Marriage advice that’s great . . . for toddlers

Ah, June, when the internet is awash with advice about marriage — most of it lousy.

Either it assumes that men and women are puppets in a simple story, rather than complex human beings who are learning how to love each other; or else it applies to some marriages but by no means all; or else it’s really good advice . . . for parents dealing with toddlers.

Here are a few bits of marriage advice that work great for a toddler-parent relationship, but is awful advice for a marriage:

Never go to bed angry.

For little kids, sure. I believe in soft landings at bedtime. No child learns lessons when he’s exhausted — and most parents don’t teach good lessons when they’re exhausted, either. Bedtime is time for a hug and as much affirmation as you can muster. If your kid has been a louse all day long, bedtime is still time to say, “I love you,” and maybe remind yourself that your kids isn’t always an irrational demon. Tomorrow you really can start again.

But marriages are more complex. If you suffered a minor annoyance before bed, then yes, you can decide, “Meh, I’ll shake this off and give my love a kiss, because the major good in our marriage overrides the minor bad.” Sometimes the reason you’re angry is because it’s time to go to bed, and a good night’s sleep will set everything to rights.

But if there’s something actually worth being angry about, you’re not going to work through it after a long day when you’re both exhausted and not thinking clearly.

Most marriages go through rough spells, and going to bed angry isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, spouses will wake up in the morning, feel rested, and decide to apologize, or at least they feel more ready to address the problem in a constructive, loving way.

Or sometimes they will realize, “I’ve been angry for twelve years, and I don’t want to live like this anymore. Time to make some changes.” This can’t happen if you paste on a contented smile just because you now have pajamas on.

Just open up and express what’s bothering you if you want things to change.

For little guys? Oh lort, just tell me what is wrong and I will fix it. Or if I can’t fix it, I will read you Frog and Toad so you forget about it.  Here, have a bit of chocolate from my secret stash. I’m glad you told me what is wrong. I would be upset, too. I love you.

It’s not that simple between spouses, though. Oh, don’t suffer endlessly in silence. No one, husband or wife, should offer themselves up as an open sewer for whatever the other spouse wants to dump.

But it’s also not useful to allow an endless stream of complaint to flow from your lips. Listen to yourself. Do most of your words reflect the true nature of your experience of your marriage? Or are you super devoted to being “honest and open” when it comes to the bad, but suddenly stoic and self-contained when it comes to the good?

Expressing anger and frustration day in and day out is more likely to shut down communication than to open it, whether your unhappiness is justified or not. One of the reasons I finally started seeing a therapist was because I didn’t know how to tell the difference between big problems and little problems, and even when I could tell, I didn’t know how to adjust my response accordingly.

Being honest isn’t the same as opening the floodgates. Honesty is also about discernment. It’s less stream-of-consciousness blather and more poetry, in which words and ideas are carefully chosen and balanced to express something true.

Also, some bad spouses just don’t care. You may be doing your level best to express, in as truthful and balanced a way as possible, that your marriage has serious problems, and it may just not work. Communication is vital in marriage, but it’s not magic. It’s only useful when both spouses are willing to listen and willing to make changes.

Just submit to the head of the household and all will be well.

In most toddler-parent relationships? Absolutely. Dear child rolling around on the floor like a maniac, I am bigger and smarter, and I am in charge of you. Just obey. Put clothes on, because it is snowing. Do not put your head in the dentist’s aquarium. Forever forsake the idea of eating that lightbulb, ya little dummy. Submit, and all will be well.

But in most marriages, this crap advice leads to unhappiness, resentment, and even abuse — and it often expands to abuse of children, too, which the wife feels unable to stop, or unwilling to acknowledge. Unquestioning submission lets insecure, immature, un-self-controlled men to treat their families like garbage in the name of godliness, which is just as bad for men as it is for women and children.

Couples who obsess about wives obeying husbands tend to gloss over the extraordinarily heavier burden God lays on men, which is to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (and no, not even St. Paul says that men have to do their part after women do their part, but if she’s being a lippy dame, you are off the hook, being-Christ-wise.)

In loving, functional relationships, it’s not even on the radar, because husband and wife will both be focused on working out what’s best for the family and best for each other, rather than on who’s obeying whom.

Unpopular opinion: Wifely obedience is occasionally useful in loving relationships in times of some forms of extreme crisis. It’s like when the government declares a state of emergency and suspends habeas corpus. It’s not a long-term plan; it’s to get the union through until things can function the way they’re supposed to again; and it’s only a good idea if the leader isn’t a tyrant.

And then there are other forms of extreme crisis that call for the wife not to submit, but instead to extricate herself, at least temporarily, from the idea that she’s in a marriage. When the husband is being abusive or otherwise dangerous, obedience would be wrong; and she is required to simply protect herself and her children.


