Forgive Me Martha

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Trust … is different from mere reliance. One may rely on an alarm clock, and to that extent be disappointed if it fails to do its job, but one does not feel deeply vulnerable, or profoundly invaded by the failure.

Similarly, one may rely on a dishonest colleague to continue lying and cheating, but this is reason, precisely, not to trust that person; instead, one will try to protect oneself from damage. Trust, by contrast, involves opening oneself to the possibility of betrayal, hence to a very deep form of harm. It means relaxing the self-protective strategies with which we usually go through life, attaching great importance to actions by the other over which one has little control. It means, then, living with a certain degree of helplessness. Is trust a matter of belief or emotion? Both, in complexly related ways.

But that latter appraisal is a key constituent part of a number of emotions, including hope, fear, and, if things go wrong, deep grief and loss. Trust is probably not identical to those emotions, but under normal circumstances of life it often proves sufficient for them. One also typically has other related emotions toward a person whom one trusts, such as love and concern.

Another element that makes intimate relationships a special case is how deeply we experience their breakdown. Nussbaum writes:. The damage involved in the breakdown of an intimate relationship … is internal and goes to the heart of who one is… Beyond a certain point there is really no place to go, except into your own heart — and what you find there is likely to be pretty unpleasant. So there is something lonely and isolating about these harms; they involve a profound helplessness. Once again, this helplessness can easily be deflected into anger, which gives the illusion of agency and control.

She points to one more singular feature of intimate relationships and their breakdown — the simultaneous and often confusing coexistence of positive and negative emotions toward the person whom we once loved and whose painful betrayal has now spun us into anger. This might well share psychological underpinnings with the paradox of why frustration is essential for satisfaction while falling in love. Nussbaum considers the complexities of this duality:. We typically form intimate relationships with people we like. We choose our spouses, and even though parents do not choose their children or children their parents, there is typically, in cases that are not really awful, a symbiosis that produces liking on both sides, though adolescence certainly obscures this.

Most other people in the world, by contrast, are not people with whom one would choose to live. How many people who sit next to one by chance on an airplane are people with whom one would be happy living in the same house for an extended period of time? But a spouse, a lover, a child — these people are welcomed, and there usually remains something nice about them that is not utterly removed by whatever it is they have done.

The target of anger is the person, but its focus is the act, and the person is more than the act, however difficult it is to remember this. Nussbaum, who has written brilliantly about the nuanced relationship between agency and victimhood , turns a skeptical eye toward the common cultural mythology of anger as a response indicative of self-respect. Instead, Nussbaum points to a Transition — a mental pivot in which one turns from anger to more constructive, forward-oriented considerations of what can be done to increase welfare rather than to inflict harm in vengeance — as the proper self-caring response to a breach of trust.

She writes:. Such breakdowns typically, and rightly, involve deep grief, and grief needs to be dealt with. Grief is amply warranted: intimate relationships are very important parts of a flourishing life. Here the Stoics are wrong. But grief, and the helplessness it typically brings with it, are usually not well addressed by allowing anger to take the center of the stage. Anger is often well-grounded, but it is too easy for it to hijack the necessary mourning process. So a Transition from anger to mourning — and, eventually, to thoughts of the future — is to be strongly preferred to anger nourished and cultivated.

Because the couple pursues jointly some of the most important life goals of each, these goals themselves become shared goals and are shaped by the partnership.


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The vulnerability involved in such a relationship therefore goes very deep… Even though it would still be possible, and, I believe, highly desirable, to preserve a core sense of oneself as a person who could continue no matter what, this is often difficult to achieve, and it is always difficult to strike a balance between this healthy self-preservation and a kind of self-withholding that is incompatible with deep love.

In ongoing relationships, Nussbaum argues, there are bound to be many strains and possible breaking points, since the very premise of a long-term intimate relationship is that two different people with different goals however similar their values may be must somehow reconcile the autonomy of their individual personhood with the cohesion of their shared life. She examines these elemental dynamics:.

A good deal of marital anger is really about this desire for control — and since such projects are doomed, that sort of anger is likely to be especially hard to eradicate. Intimacy is scary, and it makes people helpless, since deep hurt can be inflicted by the independent choices of someone else; so, as with other forms of helplessness, people respond by seeking control through anger. People never dispel their own insecurity by controlling someone else or making that person suffer, but many people try — and try again.

Furthermore, people are adept rationalizers, so insecure people seeking control are good at coming up with a rational account of what the other person has done wrong…. Nussbaum argues that while anger is an understandable response when spousal trust is breached, it is ultimately more destructive than constructive for the person feeling it, for it prevents her or him from processing the deeper emotions and healing the wounds from which they ooze.

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She examines the innermost machinery of betrayal:. It is one of deep loss.


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Children have all of their adolescence to learn, gradually, how to live apart from their parents, and they expect to do so all along. A betrayed spouse often has no preparation for separateness, and no skill at leading a separate life. It is easy, in that situation, to think that the best future is one involving some type of payback, since that future, unlike the future of self-creation, is easy to imagine.

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