Friday, January 22, 2010

this american marriage

If the past month and a half had been a play, my family and I would be together for a holiday gathering. We would live in a rambling old Victorian, a la August: Osage County, and M- would be an owl-eyed guest, utterly clueless to the cracks in our family facade.

At some point during the 2nd course, my sister and her husband’s obvious unhappiness would spill into the gravy, dragging the holiday spirit into the fire and sending ashes over the rest of us. Revelations would be made; hypocrisies exposed. Confessions spat out. Identities and roles would be forever reversed.

And I, the family black sheep, would emerge the well-adjusted one.

Because if I (anti-authoritarian, knee-jerk, shrill, tarty, boozy, feminist and well stocked with pharma) am well-adjusted, then you know some serious shit has hit the fan.

‘I had an affair,’ my sister L- said. Her text message had sounded urgent so I was huddled in the guest bathroom of a friend’s house with a glass of wine and my mobile, waiting for her to spill it. ‘The guilt was killing me so I had to tell him.’
‘Jesus Christ. You *told* him?? Why the fuck did you tell him?’ All I could think about were all those Dateline episodes of cheated upon husbands who killed their wives, dumping their bodies in places like the La Brea tar pits or a shrubby ravine somewhere in the canyons.

‘There’s more.’
‘Jesus fucking Christ, L-. If you tell me you got pregnant I will fly to LA and take you to Planned Parenthood myself.’
‘I couldn’t if I tried.’ Sniffle.
‘I don’t get it.’

‘It was a woman. I had an affair with a woman.’


My office phone rang yesterday and my father was on the other end. When he told me what he told me, at least he asked permission first.

I groaned. ‘Geez, dad. Every time you tell me something I need a drink after. Why can’t you write it in your journal and I can read it when you die?’

My family has always had secrets. My father’s family secrets read like a black southern gothic: drug use, prostitution, child abuse, mental instability, ‘passing,’ sexual abuse, old-time religion, and denial. Everywhere, denial.

On my mother’s side there’s just a giant question mark. In a reversal of the usual Filipino immigrant narrative, my mother never tried to bring over any of her family. While they wrote often, it was clear my mother’s family was glad to see my mom over here and keep themselves over there. When they wrote my father at the news of her death they said how sorry they were. They also said they were sorry for the hard life my mother had had in the islands and that they were glad she was finally at peace.

The reason for sending her away was never made clear to either my sister or me. If my father knew, he kept my mother’s secret. At least, that secret. Her other secret she was willing to spill on her own.

My sister and I had both been in college when, one afternoon, my sister was home, watching Geraldo with my mother. It was an episode about biological mothers being reunited with the children they had given up for adoption.

Mom nudged my sister. ‘That’s me.’
‘That’s me. Before you and your sister, I had to give up a baby. You have another sister.’
My sister watched the rest of the episode with tears in her eyes. A week later she told me while we were walking down Bruin Walk, on our way to sell back out books at the end of the quarter. We were both laughing and crying while all I could say was ‘What the fuck? What the fuck?!’

Somewhere out there, we have an older Filipino/Hungarian half-sister. With every tv show about reuniting families, I feel a lump of dread. I don’t want to know her. I don’t want her to find us; the family I grew up with is all I need. Or so I thought. Barely three weeks into the new year, it is becoming clear that the family I have may not resemble the family I grew up with.

Back in my office, my father’s voice thickened over the phone.
‘I just don’t want you to hate your mother or me. Don’t hate your daddy.’
‘Dad, I could never. There is shit in everyone’s life. I have shit in my life. I just don’t tell you because, you know –boundaries.’
There was a short bit of silence then he said, ‘Do you remember when your mother stopped sleeping in the bedroom?’
‘When she slept on the couch for two years? I always thought that was menopause.’
‘Menopause? I never thought of that.’ His voice got all viscous again. ‘Your mom and I had stopped being intimate for a long while. She just wasn’t interested in all that anymore. So I had a same sex affair with – ‘

‘Do not tell me.’ I could guess who it was and even if I couldn’t I didn’t want to go back to Los Angeles and bump into my father’s ex-gay lover and actually know it. If it was who I thought it was, my anger toward him had a different source and I wanted to keep that with me. I didn’t want it clouded with empathy or sympathy.

