I watched Bridges of Madison County last night. In the beginning of the movie, the adult children of Francesca grapple with the reality that their Mother had a love affair with a man who was not their father. They didn’t find out until after she died, and the story was written in journals for them to read after her death. They were faced with the reality of a woman who did not fit into the image of the mother they thought they had. The son was struggling to make his marriage work and felt very shameful and guilty about it. The daughter was caught in a bad marriage filled with infidelity that she dared not leave because, in her words, “it was the way we were raised.”
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more and more disillusioned with marriage. I’ve suffered two divorces myself, and I’ve seen countless friends struggle with infidelity – their own and their spouse’s. I’ve seen marriages fall apart because of secrets about money, abuse and other problems that were completely hidden from one spouse until the inevitable day that the house crumbled to the ground. I’ve also seen my friends struggle with shame and self-loathing about things they’ve done that were supposedly sinful or morally wrong only to find out that one of their parents or grandparents had the same issue. They were never told. The secret was kept in the family, but the energy and the patterns presented by the behavior were inevitably passed down to the next generation. I don’t believe, as some do, that marriage has changed and people have become more immoral. I believe that these behaviors have probably always been happening. It’s just that we now have counseling and more acceptance of what is deemed immoral behavior, so people can talk about it.
I have a friend who had an abortion with his partner when he was young. He has villainized abortion to his two children. I was shocked when he told me of his secret because he was so anti-abortion. I know that he’s probably against it because he knows the pain and the guilt he suffered, but if he would share openly about that, he would probably be doing his kids a favor. Somewhere in his family tree, someone will need to make the choice – and it is legal in this country, by the way – and they will be unable to talk openly about their decision in a non-judgmental way. They will likely make the same choice because they don’t have the ability to talk about their feelings and fears.
One of the things I love about sponsorship in 12 step programs is having the ability to share whatever is going on with me without judgment. Not all sponsors are capable of walking through choices in such an open way, but mine is. It is a true gift for me to have someone to listen to me and help me talk through choices I have even if we both think they are immoral or not healthy. “The world is gray,” my sponsor told me today. I’ve struggled with black and white thinking all my life. This is right. That is wrong. If you do this, you will go to hell. If you do that, you are a bad person. I’ve done most of it. And, I kept a lot of it a secret until the last ten or so years. The secrets didn’t help me heal. The secrets only allowed me to feel more shameful and repeat the very behaviors that I felt bad about. We are all sinners, the Bible tells us. But churches and religions tell us that we shouldn’t be. Jesus accepted it as fact. Why can’t we?
I went to a workshop where we did a genogram. It’s a family map that shows family “cutoffs”, mental issues, problems, immoral behavior, conflicts and anything else that contributes to family dynamics. In my personal work, I’ve found that all families have stuff. So, I assumed that when we discussed our genograms, I would find people with families very similar to mine. There were some, but what I found out is that families have their own particular brand of stuff going on. Some peoples’ family stuff was stuff I’d never heard of, but it was repeated over and over within the family tree. The irony is that most of it was supposed to be secret. So, when parents don’t want their kids to know what’s going on out of fear that they will repeat it, that’s not a valid fear. The fear should be that if I keep it a secret, they will repeat it. I have friends whose fathers were sex addicts and porn addicts, and they went on to marry the same. They had no idea their fathers had this addiction until their mothers begrudgingly told them years after their own marital work began. We learn patterns of interacting without even knowing what is going on. We learn codependency. We learn addiction. We learn infidelity. We learn financial insolvency. We learn it all with no conscious awareness that it is happening.
This is a critical reason to become authentic. We can’t stop patterns in families without allowing the truth to be known and to be processed. The patterns perpetuate themselves, and the shame that people feel when they are drawn to certain behaviors causes increasingly more dysfunction to numb the pain of the shame. What would happen in marriages if people were able to be open and share about their attraction to others – or even infidelity – instead of keeping it a secret? What if we normalized immorality? I can tell you this – most things that we think are immoral ARE normal. I know the Bridges of Madison County is fiction, but how much could Francesca have taught her daughter about what was happening in her marriage if she’d just been truthful about being imperfect? What would she have taught her children about marriage that might have helped them walked through struggles differently or would have given them permission to see alternatives that maybe weren’t that mainstream? We are all going to fail miserably at those very values that we hold most dear. I have. I’m so grateful to have someone to talk to that doesn’t judge me. I judge myself horribly, and, if it wasn’t for my sponsor/sponsee relationship, I would have no way to get feedback on what is black, what is white and what is gray. At midlife, I’m just learning to grapple with gray. How much more colorful would my life have been if I had accepted gray as an alternative to black and white?