I am in a quandary about sharing a letter I got from my second cousin “Gary,” who recently died at 77 of a heart attack.
I did not have contact with Gary’s family for many years, and I always wondered what happened to them. I loved them, but when you move hundreds of miles away bonds get broken. A while ago I found pictures of our extended family and friends at birthday parties, including one of all our parents—Gary’s and mine—celebrating at a club before their marriage. I tracked down Gary’s work address through Google, and wrote a short note, something like: “You might think it strange to hear from someone after all these years, but I thought you might enjoy these photos.” He wrote back immediately saying how happy he was to hear from me, and wrote a five-page narrative of his life since we’d last seen each other (when we were freshman at a Massachusetts college). In subsequent emails he sent many photos of the children from his three marriages, and told me about the wonderful decades with his last wife and their son.
I’m thinking of asking Gary’s son if he would like to read the account of his father’s life, but I don’t know whether it is ethical to share emails that may have been written in confidence. The son wrote to thank me for the childhood photos I sent to the huge listserv of Gary’s friends and family. Gary had often shared photos and thoughts on that listserv.
The thing is, his autobiographical narrative contains material parents might not want their children to know about. Gary was quite a mischievous adolescent and got kicked out of several schools. His uncle and father had both been well-known doctors and all the males in the family were expected to go to med school, but Gary hated pre-med. When he finally convinced his parents to support him in studying for the career he wanted, architecture, he became quite focused, excelled in his field, raised four wholesome children, and mentored many others. His obituary headline referred to him as “Beloved Architect and Teacher.”
The autobiography also mentioned his mistakes with marrying too young, and then later marrying a terrible woman on the rebound. He was quite a good writer and had a really good sense of humor tinged with upbeat reflections on the past. As he looked back he was sorry that he had caused his parents so much trouble.
June, do you think I should offer to send his son a copy of his autobiographical summary?
Hesitant in Harrisburg
Probably, but I would like to know just a couple more things to be on the safe side. From the “thoughts” Gary liked to share on the extensive listserv, I get the impression that he was open about—or, at least, did not especially want to hide—his past and his opinions. Nor does being a “mischievous adolescent,” even to the extent of getting kicked out of school, sound like the kind of dark secret that should be preserved beyond the grave from someone’s middle-aged son, especially when the decedent’s second cousin already knows all about it. Unless there is something you have not told me—say, if Gary was known for being reticent where his kids were concerned, or if his “mischief” involved the kind of turpitude that might really shake up a child—I see no harm in sending Gary’s son the e-mail. In fact, I bet he knows the gist of it already; but even if some aspects of Gary’s misspent youth come as a surprise to the son, it may be heartening or even inspiring to read about how Dad pulled himself together once he felt able to pursue his chosen vocation.
I am more concerned about the two previous marriages than the adolescent misbehavior. I have been assuming, as your letter seems to imply, that the son in question is from that third, happy marriage. But there are three other kids, and it sounds as if at least some of them were from the earlier marriages—either the youthful mistake, or the marriage to the “awful woman.” If your correspondent is a product of either of these marriages, I would read the letter carefully to make sure there’s nothing in it—no new information, no harsh judgments—that could hurt his feelings. And even if he is from the “good marriage,” you should alert him to any content that might offend his half-siblings or their mothers, and warn him to redact it before posting it where they might come across it.
Gary’s son sounds as candid and curious as his father, and as eager for family information. Unless the letter disses Mom—his mom, that is, not one of the other wives—or reveals some truly repellent youthful misconduct on Gary’s part, I am sure that his son will be delighted to have it.
La Wally’s response:
June will have to handle this one. Part of me thinks the son has the right to know. But how do we know whether it will be hurtful to him?
I have been with “Luke,” as I’ll call him, for four years—since my junior year in college—and married for two of them. It’s easy to say this now, but looking back it seems to me that, even before we got married, I had a sense that something was not quite right. Luke was never very talkative or demonstrative or even warm, really. But in some ways I was drawn to that: I talk a lot myself, and am maybe kind of messy emotionally, and his reserve seemed like a sign of some sort of masculine power—you know, the strong silent type. Maybe I was masochistic or insecure, or maybe just naïve. But that doesn’t really matter at this point.
