Relationship advice

This past year, domestic violence was in the news quite often. But lately, I’ve noticed the stories that have really made me stop and think about violence and relationships are the ones that didn’t set out to do so. They are just good stories, with violence woven through as it is woven into all our lives.

This Senator Saved My Love Life is an episode of the podcast Death, Sex & Money. Political reporter Anna Sale tells the odd and charming story of how former Senator Alan K. Simpson and his wife Ann Simpson became sort of relationship mentors to Anna and her boyfriend, dispensing pearls of wisdom about intimacy, sex, and commitment. In a million years, it would not have occurred to me to look to an 83-year-old Republican Senator from Wyoming for relationship advice, least of all Al Simpson. Before listening to this story, my only memory of Senator Alan Simpson was his disgraceful role on the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. His open hostility  and dismissive attitude toward what he called “this sexual harassment crap” was typical of the all-male, all-white committee. I don’t know how many times I have heard a politician spouting some sexist garbage and wonder how that goes over with the women in his life. Who married this blowhard, and has she told him he’s a total jackass? I finally got the answer from Ann Simpson. She let her husband know what she thought of his performance at the hearings, and it’s still a sore spot for them.

 

Among the many historic moments of the Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas debacle: the first time Ann Simpson tells her husband to shut up.

 

Nonetheless, after 50 years of marriage, Al and Ann Simpson have a lot of things figured out. They are sweet together. They are clearly proud of their marriage and have worked hard at making it a good one. For me, the heart of the story is in this apparent contradiction: how could this woman be married to the ranting bully I watched on C-SPAN, yet not be bullied herself?

Ann and Al talk very frankly about struggling to find a balance of power in their relationship. They describe a defining moment, one night early in their marriage.

Al was furious with Ann after she spent the evening dancing with another man at a political event. He recalls how self-righteous he was, how sure he was that she would be wracked with guilt, and how Ann was having none of it:

Al: “She said ‘Look…I’m not going to be under a glass lid just because of your jealousy. And I love to dance. And I will do that. And I’m not going to jump in the sack with somebody, so I think you better get over it.’ Which really pissed me off.”

Al goes on to describe how the shock of realizing that Ann did not feel the least bit guilty led to a critical moment of clarity. Still stewing, he stayed up late into the night, reading Shakespeare, and suddenly recognized his own jealousy in Othello’s murderous rage.

“I thought, Jesus, this is one sick son-of-a-bitch. This is not me. This is totally destructive and has nothing to do with her.”

There are moments in this story that we might recognize as “red flags,” warning signs that point toward domestic violence. But the story does not take that path. A red flag marks one moment in time. What happens in the next moment makes a difference in how the story turns out.

Surely Al could have done a lot of damage if he had chosen to tighten his grip on control, if he had resented Ann’s resistance to his demands instead of admiring her for it. And if Ann had molded herself to accommodate his ego, he may have been another man who bullies everyone in his life because bullying has always worked.

Instead, when he tries to control her, it doesn’t work. And they each play an equally important part in that:

  1. Ann stands her own ground, and does not shape her behavior around Al’s attempt to shame or control her.
  2. When Al’s bullying doesn’t get him what he wants, he decides to do something different. Ann doesn’t make him stop. He decides for himself that is not the way to get the relationship he wants. Looking back, he recognizes Ann standing up to him for the gift that it was. One piece of marriage advice he has sums this up: “The secret is, you both try to control each other, and you both fail. And it’s critical that you both fail.”

We often say we want to stop domestic violence before it starts, but what does that moment look like? The stories we most often hear take place much farther downstream, when the course is set and the stakes are high. Much earlier, somewhere around the first red flag, there are many possible endings.

There’s much more from Al and Ann. Listen to the whole podcast here.