It Just Ain’t That Bad!
Progress often seems to be two-sided. That surely applies to technological progress: modern transport has brought comfort and convenience, but also traffic jams and smog. Home labour saving devices do save labour but also play a role in the obesity epidemic. Modern entertainment has brought all kinds of vicarious pleasures but also seems to have damaged our capacity to create our own pleasures – our kids at school have it all but they are so bored! Yet recognition of these unintended consequences tempts few of us to become Luddites. The benefits outweigh the disadvantages and we can learn to manage the disadvantages.
It seems to me that social progress is no different. It is two-sided. But if many recent submissions are a guide it seems that many of Stick’s readers are social Luddites. The 20th century brought much needed progress in women’s rights – but not without unintended consequences. I am glad that women can vote and proud that my own country led the way in this, even if I don’t like the way that some of them vote: actually I don’t like the way that some of my best male friends vote either but I will die for their right to do so. I am glad that there is increasingly equal pay for the same job, and that in more and more countries, sweat shop labour conditions are illegal, even if it does mean my jeans are more expensive. I am glad that there is legislation to prevent men or women in power from abusing that power to extort sexual favours from those in their charge, even if some workplaces have become too pc and normal dating behaviour in one of the most likely social situations for people of opposite sexes to meet sometimes appears fraught. I am glad that my own government reversed the ugly policy of denying its native inhabitants the same right to conduct business in a free market as the European settlers, even if in eventually saying sorry it did go too far and create a handout mentality among a minority.
I can’t help reading some of the bitter denunciations of western women with incredulity. Things are just not that bad, and they are certainly not that simple. There are still fine women in every country, bad women too, and a whole lot who combine both qualities…just like we men. I have never lived in North American and my visits there have been short but I have met more than a few people there who have longstanding and happy marriages from many different political and social spectrums. In my own country I’ve met feminists who might be considered rabid in their politics in successful marriages with men who are not doormats, as well as good conservative churchwomen who firmly believe a woman’s place is to stay at home and have babies. Relationships work because the parties have enough in common to build a future on, the committed love to work through their problems and the ability to give each other room to be themselves, not because of some stereotyped view of how roles should be defined.
In New Zealand and Australia, where I have lived most of my life, it is absolutely not the case that the majority of women are man-hating or man-eating unfaithful and manipulative money grubbers, although some certainly are. I don’t see much difference between Asian women and Western women in this respect. Most of the women I know are flawed creatures like the men they meet. They have reasonable hopes and aspirations and are willing to do their share, and more in a relationship with a man they want to be with.
Life is not easy and relationships of any kind are both the heights and depths of life. I am now in my fourth marriage, which is evidence, mostly, of my own shortcomings. My first wife was a lovely gracious and gentle woman who, when too young, married a man with unresolved issues, unreasonable expectations and carping criticism. I gave her years of hurt and disappointment, albeit unintended and can only blame myself that her love for me died. The separation of our joint assets was not easy and at the time we both felt we lost more than we should have to the other, but the emotional turmoil of marriage breakdown does not engender dispassionate objectivity. We were both able to move on in the end. Despite the bitterness and rhetoric of many men, some who indeed did receive a bum deal, the statistics show that the financial damage to most women after marriage breakdown is more severe in the long term than for most men.
My second wife and the mother of my children was a complex and manipulative woman who chose to create and inhabit a well spun web of fantasy rather than to develop the real gifts that she did have. Perhaps the guilt and fear of failure from my first marriage made me an unconscious magnet for her neurotic manipulation. Perhaps a Buddhist might say the abuse I endured for ten years was the karma from my first marriage; whatever, she was certainly not some stereotypical overly demanding feminist, she was herself a damaged person who very probably did genuinely love me in her way. It had to end and I am regretful to this day only for three things: that I did not find the will to end it earlier, that I did not end it in a better way, and that our three children who came to live with me suffered because it ended. The shadow of her manipulation hung over me for more than a year after our breakup – particularly the fear that she might win custody of the children in court regardless of my greater ability to care for them on a regular basis. But this, like many fears, was unfounded. It is easier for a woman to use dirty tricks in such a battle than for a man, and the courts often do get it wrong, but the intent of the law which gives the greatest weight to the needs of the children is in my view the right one. Since I so frequently fail to perfectly execute my best intentions it should come as no surprise that a social institution also has the same problem. For a time I was bitter for what seemed wasted years and for the collateral damage the relationship inflicted on other things that were important to me, but now I feel mostly just sad for her – she was a damaged person with great potential that she was never able to grasp.
It is a great shame that I and my third wife – from Russia – did not meet much earlier than we did. In many ways we were very compatible. Our relationship almost worked and I still feel periodically a wave of sadness that it did not. She left her home in Russia where she had family and friends, a good and interesting job and her own albeit modest apartment owned outright to be with me and my three children in New Zealand. I suppose if I only thought about the money I spent I could be very bitter, but that would be to ignore her own, very great, sacrifices. My eldest son went seriously off the rails, and his behaviour on top of the massive adjustment to life in a new country made her prone to some moody behaviour. With the benefit of hindsight I might have understood and responded to this a lot more productively than I did. We had some blazing rows, each convinced of the utter unreasonableness of the other. When we finally separated, I did my best to help her to a comfortable independent status, partly because I still hoped we might work things out in the future and partly because although the result was a vastly damaged financial position for me, an objective assessment would recognize what she too had lost. The truth is our failed relationship cost us both emotional pain and financial loss. In the overwhelming majority of marriage breakups that I have seen this is the reality. It is blind one-sidedness that depicts every property settlement resulting from marriage failure as financial rape. The only rapists involved, in my view, are, occasionally, the lawyers. In all of the three cases above we managed to achieve our own agreements without their “assistance” needing only to “hear” their advice and accept their documentation services. I accept that this is not always possible, but the courts themselves DO encourage the parties to try to agree.
After three years together, Noy and I got married last week. I hope I have learned enough to live more graciously with her. I am not with her because she is Thai, it just happened that we met and learned to love each other. There is nothing intrinsically Thai that makes her a better match. We’ve both seen our share of life’s disappointments but learned to forgive, try and deal with our own stuff and dared to hope we can do better in the future. I didn’t come to Thailand to find Noy but I live in Thailand now because I found her. The life we have is not one that will appeal to everyone but most of the time it is one that we find satisfying and fulfilling.
A couple of months back I watched a Western couple in their fifties dancing salsa at our school. They have been together quite a while but it was magical to see the light in their eyes as they danced together. I wouldn’t have described either of them as “traditional” but they are happy together. 50% of marriages in the West may END in divorce (although that statistic is distorted by the higher probability of failure for second and third marriages), but the other 50% don’t, and it doesn’t seem likely to me that they are all just miserably enduring life together. No, things really just ain’t that bad!
As you point out, there are indeed two sides to every story. It's easy to play the blame game.