In Her Shoes

In Her ShoesOne Woman Struggles With Her Parents’ Marital Problems and Finds Out Life Is Not Always Black and White

By Anita Doberman

The older I get, the more I come to see that you can’t judge someone unless you’ve walked in their shoes. It’s a little embarrassing for me to remember how I could once speak with certainty about how I would react to various situations I had never experienced.

It went without saying, for example, that if my husband strayed on me, I would kick him to the curb. How, I wondered, could any self-respecting woman do otherwise, and who were those doormats who took their men back (or worse, never locked them out to begin with)?

No, it’s not my marriage that’s in trouble. I have the strange and unenviable situation of watching my parents’ marriage fall apart in my adulthood. My mom and dad, now in their mid-60s, have been married for 40 years. During this time, they have stood together through sickness, successes and failures, shared joys and frustrations, their children’s ups and downs and now, grandchildren.

They live in Rome, met when they were 19 years old, and got married at age 23. They worked hard to build a future; homes and jobs are hard to find in Italy, but they were able to build a little corner of paradise for themselves and for their children, my sister and me.

If this were a fairytale, my parents would be heading toward retired bliss. But because this is real life, my parents are now separated.

Separations happen all the time, but after 40 years of marriage it’s unusual, and even more so given my parents’ relationship. Sure, they had their disagreements, but their marriage was generally a happy partnership, and their lives are so intertwined that separating them is virtually impossible.

My dad has become one with my mom’s family. His closest friend is my uncle, and all of my mom’s relatives consider him one of them, a brother. My parents have lived in the same apartment for all of their 40 years of marriage, and most of my mother’s family lives in the same neighborhood. (I could see my grandmother’s balcony from mine.)

It makes logical sense that nothing could change their situation — it’s a comfortable life surrounded by family, and they will even tell you that they are friends and deeply care for one another. But logic doesn’t always apply when it comes to feelings.

Such is the case with my father, who is in a crazy love affair with another woman. No, not a younger woman. She’s close to his age and seems to have fallen head over heels for my dad.

My initial reactions were predictable. Shock. Denial. Anger. Sure, my dad is an emotional type, a typical Italian man, passionate about everything in life, but he loves his family too, and losing his head over another woman after 40 years with my mother seemed, well, insane. What was he thinking?

I always saw betrayal as the ultimate offense, one that I would quickly punish. But once I got past the anger and spoke with both my mom and dad, I realized that the situation was far more complicated than my old, easy assumptions could handle. I used to wonder how a woman could not kick her husband out in such a situation, and I still do. Only now that’s balanced by wondering how a woman could kick a man out.

Yes, I was incensed that my father would risk what he’d spent decades building, but suddenly I could see that my mother was risking all that too. It was one more unfairness laid upon her — if she did the “right” thing, she wasn’t just punishing her husband, she would be punishing herself.

It’s not just that I didn’t want to take sides. I have taken a side. I don’t think it’s my job to hurt my dad, or pretend I don’t still love him, but of course I’m on my mom’s side. So when she was hopeful that he would give up his folly, and when she even resigned herself to the knowledge that she would take him back, the old me would have given her a pep talk about standing up for herself. But now, I see the vast amount of gray between the black and white.

For my father’s sake, I’ve tried to see his side, and I have been somewhat surprised to find some gray there too. It seems odd to even write it on paper, but it’s true: He actually fell in love with someone who isn’t my mom. And he feels anguished and conflicted. That doesn’t excuse him by any means, but I had never considered that men who stray aren’t the monsters I once painted with my innocently broad brush.

My mom and dad are working things out, and there isn’t a final resolution yet. I know that my job is to be there for my mom but to still love my dad. I’ve learned that until you have walked in someone else’s shoes, you really don’t know what you would do. To be sure, I certainly hope I never have to walk in those shoes, but I have seen enough to be humbled and to take to heart those wise words from the Good Book: Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Anita Doberman is a journalist and author living in Navarre, Fla.