Story of James and Peggy's Marriage (1955-1980)
For an update, see Our Marriage after 50 years (1980-2005)

Our relationship has changed dramatically since we first married in 1955. The following series of excerpts from our book, Beyond Affairs, follows the course of some of the changes in our roles and expectations:

(Please note that this book was written in 1980 and covers the first 25 years of our marriage, from 1955 to 1980. Since that time we have had an egalitarian relationship.)

Everything looked good when we graduated from high school in May of 1954. I began my job as a secretary the week after graduation, and James started to summer school at the University of Mississippi. Our concern about the military service intervening if he postponed college led us both to assume I'd be the one to work while he went to school. We saw education as more important for him than me. We were thoroughly conditioned in the traditional roles of men and women.

We had a beautiful wedding on May 29, 1955, with all our friends and family. The joy of being together was dampened by the serious way I approached my role as a wife. I was dedicated to working very hard and doing everything that could possibly be expected of me. I had a full-time job, took three courses at school, and still tried to be the perfect housewife. I cooked biscuits every morning. I made homemade rolls each week. I ironed a white shirt for James to wear every day to his part-time job downtown. In short, I submerged myself in my new role.

One of the drawbacks to this was that I depended on James to meet all my needs for approval. My image of myself was totally tied into doing a good job as his wife. At the time I thought I was doing exactly the right thing. It's only from my present perspective that I can see how damaging that was to my confidence and self-esteem. I set myself up as a second-class citizen, devoted to James' comfort and service. It was easy for him to begin seeing me as my role instead of the person he married.

Sure enough, I changed my way of thinking about Peggy during these first three years of marriage. It was a gradual change and I've only recently realized the significance of it. I started to view Peggy less as an individual and more as a woman (stereotypically)—one of "them." It happened like this. As I developed some closeness with other men at work and playing tennis, we talked about the surface issues we were having with our wives. Actually, it was moralizing. The punch line always had an "ain't it awful" flavor to it.

The conclusion: "Women are different. They are emotional. They don't deal with things the way we (men) do. That's the way they are. We'll never be able to understand them or change them, so we may as well accept them as they are. It's tough to live with them, but tougher to live without them." Slowly, but surely, I joined the mass of men who view women not as individuals, but as members of a mysterious group.

This is a separating attitude. When faced with a difference, it allowed me to lump Peggy into a difficult group rather than deal with her directly. It was easy to find sympathy and support from other men. And still is. I find it extremely rare to be with a group of men discussing women and not have some of these stereotypes expressed. Most men are not being consciously malicious. They really believe that's the way things are. Or they simply haven't stopped to examine their way of thinking about women.

Some of the stereotypical ideas are based on the fact that as a group we have tended to be emotional. But I see this as a reasonable result of the traditional role we've played in relation to men, sacrificing and subjecting ourselves to a position of less importance. Given the unreasonableness of the role I was taking on myself, it was perfectly understandable that I would be frustrated, upset, insecure—and yes, emotional. Any person, man or woman, playing that role would be likely to react the same way.

I was not even aware my ways of thinking about and relating to Peggy were changing. I thought I was just doing what all married men had to do—learn to live with women. I now believe this attitude provides a fertile ground for affairs. It's easier to justify an affair when you're thinking of your wife as one of them instead of as an individual.

During the last few years of my working days when James was still a student, I'd begun to feel I was outgrowing him—that I was more mature and sophisticated. I didn't like that. The expectations I grew up with said this wasn't the way marriage was supposed to be. I was anxious to get things in their "proper" place—with me a full-time mother and homemaker and James as the financially responsible head of the house.

When Vicki was two years old, Andy was born. Now we had a girl and a boy—the all-American family. While I took a lot of joy in the children, James was too busy with his own life directions to stay tuned in to us.

Our new lifestyle was well established. Peggy was a confirmed wife and mother. Those two roles formed her total identity. I was a professional psychologist, playing the university game to the hilt. Like most of my colleagues, I was a husband and father, but that was secondary to our work at the university. It was assumed that everyone had a family. The trick was not to let that interfere with your career.

Without being aware of it, we had now settled into the mainstream of the American way of arranging family role responsibilities that sets the stage for one or both partners to lose interest in the marriage and gain interest in someone outside the marriage. Most of the nitty-gritty, day-to-day care of small babies had little or no appeal for me, so I gladly left that to Peggy. She accepted it as her proper role.

I overvalued my work and undervalued the work Peggy was doing with the kids. I had grown up with this attitude, and now it was being reinforced by my university colleagues. We all valued our families and realized someone had to take care of the homefront. But that's what wives were for. Our work was the really important stuff of life. It's hard to believe I really thought that way—but I did.

