Fidelity is being true to the friend you married

March 15, 1998|By SUSAN REIMER

WHEN HER tearful 8-year-old son ambushed her with questions about condoms and AIDS and whether Mommy and Daddy were safe from disease and death, a flustered Catherine Wallace quickly explained that Mommy and Daddy had exclusive rights to each other and were, therefore, safe from infection by someone else.

"I knew I had to do better than that," says Wallace.

It took longer to craft an answer than she thought. That little boy is a senior in high school now, and her response is as long as a book. In fact, it is a book: "For Fidelity: How Intimacy and Commitment Enrich Our Lives."

A literary scholar on a fast track who left a teaching career to raise her three small children -- a task nearly complete now -- Wallace has written a thinking person's argument in defense of marital fidelity.

"We all have intelligent kids," she says during a stop in Baltimore on her book tour. "They need intelligent answers.

"We have to answer their questions without flinching and tell them that it is not all right to exploit another or to be the mindless victim of our own impulses."

Wallace is Irish Catholic and was educated by nuns, but the case she makes for fidelity is not one from the pulpit, as in: Obey or face eternal damnation.

Instead, Wallace makes a philosopher's argument for marital fidelity as the logical extension of honorable friendship.

"Fidelity is more than sexual exclusivity," Wallace says. "That first meaning of the word is narrow and negative. It is rights to someone else's body, licensed by the state.

"The word 'fidelity' means commitment. To what? To a certain standard of interpersonal behavior, which includes qualities like compassion and self-respect, generosity and integrity.

"I don't think I am inventing anything when I say that adultery is a bad idea and fidelity is a good idea. This isn't news. But what I am doing is offering a new defense of it."

A defense that is not based on church law or civil law or inertia or the division of wealth or what the neighbors will say or even what's best for the kids.

It is a defense based on integrity, the same integrity that is the currency, the lubricant, the foundation of all good relationships. For Wallace, fidelity is a positive choice, a creative act, not just the avoidance of sin.

Wallace's book makes heroic those of us who are faithful in marriage because there isn't the time or the opportunity or the guts to be anything else. But she does more than make us feel good about the default mode of our lives: She tells us how to teach our children to be faithful in a faithless world. Not just sexually faithful to a mate, but faithful to a friend and to ourselves.

Imaginary vs. real

Movies and television, which create an imaginary world where sex is a recreational sport or the weapon of choice, make it difficult to talk to our children about sexual relationships in the real world -- along with their natural and healthy aversion to listening to us on the subject.

"It is OK that it is difficult," says Wallace. "We are respecting the kinds of inhibitions and restrictions that protect families from incest. So we have to find other approaches.

"But if you understand instead that marriage is a variety of friendship, then you can talk about friendships. You realize that you are preparing your children to be loyal husbands and wives every time you talk to them about friendship, which we are doing from the time they are 3 or 4 years old."

Wallace is careful not to preach, because the kind of personal integrity that produces faithful marriages does not come from a stone tablet. And she doesn't try to frighten her children into fidelity with stories about STDs and AIDs and death, because if eternal damnation doesn't keep you home at night, a virus isn't going to do it.

Instead she tells stories -- from the Bible, from the newspaper, from the neighborhood, from literature, from her own marriage -- that demonstrate the nature of friendship. They are stories that are easy for a kid to sit through but have a moral punch line, one that gives dimension to vague and grown-up concepts like integrity and commitment and trust.

A child cannot understand the discipline required for sexual fidelity, but can understand a story about the sometimes high price of honesty. It's a lesson her son learned when the winning basket he had scored was nullified by his admission that he had stepped out of bounds. His teammates vilified him for telling the truth.

A child may not understand the urgency of erotic desire, but that child can learn, as Wallace did, that you can't eat dozens of glazed doughnuts without feeling ashamed and sick.

Instead of threatening "because I said so," she says, "Let me tell you a story." Sometimes she is inventive, creating what historians call a "usable past," so her children can feel rooted in standards of behavior that support them during conflicts.

"It isn't that I want to block behavior in their lives," Wallace says of her three children, teen-agers now. "It is that there are values and commitments that I want them to be capable of."

For Wallace, sex is not the definition of fidelity. Sex is a language of fidelity -- the ultimate expression of trust.

Pub Date: 3/15/98

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