Self-pity and Shame in “29”

A Song that Speaks to Divorced Women
Carly Pearce performs onstage at Nashville’s Music City Center for “The 54th Annual CMA Awards” broadcast on Wednesday, November 11, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Getty)

Recently, People magazine published an interview with famous country singer Carly Pearce in which she said she was in love with another man -- a surprise to her millions of fans and to media observers because of her recent famous song, “29,” which was about her divorce from her husband, country singer Michael Ray, after less than a year of marriage.

The song revived a subject discussed in major daily newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times, about women who divorce because of their husbands’ extra-marital affairs.

A few weeks ago, People and the above daily newspapers highlighted the divorce of Bill Gates, Microsoft co-founder and multi-billionaire, from his wife Melinda French, who co-chaired with him their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, after 27 years of marriage. Again, the husband’s extra-marital conduct was reported as the main reason for the divorce.

Pearce’s song, “29,” released a few months ago and soon becoming a top song on Billboard’s country songs charts, referred to Pearce’s age of 29 when she was divorced last year. She lamented that she was divorced at a young age, that she had believed in one lifetime marriage, and that she felt "shame."

The song starts with “29, that’s when you’re supposed to find yourself … Stop calling your mom for help,  29, you start paying the mortgage instead of the rent.”

The song continues “But for me 29 is the year that I got married and divorced, I held on for dear life, but I still fell off the horse, From a Miss to a Mrs. then the other way around … And everybody says, ‘You're only 29’ But I feel like I'm running out of time … Seems like everybody else is hanging on to it, But I swear to God, I've barely made my way through it, Oh 29.”

The New York Times, in a long piece about the subject, said “Marriages fall apart for many different reasons, but one of the most common and most challenging to overcome is the discovery that one partner has ‘cheated’ on the other.” It added that “Infidelity is hardly a new phenomenon. It has existed for as long as people have united as couples, married or otherwise. Marriage counselors report that affairs sometimes occur in happy relationships as well as troubled ones."

Singer & Songwriter Carly Pearce and then-husband Michael Ray perform at Analog at the Hutton Hotel on February 11, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Getty)

A report by the Association for Marriage and Family Therapy said that 15 percent of married women and 25 percent of married men have had extramarital affairs. The incidence is about 20 percent higher when emotional and sexual relationships without intercourse are included. As more women began working outside the home, their chances of having an affair have increased accordingly, the report added.

Esther Perel, a marriage counselor in New York City and author of a book, “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity,” seemed understanding, if not encouraging.  She argued that “infidelity need not result in divorce.” She went further and said that “couples that choose to recover from, and rebuild after infidelity often end up with a stronger, more loving and mutually understanding relationship than they had previously.”

Advising cheated women about “no shame” seems to be contrary to what singer Pearce said in her song and in media interviews.

But, although the author/counselor conceded that “some affairs will deliver a fatal blow to a relationship,” she seemed to resort to traditional arguments that the survival of the marriage was more important. The burden, in this case, is on the wives since, as has scientifically proven, husbands stray as twice as often as wives.

Along this line, the New York Times quoted an unnamed wife’s confessions: “At first, I wanted to kick him out. But I realized that I didn’t want to get divorced. My mother did that and she ended up raising three children alone. I didn’t want a repeat of my childhood. I wanted my son, who was then 2 years old, to have a father in his life. But I also knew that if we were going to stay together, we had to go to couples counseling.”

The wife continued: “I know I’m not perfect. I was very focused on taking care of my son, and my husband wasn’t getting from me whatever he needed. Everybody should be allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. We learned how to talk to each other and really listen. I love him and respect him, I’m so happy we didn’t split apart. He’s a wonderful father, a stimulating partner …”

The Washington Post, which published an interview with singer Pearce, said she did not feel only “shame” for being divorced, but also when she first thought about writing and singing “29.” But she quickly changed her mind. She said she wanted to send a message to other wives (and husbands) who were cheated on.

But “29” was seen by some as full of self-pity— that it was her fault her marriage ended in a divorce, and that might be she should have tolerated her husband’s infidelity.

Pearce seemed to have put herself between a rock and a hard place.  On one side, even counselors like Perel suggested that the marriage (and the children) were more important. But, on the other side, some feminist leaders, while supporting her for seeking a divorce because of her cheating husband, criticized her for the self-pity in “29.”

“29,” now all-over social media, has created more questions than answers: Can a cheater ever be faithful? Can a marriage be normal after cheating? And will a cheater, if forgiven, cheat again?

Answering the last question, Dr. Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist, said that "The reality is that a partner who cheated once can cheat again. That being said, a partner who never cheated can cheat for the first time at any time, too. So, the risk we take in any relationship is infidelity."