Bettina Arndt dissects a morality tale for our times.
This article appeared in Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 1997.
In a comfortable suburb in Sydney, a tale is unravelling, a tangled web of personal betrayal that is dramatically altering the lives of the adults and children concerned.
To dissect this modern muddle, I gathered a diverse group of well-known Australians, seeking their reactions to the ethical dilemmas faced by the participants in our tale.
The story so far . . . The wife is in her mid- to late-30s, married 14 years, a slim, attractive mother of three children under 10. Just over two years ago, her husband announced that he had been having an affair. A crisis ensued in their marriage, but, after much angst, they decided to stay together. The other woman moved interstate. Three months ago the husband had a phone call from the other woman. She moved back to Sydney, the affair resumed and the mistress became pregnant.
So there it is – a situation rife with conflicting loyalties and the most fearful implications for all their lives.
As of this week, the married couple have decided to stay together. The husband announced the decision to his mistress, saying he would prefer that she not proceed with the pregnancy. Her reaction was outrage. Now 12 weeks pregnant, she is determined to become a single mother. The complications have hardly begun.
“The thing that’s hurt me most is that he has failed in his most basic duty to protect the kids and me. He has handed someone a loaded gun, pointed it at us, put her hand on the trigger and said, ‘Here you go.’ ” Oh yes, the wife is angry, disgusted, deeply hurt. She is furious at her husband’s repeated betrayals – she now knows there were other affairs earlier in the marriage. She believes he deserves the mess he is now in – “You can’t play with dynamite and then say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it was going to blow up the house.’ ”
She’s not sure their marriage will survive but is loath to throw it away. She loves her husband and believes him when he tells her his primary commitment is to her. After his fall from his pedestal two years ago, she has built herself a more independent life based on a marriage she still sees as offering her great satisfaction.
“Maybe I should say, stuff it, get out, start a new life, but look – we are deeply affectionate, we cuddle together, have good sex. There’s no fighting or screaming. We’re great friends; he’s the one I turn to when I need comfort.”
And there are the children: “I think the kids deserve a chance at a close and loving family unit. I think it would destroy them if we split up. If I had to deal with my children’s grief at the moment, I’d go under.”
Besides, she doesn’t want the wicked witch to win. A great deal of the wife’s anger is directed at the “woman with the gun”. “There’s an element of pride here that says, ‘You are not going to break up my marriage. I won’t let you destroy me and let you force me into a situation where I have to hurt my kids any more than I have to’.”
And the husband? Well, he is clearly grateful not to be out on the streets. He’s doing some heavy soul-searching as to how he landed in such a mess. “My greatest sin wasn’t just that I was unfaithful but that I told so many lies to achieve it. It was the deception. I felt such enormous relief when I finally told my wife.”
The man talks about being devastated about how much he has hurt his wife and put his family at risk. But he describes how, at the time, he tuned his family out.”It wasn’t that I consciously thought, I’m going to deceive my wife. You actually don’t think like that. In my head all that was absolutely safe and secure. It didn’t have any impact on my marriage.” * * * BUT what about the mistress? The motivation of the 34-year-old woman provoked wide reactions from our commentators, particularly as she had told the husband she was on the birth control pill. (I was not able to contact the mistress for this article.)
“It’s a form of moral thuggery!” This indignation from a prominent Sydney man about town clearly spoke to his own vulnerability. This Sydney player is a veteran of numerous affairs and knows he has been treading a minefield: “Let’s not kid ourselves. Women know what they are doing in terms of contraception, but every now and then a certain kind of woman will pull out the safety valve and say, ‘Now you’re stuck’. It’s one of the oldest tricks for getting your man.”
Just as many women, particularly married women, as men were convinced the pregnancy was planned:
“It is used as a tactic in these type of wars,” said the Melbourne businesswoman Poppy King.
“The risk is always there,” agrees media personality Ita Buttrose. “Men have to understand that if you are having extracurricular activity the odds are that, if the woman is in love with you, she’ll want to have your baby.”
The writer David Malouf had a slightly different spin on it. “We are often both selfish and irresponsible when it comes to those kinds of needs,” he said. “If you have never seen the wife or children, you may say to yourself, ‘This man is unhappy, he may not have the courage to make this move but I’m doing the best thing by making it for him’.”
A VERY different view came from some single women in their 30s. The Macquarie University media studies lecturer Catharine Lumby bristled at the suggestion that the pregnancy would have been deliberate: “The idea that women in my age group who are childless are somehow predatory and manipulative is really wrong. The reason many women in my age group remain unmarried or childless is testament to the complexity of what they want from men. Why would we want a married man – he’s already lied to one woman, what are the odds he’s going to do it to you?”
