The ballad of Jack and Oksana

My friend is married to a beautiful Russian woman, but I see a train wreck in their future.

By Cary Tennis
Published July 2, 2003 7:51PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

A friend of mine has a problem, and I am not sure how to help him. I recently returned to the United States from two years in Russia. While there, I became close to another American, Jack, who lived in my same small city. Soon after we became friends, Jack met and fell in love with a Russian woman, Oksana, who was unfortunately married with a young son. They had a tumultuous affair -- passionate letters, clandestine meetings, moments of high tension with the husband -- and after a year of this Oksana (persuaded in part by Jack) got a divorce. After excessive drama, her ex-husband moved out of the apartment Oksana has shared with her mother and grandmother since birth.

Then their no-longer-secret relationship changed. Jack is very sensitive and needs constant affection and reassurance. Oksana became distant and was less interested in providing the sort of romantic gestures Jack seems to require. Jack began to feel the relationship was becoming one-sided. He often said things like, "I just wish she would pay more attention to me." Jack and Oksana are both young (25) and a little naive about things. Oksana has never had to be the primary caretaker of her son or had to learn to live on her own. She has never traveled much beyond the small town where she grew up. Both Jack and Oksana are prone to romantic fantasy. I sometimes get the feeling Jack fell in love with the idea of a relationship with a beautiful Russian woman as much as Oksana herself, and that Oksana fell in love with the idea of a secret affair with an American as much as Jack himself. However, their relationship continued with the usual ups and downs (I think cross-cultural relationships have more than most) and, to their credit, it is clear that they truly love each other.

Six months ago, I left Russia with the understanding that soon Jack, Oksana and her son would move together to a larger city. Jack thought that living together in a new place, away from Oksana's overbearing mother and ex-husband, would help them as a couple. Jack was excited to be a daddy to the son and to be a live-in boyfriend. Oksana seemed happy with this plan. Months passed, and they didn't move.

In April, Jack suddenly called me. He asked Oksana to marry him and she said yes! He was thrilled, and although I was skeptical, I tried to be supportive. They married in May. Jack wrote to say that adjusting to married life was difficult (Oksana refused leave her mother's apartment and was still balking on the move to a larger city), but the commitment of marriage helped smooth over their constant cultural clashes. I was glad for Jack, but couldn't shake the sort of impending train-wreck feeling I got whenever I thought of their marriage.

Last night Jack called in tears. He is miserable, he said. Oksana is more distant than ever and is spending a lot of time with her ex-husband. She is uninterested in sex. Jack said something like, "I thought marriage would be all my hopes and dreams coming true, and it isn't like that at all." I didn't know what to say to him. I tried to reassure him that everything will be fine, but I don't believe that and I'm not sure that is what he should hear. What advice should I give him? Is it really not my place to say, "Yes, maybe you did make a huge mistake. Now run for your life"?

Nosy Friend

Dear Nosy Friend,

It has been said that love conquers all. Amor omnia vincit, to be precise. But sometimes love just makes things worse: It emboldens the dull; it tempts the weak; it gives strength to those with no judgment; it floods the deservedly timid with the confidence to sally forth with extravagant imprudence.

I prefer another saying: Love makes fools of us all.

If you feel, as I do, that your friend has behaved like an ass, I think you should tell him so. That's what friends are for. He broke up a marriage. He took a son away from his father. And now he's trying to take a young, inexperienced mother away from her family and hometown. Why? He wants them all to go live in some strange new city. Why? What is going on in his mind? What is he trying to accomplish?

His thinking that marriage "would be all my hopes and dreams coming true" explains a lot. He sounds immature, ignorant and selfish. That would be fine if his whereabouts were confined to whatever Connecticut village or California beach town he grew up in. But no, he's got to go to Russia and nail some hottie named Oksana. It makes one nostalgic for Cold War travel restrictions.

His emotional needs are not really the most important thing right now, you know what I mean? This is no time for him to sulk because his new Russian bride isn't doting enough. It's typically American: Roar into town, tear social bonds asunder, and then start whining when the results are not nearly as peachy keen as initial forecasts had projected. No wonder Americans have to travel in convoys of Humvees. It would be nice if he would give some consideration to the changes he has wreaked in the lives of others -- the husband, the child, the wife's family.

So what is our dear fumbling cowboy to do with his new in-laws, his vanquished rival making a comeback, his inattentive bride and former mistress, his priceless little Mishka? Three words: Minimize the wreckage. Whatever is best for the people around him is what he should do. If he could get out of there cleanly and not leave them stranded, that might be best. Is he, by any chance, a rich kid? Might there be some good old American bonds lying around his parents' house not being used? A generous cash settlement would be nice. After all, she's now divorced from the father of her child and perhaps alienated from her family. The central question is, Does he do more harm if he stays or if he goes? I tend to think, based on what he's accomplished already, that he'll do more damage the longer he stays. (If only the Cold War were still on -- he could work for the CIA destabilizing the country.)

Who knows what will happen if he stays. Maybe he'll fight a duel with the husband. Let's hope Oksana has no sisters. But if he does stay, he's got to promise to try to do whatever is best for the rest of them -- and that means whatever they think is best for them, not what he thinks is best for them. If it's customary for the husband to live with his wife and her overbearing mother and that's what his wife wants, then he should do that. He shouldn't assume, just because American families casually scatter thousands of miles apart, that people in other countries should do so. If moving to the larger city really means a better life for them all (what does that mean? more American-style nightclubs?), and if that's what she really wants, and the kid will be OK there, then maybe he should do that. And if she wants to come to America with him, then maybe he should bring her and the child to America.

None of the options sound all that great.

Love has done it again.

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Cary Tennis

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