James encouraged me to pursue my longtime interest in music. I was afraid to do anything on my own that took away from my total commitment to him and the kids. Even though I loved singing, I wouldn't have pursued it then if James hadn't encouraged me. I was strictly doing it because he wanted me to. I did better than I expected, but he showed very little interest in my success. I got the feeling that anything I did was less important in his eyes than anything he was doing, so he couldn't get very excited about it.

I now realize how much better it would have been if I hadn't used so much energy trying to please him. I should have taken pride in myself and my accomplishments and not depended on him to make me feel OK. I think women have traditionally been guilty of allowing men to determine their self-image. We've sold ourselves short by thinking our worth depends on the approval of the man in our life. That's exactly where I was. This caused me to miss a lot of chances to get a clearer sense of my own ability and worth as a person, separate from him. It also severely limited my enjoyment of life. I functioned like a satellite around his world—always reacting to whatever situation he presented.

In talking with others, I've learned that many people are more honest in their extramarital affairs than they are in their marital relationships. There's a lot of irony in this. Believing our marriage is our most important relationship, we seldom approach total honesty with our spouse. We're too fearful of the long-term consequences. In trying to build a close relationship we are actually creating distance every time we hold back or present ourselves as something we're not. In trying to protect ourselves and our partner from discomfort in the present, we are setting ourselves up for some real pain in the future.

He made it clear that he was earning the money and I had no right to interfere with whatever he thought was necessary for his work. He used his role of provider as the ultimate proof of his importance. I felt so insignificant—like a nuisance to be tolerated. Whenever there was a conflict between my needs and his, or my problems at home and his at work, he always pulled rank with his money-earner role as deserving priority. It wasn't difficult for him to convince me. I'd bought society's standard that earning money signified importance and power. Being a housewife and mother was given lip-service, but it wasn't valued by society in the same way.

I felt completely powerless and helpless. I didn't value my opinions because I didn't value myself. I went into every disagreement with James assuming I'd be shown where I was wrong. I made it easy for him to take advantage of me. And he did. I knew he was working hard, so I accepted whatever he said. After all, he was the important person earning money. I didn't feel I had the right to rebel against this situation. I bought the idea that since he was taking care of me financially, it was my duty to do whatever he expected of me in my role of housewife.

I think self-esteem (or a feeling of self-worth) is strongly related to the kind of attitudes you grow up with. Many women have been conditioned from the time they're little girls to stand on the sidelines and admire the achievements of boys. And boys learn very early to think of themselves as superior to girls. Fortunately, this is changing, but in the time and environment in which I grew up, I had a clear image of the role I was to play in life—and it was a support role. I always assumed I would get married, have children, and be a housewife. I did not, however, realize I would be considered less important and that it would feel so bad.

It did feel bad to be taken for granted. I felt like an old shoe, comfortable and dependable. Also, like an old shoe, I felt I was wearing down. I began to feel it was inevitable we'd eventually get a divorce. I felt too unimportant in his life. He seemed to be going off in a completely different direction. It was clear we weren't going side by side the way I had imagined when we first got married. I think I was strongly influenced by the "happy ever after" Cinderella story. And in some ways I was still trying to make it come true.

For years I thought I had the best marriage of anyone I knew. The few problems I had with Peggy were small in comparison to those I saw in other marriages. Probably the thing that bothered me the most was her perfectionism. When we were entertaining people at home, Peggy would go to great lengths to have everything just right. If something didn't go right in her view, she would get upset and hassle herself for days about it. She would conceal it from whoever we were entertaining, so that wasn't a problem. I just felt it was unnecessary to spoil anyone's time, including hers, with what I viewed as "crying over spilled milk."

What James failed to see was that my role as wife and mother was my job—my work—in the way his role as a professor was his. I took pride in doing a good job. It was important that I be successful in my work as a homemaker. To him it was frivolous. But I knew that a lack in anything to do with the home, the kids, or the entertaining reflected on me—not on him. That was the nature of the role divisions we had bought into. And since we had divided things that way, my performance in my role was as important to me as his job performance was to him. But he didn't see it that way. He saw it as "crying over spilled milk." It's too bad we had such narrowly defined roles. We could have shared so much more of our lives with each other if we had been more open.

During those years I didn't see Peggy as a resource in my teaching and consulting, so I didn't seek her help in those areas. I now know she could have been a powerful ally there, had I been open to it. I was too conditioned in seeing her as "just a housewife."