Next time you hear some bit of marriage advice that’s popular but rubs you the wrong way, maybe this is the problem: It’s good advice for a parent-child relationship, but completely inappropriate for a marriage between equals who love each other.

What would you add to my list?


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20 thoughts on “Marriage advice that’s great . . . for toddlers”

  1. “A feeling is neither right nor wrong” from Marriage Encounter. Their communication advice is so hoakey and outdated. My husband and I went about 4 years ago and though it did help to go away without the kids & spend time together, I felt like I was trapped in a 1960’s theology time warp. My husband & I have a difficult marriage. I need this discussion.

    1. Marriage Encounter? Blech. Been there; done that; wouldn’t ever do that again. I can’t fathom why it’s still being promoted through our diocese. Even if all the advice and exercises and talks had been helpful – which they absolutely were not – the ghastly manipulative fundraising at the end would have negated it all. Stay away!

  2. I have never really understood the contortions Catholics go through to justify wifely obedience. Nobody struggles anymore with “slaves, obey your masters”–we are pretty comfortable with the idea that, although part of an inspired book, that was advice for a specific time and place and in no way constitutes an endorsement of slavery. Why so different for “wives, obey your husbands”? I think mutual submission of husband and wife to each other makes a lot more sense, is in keeping with human dignity, and is absolutely not incompatible with Church teaching and TOB.

    1. Yeah, I think it has to do more with priests not being women than anything St. Paul ever wrote. That said, I never think of a strong focus on wifely obedience as actually being a Catholic thing (maybe it is for some folks on the internet fringe, but no Catholic I know in real life). It’s not in the vows. The concept of wifely obedience is far from any experience I ever had growing up (and my parents were about as traditional and orthodox Catholics as anyone I’ve ever met). I remember when we were little kids, my sister and I were shocked by that scene in These Happy Golden Years where Laura tells Almanzo she wasn’t going to obey him – what was that? Who obeys their husband? We asked our mother about it and we were surprised to learn that some Protestants apparently did just that, or at least they did back in the olden days.

      I will say that there are times where I definitely defer to my husband. Particularly when some injustice is being done towards one of our kids – my husband is far better at keeping his anger in check than I am. (This is also why – even though I handle all the money – he’s the designated mediator with insurance companies). 😉

      We each have our areas. A few years back, I had the younger kids on a road trip while my husband was off in rural New Mexico backpacking with our oldest son. They were unreachable by cell phone. I ran into car trouble about six hours from home. I handled the issue the best way I could, but I remember thinking I really, really, really just wanted my husband to tell me what to do. Coincidentally, our son in New Mexico threw up and fainted out on the trail. Should they just rest, rehydrate, and go on? Should they try to get looked at by some medical person? Should they get med-evac’ed out? Turns out, my husband really, really, really wanted me to assess the symptoms and just tell him what to do. Being unable to speak really highlighted for us how much we rely on each other to get through our family’s crises. And that’s as it should be when a husband and wife are working together as a team. At least, that’s what works for us. 🙂

  3. Here’s one that works for parenting AND marriage – having a greeting ritual that is joyful and happy. So when you are picking up your toddler from daycare or your spouse comes home from work, greet that person enthusiastically! Line the kids up at the front door to hug their father or sing a loving song with your preschool kid as you hug and carry them to the car. My mother in law shared this tip with me and it has made an amazing difference in how we interact.

  4. I keep it simple, and this has been working for 16 years…

    When we got married, I learned that my wife almost always leaves drawers just slightly open, rather than closing them all the way. For a very brief time, it really got under my skin why she couldn’t just finish the drawer-shutting. Then it hit me… if it’s so simple and easy, why don’t I just shut the drawers instead of being bothered by it? From that moment on, in our home, she opens the drawers – and I shut them. And for 16 wonderful years, this has been the mantra that permeates almost all situations in our marriage. It’s not about cheesy advice, which may be right or wrong. It’s about give and take. Keep that balance, and you’re good as gold.

  5. The best marriage advice I ever got I overheard. I was early for a service at a Baptist church and heard the end of that week’s adult Sunday School lesson while standing in the vestibule. The teacher said looking to win an argument in a marriage is a mistake — because to have a winner, you must also have a loser. Instead, you should look to settle the argument so that both are satisfied with the result.

    1. I received two pieces of excellent marriage advice. One was from a guy I barely knew whose office was right next to mine. The day before I married, he made a special trip into my office and said to me, “Never, ever, EVER forget you two are on the same team and that you are always each other’s BEST friends.” I thought it was a nice sentiment, and I didn’t disagree with it, but it was only after I began to see other couple’s marriages facing difficulties that I realized how right the advice was. In fact, I would probably say, if anything, the advice would have been better worded as a question – are you each other’s best friends? If you’re not, don’t get married. The other piece of excellent advice we received in our otherwise ridiculous Pre-Cana class. It came from one of the presenting couples: “When you’re discussing a disagreement, stay physically connected. Hold hands, touch – it’ll remind you that you’re one.” My husband and I haven’t disagreed much over the years, but the few times we have, once we cooled down and were ready to discuss, we stayed physically connected while we talked it out.

