I recall arguing and arguing that marriage is special because the whole of society depends on its strength and integrity; and I recall my gay friends rolling their eyes and pointing to statistics about heterosexual marriage—statistics on fornication, on out-of-wedlock births, on domestic abuse, on adultery, and on divorce—and letting them speak for themselves. Straight people have not made a good case for marriage. We, as a nation, have not behaved as if it’s worth preserving.
In today’s post, my sister, Abigail Tardiff, responds to Deacon Jim Russell’s recent article Annulments: A Concession to Human Weakness” in Crisis Magazine.
“I Meant My Vows Even If He Didn’t”
I have a friend who was divorced and remarried. She understood that she couldn’t receive communion in such a state, and it was tearing her apart. At the same time, she couldn’t bring herself to leave her present husband (or live celibately with him).
I suggested she apply for an annulment of her first marriage, because I had reason to think there were strong grounds for establishing a defect in his consent. She said, “Oh no, I could never get an annulment. It would be dishonest, because even if he didn’t mean his vows, I meant mine.”
The Phantom Extra Marriage Vow
I have run into this misunderstanding again and again. People seem to think that when you get married, you make two vows: the first is your marriage vow, which requires consent from both of you. But the second is a promise just to God and to yourself to remain faithful to this person. The annulment declares the first vow void, but the second is irrevocable.
This is nonsense. There is only one marriage vow. If the Church declares that you are not married, then you are not required to remain faithful, for the simple reason that there is nothing to remain faithful to. If your spouse did not actually intend marriage, then you may have thought you were making a vow—but you weren’t. If no marriage took place, then no vow took place.
There is no such thing as a unilateral marriage vow. You don’t marry him and then also promise to remain faithful to him; your faithfulness to him is the putting into practice of your marriage vow. If your marriage never existed, then neither did your promise to remain faithful.
Simony: Charging Extra
Why is this so important? First, because of all the bruised reeds out there who are longing to get back to the Church, like my friend. Imposing extra requirements on someone—duties that Christ and His Church never demanded of us—is a kind of simony. (Simony, the selling of something holy, is named after Simon Magus in the book of Acts, who tried to buy the Holy Spirit from the apostles Peter and John.)
Well, buying something holy is pretty bad, but selling it is even worse. If you tell someone that in order to be a virtuous Catholic, he should not marry even when the Church tells him he is free to marry—then you’re charging him (in heroic sacrifice, not in money) for something that the Church has made free.
Faithfulness without Marriage?
Second, the idea that marriage entails two individual vows of faithfulness, essentially unrelated to each other, eats away at the theology of marriage. Faithfulness to your spouse is not a rule stuck onto marriage from the outside; it flows from the very nature of marriage, which is the becoming one of two who were previously separate. The very reason unfaithfulness is such a terrible sin is that it attacks that oneness of the spouses. But if that oneness does not exist, it cannot be attacked. Without a spouse, there is no one to remain spousally faithful to.
Faithfulness to My Own Consent?
In a recent article for Crisis Magazine titled “Annulments: A Concession to Human Weakness,” Deacon Jim Russell makes some beautiful points about annulment. He says no one should ever be pressured to seek an annulment, and he points out that marriage tribunals are required by canon law to encourage the spouses to be reconciled, and to seek convalidation if there is a defect in their consent.
But he also writes, “when two people enter into a covenant, but only one ‘means it,’ the one who ‘means it’ has ipso facto remained faithful not only to his or her own words and will, but also faithful to the covenant itself.” He says it’s heroically virtuous to remain faithful to your own “irrevocably expressed consent.”
There it is again, that phantom second marriage vow: faithfulness not only to your spouse, but also to your own consent. Consent to what? What else but marriage? But if the Church declares a union null, there’s no marriage to consent to.
A One-Sided Covenant?
Deacon Jim says it’s heroically virtuous, in a case where your spouse did not mean his vows, to remain faithful nevertheless to a “covenant” that he admits is not a “two-sided covenant.” Again, this is nonsense. Marriage does not consist of two covenants, one two-sided and one one-sided, so that when the two-sided covenant is declared null, the one-sided one remains. Marriage is a two-sided covenant or nothing at all. Let us defend the indissolubility and sacredness of marriage, and support those who are divorced, without tying up burdens that are heavier than the ones our Faith already asks us to carry.
The best teachers I know have always been interested not only in what they have to say, but in what their students have to say. Why? Because they were open to loving their students, and they were also in love with the truth, hungry for more truth, delighting in uncovering new facets of truth that they had not seen before.
