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Showing loyalty is trickier than you might think

She asks about loyalty in marriage. Not sexual fidelity — that’s the easy part of loyalty. No, she means loyalty in the broader sense. What does it mean to be loyal to her husband, especially when she’s considering exiting this marriage?

See, he has disappeared. Oh, he’s still in the house. Still going to work. Still raising children with her. But he has disappeared from the marriage. He has moved out of the master bedroom. Minimal eye contact. Physical touch is infrequent and perfunctory. The marriage is sexless.

But he insists he is loyal. And he insists upon his wife’s loyalty. He faithfully attends marriage counseling. He listens. He participates. And then goes home and … does nothing. He doesn’t antagonize. He doesn’t fight. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t have a girlfriend.

In fact, he doesn’t do anything at all. He has laid siege to his marriage. Surrounded it with a fierce battalion. Nothing can get in. Nothing can get out.

She experiences this as an act of violence to the marriage. But he keeps talking about loyalty. Apparently he has convinced himself that if he doesn’t get a divorce and doesn’t have an affair, well, then, he is a loyal husband.

How convenient.

Loyalty is a value for most people. During modern adolescence, it takes on a supreme importance. When I’m speaking to teenage audiences, I often have a volunteer come forward to help me in a role play. I say: "Let’s pretend you and I have been best friends since the first grade. And today, here at high school, I walk up to you at lunch and ask to talk to you."

Me As Teen: "If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell anyone?"

Volunteer: "Yes."

Me As Teen: "I’m sneaking out at night and killing babies. Thanks for listening." (Me As Teen walks briskly away.)

It never fails. The volunteer says a pathetic "Wwwait!" The class laughs. And here is, of course, the punch line: Loyalty is the one moral value that the value of which is utterly dependent on the direct object in the sentence.

Let me say that simpler: Loyalty to who or what, exactly?

Strictly speaking, I am never loyal to a person. If someone says to me, "Steven, can you pledge to me your loyalty," then my answer is, "No, not exactly."

If I love and care about you enough to pledge my loyalty, it won’t be loyalty to you. Rather, my loyalty will be focused on three things:

1. I will be loyal to your well-being. If you persist in behavior antithetical to your well-being, expect me to oppose you. If you do evil, expect me to turn you in. Because I’m loyal.

2. I will be loyal to my highest values. My sense of doing the right thing. If you ask me to contradict those values, I will say no. And that’s because I’m loyal.

3. I will be loyal to my sense of self-respect. See, loyalty isn’t loyalty if it necessitates being disloyal to self. So, if your behavior forces me to choose between our relationship and my self-respect, I’ll abandon the relationship. Because I’m loyal to you. There is no greater gift to give anyone than an unwavering commitment to self-respect.

I once watched my MFT supervisor on film in a session with a woman. She wept and pleaded about her alcoholic husband’s disdainful treatment of her: "I’ve been so loyal! I’ve covered for him with his family. I’ve called in sick for him at work. I’ve nursed him through hangovers too numerous to count."

And my supervisor looked at her and, with a calculated incredulity, asked this question: "Do … do you hate your husband?"

"No! Why would you ask me that?!"

My supervisor shrugged: "Well, alcoholism is going to kill your husband. And, if I’ve heard you right, you are very faithful and loyal in your efforts to help him put off facing that reality. So, I was wondering what your motive was."

I don’t have to tell you, Good Reader, that question dramatically changed the course of this woman’s therapy.

But back to my patient: She already knows the answer to her question. Her husband has conscripted the value of loyalty and is using it in service to the siege. Using it to as yet another layer of protection between himself and her claim that he show up for this marriage with his whole heart and soul.

I wonder what she’ll eventually decide is the most loyal road to walk.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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