Tag Archives: marriage

Secondary Fidelity | The Risk & Reality of Living Apart

The Context:

Five years ago I upset a sweet, old lady; the grandmotherly type, who hugs and kisses on little children irrespective of whether they have been good or bad, and who would whip up a meal from scratch if you showed up unexpectedly at her doorstep.

My crime? I dared share and sympathize with a gray-area story in an adult Sunday School class. It’s a story that muddles the clear moral boundaries, and traditional-conservative understanding and teaching on sex and marriage fidelity, by sharing many non-white South Africans’ historically disadvantaged economic and life realities.

Evidently I was touching a nerve, similar to Pope Francis’s recent admonition of the church for its singular obsession with homosexuality, abortion and birth control

In 2008, as national director of a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) memory work training project, I attended a global development conference in South Africa. Typical of most conferences there were any number of presentations running concurrently. I chose one in which the results of a U.S.-funded, HIV/AIDS research project among South African miners was being reported on. My ears perked up at one research finding on “secondary fidelity / faithfulness” — a term I had never heard.

Apparently, among South Africa’s mostly male mining community, both in present day democratic as well as past apartheid South Africa, the economic obligations and strains of relocating far from traditional families and rural homes to the congested, concrete and competitive urban jungles, such as the Witwatersrand, where Johannesburg is located, induced such acute loneliness and physical / emotional need among the mostly black miners, that relationship/marriage fidelity, as defined in so-called civilized and Western societies, was most surely desired, yet experienced as impractical and impossible given the miners’ prevailing life hardships.

Under duress of physical, emotional, geographic and long-term separation from wife and family, many miners opted for “secondary fidelity.” That is, they engaged in sexual and emotional urban trysts, yet when the very rare, perhaps only once-a-year opportunity occurred to return to their “real” and rural home, family and community, they feigned fidelity so as not to embitter and cause undue emotional pain on their wives.

Similar, perhaps, are the tragic stories of “real” or de facto slaves, who, themselves, surely desired, and many times enjoyed monogamous, long-term committed relationships, yet who were forcibly separated and abused by the greed of human traffickers and the cruelty of newfound owners, such as the African-American experience recently depicted in the movies Django, The Help, and The Butler.

Given my bi-cultural heritage and middle age bearing, I have discovered that many economic and politically privileged people, particularly, perhaps, in the Bible-Belt (southern), aka Ted Cruz-ian swaths of the United States, lack a depth of understanding and empathy for the billions of the world’s struggling-to-survive humanity.

This inability to understand, identify — however you may define it — is evident in negligible or token lifestyle changes when confronted by widening socio-economic inequities, or perhaps in asinine statements made about HIV-positive people. Millions of HIV-infected and affected individuals are viewed and stereotyped in one American’s incredulous, yet not uncommon statement to me, “I don’t understand why they (Africans) can’t just use condoms?” She might as well have said, “I don’t understand why they are so stupid as to have unprotected sex! They deserve what they get.”

The Present:

A reality of the current and protracted global/US recession is the number of spouses or partners, who, of economic/job-related necessity, live distant and separate lives for extended, even indefinite periods of time. If in 2006 3.6M married Americans lived apart, imagine what those numbers are today — not merely among Americans, but spread across the globe?

It’s all too easy to be patronizing, condescending, contemptuous of others’ “immoral” lives and lifestyles when one’s own life is cocooned, cushioned, comfortable or “Christian.” Take that away for any extended measure of time, however, and I assure you the reality and hardships of life will reshape one’s perspective of most things and relationships previously thought inviolate. Experience is the great equalizer and sympathizer; the inquisitor of faith and “truth” as people know and too glibly pronounce it.

My family relocated from South Africa back to the United States and Austin in mid-2010. I voluntarily opted out of full-time work for the past three years so as to manage home and kids while my wife enrolled in and completed a 3-year MSN degree at UT-Austin.  Upon her recent graduation and my ensuing search for full-time work the prospect of living apart from my wife and kids is assuming a newfound reality.

Obviously, it’s not a reality my wife and I wish for, nor is it a problem with a simplistic solution, such as many people advocate for AIDS.

Fortunately my wife and I have developed trust and a willingness to risk vulnerability over 28 years of marriage by talking about, and hopefully beyond most any subject matter, including my blunt admission that living apart for any prolonged period of time –as I am now entertaining the thought of doing–will possibly to likely result in either or all of these realities: infidelity, separation or divorce, a charade of keeping the marriage together “for the sake of the kids,” or adoption of a “secondary fidelity” mindset for the occasional family get-together times, so as to shelter my wife from the painful knowledge that my physical and emotional needs are being met, or at least supplemented, in my distant-from-family residence and place of work.

Our wedding picture for Order of Ceremony

Our wedding picture for Order of Ceremony

Conclusion:

Like the Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal movie, Prisoners, which my wife and I watched this week, this blog is a narrative without a clearly defined, neat and as of today happy ending. For the many people privileged to live in daily and close fellowship with spouse, children, family and friends, there are many others, who in striving to provide for life’s daily bread and a more hopeful future for themselves and their families, all-too-frequently experience the near-overwhelming darkness of despaired struggle and loneliness.

In case you misread this blog, let me clarify:

NO, I’m not advocating for secondary fidelity.

But, YES, I am appealing for kinder thoughts, kinder attitudes, greater effort to understand, more dignified responses toward the many millions, whose “immoral” or “sinful” lives one might be tempted to write-off with a nonchalant, “They’re getting what they deserve,” or “They’re reaping what they sow.” After all – hopefully not – it could be me and it could be you one day.

Prisoners

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Filed under Africa, Diversity, Family, Life, Loss, Memories, Mental Health, Perspective, Relationships, Religion and Faith

Merry-Go-Rounds and (my) Marriage

May 18th marks 28 years of marriage for my wife and me – although we’re doing a combo-celebration this week in San Antonio, where my wife is attending an advanced practice nursing conference.