Lumby made the point that men’s carelessness leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. “While I personally would never take advantage of a male’s lack of interest in contraception, I think men are so prepared to leave it up to women that some women see them as fair game for that reason.” She was willing to acknowledge that affairs with single women in their 30s do carry an extra risk: “If I was a man who was having sex with a single woman in her mid-30s, I’d always wear a condom. I think many women in my age group are ambivalent about wanting a child. There’s a sense that if they do get pregnant, oh well, that’s fate.”
I heard it again and again from women in this age group. They talked about the “deliberate accident”, becoming that little more careless. If it happens, it happens . . .
And if it happens with a married man? Lumby, a committed feminist, argued strongly that most women she knows would steer clear of married men out of loyalty to the wife. “I think there’s a strong feeling of solidarity about women rather than competition. Most women I know would be very concerned about betraying another woman.”
There’s no doubt that this is part of the motivation for the many single women who deliberately steer clear of married men. But most people doubt whether feminist principles really stand for much when the chips are down. “It would be, in my mind, ‘what a terrible thing to do to another woman’. But it wouldn’t stop you when you are in that crazed, lustful state or convinced that this was a grand passion of epic proportions,” said one single woman in her mid-30s.
The NSW Liberal senator Helen Coonan describes herself as a feminist and has a long history of supporting women’s causes. Yet she doubts sisterly loyalties can withstand the forces of lust and passion: “Sisterhood! Oh, come on! If you want a man, nothing is going to stand in your way. There must be countless broken marriages where sisterhood has counted for naught.” * * * THE most telling issue, revealing the deepest rifts and confusion, concerned the decision of the wife to stay in the marriage.
What emerged was abundant evidence of the firm grip on societal values of the new view of marriage based on open communication, complete honesty and fidelity. Sexual betrayal is seen as an assault on these new values – more than the sexual act itself, the crime is now deceit.And for many, that crime is so devastating that it sweeps aside the traditional glue for long-term relationships – like a lifelong pledge to mutual loyalty and support, the valuing of continuity and long-term caring, commitment to marriage as a child-rearing institution.
Those traditional values now stand for little, particularly for the young. It was the younger people I spoke to who were most likely to see sexual betrayal as annihilating any lasting value to the marriage. Nick Testoni, the hunky young star of Channel 9′s Home and Away, was sure that, in the wife’s place, he would be on his way. “There’s too much water under the bridge.” Testoni is the child of a broken marriage and sees little point in staying together for the sake of the children.
The actor Nick Giannopoulos, of Wog Boys fame, who is 34 and single, was inclined to agree. “The vows have been broken. Once they are broken, they’re broken. I can’t see why they’d stay married.”
“Flick him, flick him,” echoed the single women working with Giannopoulos, who overheard our conversation.
There was also a group of married men, each expressing a strong commitment to fidelity, who were fierce in their condemnation of the husband and in their belief that the marriage was doomed. Like the chairman of PBL Online, Daniel Petre – “On the face of it the man’s a bastard. Anyone can make a mistake, but when there’s been a pattern of betrayal, that shows a real lack of moral fibre on the part of the man. They shouldn’t be trying to salvage the marriage.”
But where the wife’s current decision met with support was from married people, usually somewhat older, who were more prepared to accept mistakes and compromises for the sake of long-term growth and commitment.
Geraldine Doogue, the ABC radio presenter: “No, I don’t think she’s crazy staying in the marriage. I think you’d need to do an audit of the relationship and be quite ruthless about what the marriage still offered you and what you would give up by leaving. And you’d have to find an explanation for his behaviour that had some integrity . . . otherwise it will come up and bite you.”
But there’s no doubting the depth of emotion now associated with sexual betrayal. For many, it cuts to the quick, wounding so deeply as to deny any rational response. Listen to the Canberra writer Sara Dowse, well known for novels of great emotional complexity: “I’m an impulsive person. I think I would leave. I would say this has gone too far. I’d have a hell of a time and my kids would have a hell of a time and with hindsight it would be a stupid thing to do. But I would probably leave.”
Yet Dowse actually felt the wife was doing the right thing in deciding to stay. “I think marriages are something more than who you sleep with. If a marriage in every other respect was a solid marriage, then you have to ask yourself what is marriage about? Marriage is about having children and giving them a stable environment, having long, solid relationships which provide continuity. So if she still maintains her love and respect for her husband, she’s right not to subject her kids to a broken marriage.”
The marriage continues, but is under threat from the impending arrival of the mistress’s child. The birth of this child reflects one of the most startling changes that has occurred in recent social history.The shifts in social attitudes that have allowed this woman to proudly bear such a child were well meant. Who could deny the virtue of sparing children the stain of illegitimacy, or their mothers the pain of living as outcasts while their married lovers remained untouched, protected by the sanctity of marriage? Surely we must applaud women’s right to make decisions about their bodies and their lives – to bear children, if it suits them, to choose for or against abortion? Our desire to allow people to escape grim, hate-filled marriages inevitably meant embracing all family structures as equally valuable.