‘Your sister…she’s like your mom but she’s like me.’ He added. ‘Why do you think I’ve always said I’ll never marry another woman after your mom?’

I’ve always known this. Well, I’ve known this since my mother died. I’ve known that my father was curious, was testing the bars of his cage. My friends had always suspected my father was gay and we had laughed about it over wine after every visit. Even now, my friends are sending me joking messages: “OMFG! We knew it! He was too well-dressed for an old guy!”

And so the faded, sepia-tinted mental photos I carried in my head about my family have begun to curl and crisp around the edges. I predict that in about 6 months, they will be all but ash and I will have new, more complicated images of my family and my childhood to carry with me.

What is it about marriage? What is it that squeezes the life out of a person? I’m not talking about partnership or love or devotion. I’m not even talking about cohabitation. I’m talking about the whole blinking thing. The Marriage. What about it turns those who believe in it into clichéd versions of 19th century domestic dramas?

I can’t decide if my sister is experiencing The Awakening or Madame Bovary; my father is wobbling in some kind of Maurice of his own and I’m looking at both of them wondering if any of this would be happening to them if they hadn’t been married in the first place. What did marriage force them to postpone?

There is something wrong with the way our culture packages, practices and defines marriage. Maybe it’s the presumption of monogamous heterosexuality. Maybe it’s the irrational investment the rest of us feel when it comes to someone else’s marriage. I found myself resisting the fact that my sister’s marriage was not the perfectly manicured Garden of Marital Bliss. When she told me they had been having trouble for seven years, the voice in my head whined, ‘Nooooo!’ When she paused after I asked her if she still loved her husband, I answered for her. ‘Of course you do! You do!’

Why try and push her to say that everything was fine when everything was SO NOT fine?

I had been proud of the marriage my sister had made. I was proud of the fact that she and her handsome husband had proven all of the statistics wrong. I loved the optics of their marriage. They were professional, brown, young, attractive, educated, smart, popular, wholesome, Catholic, and socially liberal/fiscally conservative; they had bright, gorgeous Black-y-Mex-y-Pino kids. They were the perfect foil against our low-income childhoods in South Central and Santa Monica. I loved that I could compare my wacky life to it and say to myself, ‘Their marriage makes my un-marriage necessary.’

But the pride I’d taken in their marriage makes me complicit in its disintegration. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who took emotional and visual pleasure in their marital status. Both families saw them as a way of correcting the past. We heaped such expectations on them – not to be like our parents, to do things the ‘right’ way. So when my sister cries out that she feels like she is being crushed and her husband says his loneliness is killing him, I feel as if our families’ (and friends’) desire for someone to have that perfect marriage has been yet another weight upon their chests.

In my office I had been on the phone with my father for almost an hour, looking at the river, listening to his gay affair confession and his notion that all marriage reaches an inevitable point of impasse. It was depressing as hell to hear and to think that my father could only become the fuller person that he is now after his wife died. Is that what it takes to be happy and authentic? For your spouse to fucking die off?

‘LB (my brother in law) wants to have a three-way with you and me,’ my dad said.
‘What the hell?!’ I said. Had my brother in law snapped? Was he reaching out for any freaky opportunity for retaliation at my sister?
‘He really needs to talk to someone, Del. He’s been calling me for the past three days and I think he’d like to talk with you, too.’
‘Dad, the term is ‘conference call.’ He would like to have a conference call with us. Jesus.’
‘That’s what I meant, girl!’

I let it go.

I’m going to have to let everything go. Just like they are.

[Updated to change the title.]


bitchphd said...


2. My current working theory about why marriage does that is twofold. First, secrets/fear--everyone has them. We all develo coping mehanisms, blah blah, and the main reason stuff like this seems shocking is that ppl keep it secret, so it's all recursive and shit. The second part is the marriage thing, and I don't think it's marriage per se but rather intimacy ( which is why parent/adult child stuff is almost as fraught, but at least we don't live with our parents). Lasting intimacy is gonna demand that at some point ppl face their demons and tell each other the truth. Otherwise you end up with lasting relationships built on lies and forms rather than real connection. But having to face demons is fucking painful and hard, which is why a lot of marriages
don't survive. I suspect lasting marriages are either about going through the motions or (rarely) have some really, really painful shit that's been gone through at some point.