We had developed very sharp role distinctions after the kids were born. I worked and provided the money. Peggy took care of the house and kids. I thought everything was great. I realize now that I missed some rich parts of life in not having more involvement with the kids during that stage. I also realize it was an unfair burden to put on Peggy. But that's all in retrospect. At the time I thought I had the world on a string, and everything was as it should be. I was working hard. I was successful and providing well for Peggy and the kids. Therefore, I deserved my devoted wife and my tennis—and my affairs. Practically every man I knew would have given his eyeteeth to have the life I had. I see it differently now, but that's the way I thought at the time.

Many men get carried away with a sense of their own importance and the importance of their careers. Men have been conditioned to be success-oriented, so it's understandable. They often say, however, that they're committed to their jobs for the "sake of the family." Most men would be equally committed to their work if there were no family for whose sake they were doing it. This commitment to career usually has as many, or more, drawbacks for the family as it has advantages. It tends to create the kind of separation from family that leads to a husband and wife moving further apart. It's not the amount of time or energy spent on the job that determines this separateness, but the degree to which work life is not seen as relevant to home life—when they are kept in two neatly divided areas. When this happens, it's only a small step to separating other things as having nothing to do with home life. Sports and hobbies are usually included in this "separate world." Once this pattern is well developed in a number of areas, affairs are more likely to occur. It's a simple matter to keep affairs separate if other aspects of life are already seen as separate and having nothing to do with the family.

I think I was always intimidated by the fact that James had a Ph.D. Also, I think the fact that his Ph.D. was in psychology made me think he knew more than me about almost everything. I had helped make him "god," set about worshipping him, and resented every minute of it. It felt like we were on a course that could only lead to the end of our marriage if I didn't start speaking up about my feelings. I decided to try: "I feel you're getting more and more committed to pursuing your interests and your career without considering the effect it's having on me or our relationship."

An important event took place about this time. James made a major decision about a change in his career. After almost eight years of teaching he decided to stop teaching and go into full-time consulting. The really important part of this decision as far as I was concerned was that he wanted me to work with him in a secretarial and administrative role. This was the beginning of a significant transition for our marriage and for me personally.

I thoroughly enjoyed working and especially liked being involved with James. It felt good to recognize again after all these years that I was capable of contributing in this way. I'd wanted to be a full-time mother while the kids were preschoolers, but I'd had the distinct feeling this had contributed to the somewhat separate lives James and I had led since the kids were born.

I liked working with James. I was also involved with him and another couple in opening a gift shop. We renovated an old brick building for the shop. We spent a lot of time attending to the many details required to get a small business in operation.

I threw myself into developing our gift shop and consulting out of our basement office. Peggy was intimately involved in both activities. Some couples can't bear to think of working together. Living together is problem enough. At this time in our lives it was therapeutic for us. We grew closer and carried on a continuing dialogue about what we wanted out of life. This was quite a contrast to the separation we had developed when I was working at the university and she was a housewife.

This was a time of growing confidence for me. I had also been changing my attitude toward James. In the summer of 1972 we held a life/work planning session at our house for a group of about twelve people, most of whom were friends and/or people James worked with in some way. James and I participated in this session personally and developed some specific plans. We decided to move back to the South. We hadn't intended to live in the North so long, but for ten years we'd done whatever we needed to do regarding job opportunities. Now we were being deliberate in choosing where and how we wanted to live.

Lots of people thought we were crazy to move and give up the things we'd worked for. There certainly was a professional risk in making the move. But for me there was no question. I saw this as part of my long-range hope for really getting our lives together. It meant a fresh start. James' attitude as represented by wanting to make the move seemed like a positive sign to me.

A dramatic sign of his changing attitude was his asking me to join him at a conference. He had been attending these meetings for several years, but he was actually suggesting I go with him to one. We arrived the day before the conference was to begin and that night we got into a big argument. I was irritated that he took no responsibility for either calling the kids or talking to them when I called. I figured we were both responsible for contact with the kids, but he was accustomed to leaving it up to me.

With that kind of beginning to the trip, I was concerned as to how the conference would go. But the entire conference was a great success and gave me a chance to see how others reacted to me in this kind of setting. I knew I was doing a good job, and felt I was capable of doing more. This was confirmed by my experience at the conference.

The best part of the conference was the tremendous boost Peggy got in self-esteem. She was amazed at how much she knew about organizational development and how easy it was for her to relate to the workshops and papers being presented. It was also clear that people liked to talk with her. I don't think she was prepared for the acceptance she found. All of this had a visible effect on Peggy. She was a happier, more confident person.