If I were to rephrase a famous line of Charles Dickens’ as I look back on 28 years it might read, “It’s been the best of times, it’s sometimes been the most difficult of times.”

Like parenting, there’s no foolproof and surefire way to remain married or committed to the one you started out loving (or to the one you grow to love via an arranged marriage).

What follows is a common sense idea, which evidently is uncommonly observed by too many couples, yet one that has helped our marriage.

Years ago I came across an author’s use of centrifugal and centripetal forces in the context of marriage, which stuck with me, and thus, my appropriation of the merry-go-round analogy.

MGR

It’s a simple axiom:

A marriage/relationship – like a person riding a merry-go-round – will only hold together if inward pulling forces (centripetal) match or exceed outward pulling ones (centrifugal).

We’ve all experienced or seen what happens on merry-go-rounds when a combination of speed and duration of spinning combine – bodies fall or fly off.

fallingMGR

I could list any number of centrifugal and centripetal forces that work for or against a marriage, but for this blog, I’ll illustrate with a few of my own.

For almost three years, mid-2010 to the present, my family has been in a re-acclimate-back-to-USA-from-years-in-South Africa mode.

I chose to resign from a non-profit, HIV/AIDS children’s psychosocial research and training job in a country and among people we loved, and relocate back to Texas in order to be nearer an aging and ailing parent. An agreed upon condition of our choiceso that our three school age girls didn’t become latchkey kids – was that I would assume primary “home management” duties, while my wife accepted and enrolled in a three-year graduate nursing program at UT-Austin.

I jokingly share that you know roles have reversed when you wake up in the morning and one of the first thoughts on your mind is: What do I need to take out of the freezer for dinner tonight?

Actually, there’s been a lot of role reversals with my new family responsibility, including: taking the girls to medical appointments; washing/drying and folding laundry, including women’s slips, brassieres, panties and camisoles; mopping up on my hands and knees bedside and bathroom vomit; all the while doing any and everything else necessary to keep our family functionally (versus dysfunctional) operational while my wife gives total focus and effort to full-time studies, plus off-setting financial need by working PRN at Hospice Austin.

Upon our return from South Africa we could have done what we see too many American couples doing – burning life’s candles at both ends.

Both of us either working or studying full-time, plus accommodating every which child’s academic and extra-curricular activities – all for the purpose of either making necessary ends meet, or more commonly it seems, maintaining an accustomed lifestyle.

Upon our arrival in Texas, one of the first – yet constant – outward pulling forces we felt personally was economic, or the proverbially, “keeping up with the Jones'”.

Returning with no job prospect, no medical insurance, and certain future graduate study debt of $30k+, we knew our already too meagre retirement savings would take a huge wallop for at least a 2 to 5 year period.

Seeing and sharing life alongside so many friends, acquaintances, and family, many of whom live in near million-dollar homes, have 2nd (even 3rd) vacation homes, drive near-new vehicles and possess recreational vehicles, take once or twice-yearly family vacations, frequently eat out, give generous allowances and newest tech accessories to their kids, cover multiple summer camp/trip costs, et cetera, took its toll on our family – as parents, as kids, as a family, and on me as traditional “provider.”

It’s made us frequently wonder to ourselves now – somewhat shamefully (since we didn’t often give thought to the feelings of those who weren’t privileged with the means to enjoy such pleasures) – what our many African friends and acquaintances must have felt each time they entered our home, or heard I was going on a week-long hiking trip, or that we were traveling to the coast or the Drakensberg mountains for a family vacation.

Of necessity we’ve had many mini-family conferences since relocating to Austin, during which we speak plainly with each another, helping counter the outward pulling-away-from happiness forces, verbalizing what we (should) most value in and from life – life, health, relationships, et cetera (the centripetal forces).

Our family, including newly grafted son-in-law

Our family, including newly grafted son-in-law

Such candid talks and times together help counter our many individually felt Berstein Bears’ jealous “Green-Eyed Monsters,” and put into perspective, say, why we’re living within our means for an undetermined period of time with donated 15-year-old and discounted 10-year-old sedans.

A final example.

The Atlantic‘s July/August, 2010 cover story was titled “The End of Men: How Women Are Taking Control of Everything.” For me, it marked the first in many articles chronicling present-day changing work and relational dynamics between the sexes, and specifically, identity and relational adjustments many men are confronted with these days.

That’s where my wife and I find ourselves, today.

Despite our choice of resigning and returning to the States. Despite my choice to assume temporary home management duties while my wife studies, it’s simply and presently a gnarly period of life (gnarly = difficult; a first-time usage I heard last night from one of my wife’s nursing colleagues).

Outward, pulling-away-from marital commitment feelings occur semi-regularly these days. Most of them, I suppose, associated with a reconfiguration of my traditional and culturally sculpted male identity.

How can my wife and I be close when we no longer share work relationships, commonalities and experiences? What will I do with the very real possibility that she’ll out-earn, “out-prestige” me for all future years?

Plus, as an advanced practice nurse the sky’s the limit for her, while each day at home and not “working” I feel like a white, male endangered species, this despite my postgraduate degree and overseas work credentials. The fearful and unknown future “what ifs” of life and their possible effects on marriage and primary relationships are sometimes near overwhelming.

Despite it all, here I sit at a Starbucks in San Antonio celebrating and enjoying time away with my wife. Despite the many centrifugal forces pulling outward and against family and marriage, we’ve managed to keep a proportionately higher balance of inward-pulling forces to outward-pulling ones. For this, we’re grateful to God and hopeful for the future. I wish the same for you and yours.

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Filed under Life, Perspective, Relationships