First, meet your own standards

I was on a long drive, once, with a woman I did not know well. I knew the family. I knew her husband much better than I knew her. But it was early morning and it was dark and it was a long drive and she began thinking back over her part in the history of what, so far as I knew, was a very good marriage.  Telling it easily, as if it had happened to someone else.

I’m going to tell you the story she told me. This single account is all I have to go on, but I believed every piece of it—I believed, that is, that she was telling it to me exactly as she understood it herself.  Beyond that, I can’t go and have no interest in going.

She said that at the time this event took place, she and her husband had been married a few years. I don’t believe they had children at that time. Her husband came to her one night and said that he thought the marriage really wasn’t working and that he thought it should end. So far, that’s a story that is so familiar that it seems trite even on soap operas. What happened next was not trite. I had never heard anything like it before, nor have I since.

wife 2She told him that she knew she had not been a good wife. She was disappointed in herself. Would he give her six more months, she wondered, and in that time she would be the wife she could be. If she did her best to be the kind of wife she approved of—her standards for her performance—and at the end of six months, he still wanted a divorce, she would raise no obstacles to his dissolving the marriage.

There were no pictures, by the way, that I could count on to illustrate my friend’s story.  I chose this one because it is precisely true to her account, although I’d guess that 90 out of 100 people will misunderstand it.  I’m after the other 10 of you.

I had no idea what to say and we rode along in comfortable silence for a while. That’s all I remember clearly, so from here on, it’s going to be remembered fragments of the conversation, stitched together by the ways I have told this story over the years.

Before we get there, a note or two to the reader. This is not a story about “women;” it is a story about this woman. It is not a story about the inadequacy of the husband. I’m sure a case could be made for that but it was no part at all of this woman’s story. It is not a story about his expectations of her as his wife—however appropriate or inappropriate they may have been. [1] So as you read, you need to give up those common narratives, just as I did, and listen to this amazing woman.

First of all, when some fundamental part of my life or of my self is attacked, the first thing I want to do is to counterattack. She could have said angry things to her husband that were true enough to hurt and I’m not saying that she should not have done that. I am saying that had she done that, she and I would not have been in the car driving along in the dark and she would not have been telling me one of the foundational stories of her life.

She didn’t do that.

Second, a very common exculpation is to deny the appropriateness of the standards. [2] If I haven’t been up to YOUR standards as a wife, that only shows that there is something wrong with your standards. The standards have been wrong or you have not been clear or you have not provided the resources necessary or the incentives necessary, etc. In a way, that is just a form of counterattack, as in the first point, but it implies that if the appropriate standards were used, your complaint against me would have no basis in fact.

She didn’t do that either.  Here’s what she did do.

wife 1She said that she was ashamed that she had not met her own standards as a wife. Perhaps you can see, by now, how breathtakingly simple this is; how many self-justifications she walked past in order to get to this statement: I have not met my standards. I know you are disappointed with me. I want you to know that I am disappointed with me as well.

She said that her meeting her own standards as a wife was the most important first step to take. That is the first step; note that there is a second step. She didn’t tell me what it was about her performance of that role that disappointed her. Maybe she didn’t care about it enough. Maybe she wanted so little emotional intimacy with her husband that he never felt a chance to be engaged in her life or she wanted so much that he was overwhelmed. Maybe it was the sex. Maybe it was the finances. Maybe there was a religious dispute or some sort or a disagreement about whether to have children. She didn’t say.  I didn’t ask.

What she did say is that the second step would necessarily be her husband’s to take. She asked for six months. During that time, she was going to be the kind of wife she could be proud of. [3] She had a good notion of “what she should be as a wife.” That doesn’t mean that she had a standard for “what a wife should be” as if she accepted the stereotypical definition. Her standard was for her own behavior (not “a wife’s) in this relationship (not in “a marriage”).

In doing that, she preserved for herself her right to assess the marriage to see if it met her own needs.  At that time, she would not say that the decision to remain married or not properly belonged to her husband.  She would say–she is now the person in step two–that it is her decision to make.  It a mark of her respect for herself, as well as for him, that either partner can raise the question of whether the relationship is to be kept or not.

I wanted to include the picture just below because it is a commonly expressed sentiment. It is NOT what she said.  She said that she had not been doing the best she could.  She said she would be content for him to make his decision based on her doing the best she could.  She asked only for some time to do that.

wife 3This woman and the husband who asked her for a divorce had been happily married for many years before the morning she told me this story. They are married still, and happy still, and their children have grown up and there are grandchildren. So, to use a formula more common among hobbits than among humans, “They lived happily until the end of their days.”

I wanted to tell this story because I have been looking back, recently, over the course of my life, and remembering with pleasure stories of ordinary people doing absolutely extraordinary things. This woman has set a standard that I use, myself, when I have the guts to do it. When I have done my best—which isn’t all the time, much as I wish it were—I want to let it go, as this woman did. When I am asked to leave—even listing the KINDS of groups, not the groups themselves, I have been asked to leave would make this a much longer essay than it needs to be—I remember the story of this heroic woman and try to live up to what she chose to do. [4]

[1] And just a note to readers. If you google nearly any phrase that is central to this story and choose [images] you will call up pictures that will make you want to throw up. The people who collect images for searches like this do not have this woman’s story in mind.
[2] And for the last decade or so, given the evaporation of common standards, it is enough to establish that the standards in question are YOUR standards. You don’t need to show that they are inappropriate standards. You don’t need to compare them to your own standards, in fact, your standards might be substantially the same. It is proposing those standards as the basis for taking an action that is so offensive.
[3] That may be the part of the story I like best. Had she attempted to “save the marriage” by trying harder “to please him,” it’s had to see that marriage as worth saving. She is doing new things and looking, always looking, to see if he approves. He is always the evaluator; she is always the one being evaluated. That’s not what she did. She determined to satisfy her own standards and when she had done that, she was ready for him to make any choice that seemed appropriate to him.
[4] Maybe just one quick example. I have been a member of First Presbyterian Church of Portland since the mid-1980s. Marilyn and I joined together. We were looking for a church because I had been asked to leave the church we had been attending. Asked by the pastor! He was new to the church and did a quick scan of people who looked like they might be able to cause trouble. So he asked me to come in to see him and gave me a just barely “spiritualized” version of “This church ain’t big enuf for the both of us.” So we left. And I left, feeling very much like the friend who told me the story of her marriage, that I had done my best work and I was proud of what I had done, but this new guy had a church to run and if I could make it easier by leaving, I should.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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