Anonymous said...

Yes, you so need to write a book. Great post

Orange said...

Deep, deep stuff. Whoa. And wow—incredibly well-written and thoughtful.

Copy and paste into the Word file where you're assembling your book, m'kay?

Friend of mine's dad came out when his daughters were in their teens. Acrimonious marriage, but in recent years, 20 years post-divorce? He's the #1 helper for his ex-wife. She's disabled now and he was the one who moved in to take care of her after surgery, not any of her four daughters.

SiddityintheCity said...

Speechless. While we wait for your book, can you position this piece in an anthology, the Atlantic, *something*?

jp 吉平 said...

And now you're sharing it with us.

I'm so sorry for all the pain in our family, ding, and as the story develops I for one am hoping for joy and redemption.

And I feel bad for saying this, but this situation could not have fallen upon a more gifted writer.

No Nonsense said...

Jesus fu@#ing Christ Ding "All in one post!" I mean.. I'm speechless... Let me digest this and return.

Guuurl Whoa

Songbird said...

On marriage, I echo bitch. Making it work, having a relationship that opens people rather than limiting them, requires a strange combination of risking and trusting. It's not what it was: a secure social institution intended to establish and maintain boundaries (and I use that word with it's property implications). Can it be a crucible for psycho-spiritual development? Yes, but we rarely experience it that way.
Anyway, your writing is powerful, thank you for inviting us to know it. If I were your sister, I would be grateful to have one like you.

liza said...

It's so hard being the confidante, the confessor. I'm sorry about all the pain; family is hard. Intimacy, like others here have said, is really hard. Being that close and maintaining your boundaries, ay.

Have to laugh about your dad's hilarious malapropism though.

thenutfantastic said...

3rd the comment on marriage: unless both persons in a marriage are willing to open themselves up totally, risk getting hurt or hurting the others feelings from time-to-time and genuinely trusting each other, the marriage has a greater likelihood of failing (what I learned the first time around).

For the most part, I am anti-marriage myself for the very reasons you have described and bitch proposed. It takes a special someone to be willing to go through all life's trials and tribulations with you on a deeply risky emotional level. And be willing to make and hopefully learn from those mistakes then stick around for the results.

Delia Christina said...

1. Yeah, I'm coming closer to that book idea. If everyone and their mother can write a family dysfunctional memoir, why can't I??

2. Marriage. What strikes me is how the institution (sometimes/often) forces folks to disregard the fact (because it is a fact) that there is more than one way of doing it. My family is a prime example of binary thinking: there's Bad Marriage and there's Good Marriage. They all set out to have a Good Marriage which, to my mind, entailed repression, lack of communication, no self-awareness, a refusal to change (or allow their partner to change), emotional immaturity, an over-reliance on outdated 'rules', and bizarre attitudes toward sex/pleasure.

3. I've always suspected that committed relationships take a level of emotional trust that has always been beyond my capacity. (Which is Why I'm Not Married.) What makes me so sad is to think of how scared both my sister and brother in law are right now. They're scared of the unknown - both within themselves and what might happen with their family (which is spinning closer and closer to dissolution if they don't seek some kind of counseling, which they refuse to do.)

I'm sympathetic to that kind of fear but at the same time I don't get it.

Delia Christina said...

Oh, and if anyone would be interested in giving me some coaching about getting together a book, let me know.

I'm clueless!

Hopeful said...

Humbly I say this to you, this does not mean that you will have a bad marriage, this does not mean that your relationship will end up like theirs. This means that you have been free to make better choices and decisions about your life. We learn from the mistakes of others. Live truthfully, live honestly, and face the ugliness about YOU and deal with it.

Marriage is not overrated, marriage is a constant work in progress. Hopefully you will one day see it as that and not compare other peoples mistakes with your future.

As always wishing the best for you.

I am praying for you and your family.

Navi said...

