"The sororal bond is one of the most intricate and delicate human relationships there is," wrote Caitlin Chang in her most recent Sunday Life feature. "We spend years trawling through friends and acquaintances, blind dates and one-night stands for suitable life partners. But we rarely stop to think about the long, intimate and committed union we're already in: the one with our siblings."
Like sisters Alexandra and Genevieve Smart, and most sisters for that matter, my relationship with my own sister has been through a few phases: in childhood, "I don't want to play anymore" was my familiar refrain to a younger sister desperate for the attentions of her older sibling. In our teens, we lived apart, but began to nurture a deeper relationship when she started to have grown-up problems and needed advice. When I married, she described the union as like "a severing" for her in her eloquent speech.
Then when I became very ill, she was angry and afraid – she didn't want to see the woman she'd looked up to suffer defeat – and expressed her pain in a myriad ways. My husband reminds me now, "No one knew what to do." At the other end of that ordeal, of all the people in the world, I think it was her I feel most for, because we older sisters have a responsibility to our younger siblings to ensure that they don't make the same mistakes that we do, but to also be there for them, with a non-judgemental shoulder, if they do.
Which brings me to Julia Baird's recent Sunday Life column, 'The Smart Wife', in which she articulates, in her eloquent way, why someone might choose to stay with a spouse who has committed infidelity, as with Huma Abedin and her disgraced US congressman husband Anthony Weiner. Baird suggests we should lay off women who opt to stay in their marriage: it's not a sign of weakness but of confidence in one's own self worth apart from their spouse, she suggests.
Of Eliot Spitzer's wronged wife Silda, a sympathetic Baird says, "She was dignified, but looked drawn and troubled. There was, in fact, something so arresting about her sad face - as she was dragged into smut she had nothing to do with - that there was an outcry: why force this woman to suffer in public, as well as private?". Then there's Jenny Sanford, whose husband – then the Republican governor of South Carolina – had an Argentinian lover, and rather than accompany him to his out-in-the-wash press conference, "appeared instead in Vogue looking stylish, and wrote a memoir titled Staying True".
Baird champions Abedin, Sanford and Hillary Clinton for refusing to play the victim card ("they refuse to be defined by their husband's stuff-ups") while letting their husbands clean up their own mess, for refusing to be humiliated ("integrity and decency are intact") and for exercising a woman's right to making the decision about whether she stays in the marriage or goes and how and when she might forgive her spouse.
"Who knows whether it will require more strength to stay or to leave. For Abedin, being a good wife is not about being a compliant wife or a complicit wife, but is about being a private wife, a decent wife – and a smart wife."
I cannot imagine the feelings of heartbreak and betrayal that a marital infidelity would bring into a relationship. But I do know the wounds run really, really deep, often turning to bitterness and a general scepticism about the opposite sex, which is particularly hard to accommodate in any new relationships.
It's saying something that even the Bible makes allowances for divorce where reconciliation cannot be achieved as a result of adultery - ergo, God hates divorce but loves His people enough to make provisions (we can assume the same stands for circumstances of physical or emotional abuse, as Jesus was not a fan of stoning women to death).
Divorce is always a terrible tragedy, and we probably don't talk enough about its ramifications. So, to my mind, one of the most generous things we can do for our sisters is to wish for them really good men – ones who will not neglect, nor abuse, nor intimidate, nor dishonour, but will respect her, build her up and care for her better than he does himself – and to get into the marital trenches and help them clean up the muck when the going gets tough, while, as Chang notes, "cackling and crying together... sharing tall stories and soothing war wounds".
Girl With a Satchel