Friday, July 13, 2012

The other side of the story

There's a scene in the film Annie Hall, where Alvy and Annie are at their respective therapists (on a split screen). Their therapists ask them how often they have sex. Alvy responds with: Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week. Annie says: Constantly. I'd say three times a week. 

It's become one of film's most classic and quotable scenes and also encapsulates how very differently two people can see the same thing.

This past weekend I was chatting at a party and the subject of commuting to and from London came up. I told the story (admittedly a passed on one) of a man and his wife who moved out of London so they could afford the big dreamy family home outside of the hustle and bustle. He got a place in London for work, and did the commute back and forth. A year or so later he turns around and tells his wife he's been having an affair for the last 5 months. He's in love, and he's leaving her for this other woman. And by virtue of that, leaving his two small children too. 

The couple I am telling this story to fall silent, exchange looks, and he says to me, "I guess that's what my ex-wife says about me, that I left her and the children. But as you can see (gesturing to his kids that are playing happily with mine), I never left my children, I left her."

I'd say I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me, but I've become so adept at sticking my foot in my mouth over the years that I just went with it. There was also that moment where I could have furiously backtracked to spare any feelings or embarrassment, but I suppose I saw it as an opportunity to educate myself.

I asked him if his wife was surprised when he told he he was leaving. "Yes, she was," he answered honestly. Me: "But this stuff doesn't just happen overnight does it?  Surely you don't just wake up one day and decide you aren't in love and have met someone else? There must be some kind of build up where you are unhappy and then you feel something is missing and you are open to meeting someone else? But if you are feeling this don't you talk about the fact that you are unhappy in the first place?" Him: "I did, and I tried, a lot, but she didn't want to talk about it, I think she was in some kind of denial. I guess for her, we were happy, but I wasn't happy. And we hadn't had sex in months. That was fine with her, but it wasn't fine with me."

I admired his honesty and the fact that he didn't just tell me to sod off. On some level, perhaps, it was also important for him to express his motivation, relay his side of the story,  and express the fact that he wasn't this terrible stereotype for doing what he did.

It's genuinely difficult for me to objective about this, because I'm a woman at home raising small children. And a lot of my friends are in the same situation. We have husbands going off to work and travelling, and I imagine there are a bunch of very smart, successful, and interesting people they meet along the way. It's not something I obsess about, but when you hear stories like this, always, and I mean, always, pre-empted with the caveat "But he was such a nice guy, no one saw this coming, not even his friends," well, it does worry me a bit. My husband is one of those really nice guys too.

But it's also vitally important for me to put my emotional response aside and to try and see this for what it is, and from both sides, because I've heard approximately six of these stories in the last few months. If something is happening this much, perhaps it's worth trying to understand why.

This man, at the party, is a nice guy. And I genuinely believe him when he says he wasn't happy and that he tried to talk to his wife about it. He also strikes me as a great father, and his kids evidently adore him. He loves the woman he is married to now, and they make a nice couple and the children appear happy with them as a family unit. They don't appear to be tortured souls, although perhaps there is a flicker of always wishing just maybe mom and dad would get together again, I don't know.

But, if we look at it from his wife's perspective, this man did leave her with two small children. And even though he says he didn't leave his kids, well in a literal physical sense, he did. By virtue of the fact that they live with their mother, and he isn't living there any more, she has to do all the child rearing herself, apart from the allocated time he has with them. Emotionally he has never left his children he continues to love them, I get that, but from a practical perspective, he is not there physically for them as much as he was before.

I think of all those nights when I am about to tear my hair out from running around and cleaning up after my children all day (my god 2-year-old boys create such havoc in their wake), and my husband gets home, changes out of his suit, and says to me: "Go sit down with a cup of tea, I'll take it from here." And then he baths them and gets them ready for bed before I join him to do the bedtime stories. And before we had my son, I'd sometimes fall asleep on the sofa and wake up to him having put my daughter to bed. He is a saint, but he is also, in my opinion, what a father should be. A father who wants a long lasting good relationship with his children puts in the work to build that relationship from when they are little. He loves his children, and he is as involved with their rearing as his time allows him. When he travels and I have to do it all on my own, it's tough. And don't even get me started on how terrifically frightening it can be when you are on your own with them and they get sick. I always spare a thought for all those single parents doing it alone.