I wonder if anyone is truly our candy coated version of happy. I can't say my own life is. It's stressful and full of drama. But overall, I think I'm satisfied.

We've discussed on twitter how I married as young as your sister.

I've not had the perfect marriage though. My husband is bipolar; most of our friends were betting it wouldn't last. There have been a handful of times it almost didn't.

I think part of the reason we are still together is we're stubborn, and we both know we need someone, and we don't know if anyone else out there will take as good care of us as we do, because regardless of all the crap we've gone through, we still love each other, and we still complement each other, and we can't stand the other being hurt.

We were engaged in highschool. I got pregnant in college, and we married shortly thereafter. I've never managed to finish school. We have 3 kids, one of whom is severely autistic. The two girls older and younger are ridiculously bright. The oldest has ADHD.

He's never managed to hold a job for more than 3 years; the 3 year one was seasonal. I switched jobs often until I landed where I am now.

We bought a house - he wanted one - me, I just agreed, because with 3 kids, it's cheaper than renting, in our area.

We don't have a lot of money, we've had a lot of heartache, but overall, I think we're satisfied. I think maybe the fact that we don't dwell so much on what we could be without the other helps us. It's a dangerous thought, that should be saved only for fantasies and fears.

I don't think, even though I've been married since I was young, I'm really missing anything that I'd want more than this marriage, and our kids.

That said, I look at my sister - she did it 'right.' She got married when she was almost done with college, and after her husband was on his way to his PhD. Waited to have children until after they were both done with school and had jobs. She got laid off from hers, when she was pregnant with her son, but her husband made enough for her to be a stay at home mom. They had a nice house outside Chicago. They did it right.

Turns out the marriage was miserable. I remember, when she told me he wanted a divorce, and she was trying stay married, and I was listening to her, I had to point out, multiple times, that she was walking on eggshells with her husband far more than I have to with mine who has a pretty serious mental disorder, and there was something wrong with that.

She finally, thankfully, accepted the end of her marriage. But her goals mirrored mine, in that she wants a family, for her she wants a perfectly nuclear family. She went husband searching as soon as she got divorced. She went through some pretty bad relationships, until she finally found someone who loves her, loves her kids, and has the same goals as she does. He lacks a college degree, and to me, that shows maturity in her, that what he does for a living doesn't matter. But rather than thinking she did things right, as I used to, I just hope her new life is as good for her, and her children, as it looks.

No Nonsense said...

I'm baack! Took me a while:-0

We have been brained-washed into thinking of marriage as a "perfect" institution(I swear to god it all those god-damn fairy tale garbage we read as kid that has warped our minds.) The fact is, its relative. What works for me may not work for someone else and we simple need to acknowledge and accept it not judge. We also seem to project our own ideals of what "marriage" means on to other couples which is why we become disappointed and/or angry when a friend or family member divorce, separate or behave in ways which we disagree how a married person should "behave".( we see it play out in our MSM time and time again).

I had a friend who when she announce that she was getting a divorce I burst out crying as if it was my marriage that was in heaps. Why? It took me a while to figure out that I had held her marriage as "the storybook" ideal. When there isn't such thing!

You can only be true you and hope that you partner can be true themselves. But it's a work in progress

No Nonsense said...

BTW I just had another thought. If those fairy-tale instead of ending with "happily ever-after" ended with " They lived in a state of constant work on forgiveness and emotional growth" Nobody would fucking get married...who the hell wants to constantly work!

Lee said...

This may be the single most interesting blog post I've ever read. I wanted to go get a bag of chips and eat it while reading. Good God you're awesome.

Delia Christina said...

I just wanted to thank everyone for sharing what they could about their own relationships. Gracious, think of the hours of marriage/couples counseling saved if everyone could be as articulate and thoughtful saying similar things about their partnerships with their partners!

I know that I'll always be leery of Marriage. It's probably not going to be a plot point in the narrative of my life. And I say that without any regret or wistfulness.

But when I see one that seems to 'work' I cheer for it because of the reasons some of you mentioned: the sheer amount of emotional vulnerability/trust you have to pour into another person deserves some reward.

So a golf clap to all you complexily happy Marrieds. You've earned it.

@Lee - stay tuned.