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Changing the Ground Rules of Marriage

Betty and Brian* were “devout” atheists, and had been since they were teenagers. So when her Catholic family and his Jewish family protested about their marriage, they laughed at the small-mindedness of their parents and threw themselves a huge wedding bash.

Lisa and Leon* knew one thing for certain–they didn’t want children. It was nice enough being an aunt or an uncle–for an hour or less [or at least Lisa thought so; Leon thought any child exposure was threatening, almost as if fatherhood were catchy]–but bringing up one of those? Not a chance.

And Kreindel and Kalman* were orthodox Jews, raised steeped in the holy tradition. After a separate-seating ony marriage ceremony, they settled down to the task of having children, and building a holy home, spiritually speaking.

But things change.

Just look at Mitt Romney. Sure, abortion’s fine if you’re not running for president in a highly conservative field. But sometimes Mitt, like all of us, has to re-think things. So, he said, sometimes he’s wrong [fancy that]. So, he said, “I changed my mind.”

Well, if Mitt can, can’t Betty and Lisa and Kalman? I mean, everyone’s doing it.

So Betty decided, when it was time for her oldest child to go to school, that she wasn’t as much of an atheist as she’d thought–still mostly atheist, she assured Brian, most of the time–and she just couldn’t deny her children the opportunity to grow up in the Catholic tradition as she had. Not Mass every Sunday or anything like that, not confession (“I mean, come on,” she said, “seriously?”), but a good grounding in Catholic dogma–and of course Easter and Christmas Mass.

“Who could deprive their kids of Christmas, honey?” she asked, as Brian pondered if he’d been deprived all his life–and came down firmly on the side of ‘no.’ And the very basis of their marriage, their firm belief in themselves as the final arbiters, was dissolved, as quickly as you can say, “Where’s the enrollment deposit?”

And Lisa? Well, Lisa held firm for a good long time, through her early and late twenties, and even her early thirties. And then, at her thirty-fifth birthday, she felt that it was now or never, that she would never have another chance to make up for it if she didn’t have children now.

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In short, she changed her mind. And she had reproductive technology on her side, for when she tried to convince Leon of the rightness of her ways and received a firmly negative response, she just stopped taking the pill. And there you have it–Leon, who had committed his whole life to having as little to do with children as possible, was now a father-to-be.

And lest I leave Kreindel…. Kalman and Kreindel lived a beautiful, observant–if impoverished–life, each fulfilling his or her respective duties in prayer, Sabbath-observance, modesty, and study. Happily fulfilling those duties, Kreindel believed, until Kalman informed her–five children and a heavy mortgage into the marriage–that he couldn’t keep up the facade any longer.

He couldn’t pray three times a day in shule, couldn’t pore for hours over his Talmud for his meager stipend, couldn’t keep the Sabbath restrictions.

If Kreindel were to be honest with herself, she had seen it coming. But she had tried to ignore Kalman’s increasing dissatisfaction, since Kalman’s beliefs and actions were woven into the very fabric of her existence. Kalman said he would stay in the marriage if he could be free of what was becoming more and more of a burden to him–or he would understand if Kreindel wanted a divorce. The choice was hers.

These are just a few of the stories of marriages I’ve seen where the fundamental tenets are broken by a spouse. The other spouse sometimes feels left with this alternative: divorce, abandoning a once- (or even currently-) beloved spouse, risking potential damage to the children, and facing alimony and child-support arrangements, or stay in the marriage, but feeling s/he thereby betrays his or her beliefs and lifestyle.

Let’s discuss some options such spouses might have in the next post–but I do want to take a moment to acknowledge the difficulty of the situation.  When Alphonse Karr said [or said whatever it sounded like in French], “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” he really wasn’t talking about these marriages, was he?  The spouse’s life has changed–it’s not the same–now what?

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**As with all characters in my blog posts, there is no real Brain or Betty, Lisa and Leon, Kalman, and Kreindal, whose names have been changed to protect their privacy.  They are teaching characters, composed of bits and pieces from real life humans plus details from my imagination which make the story more interesting and, hopefully, instructive.

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