah is in bad shape because she cannot have what she claims she wants: him to toil as she does. Or is it what FG wants? No bother... so Sarah goes out with FG for too many cosmos and unloads about all the loads of laundry she had to rewash and refold because the Polish cleaning lady couldn't get it "right," even though Sarah wasn't around to tell her. And FG is just lapping it all up like an excited, panting puppy. So much so that she writes Polly.

Think Mike's now motivated to be a greater domestic contributor?

Maximum emphasis on things of minimal consequence.

Someone is bored. Think Mike's motivated to set FG up on a date with one of his friends or acquaintances? Probably not for awhile. Two can play this game.

Sam L. said...

IAC, I trust Mike is smart enough NOT to set up FG with any of his friends. An enemy, however...

James said...

These people deserve each other.

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: Then again, perhaps Sarah would do better to keep her complaints about her husband within her marriage. How does poor Mike feel about sharing brunch with a woman who knows all of his secrets? How does he feel about knowing that he cannot trust his wife to be discreet?

Good points all around, not that we know the answer. I recall in my 20s questioning privacy, like if my girlfriend wanted to talk about some issue to her girlfriends that involved me. I concluded it was best to not take this personally, and accept it was her way to deprocess things and gain perspective.

FG in this case is offering perspective, but not objective. She is "being a good friend" by taking her friend's side and saying Mike's the problem. And presumably if Mike could just "shape up", the complaints would stop, and then everything would be better.

Stuart is right that its possible FG could "poison" her marriage over time with feminist ideals. I've wondered if I might be poisoning my sister's marriage when I agree with her that her husband is often a selfish jerk, but as best I can tell, my sister wants someone to take care of, and maybe being a selfish jerk is just his poor way of setting boundaries?

Finally, there's been a few times that I've been doubly-disloyal in a fight between two friends, talking to both of them separately and expressing exactly (as close as I can express) what the other is saying behind their back. This is ALWAYS a bad plan, but sometimes it helps you escape being in the middle after that. So I'll say "Don't say anything to me that you wouldn't want X to hear someday."

It's that "External self awareness" in action, if you're willing to hear what people really think of you when they're not afraid of hurting you.

James said...

When I've had two friends fighting I've always made it a point for them to know I care about them equally "Don't worry I'll attend both of you moron's funerals".

Ares Olympus said...

James said... When I've had two friends fighting I've always made it a point for them to know I care about them equally "Don't worry I'll attend both of you moron's funerals".

Ha! Loyalty to the end.

Walt said...

Rainy day observation: Sounds to me like FG is jealous that Sarah's married and she's not so she stokes Sarah's discontent

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares Olympus @May 13, 2017 at 12:21 PM:

"Good points all around, not that we know the answer..."

A simply profound lede. Wonderful work. Moving. I see that short posts are elevating your profundity. Perhaps you should stop with the first sentence. That would be a remarkable advancement.

And you made a comment without mentioning Trump. Uh, bravo.

Sounds like Ares approves of your comment, Dr. Schneiderman. Be very, very afraid.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Sam L. & Walt: Spot on.

Ares Olympus said...

Walt said... Rainy day observation: Sounds to me like FG is jealous that Sarah's married and she's not so she stokes Sarah's discontent

The correct emotion to that situation would be envy not jealousy.
Envy occurs when we lack a desired attribute enjoyed by another.

Jealousy occurs when something we already possess (usually a special relationship) is threatened by a third person

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.