Friday, May 10, 2013

O Curse of Marriage

by Jean Roberta

In Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy about the causes and results of jealousy, the provocateur who plants suspicion in the mind of General Othello that his new bride is unfaithful warns him:

“O! beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

Iago, the sly underling, resents Othello for reasons that are never clear enough. Iago might resent Othello for not giving him a promotion, or for rising so fast through the ranks of the army, despite his being an outsider in Venetian society. (Othello is a “Moor,” i.e. Moroccan, so he is visibly different from the Italians around him.) Iago also claims that his own wife Emilia has fooled around with Othello behind his back, though the audience never sees this. Jealousy, it seems, doesn’t need substantial evidence.

Iago’s warning about jealousy drips with irony. He, of all people, knows how it can destroy a life.

Othello is newly-married to Desdemona, a younger and whiter woman who fell in love with him when he told her about his military adventures, the battles he survived. He claims to love her because she admires and sympathizes with him, but he can’t trust her.

Here Othello makes it clear that husbands in general can’t afford to trust their wives:

“O curse of marriage, that we can call these delicate creatures ours, and not their appetites! I had rather be a toad, and live upon the vapour of a dungeon, than keep a corner in the thing I love for others’ uses.”

Othello is so much more to me than a dusty Renaissance play that many English majors have studied in university. As a student of literature and new bride in my twenties, I studied this plot AND lived it. As my desperate, ambitious, hard-drinking Nigerian husband grew angrier on alien turf (I had brought him to Canada from England, where we met), I racked my brains to find explanations and solutions. Why was he so upset that I had had other boyfriends before him, even though he knew that when he proposed to me? Why was he so convinced that I was a nympho who had random hookups with men, and when did he think I was doing all this? Was there an Iago among our friends?

Could I possibly prove my loyalty, even while my husband’s behaviour made me so hurt, angry and afraid that I didn’t see how I could stay with him much longer?

This was the most urgent question: Was he going to kill me, as Othello kills Desdemona?

Luckily for me, I was able to escape, continue my education and raise our daughter with no further violence. (Not that any of that was easy.) My ex-husband tried to persuade my parents to kick me and my baby out of their house on grounds that I was obviously a cheating wife -- otherwise I would never have left my home & husband. When his plan didn’t succeed, he went on to marry another young white Canadian whose parents seemed able and willing (at first) to support him financially. That relationship collapsed as well, and my ex-husband moved to another part of Canada, presumably to find a good job (not to mention a relatively well-off family with a daughter).

Like Othello, my ex eventually died in despair, though his life seems to have declined for years before then. On New Year’s Eve 2006, I learned in a surprise phone call that he had died of a heart attack in a town where he was alone except for the patient friend who phoned me because the hospital was asking for a next-of-kin. The reasons for my ex's isolation weren't hard to guess, and I got lurid bits of information on the day of his funeral: apparently he had gone to the local hospital several times with complaints about plots against him and evil spirits in his apartment. He had been diagnosed with a mental illness. (But my opinion of the “mental health” establishment is a whole other post.)

My current female spouse (a better choice!) usually answers my lingering questions about the drama of my first marriage with this line: “You have to remember he was mentally ill.” Case closed.

This epitaph doesn’t resolve anything to my satisfaction, and my own Othello is no longer able to speak for himself. He was definitely the most jealous man I ever met, but he wasn’t alone.

During the “sexual revolution” of the 1970s, I kept meeting guys who expected me to go with the flow and live for the moment by having unprotected sex with them, but none of them seemed to want a relationship with a sexually-experienced woman. Even in theoretical discussions about dating relationships, one guy after another paraphrased Othello’s “O curse of marriage” speech. They hated the fickle nature of women, as they saw it, and their own inability to put a chastity belt on the mind of any woman they had claimed as “theirs.”

This irrational value system has been called the Double Standard, and it seems incredibly long-lived. Trying to argue it away just doesn’t work. Trust me, I’ve tried that. Writing off every jealous heterosexual man as “mentally ill” seems parallel to summing up women in general as “weak-minded” and therefore prone to go to the Dark Side.

There has to be a way to analyze this monster, this curse or this epidemic without resorting to shallow insults.

Like Giselle, I’ve experienced some disturbing little outbreaks of jealousy in my long-term lesbian relationship. Sometimes I wonder about her real motives for being with me; love can be asserted, but never proved beyond a doubt. More often, I think I see jealousy in her eyes. (I have a much more secure job than she does -- with shorter working hours, higher pay, and no crazy-making office politics. Do I deserve all this? Doesn’t she? Who knows?) But then, I can never be sure if I am seeing and hearing her clearly, or overreacting because of the Shakespearean tragedy of my past. It’s complicated.

