Some people find it hard to say “sorry”.
For my part I spend a good deal of time apologising. I find it saves time. It takes an act of grace to say “sorry” when you are wrong. It takes even more grace to say “sorry” when you are not sorry in the least…
The Games People Play
The day is overcast and clouds hang over us like a dirty grey roof. Malcom, who I have not seen for some years, joins us. As we walk, our last painful conversation comes flooding back, though nothing is said. Despite my advice, Malcolm left his wife; not long after that, his new relationship failed too. The funny thing – though it’s not really funny at all – is that his first wife was a star: kind, funny, intelligent and attractive. When the fracture occurred, all their mutual friends were flabbergasted.
The issue for my friend was profound discontent. Dissatisfaction is a low-level virus that has a habit of flaring up to wreck happiness and destroy family harmony. Years ago, I saw a cartoon of two newly married couples dancing. Both couples held each other close, but one man was gazing hungrily over his wife’s shoulder into the eyes of the other man’s wife – who was greedily returning the look.
Discontent and the reluctance to settle for what we have tears away at our peace of mind. Sometimes the pull is so strong, that we reach for what we cannot honestly have and thereby destroy the fabric of our lives and the happiness of others, particularly children.
Spinning the Truth
The Bible is full of examples of this phenomenon, starting with Adam and Eve who reflect the human capacity for tragic self-destruction. David lusts after Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, and destroys his peace of mind and his career; Cain murders Abel; Jacob defrauds Esau; and we are shown the tragic insecurity of King Saul and the cupidity of King Ahab who cannot rest until he has stolen from a small farmer called Naboth. All those who think the Bible is out of date are profoundly wrong. It’s spot on.
Malcolm chatted away about the army – we served together – and we kept the conversation light. It was just as well really, for the painful memories of our last talk burned just beneath the surface.
Discontent rides with shame. So when a man leaves his wife for another woman, there will be a vicious battle going on inside his head. Nietzsche turned it into a well-known phenomenon. On one side stands the image the man has of himself: basically decent and honourable; on the other side is the harsh reality: the man is behaving like a total shit. In order to maintain his equilibrium, he simply buries the memory deep so he can kid himself it didn’t happen and the act morphs into a sort of dream. Neat the games we can play, eh?
Before he left his wife, Malcolm asked me for “advice”. But proffering advice was a pointless exercise because what he really wanted was not my guidance but an endorsement of the battle plan he had already decided to follow. His request for counsel was really a means of allowing him to parade his embattled conscience so I might understand that at heart he remained a fundamentally decent and sensitive man.
We are masters at fooling ourselves. The self-serving slant of our minds tilts favourable information our way and efficiently screens out the difficult bits best avoided. We have our own spin doctors – our private Alastair Campbells – who stuff all criticisms of the preferred plan down the throat of the nearest naysayer and instead present a highly enamelled, favourable version of the “truth” to the world.
The arguments are usually similar: “the fire in our marriage has gone out”, “we owe it to ourselves to be honest”, “I am now truly in love and the new lady makes me come alive”, or “I am convinced the children will get over it quickly and it’s just as well for them.” Oh yes, and last, “It will all be kept amicable, I am convinced that when it is all over she will remain a loyal and trusting friend.”
In all the infidelity cases I know of, my friends have been unfaithful with their secretaries – like plots straight from a Jilly Cooper bonk-buster. In each case, the only people wholly unaware of what was going on were the wife and children.
Till Death Us Do Part?
On the few occasions I have been asked to give my view, I have suggested that the man should (a) immediately tell his wife and ask for forgiveness; (b) gently extract himself from the situation and hire another secretary, preferably one with a moustache; (c) take a cold shower, and get on with his life.
The great sin today is to be “judgemental”, as if one were playing God – which I patently am not. But since these friends asked for my advice, I suggested also that they might revisit their marriage vows because, however badly they claim to have been treated, divorce is a deadly serious issue involving bitter hurt. However it is dressed up, there will usually be accusations of betrayal. Oh yes, and I stress that from what I have read and observed at first hand, however much we try to kid ourselves otherwise, children always suffer tremendously and this is long-lasting.
With regard to Malcolm, my advice was ignored and it all ended in tears. His eldest son was expelled from Eton for taking drugs and went from bad to worse, and his twins refused to speak to him for years. From what I understand, nobody ended up particularly happy.
Sometimes of course divorce is the best way forward, the lesser of the evils and who am I to judge? I have been profoundly fortunate in my marriage and I know it. But it does seem a strange thing that whenever my advice has been sought on such matters, it has never, ever been taken.