Photo of diatoms by Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University (corp2365, NOAA Corps Collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Lots to unpack in this meme:
The thing about this is that sculptures like this in art history were for the male gaze. Photoshop a phone to it and suddenly she’s seen as vain and conceited. That’s why I’m 100% for selfie culture because apparently men can gawk at women but when we realize how beautiful we are we’re suddenly full of ourselves . . . .
“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” — John Berger, Ways of Seeing
The second quote has a lot more on its mind than the first. I haven’t seen or read Berger’s Ways of Seeing, but this short excerpt raises a topic worth exploring. Women are depicted, and men and women are trained to see women, in a way that says that women’s bodies exist purely for consumption by others. If anything, the phenomenon has gotten worse since the 1970’s, when Berger recorded his series.
The first comment, though, about being “100% for selfie culture,” is deadly nonsense.
The first thought that occurred to me was: Anyone who’s set foot in a museum (or a European city) knows that manflesh is just as much on display as womenflesh, if not more; and all these nakeymen would look just as “vain and conceited” with a phone photoshopped into their marble hands. Thus the limits of education via Meme University.
I’ve already talked at length about the difference between naked and nude in art — a distinction which has flown blithely over the commenter’s head. But let’s put art history aside and look at the more basic idea of the gazer and the gazed-upon, and the question of what physical beauty is for.
I saw a comment on social media grousing about pop songs that praise a girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful. The commenter scoffed at men who apparently need their love interest to lack confidence or self-awareness, and she encouraged young girls to recognize, celebrate, and flaunt their own beauty, because they are valuable and attractive in themselves, and do not need to be affirmed by a male admirer to become worthy.
Which is true enough, as far as it goes. But, like the author of the first quote about selfie culture, she implies that there is something inherently wrong with enjoying someone else’s beauty — specifically, men enjoying women’s beauty; and she implies and that it’s inherently healthy or empowering to independently enjoy one’s own beauty and to ignore the effect that it has on men.
(I must warn you that this post will be entirely heteronormative. I am heterosexual and so is most of the world, so that’s how I write.)
Beauty is different from the other transcendentals. At least among humans, goodness and truth are objective (they can be categorized as either good or true, or as bad or false); and they exist whether anyone perceives them or not. Not so beauty — at least among humans. Is there such a thing as objective beauty? Can a face be beautiful if everyone in the world is blind? I don’t know. Let’s ask an easier question: Is it possible to enjoy one’s own beauty without considering or being aware of how it affects other people?
I don’t think so; and I don’t think that’s only so because we’ve all internalized the male gaze and have been trained for millennia only to claim our worth when we are being appreciated by someone who is comfortable with objectifying us.
Instead, I think we are made to be in relation to each other, and physical beauty is a normal and healthy way for us to share ourselves with each other.
Like every other normal and healthy human experience, beauty and the appreciation of beauty can be exploited and perverted. But it does not follow that we can cure this perversion by “being 100% for selfie culture.” Narcissism is not the remedy for exploitation. It simply misses the mark in a different way; and it drains us just as dry.
Listen here. You can go ahead and tell me what kind of bigot I am and what kind of misogynistic diseases I’ve welcomed into my soul. I’m just telling you what I have noticed in relationships that are full of love, respect, regard, and fruitfulness of every kind:
A good many heterosexual girls pass through what they may perceive to be a lesbian phase, because they see the female form as beautiful and desirable. As they get older and their sexuality matures, they usually find themselves more attracted to male bodies and male presences; but the appeal of the female body lingers. When things go well and relationships are healthy, this appeal a woman experiences manifests itself as a desire to show herself to a man she loves, so that both can delight in a woman’s beauty.
This isn’t a problem. It doesn’t need correcting. This is just beauty at work. Beauty is one of the things that makes life worth living. It is a healthy response to love, a normal expression of love. Beauty is there to be enjoyed.
Beauty — specifically, the beauty of a woman’s body — goes wrong when it becomes a tool used to control. Women are capable of using their beauty to manipulate men, and men are capable of using women’s beauty to manipulate women. And women, as the quotes in the meme suggest, very often allow their own beauty to manipulate themselves, and eventually they don’t know how to function unless they are in the midst of some kind of struggle for power, with their faces and bodies as weapons.
That’s a sickness. But again: Narcissism is not the cure for perversion or abuse; and self-celebration very quickly becomes narcissism. Self-marriage is not yet as prevalent as breathless lifestyle magazines would have us believe, but it does exist. And it makes perfect sense if your only encounter with, well, being encountered has been exploitative. If love has always felt like exploitation, why not contain the damage, exploit oneself, and call it empowering? People might give you presents . . .