But in celebrating the virtues of this modern age, who could have imagined the chaos resulting from our new shameless society – the loss of the social sanctions that had placed some constraints on the indulgence of personal desires and that had promised children a stable upbringing.
Perhaps the most startling evidence of this shift came, in this morality tale, when the husband told his mistress he was staying in the marriage and preferred her not to have the child.
The husband then had a phone call from the mistress’s father, whom he had met a number of times. The father was clearly angry at the husband’s decision: “And I thought you were a decent bloke!” he told him.
The wife, foolishly perhaps, then wrote to the father – a long, emotive letter pleading that the mistress consider her children in deciding whether to continue with the pregnancy. “Can you put yourself in my position and imagine the hurt these children will feel when they find out their Dad fathered a child outside his marriage?”
This action provoked a range of responses from my commentators – from understanding the wife’s despair to outrage that she would dare pit her children’s needs against those of the unborn child.
“If the wife contacted me and said, ‘How dare you do that to my children?’ I’d say, ‘Listen, sister! I have a right to a baby too you know!”’ This woman, single and in her mid-30s, is affronted by the notion that the mistress has any obligation to consider the impact on the other children of proceeding with the pregnancy.
But many others disagreed, most feeling that while the father had no right to impose his desire for an abortion on the woman, there was some onus on her to consider all others affected by her decision.
I had fascinating conversations with several former mistresses, including one who had raised two of her lover’s children as a single mother. In all cases, havoc had resulted from the affairs – marriages broken, children hurt. All these women now express some regret at what they did.
“I feel bad about it now,” said the single mother, who is now very conscious of how the children of the marriage were damaged by the whole situation. “I guess it was because I was single and just plain selfish. I didn’t have the life experience to understand the enormity of what we were doing. Now that I have had children, I understand more and wouldn’t have done it.”
And now the parents, the guilty husband and his betrayed wife, face another dilemma – whether to tell their children about the other sibling.
Here, too, what emerges from our commentators is the modern belief in the immense destructive power of the secret – belief in the ’90s mantra that truth is the great redeeming power.
Marriage counsellors line up to condemn secrets as poisonous, capable of undoing the most loving care and devotion. The three children should be told right now, they tell me. Otherwise, one day, when the mistress’s child appears and the truth is revealed, all will be undone by this huge deception. The children’s trust will be shattered.
Many believe it, like the Melbourne playwright Joanna Murray-Smith. “I don’t think it would be so traumatic for the kids. I would say from the beginning, ‘Daddy’s having another baby, but it’s all right, he’s staying with us. We’ll just see the baby sometimes.’ Then in a few years’ time, more about the true situation would be explained to them. I would want my children to know their half-sibling.”
Most of the younger people I spoke to agreed. They mentioned how betrayed adoptees feel when they discover late the circumstances of their birth – “Their whole lives have been based on a lie!”
But others were equally emphatic that the children are too young, that to reveal such a secret would cause great confusion and disturb their security.
“I don’t agree with the therapist’s notion that everything has to be told. Why should children know all the nasty things their parents do? There are many adult transgress-ions which are none of children’s business,” said Don Edgar, a former director of the Institute of Family Studies, who discusses related issues in his new book, Men, Mateship and Marriage (Harper Collins, 1997).
Edgar thought the children would eventually have to be told, but he believed in the wisdom of delaying the cataclysm. “The older the kids are, the more they are likely to understand and accept it.”
There was widespread consensus that the husband does have obligations to the unborn child. He is legally required to pay child support – which rankles with a few, particularly when deliberate deception is suspected.
As this story demonstrates, giving illegitimate children the same status and legal rights to financial support as legitimate children may well be shining a green light to women to have children in these circumstances, as well as severely undermining the marriage.
But today’s prevailing wisdom focuses not on the dire social consequences of this trend but on the rights of the innocent new child to know his father. And there’s the rub. The husband is keen to do the right thing. “I’d like to think that, in 15 years’ time, if a child turned up, he would see me as someone who had done my bit. I’m feeling terribly guilty about all of it, but at the end of the day the way through is to accept my responsibilities rather than run away from them.”
But it is here his bruised wife is drawing her line in the sand. She doesn’t want him to have anything to do with the child. Yes, they will be required to pay financial support, but that’s it. “I feel somewhere along the line I’ve got to say, ‘No’. I don’t want to be reasonable. I don’t care about that child’s rights. I don’t want him to have anything to do with that child. Deep in my heart I hope it dies.”
She rankles at talk of the innocent child. “I’m innocent too! My children are innocent. What gives someone the right to walk in and stuff up your life, destroy your family and we get to pay for the privilege of it? And there’s nothing I can do to protect my children.”
It was her husband who gave the other woman that right. But perhaps it was also our society’s new values – the championing of individual freedom and rights to self-fulfilment. Our embracing of women’s rights to control their bodies, to choose their own path.
That’s what led to the tragedy of these two women, set to fight tooth and nail for their children and against each other. With pain as the only possible outcome.