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?

***

Image: Kewpie bride and groom on Ebay

Married to an angry man: An open letter to the Synod Fathers (GUEST POST)

This is a guest post written by the friend of a friend. The writer goes by Monica More, which is a pseudonym. I have bolded some passages for emphasis. Priests, especially, please take heed.

 

sad woman

 

Dear Synod Fathers,

 

Thank you for your prayerful consideration of how the Church can offer better pastoral care to a world in which so many families are broken, and in which so many have lost sight of the true nature of marriage. I wish to offer my voice as a reminder of why you are here, and plead for you to show the faithful the care of the Father that we so desperately need.

 

I am not asking you to change one iota of Church teaching. Marriage as reflection of Christ’s love for the Church, marriage and family as an echo of Trinitarian love, family as a domestic church and first school of sanctity – it is all beautiful to contemplate, and it shall not be taken away from anyone.

 

And yet, I want you to know that, even for those who fully believe, these images can seem a cruel illusion of an oasis. Even though we strive with all our feeble strength to reach it, we still have not been able to grab hold of any soothing water from the sacrament of marriage.

 

Marriage in my experience has been a cross, and nothing but a cross. It is a white martyrdom that stretches past a terrifying long horizon of time. Yes, marriage requires all of us to lay down our lives for our spouses and our children. But when one spouse won’t do that, when one spouse never says “please” or “thank you” or “sorry” as the Holy Father has exhorted, then there is never any joy of resurrection at the end of the Passion.

 

When I married my husband, I was full of joy and hope because I believed the Church’s teachings about marriage, and my husband professed them too. He was chivalrous and faith-filled and a true friend when we courted. But as soon as we were married, all thoughtfulness and self-giving from him ceased, and a burning anger took hold instead.

 

Bewildered, I looked for answers in spiritual direction and Catholic books. Time after time priests turned me down for spiritual direction, saying they were too busy or wouldn’t meet with a woman, so go to the confessional or counselling instead. In the confessional I was told go to counselling. But my husband did not want to go to counselling—it was too hard to make the time with us both working, and it was so expensive we could never afford to attend more than a few sessions. Those few times we went to a Catholic counselor did not change anything.

 

The Catholic books told me to love more, to sacrifice more, to give him affection and build him up with words. All these things I tried to do, but his temper kept burning a hole in my heart and in the heart of our children. I tried to tell him time and again how his words were hurting us, but he ignored me or simply excused himself as “only human” or accused me of thinking I was perfect to shut me down. I asked what he wanted me to change and he said “nothing.”

 

Over time “love” came to mean praying for his conversion and rejecting hate or revenge, continuing to sacrifice my own desires for him and our children. But it could not possibly encompass respect or admiration or enjoying his company, and certainly not feeling affection. I do not withhold my body from him but every intimate touch is a crucifixion for me.

 

I have come to the point where I find only harsh measures get his attention and quiet the rage, at least temporarily. A threat to leave; a slap on the face. I feel horrible doing these things but at least they buy a little space of peace, and the children thank me for “calming” him.

 

I think if we had aggressively treated the cancer of his rage when it was still “Stage 1” it would not have gotten to this point. But no one recommended that. They only recommended a healthy diet of kindness and sacrifice and all would be well. No one offered affordable “healthcare” for our souls in case that didn’t work. Instead it has festered into Stage 4, and threatens to spread to the souls of our children as well.

 

We have also been failed by the preaching and teaching from our parish priests. My husband does listen; he does not want to go to Hell. They say pornography is a grave sin and he does go to Confession when he falls into that temptation. They say you must attend Mass every Sunday and he goes to Confession when from time to time he decides he’s angry at God and stays away a few weeks. They say homosexual activity is a sin and he cut off his friendship with his childhood best friend after he “came out of the closet.” They say abortion is a sin and he votes Republican.

 

But I have never heard one priest preach against temper. I have never heard one reproach from the pulpit for fathers who would curse at or in front of their children. I have never heard one say in Sunday homily, “Men, how are you laying down your life for your wife and children? If you can’t answer that, you are sinning and failing as a father.” Or speak likewise to the women. I have never heard one put urgency behind the words of Pope Francis: spouses must say “please” and “thank you” and “I’m sorry” or you are sinning against the gift of marriage, just as surely as when you look at porn.

 

I will never leave the Church, I will never seek succor in another man. The Eucharist is my strength and my life to continue on with this great cross on my shoulders. I can’t even imagine how those who do not have recourse to the Blessed Sacrament can walk along this path. But to the pastors I ask you please, be Simon the Cyrenian for me and help me carry this a while. Hold my hand and help me get over that terrifying horizon, whatever lies beyond. Be John taking me and my children under your care. Exhort my husband again and again to “feed my lambs.” I have the flesh and blood of Christ—please be His voice and hands.

 

I know I am not alone in this. Please, don’t forget to treat your many sick sheep in the fold.

 

***
Note: I have closed comments on this post. It was only up for a few minutes before people started criticizing this woman for her behavior. Please pray for her family instead of telling her what to do.