Anne Fielding

How Does a Wife Interfere with Her Own Happiness? by Anne Fielding
There Are Wives Seminar: May 4, 2006

Part 2. Independence & Dependence Not One Makes for Unhappiness 
Joan Didion, 2000In The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion describes herself in two ways, and in both she’s representative--on the one hand as intensely interested in holding on to her independence. “I … had trouble thinking of myself as a wife,” she writes, and “For a long time after we were married I had trouble [wearing] the ring.” She also says importantly that over the years she had used her writing to hide: ”I developed a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought…behind an increasingly impenetrable polish,” she writes.

      On the other hand, Ms. Didion writes of how dependent she and her husband were on each other for the nearly forty years they were married, and despite what others might think, were not competitive:  

There was nothing I did not discuss with John.  Because we were both writers and both worked at home, our days were filled with the sound of each other’s voices.  I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but… There was no separation between our…interests in any given situation.

That “there was no separation between our interests” is really impossible. Two of the big opposites on which marriage is based are separateness and togetherness, and in his lecture “Aesthetic Realism and People,” Eli Siegel explained:

Separation can exist very much while people are together….People feel apart even at the same table or in the same bed….We get aware of the separation that has been all the time if a person dies or goes away….Only through knowledge, seeing the other person from within, can the separation be met….

How much did Ms. Didion’s husband feel she saw him “from within?” How much did she feel he did? That there was painful separation between them can be seen in what she writes later:

We imagined we knew everything the other thought, even when we did not necessarily want to know it, but in fact, I have come to see we knew not the smallest fraction of what there was to know.

She also admits she didn’t want to hear things her husband was troubled by: “Everything he had done, he said, was worthless,” she writes. “I… tried to dismiss it.” Though she writes of this with regret she doesn’t see what the dismissing came from, and it would do her life good if she did. “Do you think there’s a desire in a woman,” we asked Mrs. Meadows in a consultation, “to feel the outside world, including what a husband is concerned about, is an interference with herself? And is it contempt?” “I think so,” she said.

3. Is Closeness Used For the World & People or Against Them?
Even as Joan Didion gives details of trips she and her husband took, restaurants where they dined, of their swimming together, we don’t really get a sense of who he was as a self, how he felt about happenings in the world, how he saw other people. I agree with what a reviewer, Edward Lewine, observed critically, that in her book, her husband emerges “as a tragic presence rather than as a man….” Ms. Didion sees him, as wives have for centuries, chiefly in relation to herself.  She does show she feels guilty, but her self-critical thoughts are not welcomed; in fact, she says they’re unbearable. “Would I need to relive every mistake?” she asks and you feel she’s angry, not just sad. “Would I…need to remember the long drive home from dinner…and how many nights…one or the other of us had said the wrong thing?  Or stopped speaking?”  The answer is: if you saw the cause, Ms. Didion, it would free you.

     What makes a husband or wife say “the wrong thing” or “stop speaking”? What went on during those dinners that made for the quarrels and silences as they drove home?  Did they respect how the other had been with or talked about people?  Were they in any way an exclusive, superior, even mocking team against others—and then punished each other for it? “It is a tendency of humanity,” Mr. Siegel said to me and Sheldon when we told of a quarrel we’d had after a party,

Again and again people have, consciously or unconsciously shut the rest of the world out.  It’s their greatest victory and their greatest defeat. The last stronghold of anti-world feeling, is one’s wife or husband.       

Aesthetic Realism taught us—and it’s knowledge women and men need desperately—that the big mistake in marriage is always the lack in both persons of good will, the energetic and happy desire to know and strengthen the best in each other-and to criticize the worst.  And if we want to be separate from the world and despise it, we don’t have good will, and we’ll never be happy.

      This is what we were teaching Eliza Meadows—who told us that she and her husband, Andrew, often stopped speaking or said “the wrong thing.”  For example:

EM.  Andy wanted to play catch in the yard, and I wanted to sit; but we played and I broke a nail—I could have enjoyed myself much more.  After we played…he came up and mussed my hair. He was being playful, but he was angry, too, he was trying to tell me something

TAW.  What do you think he was angry about?

EM. I’m not sure, but he often calls me “Fifty-fifty”—doing something only fifty percent.

TAW.  Do you think he feels you’re protecting something in yourself, that you’re saying: “You’re not going to have me completely—I’ve given myself as much as I like”? Do you give the appearance, ‘World, don’t come too close to me, don’t affect me too much, I will remain cool.’?”

EM. I definitely think so.

TAW. When you play catch, the world comes to you and goes away from you, and there’s a certain form. It’s an exciting relation of nearness and distance, point and expansion, junction and separation.  Aesthetic Realism says we’re trying to put opposites together. We’re talking about your attitude to the world, and whether it’s beautiful or not.  Does your husband have a legitimate objection to the way you see things coming to you and going from you?  Is there too much of a fingertip approach?


EM. He does, yes.


TAW.  If you have a ball thrown at you and you don’t try to catch it, is it like having a person’s hopes come to you and you're not interested?

EM.  Yes, that’s what I’ve done.

TAW. The whole basis of the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing marriage, is that its purpose is to like the world, to have good will for another person and to find out what that means. Do you think your husband looks at you and asks: “Does my wife care enough for reality and does she want me to care for it?”  

This is a question I believe Ms. Didion’s husband had, and if she knew it, it would relieve and strengthen her.


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