The real truth is that selfie culture isn’t as self-contained as it imagines. The folks I know who take the most selfies, and who are noisiest about how confident and powerful and fierce they are, seem to need constant affirmation from everyone that no, they don’t need anyone. Selfies feed this hunger, rather than satisfying it.
As a culture, we do need healing from the hellish habit of using and consuming each other. But selfie culture heals nothing. Selfie culture — a sense of self that is based entirely on self-regard — simply grooms us to abuse ourselves. A bad lover will grow tired of your beauty as you age and fall apart. A good lover will deepen his love even as your physical appeal lessens, and he will find beauty that you can’t see yourself. But when you are your own lover, that well is doomed to run dry. Love replenishes itself. Narcissism ravishes.
In the ancient myth from which the clinical diagnosis draws its name, the extraordinarily beautiful Narcissus falls in love with his own reflection, and refuses to respond to the infatuated nymph Echo, who then languishes until nothing remains of her but her voice. In punishment for his coldheartedness, Narcissus is driven to suicide once he realizes that his own reflection can never love him in the way he loves it.
So, pretty much everyone is miserable and dies, because that is what happens when love and desire are turned entirely inward. It simply doesn’t work. That’s not what beauty is for. We can enjoy and appreciate our own beauty and still be willing and eager to share it with a beloved. But when we attempt to make beauty serve and delight only ourselves, it’s like building a machine where all the gears engage, but there is no outlet. Left to run, it will eventually burn itself out without ever having produced any action.
I’ve seen the face of someone who is delighted entirely with her own appeal; and I’ve seen the face of someone who’s delighted with someone she loves. There is beauty, and there is beauty. If it’s wrong for a man to be attracted to a woman who delights in her beloved, then turn out the lights and lock the door, because the human race is doomed.
Beauty, at its heart, is for others. Selfie culture, as a way of life, leads to death. You can judge for yourself whether death is better than allowing yourself to ever be subject to a male gaze.
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?
[ADMIN: Today’s post is by a friend who wants to remain anonymous. I am grateful to her and to so many survivors of abuse who want to help protect others who are suffering and who feel so alone.]
“The first affairs were only about sex,” he said. “It was the last one, where he thought he was in love, that really caused him trouble.”
The man who said these words to me had been a confidant of my late husband. I had reached out to a number of his friends after my husband’s death to better understand what had happened to us, but I was stonewalled, and on this day I didn’t expect to learn what I did. I knew there was one affair, although I was still reeling from finding the hotel receipts as I tended his affairs (pardon the pun). He had admitted that his relationship with a coworker was “too close,” but denied, for years, repeatedly, that any sex had happened.
Things I found in my house indicated otherwise. This man I married in a Catholic Church 25 years earlier, who told me early in our marriage that he simply could not tolerate it if I ever broke our vows, who went to Mass and presented himself publicly as a good Catholic husband and father, was a serial adulterer.
An online support group for victims of adultery proposes that all adultery is abuse, because it requires lies, diversion of time, energy, funds, and devotion, and it exposes innocent spouses to potentially deadly diseases without their knowledge. In reading the shared stories, I saw wide patterns of abuse – ones that were more familiar to me than I had previously been brave enough to admit to myself.
Protect yourself. Protect your children. I know the horror of realizing the one you trusted the very most is your greatest danger. Be strong even when you live awful moments when people blame you. Know that what you lived scares them, because they want to feel immune from it, and distancing themselves from you helps that process. Know your Father in Heaven treasures you and you can still be a good Catholic despite life not turning out as you had hoped.
ADMIN NOTE: Here are some resources that might be helpful to you if you think you may be in an abusive marriage. Not all abuse is physical. Please do not assume it’s “not really abuse” if it’s not physical.
When I Call For Help: A Pastoral Response To Domestic Violence Against Women. An overview from the USCCB on the Church’s teaching about abuse within marriage, with some resources for what to do next.
“Has he really changed?” (source unknown)
That was me, trying to think of something, anything, to write about other than Valentine’s Day. What do I know about Valentine’s Day, anyway? It’s taken me most of my married life to admit that there’s not really anything wrong with women who like flowers, and it’s taken me another full year to admit that I’m actually one of them.
And yet here we are.
