Friday, July 26, 2013

Infidelity: Posing the Tough Questions

The single family member who looms largest in my mind is my grandfather. As is true with many who lose highly influential figures at a young age, I am left more with a sense of loss because of his absence than a sense of joy for the short time he was in my life. I was nearly seven when he passed away after a traumatic, torturous bout with cancer. Often, I wonder what it would have been like if he'd lived to see me enter high school or even graduate from college.

In his lifetime, my grandfather was a force to be reckoned with and even today the memories of his deeds and words have reached nearly mythic proportions. He was a highly complicated person who suffered from bipolar disorder (undiagnosed and untreated), a Napoleonic complex, and the misfortune to have discovered the suicide of his first wife. He never spoke about the combined impact of each of these things, but in those days, men rarely did.

This latest Anthony Weiner/Huma Abedin controversy affects me in a way that may not be true for others. No doubt most people in monogamous relationships have contemplated, in the abstract, how it might feel to have a spouse or partner cheat on them. Others may not have to pretend, having dealt with infidelity a time or two themselves. The real question is a personal decision not likely made easily. Whether the wronged party will leave or go seems simple enough to us. That being said, what goes on behind closed doors is not as easily resolved as we might think.

My grandfather was the center of the universe in his household. His spirited, passionate opinions were gospel. He was as well-known for his encyclopedic knowledge of current events as he was for his almost comical impatience. In his prime, Grandfather possessed movie star good looks and kept them well into middle age. His height was a topic never to be discussed. To give himself an extra inch or two he wore shoes with elevated heels.

He was also routinely unfaithful to my grandmother. The first time it happened, his wife, my grandmother, strongly threatened to leave him. By then, they had two small boys together and a struggling family business. In no unequivocal terms, she gave him an ultimatum. Leave the other woman and return to her, or else. If he was not willing to do what she asked, she vowed to take the kids with her to a place where he would never find any of them again.

As family legend goes, a momentarily chastened man returned to his wife and all was forgiven, eventually. In truth, I'm not sure if he ditched his mistress or not. His wandering eye might not have been on the same level as Don Draper of Mad Men fame, but it was close. My grandmother eventually learned to live with it, making no further demands. After a while, she had no more energy left to expend and wasn't sure any efforts to curtail his behavior would be successful. Once he made up his mind to do something, no preventative measures made much difference one way or another.

My grandparents stayed married to each other until his death. My grandmother outlived him by nearly fifteen years, finally passing away when I was in my early twenties. No doubt she took many secrets with her to the grave. The family she'd kept up, sometimes in his absence, was good at brushing problems under the rug. In fact, it wasn't until recently that a close family member shared these stories with me.

Returning to Anthony Weiner and his faithful wife, I find I can't really blame her for staying. What she has decided is a personal decision on her part and, for now, I'll give her the benefit of the doubt. I recognize that women today are not bound by the same standards and social inequalities of their own grandmothers. But when it comes down to passing strong judgment, I look within my own family to form my opinion. I observe what happened back then and wonder what could have been done differently. Unwilling to speak truth, a family that keeps secrets stays this way forever.

In this day and age, it's more difficult to keep infidelity secret. Any politician intent on cheating in an era of the immediacy of electronic communication is playing with fire. They run a risk 1,000 times greater than any ordinary person of being caught and exposed. The question that might never be answered to anyone's satisfaction is "why?" Within my own family, I'll never be privy to that information, but the thought has crossed my mind many times over the years.

Six seasons of Mad Men have postulated that skirt-chaser Don Draper's behavior is a product of his own dysfunctional upbringing. I can't say that I understand the full significance of the perpetual flashbacks that reveal Draper's past, but it makes for interesting speculation. Anthony Weiner alone knows why he craved sexual partners outside of marriage, despite marrying the perfect political wife, a woman who happens to be quite beautiful as well. Until we hear some honest details, all our speculation is moot.

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