COLUMN

Give and take in a relationship

‘Sidorova would have shown more decency if she just left Inwood, rather than press charges’

BARBARA AMIEL October 17 1988
COLUMN

Give and take in a relationship

‘Sidorova would have shown more decency if she just left Inwood, rather than press charges’

BARBARA AMIEL October 17 1988

Give and take in a relationship

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

There was quite a fight on my street in London the other night over the question of how to cook the snow peas: steamed or stir-fried? It all ended up rather noisily with a broken window followed by poundings on the car as the wife and child drove away.

Men and women do fight, and sometimes hands get raised in anger. Character and social class have a lot to do with whether or not a fight is all white knuckles and hisses rather than punches and scatalogical screamings in the street, but even this restraint doesn’t apply to those people affected by alcoholism.

I reflected further on the matter when I read my week-old Toronto newspapers and saw the Inwood verdict. Kirby Inwood is the Toronto man who campaigned to get his Russian wife and her child out of the Soviet Union and then, having done so, was charged with assaulting them both in Toronto. At a presentencing hearing after his conviction, testimony was taken from some of his old girlfriends. He threatened to kill my cat, one old flame told the court. I was locked out of the house for more than 10 minutes, said another. The court also heard he threw broccoli against the walls and spanked one lady friend with a closed fist.

None of them had laid charges at the time, but the ladies were closing ranks now and they knew “abuse” in retrospect. As for the assault against his wife and her child, well, the court has found him guilty, but I have some sympathy with the judge’s light sentence of 30 days and alcohol counselling. In the bad old days, before “abuse” consciousness was raised, wives tried to help difficult men mend their ways or give up the bottle. I suppose it takes all kinds to make the world, and so on, but then who would have doubted that Kirby Inwood was, well, a strange man, perhaps a very flawed and pathetic one? Very few human beings, after all, want to spend 20

‘Sidorova would have shown more decency if she just left Inwood, rather than press charges’

months and a lot of money to get the girl who caught their eye in a Moscow bar out of the Soviet Union, as he did. My own feeling is that the wife, Tatyana Sidorova, would have shown more decency if she had just left her husband rather than press charges.

Still, the incident made me wonder: what is the scorecard when it comes to the attempts of the 20th century to improve the state of relationships between men and women? We have drafted and redrafted the matrimonial property laws, we have redefined male/female roles and set up committees to make sure no one is “stereotyped” into washing the dishes, we have changed the rules of evidence and court procedures for women and children in rape cases or abuse trials, we have legislated affirmative-action programs for women in order to see more of us become prison guards or plumbers. But have we, in the final analysis, improved the climate between the sexes?

In answering that, I’ll start with what I personally consider to be improvements in the human condition. Our century has, I believe, made it much easier for very intelligent and very moral human beings to have relationships with one another. Men and women

can now follow their own categorical imperatives instead of being locked into rigid nonsensical systems full of rules and prohibitions.

For so long, men and women were forced to play roles for which they may have truly been unsuited, with proscribed moves and sanctions. By roles, of course, one does not simply mean the traditional division of labor between the sexes that so infuriates today’s feminists. One is talking about the freedom to arrange every aspect of one’s life. Our century has loosened those bonds, and, for any liberal person, this can only be regarded as an inestimably good thing.

I suppose we have fulfilled the definition given by the great 19th-century legal scholar Sir Henry Maine, who saw progress as proceeding from status to contract. As I understand it, what he meant is that, in the really liberal society, people ought not to be identified by their status: you are not a man, a woman, a husband or a wife because society sees you only as that but because you choose to make a contract with your existence.

But this liberty is, I believe, only an advantage for very intelligent and very moral human beings. The new flexibility has its casualties, and when you loosen the bonds for intelligent and moral people, it is difficult to do it without loosening the bonds and rules for stupid and immoral ones as well. And when stupid people are cut loose, they tend to drift onto the rocks.

We tried, for example, to improve marriage and eliminate the disparity between husbands and wives when they divorce. Intelligent and moral people can now part more easily when a marriage is painfully dead. Stupid and immoral people can now take unconscionable advantage of the law at divorce time through outrageous financial demands, as some wives are doing with Ontario’s retroactive division-of-property laws. Immoral people can use such things as society’s heightened consciousness of child abuse as a vicious technique in custody proceedings. One Ontario lawyer told me that he was sickened by seeing the threat to accuse a father of child abuse surfacing as a tool in property and custody disputes.

We have done some very good things in the name of modernizing the relationship between men and women. But I fear that in one sense all we have done is reverse evil: it is a little harder in 1988 for a bad husband to do a dirty deal on a good wife, but it’s sure a hell of a lot easier for a bad wife to do a dirty deed on a good husband.

Still, men and women continue falling in love and getting married. The biological imperative is so strong that it will take a lot to completely ruin that. What we have learned, I suppose, is that the many institutions that surround the relationships between men and women are a bit analogous to the idea of a long body with a short blanket. You can keep altering matters and pulling it this way and that, but either your feet will be cold or your shoulders will be bare. There is a price tag to everything, and no advantage or gain, it seems, can be had without incurring a loss.