It was easy for me, and I suspect many other women, to identify with Effi Barry during her television interview on "A Current Affair" (WTTG-Channel 5) the other night. In fact, at the end I could only think: "There but for the grace of God go many of us."

She was a bundle of contradictions. She stayed with her husband, despite his many infidelities, because she "believed in family," yet their family had dined together only seven or eight times in 12 years of marriage. She declared her love for her man, but could not say whether that love could be the basis for a life together in the future.

Effi Barry was acting like a martyr as she has throughout her marriage, stoically suffering heartache, humiliation and shame in return for the gratification she received from the union at some deep emotional level. If being "Mrs. Mayor" was clearly a big part of that gratification, keeping her family intact for the sake of her son, Christopher, was equally a part.

Black women in particular, I suspect, will identify with the determination to hold the family together. Middle-class black women of our generation are socialized with that as a deeply held value. Many of us have suffered silently, lied to ourselves, and negated ourselves to achieve that lofty goal.

Looking at the realities of life for black men in America -- to succeed they have to be as smart at negotiating America's difficult terrain as white men, yet balance the burden of race in addition -- it was easy for us to see why we had to work harder to make our families whole. They are under siege by the white world, we told ourselves; all the social indicators bear that out. So day after day, year after year, we wrapped the bandages, healed the wounds, applied the tourniquets for them.

We were the strong ones, the wonder women. If some white women were "steel magnolias," we were just plain steel. Who needed to stop and smell the roses, we asked. We're tough, we're strong. And so we wore the masks and sacrificed ourselves. We weren't merely human, we were amazing, larger than life.

And we got sicker and sicker inside, never allowing ourselves to feel, or to admit our sickness to ourselves, our men, our children, our parents or siblings. Some of us compensated by going to church a lot and engulfing our sorrows in religion or stuffing ourselves with food as a way of easing our pain.

In recent times, poor black women have turned to alcohol and drugs to deal with the depression of their condition. But middle-class women such as Effi Barry often choose more genteel methods of destruction, living lives of quiet desperation. Others of us got sick with various ailments or simply grew a bit more rigid of face, limb and thought every day.

And we smiled icily and said to all, "I'm fine."

Like Effi, after a while, no questions are asked about the whereabouts of one's mate. We sometimes took perverse pride in that. But what once were hearts filled with love and caring gradually turned into stone.

And when disaster strikes, as it inevitably must because we are living a lie, we react like Effi Barry.

When she received the call that her husband had been arrested, she said, seemingly without feeling: "I was hurt, very saddened. I just felt so bad for him."

One wondered about the source of the bad feelings -- were they because she would no longer have the exhilaration of being Mrs. Mayor, which was perhaps her own addiction, or because her son's father might no longer be the daddy he once knew, complete with limousines, pomp and special privilege?

So in the end, in this and countless other marriages that are not based on honesty but on elaborate hoaxes and twisted values, we become conspirators in our mates' addictions. Our thinking becomes as sick as theirs.

It was not surprising when Effi Barry said she did not shed a tear throughout the whole trauma "until I realized our house was surrounded by media." All her years of graceful artifice exposed. So while her feelings were -- and remain -- buried beneath glaciers of ice, Effi Barry must be relieved that the horrendous lie of a normal marriage, which she had been trying to maintain for the public, finally was unmasked.

On Jan. 18, "in the course of a couple of hours my whole world turned around," she said. Then she did what we all would have done: Stood by her man.

But there is a limit beyond which she should go if she wishes to stop the self-negation and repression. She has to face up to her costarring role in the hoax and stop playing the martyr. She has to try to be honest for all the little girls who are watching her and thinking this is how a woman should be.

If Marion Barry is willing to get well, grow and change, and if Effi Barry is willing to get well, grow and change, these two wounded people might have a chance of creating a healthy environment for their son. This will require rigorous effort, reflection, counseling and devotion.

The answer does not lie in interviews, book contracts or public rallies. The answer lies within Marion and Effi Barry.