I grew up as the youngest of three brothers by ten and five years, so at an early age I developed the unfortunate habit of believing everything my brothers told me, only to have to unlearn some of it later. For example, my brother told me that it was all right to hunt for Christmas presents before Christmas and to peek at them before they were wrapped. That was not right. My brother showed me (without telling me) that it was all right to hide certain magazines under my bed. Whether right or not, it was a mistake. As a result, the challenge for me, whether due to my position in the family or not, has been to know whom to believe, when the story is convincingly, seemingly sincerely, told. I have wanted to believe what is revealed to me.
My middle brother provided the context for the most glaring family truths while I was in seminary and shortly thereafter. His wife—a charming, attractive, and voluble woman—found that every time she had a serious issue with her husband was an opportunity to involve me and my young wife on her side, representing her point of view and history of events. She was always a convincing storyteller and, I learned to my sorrow, she had a proclivity for invention and misdirection. Not that my brother was an angel in their relationship, far from it, but neither was he the intractable villain she consistently portrayed. The best result of this time of third party mis-interventions was the time we got to spend with our niece and nephew, but that came to an abrupt end. After she had run through a series of jobs and made a reputation for dishonesty, she decided to empty the house of their possessions and as much of their bank account as she had access to, while he was away at work, and moved the three of them five hours away, without a forwarding address. You might conclude that he was physically and emotionally abusive, but that was not the case, at least not in any flagrant way.
I have lost track of the times when, as a clergyman and counselor, I have been tempted to replay this scenario, recruited to side with one partner in a relationship, only to learn that the truth was not so easy to find.
A husband came with complaints about his wife’s domineering and excessive expectations, presumably seeking to bring his wife into counseling with him. She would not come. He replayed the drama for his parents and siblings that he wanted to reconcile, but his wife was unwilling. We met twice, while I followed the principle that I could only help the one who comes for help, and the same story unfolded in several variations about her stubbornness and unreasonableness. When I finally succeeded in visiting with her, the problem that she identified was not only his absence from home and family duties, but his serial adultery that kept him away from home with an abundance of excuses. She believed that his effort to seek counseling was aimed at persuading other people that he had tried, but she was unwilling, therefore his divorce was justified. When he knew that I was aware of this background, he dropped the idea of counseling and proceeded with the divorce and remarriage.
A wife came with grievances against her husband’s time-consuming involvements in a volunteer fire and rescue service, while she was pursuing an advanced college degree. He never made time for her and her needs. It was difficult to find a time to meet with both of them, and at first he seemed oblivious to the idea that they were having any problems. When we met together, he claimed that he got so heavily involved in emergency response because she was never at home, and he wanted to stay busy at the same time that he supported the wife that he was so proud of. When they talked to each other, it became obvious that they had married a short time after high school graduation when they had no sense of their different life interests. The wife had become aware of her intellectual superiority, and that attitude showed in every verbal exchange. She wanted affirmation that it was all right for her to move to a new person in her life, after her husband had financed her education, and her excuse was his inattention.
It is necessary to understand that the people whom we care for as members of our parishes, or the family members that we love, may not be presenting the real reasons for their actions, their confusions, or their emotional states. We want to believe them when they sound sincere. We must often do some investigating of the deeper holes that people dig for themselves and the empty spaces in their hearts that they need to fill with something or someone.