The couple that were the subject of the story that got me into the foot in mouth incident in the first place sent shivers down the collective spines of the school-run community. All their friends thought they were happy, they bought this lovely home, they appeared to have it all. Oh yes, and lest we forget, he was such a nice guy. Then BAM! he leaves her, for (from what I hear) a not particularly attractive younger woman with a penchant for illiterate Twitter posts. His wife stops eating and falls to pieces with friends having to take it in turns to help pick her up and look after her children. She is devastated.

But come on, you ask, she MUST have known something, it couldn't have been that much of a surprise? And I believe she had her suspicions, but I think there's a part of you that overrides this and says, 'Well, OK, so we aren't as in love and fun loving with each other as we were before we had the children. But come on, I mean, we work, we raise our kids, we go on holidays, we worry about money, we're tired all the time, and the children always come first. We could have sex more, but how often do other people have it? This is real life, and how many people after x amount of years together and x amount of children, are that happy anyway?'

But perhaps the biggest thing we tell ourselves, mistakenly, is: "There is no way, ever, that he/she would ever leave us. He/she has responsibilities, and he/she loves me, and they love the kids." 

And then that haunting refrain surfaces, 'Ah, but how well do any of us really know each other anyway?'

I don't believe in being unhappy if there is something you can do about it. You know, sticking with something for the sake of it. But kids are a big reason to try and work things out. To  take your relationship and turn it upside down and inside out, and look at it from every conceivable angle, before you walk away from it. Children are the biggest co-investment you make together and you do every damn thing you can to repair the damage before deciding that it's unfixable. Because you aren't just walking away from each other, you are creating a fundamental fault line in the lives of those children.

I say this, and I also think - much better having two families that are healthy and happy that the children spend time with than parents who are miserable and are sticking it out for their sake.

This is not a black and white issue, evidently.

I also think it is fundamental to nip the looking around or being amenable to the charms of other people business in the bud. Again, apart from people who have an appetite for chasing tail, most people I don't think make a habit of having affairs or falling in love with people that are not their spouse. But it happens, so why does it happen? Because something is missing and that person goes looking for it, perhaps not overtly, but they see it. Perhaps when that feeling of something being missing arises, that's when the conversation needs to happen. Actually I think a successful relationship requires a constant stream of communication. Granted, not all of us are interested in a 24/7 autopsy of our feelings, but certainly important stuff like: 'I'm not feeling all that loved by you right now'. Or, 'I just don't feel physically attractive/attracted to/by you.' I mean, surely that stuff is important enough to warrant a conversation, albeit accompanied by a glass of wine once the kids have gone to bed?

I'm not entirely sure what I set out to do by writing this. I want to tie it all up with a neat little conclusion, perhaps having some or other 'we can learn from this by ...' sentiment, but I find I cannot. It's genuinely inconclusive for me.

However, these are the things I know to be true for myself:
I would work at and fight tooth and nail for my relationship to save it from any sort of adversity, children or not. I could never be apart from my children physically, in terms of not being their primary care giver on a day to day basis, so I would never leave if it meant leaving my children, and I pray there would never be cause for me to have to consider this. I believe that we age and change and evolve, and sometimes the two people you were when you started out your life together aren't necessarily the same people you are 10 or 20 years down the line. Sometimes people fall in love with someone else, and it makes me terrifically sad to say that, but I also know it's true.  And sometimes it is better to be apart for the sake of the children spending time with two happy parents individually, rather than two miserable parents as a couple. I believe that some people do get lucky enough to meet the love of their life, but even this takes work. I believe that everyone deserves to be happy although the pursuit of this does not necessarily guarantee the happiness of others in your life. And I believe that regular date nights should be heavily subsidised by the government.