In January, 1974, I made a trip to attend a workshop on communication. The workshop was very positive for me, but the important thing was the trip itself. I had NEVER made a trip alone in my whole life. I was so excited I couldn't sleep at all the first night in the hotel. I wasn't nervous or upset, just wonderfully happy to be doing something completely on my own. The workshop only lasted a couple of days, but it was a big step for me. I kept thinking how much things had changed and wondering where all this would lead us. We were in a whole new ballgame, and I felt ready for whatever was to come.

As I look back on it, I think the decision to tell Peggy about my affairs was inevitable. The double standard had been easy to maintain in the university years when our lives had been quite separate. But things had changed substantially. Our relationship had taken on a new meaning as we were moving out of the old role definitions of man and wife and taking our first tentative steps at forming a true partnership of equals. Peggy had grown tremendously in the last four years. She had a new sense of her worth as an individual. I knew in my gut she deserved more and would eventually demand more than the deceit I was giving her.

I was relieved that the deceit was over and that he was being so totally open and honest with me. I think my reaction was largely determined by the reason for his honesty. It was clear he was doing it because he wanted to make things better. He was making an effort to ease the strain that had developed between us through so much dishonesty.

For too long Peggy's life had been out of balance, and she'd felt powerless to take direct steps to change it. She'd been too dependent on me, and the kids had been too dependent on her because of my low availability to them. The result was, she felt smothered and trapped, unable to have enough independent control of her own time.

I think Peggy's lifestyle was typical of millions of American women who live out the roles prescribed by society. To her, being a good wife and mother too often meant submerging her wants and needs in favor of mine and the kids. She learned to do it well, but she never liked it. Sometimes her anger and resentment would build to the point that she would express it toward me, accusing me of being selfish and inconsiderate of her and others. More often, she would direct it inward and the result was depression. In the early years of our marriage I thought she was just doing what any good wife would do. I'd been conditioned to hold the same values. My own mother was a beautiful example of a woman who consistently put the family's needs in front of her own and claimed to be completely happy with her role.

Historically, the role of "wife and mother" has been glorified by our society, but there hasn't been real recognition and respect for the challenging job it represents. I believe homemakers are the most unappreciated of all women today because of the emphasis in our society on the ability to earn money. We have somehow confused self-worth with monetary worth. The role of the homemaker is one of the most complex, demanding jobs a person can have. A clear focus on the value of that role should inspire self-esteem in the women who handle it so capably. But society hasn't supported this view. The attitudes toward homemakers fail to acknowledge the day-to-day strength, competence, and versatility that are required to do the job well.

Many women are like me in that they never fully recognize and appreciate the extent of their capabilities. They often take for granted all the complicated tasks and responsibilities they handle routinely. While no specific credentials are required to perform the homemaker's role, the skills in management, counseling, coordinating, scheduling, planning, goal-setting, decision-making, and finance rival those skills needed to run a business organization.

For years I never appreciated my ability as demonstrated by being a full-time wife and mother. I felt somehow "less" because I was not employed outside the home. The term "just a housewife" implied some sort of apology for not being "more." I've come to see it's not the job itself that needs to be more. It's the honest recognition of its importance that needs to be increased. Many of us knock ourselves out trying to be "perfect" to prove we are indispensable. When this superhuman effort is not fully appreciated, we are likely to be resentful. Alter all, "Look how hard I tried." Depression is likely to follow. I suffered from depression for years over my unsuccessful efforts to "prove myself."

I didn't like the way I compared with James in my own eyes or in the eyes of others. He always seemed more important and whatever he had to say seemed more important. I think a lot of this "importance" has been determined in our society based on income-producing activities vs. non-income-producing activities. James (and other men) can discuss issues related to work that are unquestionably accepted as important. After all, this work produces income. A homemaker who discusses issues related to her job at home may be seen as griping about unimportant things or may be turned off and not listened to because she "can't talk about anything but the house and kids." We need to recognize that other values are at least as important as earning money. If we get these values straight, then the homemaker discussing "home" issues would be recognized as just as important as the worker discussing "work" issues. But while I was a homemaker I failed to see through the bind I was in as a woman in our society.

If we are full-time homemakers we feel defensive about being "just a housewife." If we are working mothers we feel guilty for not being a full-time housewife. During different periods of time the pressure has changed from one to the other. Hopefully, we are moving toward an attitude that accepts the idea of a woman doing what is right for her at any given time in her life.

