The Modern Love column in The New York Times is a bit of an obsession for me. Nestled square in the middle of the Style Section, it’s one of the first articles I turn to, yet more often than not, I find myself blindsided by some depressing or upsetting turn of events -- the horrible illness of a child or a story so sad I want to put the paper aside and go back to bed. This past week was no exception to that rule.
The writer of last Sunday's column, Wendy Plump, revealed that she’d looked at affairs from both sides now: the one having the affair, and the one blindsided by one. This gave her a particular point of view, of course, but I couldn’t agree with the conclusion she drew: that if she and her ex-husband had avoided an affair, they’d have been rewarded by a long marriage like the one her parents had.
I say it's not so simple.
Plump puts herself through quite an obstacle course of shame and regret, leaping over hurdles of “I was a horrible wife” and thumping through a tire-run of self-loathing and disgust. I’m familiar with the details, the emotions, the sick feelings she describes, and though it was uncomfortable to read, I nodded my head at most of the article.
Then I got to the end, when she says: “I look at my parents and at how much simpler their lives are at the ages of 75, mostly because they haven’t marred the landscape with grand-scale deceit. They have this marriage of 50-some years behind them, and it is a monument to success. A few weeks or months of illicit passion could not hold a candle to it.”
Now, I don’t know Wendy Plump’s parents. So I’m not going to say, for sure, that what she sees as a placid, deep lake of contentment marred only by “occasionally strained devotion” is almost certainly a lot more complicated. How many times have I assumed that because someone is old, she must be … fill in the blank with conservative, or wise, or technologically-challenged, or almost anything else?
Here’s the thing about older people: They’re just like you, 30 years ago. So you may not see the nightmare and struggle, because time has smoothed the jagged edges of their pain, but it’s there. And to put on rose-colored glasses to look at your own parents’ marriage, and judge yourself harshly in comparison, cannot be what they would want for you.
In addition, I completely reject the idea that not having an affair would have guaranteed her and her ex-husband a trip to their golden anniversary. Her idea is that if either she or her ex had resisted their affairs, they would have been able to stay together. I say, maybe it went like this: they had affairs because they weren’t right for one another.
And if her parents didn’t have affairs (something I say she cannot know for sure), maybe it was because they didn’t want to have them, not because they had some super-human moral strength she lacks.
I don’t know if I’m annoyed with Plump’s assumptions, or if I just want her to cut herself a break. I just think there’s probably more to her parents’ story, and less to hers, than she’s willing to admit.
What do you think? Did this writer draw the wrong conclusion? Does no affair = guaranteed happiness?
Image via The Madonna Inn