“How can I explain this to my folks?” my young friend asked.
Two months earlier her husband has disclosed his infidelity, and she had found shelter and solace with her parents. Now after that separation, she’d decided to return to her own home. Since leaving, she and her husband had gained important insights in counseling sessions, both together and on their own, and they were ready and determined to repair their relationship.
But in comments both subtle and direct, her parents cast doubt upon her decision. They pressed her to disclose her reasons for changing direction.
Their anger toward their son-in-law was great, and although at the outset their daughter found their attitude comforting and supportive, she now regretted having shared such a private matter.
My immediate response to the question she posed was: “You don’t owe anyone an explanation.”
I’ve said this countless times to friends and clients. But her startled reaction gave me pause. Was I just playing out some old rebellious script of my own? My tendency when I was younger, and someone made an overture or stated an opinion that I wanted to reject, was to try to legitimize my decision by articulating a well-reasoned rationale. Even declining a dinner invitation seemed to call for an extended explanation—never just a simple: “Sorry, I can’t make it.”
Looking back, I think I failed to note an important distinction between just giving voice to my choices, stating what I believed to be the best path to take, and the need to justify my choice, to meet some norm of social acceptability. Often I’d hedge, be less than forthright, resenting what I accepted as an obligation to comply with the standards or expectations of others, while at the same time resisting the invasion of my private thoughts. I’d end up feeling somehow the one at fault.
No longer. That view has long since been discarded. Stating a personal preference or decision need not be followed by an effort to legitimize the choice. Responding to a request for a full explanation may or may not make good sense, depending on who is asking. It is important to share underlying motivations or personal reasons with an intimate partner or an adolescent child. Such a conversation deepens understanding which is always of value.
For a while it seemed at least once every year the infidelity of some prominent political figure or celebrity was exposed, often followed by staged contrition on network TV. If the wife stood mutely by his side, she would be derided by many and judged unkindly. A microphone would be thrust before her and she would be asked for a statement in response. I cheered those who declined and decided to maintain their privacy and offer no comment, or simply to absent themselves and avoid the public eye.
A few observers, who might identify themselves as feminists, scorned these women for remaining steadfast in the damaged relationship. From my perspective, no one has the right to invade the privacy of or pass judgment on another’s intimate relationship.
As for my friend, whose parents insisted that she provide reasons for her decision to rejoin her husband, in the weeks that followed she resolved her quandary. The essence of her considered response was: “I appreciate your concern. I’ve given it a lot of thought and in my judgment, it’s the right thing to do. Whatever problems we have will be ours to solve together.”
Their questions persisted, but she did not waver.
Seeking to explain one’s own or another’s actions, invites appraisal by those whose standards or values may well differ from our own. That is something we can be open to, or not. Our choice, not someone else’s due.