Since I already homeschool, life hasn’t changed much for me. I don’t have to chauffeur kids around all day, though. So I have had a little extra time for reading. I finally tackled Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I had been told it was about adultery, which didn’t appeal to me at all. Having spent much of my legal career as a divorce lawyer, I couldn’t handle another sad story. But when I attended a lecture by Martin Cothran on Great Books last year, Anna Karenina was at the top of his list for its insight on marriage. Now that intrigued me.
The story of three marriages, Anna and Alexei Karenin – loveless and tragic, Dolly and Stiva Oblonsky – rocky and pitiful, and Kitty and Konstantin Levin – forgiving and enduring, provide easy comparisons. Karenin is a failure of a husband when he lets Anna have what she thinks she wants, to run off with Vronsky in a hopeless future for her and her daughter. Levin is a hero of a husband when he sends the obnoxious flirt of a guest from his home, to protect his marriage. And Oblonsky is so shallow of a husband that barely remembers he has a wife, expect to send her expensive telegrams that she does not want.
As a divorce attorney, and I probably shouldn’t admit this, I have mental files that each case, indeed each marriage I come across, gets more or less categorized into. And I was surprised to find my mental categories reflected in Tolstoy’s novel. Sure there are differences and nuances, but the minutia of the relationships are sort of subheadings in my mental file drawers.
There are those couples that will cheat, lie, harm, or just annoy each other until they die, or at least until the kids are grown, somehow hanging on together, much like the Oblonskys. I respect that, even if I find it sad and sometimes repulsive. My grandparents were like that. I was never quite sure that they actually liked each other, but they were married for 50 years. My grandfather, rather than feeling free of what appeared to be a burden to him, was a basket case when my grandmother died. Marriage can be complicated.
There are dedicated spouses that endure for any number of reasons, like Dolly. There are really nice people that are incredibly irresponsible, like Stiva. And there is everybody in between. You can blame whomever you wish for the unhappiness, but it will stretch on and on. Perhaps it endures because there are some good times, too.
Then there are the couples that are just not going to make it, mostly because neither has any real idea of what love is. They want so badly to be satisfied themselves that they never quite consider their spouse’s needs. Like the Karenins they can appear happy and functional for a while, but selfishness eventually becomes the devourer of the relationship. And like Anna they will continue to look for “love” but the monster of me will rear its ugly head again in the form of lust, envy, or bitterness. Or it will appear as dedication to career, children, extended family or any number of more innocent looking forms. The end result is the same, the relationship is broken.
The saddest moment in my career was when a client came back to me a second time for help with a second divorce. This has happened several times now. In the end Vronsky made Anna more miserable than Alexei Karenin did. This type of relationship is often one in a series. Eventually some people figure it out and finally get it right. Others never will.
Finally there are the committed couples, like the Levins. They have rocky patches. They are imperfect people, but they are determined to discover the truth about their spouse and themselves. These couples are not pushed around by whatever dysfunction everyone else finds normal. They have a healthy sense of how much of true love is sacrifice.
The Levins reminded me a bit of my own parents. They sure could fight. But they sure could make up, too. And making up was not smoothing over a rough spot with a temporary measure. Making up was learning from the fight and becoming better at loving each other.
Levin discovered Kitty’s ability to handle death and illness when his brother was dying. He assumed her pampered life had not prepared her and he thought she would be in his way. Instead of a hindrance he realized she was better equipped than himself and could not have functioned well without her. When we discover something new about our spouse, our love for him or her grows. And always growing is a key to a happy marriage.
Though Anna Karenina has many other lessons for us, the greatest is how our relationships are forged one choice at a time. They are restored by one decision to forgive. They are destroyed by giving in to one moment of infidelity. Relationships are undermined by one bad financial decision at a time. They are redeemed by one more honest look at ourselves. And one second chance not wasted.
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