I’m convinced that no one is immune from jealousy, or the messy soup of feelings that are described that way. The only way I know of to minimize the damage is to think before I speak or act, and not to blurt out the first words that come to my mind.

Respect (for oneself and others) is probably the best antidote.



  1. thanks for sharing some of your history with us, Jean.
    are there people who are immune to jealousy? i don't find that i get jealous myself. i am happy when others are successful. as i said in my post, i have too good a life to envy anyone else their joys. & i am in an open marriage where i feel happy & grateful when my husband has lovers, especially the nurturing ones. :)

  2. As you say, self respect is the best antidote. People who doubt their own worth can never quite believe that those they love wouldn't prefer someone else, and when that dynamic encounters the cultural imperative of a woman's sexuality being the property of her husband, it can be lethal. Not that there aren't jealous women, but not as many of them take it that far. Yet.

  3. Current thought on the subject is quite new to history. The concept of 'free love' evolved into 'open marriage and 'polyamory' only in about the last century or two. Considering the eons when women were considered property or at best chattel, we've come a long way fairly quickly, and predominantly in Europe and North America. Such progress will undoubtedly cause painful confusion as to roles for much time to come. That's no excuse for stupid drama, but jealousy may be more ingrained in us than intellectual congruity. Maybe not something humans can turn on and off. Hopefully in time, common sense will evolve and prevail, but no telling how long that may be.
    Just think-- in your ex's original culture, where his experience shaped his formative years, he could have been justified in killing or maiming you. We come now to one of my pet peeves: Where religion or custom justifies the otherwise unjustifiable. It almost requires the most regressive of human traits.

    1. Thanks for commenting, all. Amanda, I think Sacchi and Daddy X have some insight on the issue of male jealousy in marriage. There are still "honour killings" in too many countries. Women's jealousy doesn't seem that bad -- yet, since it isn't justified by ages-old tradition. In my experience, the most jealous people consider themselves reasonable, and any criticism of their behaviour makes them feel further victimized. Self-awareness and general awareness of this issue seem likely to have some effect, but rational discussion doesn't seem to cure the problem.

  4. Ah, Jean!

    How clever and literate of you to turn your own life's story into a gloss on Othello. Of course, I knew something about this from your previous posts, but I'm so glad you pointed out the parallels.

    Somehow, I've been incredibly lucky. I've never had to deal with a really jealous guy. At one point in my life I was in three or four sexual relationships at the same time, and every man (alas, they were all men) knew about the others. In many cases, they'd met one another.

    Looking back now, I wonder how I managed this. I'd love to think that each one of them was happy with the attention I gave them (and I will say, I was fairly good at staying in the moment). Who knows, maybe they were laughing at me behind my back. What a slut and all that. Anyway it was fun (though exhausting and confusing) while it lasted.

    Of course none of them married me. But then, that wasn't what I was looking for either.

    I get a real kick out of hearing about my husband's sexual exploits before we met (which were numerous!) And to be honest, I don't think he minds my talking about mine.

  5. Hi Jean!

    Lisabet has had the most amazing history. It still blows me away.

    In your offering I was oddly struck by the fact that your current lover was jealous. It had not occurred to me that in a settled relationship like yours it would ever be an issue. I always feel a little bad for your ex, not that he was right in any of this, but that mental illness had twisted his experience of reality so badly that life must have been hell for him and death a mercy. It reminds me a little of my mom. Some people have such a hard time in this world.


  6. I suppose if you want an enlightened husband, best not choose one from a culture that hasn't had an Enlightenment yet. Call that a shallow insult if you will. But if your marriage reminded you of a 16th century melodrama, I'd say you should have chosen Bachelor #2. :)

  7. Lisabet, I'm glad you were so lucky -- though maybe I should say deserving. If men can have simultaneous sexual relationships without being called names, women should too. Garce, I still feel some sympathy for my ex from time to time. (And only a few weeks ago, I had a vivid dream in which he told me he had loved me desperately and never fully recovered from losing me. My current spouse, who has worked with abused women in shelters, thinks it's very possible that he meant every word of this when he was alive.)
    Anonymous! It's good to hear from you. Yes, I should have chosen Bachelor #2. When you're right, you're right. We could argue further about definitons of Enlightenment & whether it really arrived in Europe as a bolt from heaven in the mid-18th-century, but my ex certainly came from a different zeitgeist than I did.


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