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If we were anything, we were honest.

Monday, April 13, 2015 by Marianne Elliott

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A guest post from Laurie Wagner

In 2005, when my oldest daughter was 10 years old, she and her little sister were sitting in the back of my husband’s truck while he stepped into the store for milk. Leaving them alone in the car wasn’t the worst thing that happened in the five minutes that he was gone, but it did change the course of our lives and who we became as a family.

Sitting there bored, waiting for dad, my daughter reached into my husband’s satchel and she pulled out his journal, flipped open a page and this is what she read, “Jill is the best lover I have ever had.”

My daughter didn’t know diddly about sex, but she did know that her mother’s name wasn’t Jill.

Our couple’s therapist at the time told us that kids know everything, and so if they ask you about something, don’t lie to them, tell them the truth. If you lie and contradict what they know to be true, it’ll really mess them up because they won’t learn to trust their own feelings.

I was out of town at the time, but my husband called me later and he told me that when he got back into the car, my daughter said, “Daddy, we need to talk.” When they got home they went into his office, leaving my younger daughter in the other room, and she asked him, “Are you having sex with Jill?” Jill was a friend of ours, and yes, he was having sex with Jill, so he made a choice right then and there, took a deep breath and he said, “yes.”

“Does Mommy know?” she asked. “Yes,” he said. “Is Mommy having sex with Carl?” That was Jill’s husband. “You’ll have to ask Mommy,” he said.

This isn’t going to be the story of how or why my husband and I opened our marriage 16 years into being together, I’ll write that story another time. This is the story of a path of radical honesty we took with our children, which began when my daughter picked up my husband’s journal and we told them about our open marriage, an honesty that continued through the years, not just about that, but about a lot of other important things we didn’t want to keep from them. This is the story of the faith we had to have in telling the truth, even in the face of hurting our kids or messing them up for good.

As for the contents of what my daughter read – on another day that might have horrified me  – the implications that Jill – my husband’s lover of a year – was someone he was falling in love with  – but today that was the least of my worries.

“We’re going to call you later,” my husband said. “She wants to talk to you.”

My daughter had the courage to confront my husband and the courage to call me, but let’s remember that she was only 10. When my husband asked her that day if she knew what sex was, she reached into a bowl of potato chips, pulled out two and knocked them together like they were meeting and coming apart. Fucking chips. So when she got on the phone with me she didn’t read me the riot act, she sounded like a little girl.

“Honey,” I said, “I am so sorry that you had to find out about this in this way. Daddy and I love you and we would never do anything to hurt you.”

Silence.

“Sweetie?” I said.

“Yeah,” she said, her voice tiny.

“Did you hear me? I love you.”

“Okay,” she said, not entirely convinced.

Our therapist, who was helping us get through this scary patch, would tell us that we didn’t have to tell her everything, that children will only ask questions that they are ready to hear answers to.

The weeks after I got home were filled with a lot of time together. I told her that there were a lot of different ways to be married, but most importantly, daddy and I loved each other and we loved our family. Sometimes if we were driving, she wouldn’t say much, but it was clear she was troubled, and I’d let us drive in silence to make space for her to say anything at all.

It turns out she wasn’t upset about the sex part. What upset her was that in her eyes, her parents were liars, and if we were lying about this, what else were we lying about?

If my husband and I were anything, we were honest – with each other – with our friends – and now we were going to extend that honesty to our children.

The fact was, we had spent the last year lying to them a lot. Every other Wednesday night I had a date with Carl, so I’d leave the house in jeans, then head to the gym where I’d change into a sexy dress so they wouldn’t see what a bombshell I had turned myself into.  My youngest daughter told me later that she hated those Wednesday nights, not only because I was leaving, but because when she’d ask me where I was going I’d say something breezy like,  “oh, out to dinner with Sue,” or some other friend, but somehow she knew that I wasn’t telling the truth, and that’s what stayed with her – not what I was saying, but what I wasn’t saying.

The other clunky thing was that once we sat them down and told them about our open marriage, we also asked them to keep this information to themselves, to not tell their friends, and especially to not tell Carl and Jill’s children, who they were friends with. “We need to let Carl and Jill tell their own kids if and when they choose to – that’s not for us to do.” So on the one hand we were telling them that what we were doing was fine and that the truth was good, but we were also saying, “oh, and don’t tell anyone else.” It wasn’t perfect, but it was the best we could do.

What seemed more important than what we said to them was how my husband and I treated each other and how things felt at home. Were we loving? Did we treat each other kindly? But more important, was our family still our family? Regular family check-ins followed every few weeks where we’d sit together and talk about anything and everything. Open communication became the guiding principle in our lives.

Instead of slipping away and heading into the city for a date, when we went out, we’d tell the kids where we were going, not only so they’d know, but so they could see the reaction on my husband’s face when I said, “I’m going to meet Carl.” If their father winced, they’d see that. What I hope they understood was that living an honest life was more important than what that life looked like. What I hope we taught them was that the essence of a relationship, who two people were together, was more important than the form that relationship took.

Nine years later this last piece would be put to the test when their father and I separated and then divorced. Of course we had to do it our way, which is to say, even in the first year of the divorce, my ex came with us on trips and we all scouted colleges together. And then the final trippy piece that my girls just shake their heads at, which is that a year and a half after my husband moved out, he moved back in with me because his place fell through. He sleeps upstairs, I sleep downstairs, we kiss goodnight, make each other coffee in the morning and we see other people romantically. We’re happier than we’ve been in years. When our kids tell people that their parents are divorced, people say, “Oh, so sorry,” and assume it’s one of those horrible divorces where the family is fractured and no one gets along, but my kids say, “no, don’t be sorry, we have the best family ever.” Then they explain that their dad and I live together, which really confuses people.

It’s not a typical family, but it’s a family of people who trust and love one another deeply, and in the end, that’s all that matters.

As an aside, I should tell you that my girls are 17 and nearly 20 now, and while it’s still too early to say how my relationship with their dad will impact their lives in the big picture, I can tell you that they’re pretty awesome people, straight talkers and honest thinkers, and they tell us everything about their lives; the good, the bad and the ugly. And so I have to think that we did something right.

Laurie Wagner - Marianne ElliottMeet Laurie.

Laurie Wagner has been publishing books and essays, and teaching writing for the last 25 years. She is a process guru and has a genius for holding space, helping people unzip what’s inside of them, and get ink on the page. A creative brain-stormer, she specializes in out of the box ways to tell your stories, and she’ll meet you wherever you are. Her Wild Writing classes are the cornerstone of her live work, but she also teaches many classes on the internet through her website, 27powers.org

 

 


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