From the summer of 1970 (when Peggy went back to work) through January of 1974 (when I decided to be honest with her) Peggy's self-image improved substantially. My telling her about my affairs brought a new sense of urgency to this whole process. She saw clearly that the subservient role she had adopted in relation to me had not worked. The same night I told her, she decided to start respecting her own needs and acting in her own behalf more often. There was a grim determination in her voice when she told me this the next morning. She looked me straight in the eye and said, "In the past I have filled the needs of others to a greater extent than I now feel willing to do. I want to figure out what I need to do for myself. I want to find how to define myself as a person and how to feel good about myself."

These were powerful insights for Peggy. I felt the most powerful of all was her new awareness that she needed to pay more attention to defining and meeting her own needs. I was also afraid of how that would eventually change our relationship. But I felt it was a healthy decision for her and all of us connected to her.

In the years since Peggy made that decision, she has made great progress in regaining some of the autonomy she rightfully felt the need for. It hasn't been easy or smooth. She had to change some basic values that she had grown up with and acted on for eighteen years of our married life. She had built her life around a support role for me and the kids. At the very core of that approach is the belief that if you are good at sensing and meeting other people's needs, everything will be beautiful. It's a lovely ideal, but it doesn't work unless it's balanced with a healthy amount of self-assertion.

I had a growing feeling that I wanted more out of life, but I felt guilty if I did things for myself. I was becoming much more aware of the restrictions I had unnecessarily placed on myself, but I found it hard to break out of my habit of self-denial. James' encouragement helped me feel OK about changing some of those habits. This was just the beginning of his continuing support and encouragement for my becoming a more independent person.

Living with Peggy during this period of her growing consciousness about her own role and the role of women in our society in general has been a challenge and a source of much learning for me. I was raised to be as chauvinistic as the next guy, so I had plenty of learning to do. We had similar reactions to our first exposure to the radical "lib" movement in the late 1960's. It was too far out and extreme for us to relate to. Neither of us was hurting enough or aware enough to appreciate the significance of the issues they were raising. It didn't fit our fairy tale of how things ought to be.

About 1970 we both started to pay attention and be more receptive to the messages of the women's movement. Peggy has had a steadily growing awareness of the ways women have been disadvantaged in our society and what it means for a woman to assert her rights today. Learning with and from her brought some much needed balance into my life. I'd been lumping all women into a group, and this was causing me to miss a lot of the potential in my interactions with them. In particular, my stereotypical way of thinking about women was keeping me from knowing Peggy as deeply as I could. My opening up to her signaled a new level of respect and equality in our relationship. At the same time she knew, once and for all, that she had to assume the primary responsibility for meeting her needs. The fairy tale was over.

I was only one of many women who were learning that the fairy tale was over—that in fact it had never existed. It's important as women that we come to grips with the fact that ultimately each of us is responsible for ourselves. Our children grow up, our husbands die, or a divorce may leave us on our own. A look at statistics on divorce and on lifespans of men and women makes it clear most women will someday be alone. Our self-image and self-confidence will be all we have.

I felt good about the prospects for the future—not just in my relationship with James, but also in my work. I'd been reading and studying almost constantly during the past four years. Now it looked like it was going to begin paying off. For the next couple of years I was constantly receiving training myself or conducting workshops. It was a professional crash course that I absolutely loved, and I soon became quite comfortable in functioning as a group leader. My work was not exclusively with women, but that was a large part of it. My increasing appreciation of my own abilities carried over into my work with women. I felt all of us had sold ourselves (and each other) short. I overcame my old posture of competitiveness and began supporting them in their efforts to be successful.

Having an honest, satisfying, male-female relationship in our society has been next to impossible. The stereotypes and prejudices we grow up with make it extremely difficult to ever see the other person as he or she really is. The games we learn to play make our interactions anything but honest. And the myths we've been taught about love relationships continually keep us from dealing with what's really happening. We deny the truth while hoping and dreaming for the impossible.

Peggy and I place a high priority on honest communication because of the tremendous impact it's had on our lives. Since I first opened up to her, we've completely redefined our relationship. Honest communication has been the primary process we've used and continue to use. It's led us to realize our relationship can never be a fixed thing—that it will always be in process as each of us continues to grow and change.

In traditional marriages, fixed roles give many people feelings of security and stability. The current divorce rate suggests that there's more illusion than reality to these feelings. It was frightening to give up the roles we had used to define ourselves for almost nineteen years of married life. At the same time we knew in our hearts and guts that we were onto something significant. Gradually, honest communication and a commitment to equality have replaced fixed roles as the cornerstones of our changing relationship.

(end of excerpt from Beyond Affairs)

For more information on this and related issues, see: Making Love Stay.

To read more about our marriage (covering the next 25 years, from 1980 to 2005), see Marriage Update.

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