  6. Why are men supposed to shoulder this extraodinarily heavier burden and do it, oh, always in every situation whether or not the wife is holding up her end, and the wife’s “complementary” duty to obey only applies in some extremely unusual situations, sometimes, in some marriages. Is that from the TOB?

    1. I ‘unno. I’m just passing along what I’ve observed in marriages that work well and make both spouses happy. Maybe it’s like when Jewish men are required to spend time at the Synagogue, but they assume that women are naturally closer to God and don’t need the discipline as much. I have noticed that, when men make an effort to sacrifice themselves for their wives, their wives generally let them off the hook, but when women go all out to be obedient and submissive, their husbands take it to the next level and start introducing wife spanking, and writing essays about how college is immoral for women, etc.

      1. Well, there is the thing where the Church tells us that the instruction to submit is both limited and can be abrogated by the husband’s neglect of his duty. And since his duty, as the Church outlines it, is to sacrifice himself for the good of the family, then yes, the Church essentially teaches that a wife’s submission is contingent on her husband’s self-sacrificial love.

        Casti Connubi 27:
        This subjection, however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person, and in view of her most noble office as wife and mother and companion; nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife; nor, in fine, does it imply that the wife should be put on a level with those persons who in law are called minors, to whom it is not customary to allow free exercise of their rights on account of their lack of mature judgment, or of their ignorance of human affairs. But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family; it forbids that in this body which is the family, the heart be separated from the head to the great detriment of the whole body and the proximate danger of ruin. For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim for herself the chief place in love.

        28. Again, this subjection of wife to husband in its degree and manner may vary according to the different conditions of persons, place and time. In fact, if the husband neglect his duty, it falls to the wife to take his place in directing the family.

        This limitation is both humane and needful, considering the potential for abuse if wifely submission is elevated to an absolute requirement.

  7. Spouses are called to help each other image God, with whole hearts and whole minds. Privileging anything over the deepest desires and needs of your spouse, when they’ve had the courage to speak them, is wrong, particularly if what is privileged over the spouse is some sort of worldview or abstract understanding of how things “should” be. This is arrogant, and constitutes a failure of humility and charity, two essentials in marriage. Anything that undermines the dignity and sanity of the person you’re married to is abhorrent to God, no matter how seemingly “right.”

  8. The toddler advise I abhor is the idea that humans who say they love you claim to have your best interest in mind actually do. Plenty of folks are married to disordered, personality disordered spouses who will abuse & manipulate you. If they act like a narcissist or sociopath, there may be NOTHING you can do to fix a marriage with that person.

  9. Spot on about communication not being an end to itself. We went to a marriage seminar based off the “Getting the Love You Want” model by Harville Hendrix and we ended up leaving. The premise of the Imago model is simply unproven use of a therapist model applied to a married couple, expecting to heal your childhood wounds through uncritical listening.

    Unfortunately, many other marriage retreats are based on this book. I’m now more in the Gottman camp that building a solid marriage is about maintaining a solid friendship at the core of the relationship.

  10. Thank you for saying this. It really isn’t said enough. And I find a lot of good “Catholic” advice is counter productive for when things are actually bad.

  11. Thank you, I’ve always thought the “don’t go to bed angry” thing was stupid. For one, I am irritable and, well, b*tchy when I’m tired, frankly. And my introverted husband also sometimes just needs some space and time to process and deal. We have gone to bed angry many times, lol. We deal again the next day. And no one has even slept on the couch. Lol

  12. Well this is just fabulous! I especially agree that sometimes it’s not appropriate to solve all issues before bed.

    I would add something about… lumping problems as husband issues or wife issues. After some personality typing, my husband and I realized that we have opposite issues that are often stuck on a particular gender. Find out more about each other’s temperament, love language, and personality type and that will give you much more insight into the unique strengths and weaknesses you each have!

  13. I’ve been struck lately by how much good parenting and marriage advice overlaps.
    Listen more. Set boundaries and don’t let yourself be walked all over, but give way when you reasonably can. Make decisions based on the people you actually are, not what some other family does. Understand that sometimes one or all of the people involved in an argument really need food, sleep, or a good cry more than any of you need to finish the argument. It’s important to consider whether health problems may be affecting behaviour. Be affectionate sometimes even when you don’t completely feel like it. Be interested in the other person’s day. Expect respect.

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