Anyway, for the past year at least he seemed to be getting worse, or I noticed it more. He insisted on more and more rules for how we lived: we always had to eat the same things, cooked exactly the same way, and sit in the same chairs, go to bed at exactly the same time, stack the dishes in the same way. He totally lost it when I came home with a different brand of paper towel. But I always knew he was fussy, and I think I could live with that. What’s worse is that he hardly ever looks me in the eye, never says anything affectionate, almost never touches me except when we have sex, and never kisses me at all except for symbolic pecks on the cheek when he leaves or arrives home. If I ask him whether he loves me, he says “yes, of course,” but I swear that he has more emotion in his voice when he asks me to pass the green beans.
Sorry. I am getting to the point here, really—which is that I got so concerned about our marriage that I convinced Luke to go with me to a therapist, and she had him tested, and it turns out that Luke is “on the spectrum,” as they say. It seems that, although he is very high functioning in the sense that he has a job in tech where he gets a lot of respect and makes plenty of money, Luke has most of the indicia that put people on the autism spectrum.
June, I was looking for help, not a diagnosis. In a way it is kind of a relief to have an explanation for what’s wrong. But I don’ t think it solves very many of our problems. I’m not sure that Luke really respects me or that I interest him very much. And I don’t know if I’ll be able to live with his unromantic nature and his rigid routines for the rest of my life.
But now I feel stuck, since I vowed to stay with Luke in sickness and in health. It would be terribly hard for him if we split up: I know how much he hates change. Am I morally obligated to stay with him? What should I do next?
Terrified in Tenafly
I do not believe that you are morally obligated to stay with Luke simply because of your marriage vows. Of course, some people hold the ethical or religious view that the marriage bond is unbreakable, or that it can be severed only in a few very limited, well-defined circumstances such as adultery or desertion. But I am not one of these people. You married young, and have only been married for two years. Your husband is financially independent. I assume there are no children. If you do not see any chance of real happiness or fulfillment in your marriage, you should not doom yourself to fifty unhappy years because of an ill-considered promise you made at the start of your adult life.
Nor do I think that, by itself, Luke’s diagnosis changes much as regards your obligation to the marriage. The moral equation might be different it he were facing a life-threatening illness or one that required daily nursing-type care—but, as Supreme Court justices are wont to say, this is a question we do not need to reach. The diagnosis Luke received (which, by the way, is usually thought of as a difference rather than a “sickness”) provides a partial explanation of behavior that you both already knew about, and that you were already starting to find difficult to live with. This explanation does not create any overweening moral obligation on your part.
I don’t mean to imply that you should completely exclude Luke’s diagnosis when making decisions—ethical and pragmatic—about your marriage, including whether or not to end it. Learning about the autism spectrum may give you and Luke a better idea of how, if at all, you can hope to change what needs to be changed about your relationship; and it may help you and Luke better interpret one another’s words and actions. If the two of you are both willing to work with experts in the area, you and Luke may discover that knowing he is on the spectrum will help you find tools to accommodate each other more and make the marriage work better. And if part of the problem is that, although Luke respects you and loves you passionately, he has trouble expressing himself, or has never quite understood why he needs to do so, his diagnosis could be a catalyst for real conversation and even change.
But your letter suggests a deeper rift. If you are (or become) convinced that—spectrum or no spectrum—Luke does not love and respect you as you believe a husband should, and will not change, you should leave him.
And no matter how Luke feels about you, you should not stay in the marriage if you no longer love him. Did you notice that your letter is silent on the issue? You may have thought that your love for Luke, or perhaps your current lack of it, went without saying; but your letter creates the impression that you consider the question whether you love him to be almost irrelevant. It is not.
Mutual love is essential. So, also, is basic compatibility. Although many loving couples do manage to work through daunting daily-life conflicts, I can certainly imagine a scenario where the increasing rigidity of Luke’s routines, and his lack of expressiveness, would make life with him a constant trial for you no matter how much the two of you loved and cared about each other. If this is (or becomes) your situation I would, once again, advise you to leave the marriage while you and Luke are still young and relatively unencumbered and will have plenty of time to make new lives for yourselves.
La Wally’s response:
I disagree. Terri wanted to find an answer and she did. Now she should work with her husband if she loves him at all.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.
You may also enjoy: