Marriage and Family Illustrated

When Your Husband Sleeps with the Nanny

TL;DR : couple who had been together for 20 years get a 22-year-old au pair to look after the children; husband dumps wife to be with au pair.

Part of the modern western mythology of romance is that we fall in love with people for who they are inside. There is a tiny piece of truth in that, but mostly we love people for what they do, and how they do it. We fall in love with people who give us attention and who act as if we are important to them.

Abigail, the wife in this story, was the same person who had married Ben fifteen years previously. But she wasn’t doing the same things that had attracted him. Nor was what she was doing a natural development of those things: she hadn’t become a housewife and mother, she had become a “project co-ordinator” who didn’t have time or energy for him, or even much interest in him.

The pair were married for nearly a decade before having children, and it seems that as a couple they never really adapted to being parents. The kind of office career that she followed does not usually get easier over time; it gets more demanding, more pressured. You can be 24, and “going to work” is just one thing you do among many, but when you are 38 your job is the biggest part of your life, and anything else is a little extra that you might have time and energy for. Since she was going out to work but he was working from home, the nanny was closer to him in every way than the wife.

The husband felt closer to the nanny who looked after his house and his children, than to the “project co-ordinator” he was theoretically married to.

He was probably a more significant part of the nanny’s life than he was of his wife’s, who was too tired at the age of 38 and with a full-time job to go out dancing with him.

Basically, Ben and Anna, the husband and the nanny, had the normal relationship of a traditional family,  except that at night he was, for no obvious reason, sleeping with Abigail, some other woman who happened to be sharing his house. After a year, the pointlessness of that distraction became evident. You could even say that Ben was being unfaithful to Anna, the woman who spent leisure time with him, looked after his house and his children, by going to bed with Abigail.

This is just one story, reported in the Daily Mail, so not necessarily accurate, and not necessarily representative even if it is accurate. I’m looking at it as a story, rather than as a set of facts. What it provides in terms of evidence is that telling this story makes sense to people. The background of a woman who meets a man at 18, marries him, has two children in her thirties, goes to work full time while her husband works from home, gets an au pair to look after the children—this strikes readers of the Daily Mail as a reasonable sort of life.

Here’s the point: it isn’t. The proper response to the story is not “oh dear, it all went wrong, how sad”, it’s “How could anyone expect that to work? How many other couples are pretending to be a family in the shape of sleeping arrangements, but not actually living as a family, or even living almost as a family with other people?”

The traditional western nuclear family is not a natural social phenomenon innate to humanity, but it is something which evolved and proved to work in an environment not very far removed from our own. It is by no means the only workable arrangement, but on the other hand some random combination of features is unlikely to be as effective.

It is expected to start with a strong mutual physical attraction between two young people. The dark truth of young humans is that such strong physical attractions are not hard to come by. It is not putting much difficulty in the way of forming a marriage to require an attraction of this kind.

The strong attraction will not last in the same form for long enough to sustain the marriage. In particular, it will fade for the man. The different development of attractive features of men and women are such that, even if the man is 30 and the woman is 20, he is becoming more attractive and she is becoming less attractive.

This need not matter, because the traditional development is for the couple to become mutually dependent. The wife makes the home, has children, and nurtures the children. The husband supports the family economically. The wife will have friends who are also wives, and the husband will have friends and colleagues who are also husbands. Neither partner will have any remotely sexual contact with anyone but each other. The woman becomes less attractive, but men stay interested in sex into old age, and, whatever the husband’s past, over time sex comes to mean, for him, sex with his wife. Her main role is running the home, with his help. His main role is his job, and ideally she would help with that. The physical attraction of the early years has morphed into a familiar closeness and a mutual dependency.

Going nearly a decade without children weakens this pattern. The wife having a full time job as a project co-ordinator, working with other men, totally blows it out of the water. Bringing a 22-year-old girl into the house to look after the children, reckless as it seems, is just the straw that broke the camel’s back: it seems pretty clear that, without that, the split would have come anyway. By Anna’s own account, there was nothing much in the arrangement for her, anyway. Why does a woman with a full-time job and children she doesn’t have time to raise need a husband? Again, by both accounts, if she had wanted him, he would have stayed with her: it was when he realised that Anna’s company was actually a bigger part of his life than Abigail’s that he pulled the plug.
“all five of us took a day trip to Belgium and, suddenly, I felt like the outsider.” Objectively, she’d been an outsider for years.

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