Strong and weak

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I’m involved with a married woman who has been abused by her husband. What should I do?

Cary’s classic column from Tuesday, Feb 3, 2004

Dear Cary,

I recently got involved with a married woman. We had been good friends for quite some time. There was an immediate emotional connection upon first meeting, and a deeper physical attraction than we cared to admit at the time. Aside from some casual flirting, I never expected anything to happen. Boy, was I wrong. Everything was fine at first. It doesn’t feel all that different from a normal relationship when we’re together. I’ve never done anything like this and never thought it would be this easy to accept, but the more I found about her marriage, the more I became distressed at her situation.

I know both her and her husband, who are from a small town. I knew that they had a pretty loveless marriage. Lately though, I’ve found out that things were much worse than I had imagined. In addition to the emotional neglect, there is plenty of emotional (and earlier physical abuse). She tried to leave once unsuccessfully. After a while she decided to stay to save her parents from the embarrassment of the gossip about leaving such a “successful” husband. He married her because she’s pretty and came from a wealthy family — certainly not for love: He said as much at one point. They’ve talked about divorce before and he said he wouldn’t mind it. (I don’t care much for the concept of marriage obviously, but the casualness of the remark is shocking even to me.)

I didn’t have any moral qualms about getting involved. Now my amorality has gotten me in a fine mess. I’m worried about her safety should he ever find out. It also pains me that an otherwise beautiful and vibrant girl put up with such a miserable life. I feel that she deserves more than I can give her, like commitment. On the other hand, the last thing she wants is probably someone who falls in love with her and makes things even messier.

We have cooled things down to give her time to decide what to do, which so far has meant nothing. I’m annoyed with her acceptance of her situation. What is it about people that makes them incredibly strong yet weak at the same time? I understand that she has a difficult choice to make, but it’s ridiculous to throw your life away when you’re so young! There are times when I feel like pushing the envelope, like threatening to make public this whole thing or, more satisfyingly, beating the guy up, but I realize how stupid and counterproductive that is, so it ends up just being frustrating. I’m not expecting enlightenment, but some insight would help.

Frustrated

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Dear Frustrated,

To understand why people remain in situations that look intolerable from the outside, why they fail to fight back when they’re being oppressed, why they acquiesce to the demands of their torturers, is to understand much about the history of oppression and genocide.

To understand why others acquiesce, it is best to start with our own behavior, which, presumably, we understand at least a little better than the behavior of others. So let us consider your own actions. First, you gradually became enmeshed in a situation that you never imagined. Remember that: We do not walk through a door marked “oppression.” We do not face two doors, one marked “morally acceptable” and the other “morally questionable.” We follow a long, convoluted trail past minor indignities, minor transgressions, subtle insults. We see a freedom removed here, a freedom removed there, and often for good, rational reasons — to protect us from an outside threat, for instance, a threat that we, being simply wives, or citizens, or outsiders, do not understand. We are now fighting in this country a “war on terror” in the interests of which we have tolerated much violation of freedoms once held sacred.

But such things happen gradually; there was no clear choice offered to us. No one said: OK, Americans, we’re all a little shaken up now, so what do you say we abrogate the Constitution? We don’t make a conscious, rational decision to trade eternal freedom for a temporary and illusory feeling of security, but we do it just the same. We call it something else. Because we are afraid, we go against what we know is right. We know what is right. But we also sense that to follow our instincts might threaten the welfare of the crowd. What if she left her husband and became impoverished, scorned and unhappy? We go against our gut instincts all the time because it’s always possible that we’re wrong, that someone else knows better, that we’re being foolish and: Acting like a child!

Do you not feel this yourself? That if you did what you feel is right — if you stood up in a room and said, This woman is being psychologically tortured by her husband! that you might simply bring greater harm to yourself and to her, that you might invite only shame and reprisal? Besides which, you are not without sin, are you? You who sinned with this woman! So it’s not without a certain sense of grievous cost that you contemplate exposing what you sense. There is also the wall of privacy around the marriage, and the still operative sense that a husband is a king, that he rules over his wife, and that anyone who interferes invites his righteous wrath. Do we not all carry vestiges of feudalism in our hearts, and does not social progress fight that every day?

Consider also how desperately a child will cling to even the cruelest of families. Why is this so? Because the family is not just a social unit: It is the source of life itself. What courage that takes! And to what entities do we transfer this allegiance when we become adults? To our new family, of course, and also to the state, to institutions, to all those powerful figures in society by whose actions we are fed, clothed, sheltered and reassured: bosses, presidents, governors, CEOs, even newscasters and actors! Consider how much of our lives are led instinctually, how few rational choices we actually make, how craven we are, how rote are our actions, how predictable, how programmable, how meek and contemptible are we, the masses. And consider whom we admire, who our heroes are: Our heroes are not those who lead lives of great moral courage and clarity of perception, such as Noam Chomsky, Alice Miller, Ralph Nader and Ingrid Newkirk (the founder of PETA), who, for all their own shortcomings, their failure to see how strangely misguided they appear, can at least see through cultural bias to the clear ethical contradictions of our everyday lives.

They ask of us too much! They ask that we ignore our own emotions, that we risk offending our group, that we risk being not cool, we risk even upending our own emotional structure. So we turn against them for their “extremism,” their lapses of taste, their idiosyncrasies, their lack of common sense. And yet it is people like them who are telling the truth at any given moment; they are the ones who sound the alarm of atrocities long before the rest of us have the clarity of mind and the courage to see how dreadful it is what we’re doing. We turn against them because they offend us.

As your community will turn against you if you stand up and say that this woman with whom you are having an affair is being abused by her husband.

It is finally a private matter for her. Granted, such “privacy” can be yet another tool of oppression in the hands of abusive husbands and abusive parents. Nevertheless, as the interloper, and as a man who is not willing to commit to her, you have no standing. So you can only urge her to embark on the long, slow process of understanding the roots of her willful powerlessness, her willing enslavement. You can give her books to read. You can find a therapist who understands the complicated machinery of willing subjugation. You can do much to understand. But you are just a man among men. You have no godlike power to inject her with your understanding, or to move her like a chess piece across a mine field.

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