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.

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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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Image: Kewpie bride and groom on Ebay

On Valentine’s day, communication, and not getting kicked in the nuts

Here lies Doug, the perfect husband

Here lies Doug, the perfect husband.

 

This year, I revealed to my husband that I actually kind of like Valentine’s Day.  This is despite all the times I told him that I hated it, it’s lame and stupid, and a made-up, over-commercialized saccharine-fest invented by Hallmark and Big Floral.   For fourteen years, the poor man has been wondering why, every February 14, I would say I wasn’t mad at him, while I was clearly mad at him.

I was mad, you see, because everyone else was getting flowers and riding in heart-shaped hot air balloons and– I don’t know, eating hot fudge sundaes that turned out to have a tiny violin player at the bottom.  And here I was getting nothing,which is what I repeatedly told him I wanted.  Pray for me:  I’m married to a monster.

Anyway, I finally realized that it doesn’t make me defective to enjoy flowers — and that if it’s artificial to suddenly act romantic on a nationally-specified day — well, we need all the help we can get.  Alarm clocks are artificial, too, but if they didn’t automatically remind us of what we ought to do, we’d be in big trouble.   So, yeah, I asked him to get me flowers, and take the plastic wrap off, and he will, and I’m going to like them.  Whew, that wasn’t so hard!

Having taken this huge leap forward in our communication skills, I decided to hunt around to see what normal human beings do on Valentine’s Day.

If you want to feel like you’ve got your act together, just ask the internet a question.  Okay, maybe not in all circumstances.  If you’re rewiring your living room, for instance, or trying to remove the Spaghetti-o decoupage from an angry cat, you may very well have lots to learn.

But if you need help with your relationships?  A quick trip down Google lane will have you feeling like an expert, a champion, a genius, a hero of common sense and decency.  For instance, if you Google “What do guys want for Valentine’s Day?” you will come across this depressing paen to modern love, written by a man:

One of my favorite presents was a trip to the grocery store.

I remember the clear, cloudless day, sun shining down on me proudly pushing my cart into Central Market. Rachel was with me, and some friends who came along.

I picked up a steak and set it in the cart. Rachel said, “That’s great, Doug!”

I grabbed some chips. Rachel said, “That’s really great, Doug!”

I picked up some really expensive jam. Rachel said, “Yum, that will be really great, Doug!”

In fact everything I picked up got the same response from her (or very close to it), and that was my present: I could choose anything I wanted, and she could only say how great everything was. What an awesome gift that was, a trip to the grocery store.

So what did I get, besides some red AND yellow peppers?

I got what most men want. I was accepted.

I weep for America.  I weep for mankind.  I weep for myself, because this is the saddest, stupidest thing I’ve ever read, and I read it three times to make sure I wasn’t missing something.  What is Doug going to get for Christmas from the gracious lady Rachel?  A coupon for Not Getting Kicked In the Nuts?

You know, I probably treat my husband this way sometimes.  But the difference is, neither one of us is okay with it.  We don’t assume that relentless criticism and belittling is part of a normal relationship — we try to get past it.  And please note,Doug and Rachel’s travesty of a relationship is just as much Doug’s fault as it is Rachel’s:   women can’t demean their husbands and boyfriends without the man allowing, even wanting it to happen.  It takes two to be this dysfunctional.

This reminds me of the story of the man who had invented a brilliant method for saving money on the farm.  “On the first week,” he says, “I fed my  horse a bale of hay.  On the second week, I fed him half a bale of hay.  On the third week, I fed him a quarter of a bale.  I was damn near to teaching the horse to live on nothing at all, but on the fourth week, the ungrateful sonofabitch died on me!”

Happy stupid Valentine’s Day, folks.  I hope you get something nice.  Or if you get nothing, I hope at least it doesn’t feel like a gift!

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(This post first ran in 2011.)