I have a friend Linda who confides her frustration with her husband Walter almost every time we meet. Walter is in his early 70s, 17 years older than Linda, grew up on a ranch in Illinois, and is estranged from his parents and siblings. Linda started her small business some time ago and deals with its growing pains on a daily basis. When she returns home, she still has to cook and clean as Walter is domestically challenged. Walter’s father passed away a few years ago and did not leave anything to him. Walter deep down inside is a country boy and longs for the days when he can return to his family ranch in his golden years. After he found out his father had left the ranch to his siblings, he hired a lawyer to contest the will. It was a long, drawn-out battle that saw him take a second mortgage on their house and make multiple trips to Illinois. Thirty thousand dollars later, he still did not have the ranch. Needless to say, Linda and Walter have very little to say to each other these days, and sex is out of the question. Linda is a smart, attractive woman who has plenty of admirers, and when I asked her whether she would leave Walter, she said something that caused me to pause: “I will never find a man who will ever love me more than Walter does.” In 1980s, Walter was an American expatriate working for a Fortune 500 company, and brought Linda to the US on a fiancé visa after meeting her overseas. He spent one month’s salary on her one-way business class ticket, married her on the last day before her visa would expire, taught her English, and showed her the world when he travelled extensively for his employer. Without his nurturing, Linda would not have been able to start her own company. Even though there is no passion, they still have great respect for and appreciation of each other. She knows she is Walter’s only connection to this world, and walking out would devastate him. As a compromise, she keeps interesting and successful men in her company, and sets her emotional boundary as she has no illusion of what they represent.
Conventional wisdom has that married men don’t leave their wives. With the way family law is written, a divorce can send a man (and a woman) to emotional and financial ruins. Statistics shows that 80% of the divorce petitions are filed by women, which is not a surprise given the great stride they have made in their education and careers. While I wish these women the best finding what they want, I still recognize that divorce is a strenuous undertaking, with serious emotional and financial ramifications. With the exceptions of neglect and abuse, a couple just doesn’t decide to call it quits simply because they don’t love each other anymore. There are almost always underlying reasons that act as a catalyst to finally tip over the balance: affair, finance, career choice, illness, etc.. Well, do divorced people become happier? Unfortunately, research shows they are no happier than before their divorce, which leads me to think that maybe, just maybe, the fickleness of human nature is to blame.
When I was still in high school living in China, the airing of a television series “Anna Karenina” caused a huge controversy and inspired heated debate. Back then, divorce was frowned upon, and a divorced woman was a social pariah and considered morally corrupt. I don’t know what percentage of the couples stayed married because they did not want to bring “shame” to their families, or feared being ostracized at work, or could not afford separate housing. I do still vividly remember a high school classmate’s mother complaining to me about her insensitive husband. Given the backdrop, it was no wonder why even my literature class teacher could not understand Anna’s decision, and women shook their heads praising Karenin’s restraint dealing with his wife’s infidelity, as a typical Chinese man would have beaten his cheating wife to a pulp, or worse. Years later when I read the novel, I marveled at Leo Tolstoy’s masterful ability at depicting human emotions. After Anna leaves her husband and children, she and Vronsky live together despite the scorn of the entire aristocratic society. She turns paranoid and jealous, and they argue constantly. Tolstoy writes that Vronsky becomes increasingly fed up with Anna’s temper, and describes his disgust with the sipping sound Anna makes drinking her tea. When she decides to attend an opera despite his pleading not to make a scene, Vronsky finds her beauty, which is what draws him to her initially, and her exquisite gown, repulse him. Tolstoy initially did not intend for Anna to kill herself; as the story unfolds amid the tumultuous geopolitical, economic and social landscape, her suicide becomes an inevitable end.
When a couple first meets, sparks fly and fireworks erupt. Eventually, passion gives way to the mundane, whereas an all-encompassing companionship evolves and transcends whatever physical, financial or logistic bond that binds them together in the first place. There may be detours, circles, or even dark holes on the way; however, the path points forward. It is that very bond that elevates coupledom to partnership: a deep, unbreakable connection designed to withstand the test of time.
The fictional ultimate political couple Frank and Claire Underwood has a common goal: power. They are friends, lovers, and the staunchest supporter of each other’s and their collective cause. When Claire’s former paramour Adam is blackmailed by Frank’s political enemy to reveal their affair, Claire and Frank summon Adam to their residence to strategize, and here is the exchange:
Adam to Frank: Oh, your wife? What does that even mean to you?
Frank to Adam: Do not mistake any history you have shared for the slightest understanding of what our marriage is, or how insignificant you are in comparison.
Adam to Claire: I’m sorry I ever met you. All you’ve ever done is cause me pain. Now you’re fucking with my life and the life of the woman that I love more than I ever loved you… I’m not part of this world. I didn’t sign up for it. I have no interest in it.
Claire to Adam: We‘re giving you an out, Adam. And if you choose not to take it, I will bury you.
Adam to Claire: I’ve never hated anyone before. Now I know what that feels like.
Claire to Adam: It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it?
Peggy Guggenheim was a pioneer in her endeavor well before the feminist movement, which has given women choices and empowered them to freely decide what they want to do with their bodies, sexuality, and relationships. I wholeheartedly support whatever they do to pursue their happiness, however they define it. Unfortunately, even though our society supposedly is more advanced and tolerant of alternative lifestyles, there is still a considerable amount of stigma associated with a single woman who opts for sex rather than marriage, or a married woman either seeking attention and comfort from a man other than her husband, or leaving her marriage outright to go after whatever it is that she wants. I am thankful to Peggy Guggenheim who was ahead of the curve demonstrating to her admirers and distractors alike that she could unapologetically sleep with as many men as she pleased, just as men could. I also find it equally laudable for women to stay with their men, regardless of how inadequate they may be, to build a life-long union that is based on love, friendship, respect, companionship that transcends the purely physical.