Well, from my meager mental resources, by which I mean that I just made 84 cupcakes, each with its own Froot By the Foot rosebud and I’m kind of tired and possibly a little bit drunk on icing, I can offer you this:
FIVE TIPS ON HOW TO DATE YOUR WIFE
1. Practice your pick-up lines.
But I’m already married! Why in the name of Cryil and Methodius do I have to worry about pick-up lines? you may ask yourself. And then you may make some stupid joke about how you won’t be picking up your wife any time soon because your insurance doesn’t cover hernia surgery, and so on. This is the wrong route to take.
What your wife wants to hear is something that shows that you don’t take her for granted—something that invites her to look at you with new eyes, rather than assuming she might as well have a paper bag over her head, as long as all the rest of the parts are in the right place.
Try something with equal parts romance and danger, such as, “Hey, baby, I’m feeling very . . . open to life tonight.” It’s possible that she will pick up the first heavy object available and try to bash your head in with it, but at least you aroused some kind of reaction, which means you’re halfway there.
2. Compliment her looks.
If a woman is home with a bunch of kids all day long, she knows that if she steps out of the house, all the men on the street are going to see one thing: a mess. A saggy-bellied, baggy-eyed, slump-shouldered, spit up-caked, used-up, milk-smelling, mom-haired mess.
What you need to do to win her heart and put a spring back into her step is to let her know that you don’t see her that way. You know her heart, and you see the grace and loveliness that will always be there. So you can try something like, “Have I told you how nice your abdominal muscles look, all separated like that?” or “I think women with one shoulder that’s lower than the other one are the sexiest ones in the world, don’t you?”
3. Spend lavishly.
Show her you think she’s worth it. Take my word for it, she’ll know she’s dealing with a prince among men when she sees you lay that money down. “Darlin’,” you can say with youthful impetuousness, “let’s go ahead and pay the electric bill on time this month—how’d that be? Sky’s the limit, or up until 40 kilowatt hours, whichever comes first” Swoon!
4. Ply her with cocktails.
Okay, you may actually have to slow her down on this one. It could be cute to offer little jests such as, “Slow down, little girl—that’s no shirley temple!” Then you can have a good laugh, as long as it doesn’t interfere with you getting Mama some more ice.
5. Heat things up with an intimate shower.
And by intimate, I mean just her. She hasn’t washed her hair in, like, five weeks, and she doesn’t even get to check on how her mustache is coming along without answering a lot of stupid questions. Stand in front of the door with a rifle, if necessary, but DO NOT LET ANYONE ELSE IN THE BATHROOM. Remember: 40 kilowatt hours. You promised.
Gentlemen, you can thank me later. Right after you go get Mama some more ice.
The tired old trope says that kids ruin a couple’s romantic life. Well, I’m a tired old trope myself, and I’m here to tell you that nothing could be wronger. Since tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I’d like to share with you a few special ideas that come straight from the little cherubs themselves. Every single one unmistakably spells out L-O-V-E.
1. COME HITHER
How about a playful little game of suspense to build up the anticipation? Rose petals are so passé. Try leaving an enticing trail of rice krispies leading from the front door to the bedroom, as if to say, “Follow my lead, and we’ll see what happens under the covers!” And then when you get to the bed, you pull back the covers to find the rest of the bowl of cereal, with milk. Talk about snap, crackle, pop!
2. OR LEAVE A KISS WITHIN THE CUP
Everyone thinks of wine for romance, but did you know that just about anything will ferment if you leave it in a sippy cup under some stuffed animals for long enough? Vintage is important for special moments. You want to decant it at just the right moment, after it’s already started collecting fruit flies, but before it solidifies into a chunk. That way, it can still leak a little bit. Rrrrowr!
3. GO SKIN DEEP
Ready for something to get your heart moving? Nothing beats temporary tattoos, to transform that same old, familiar old skin into something exotic and unexpected. Try this technique: Find your sister’s grape-scented marker and scribble all over your knees and belly. Then up the ante with a permanent marker, and decide you want to make di’saur teef on you face. Then eat the marker and poop grape for the next three days. Bow chicka wow wowww.
4. SWEET NOTHINGS
Assorted chocolates? Pardon me while I die yawning. Nothing says “spontaneity” like presenting your loved one with a gallon of milk that, despite the “homogenous” label, actually contains a surprising array of assorted buttons, pens, and semi-dissolvable snacks that someone has shoved in there. Imagine the look on her face when she just wants to have a cup of coffee with milk, but instead, a sludgy fig newton slides into her mug and splashes coffee into her face. Ha cha cha!
5. LET YOURSELF GO
Valentine’s Day is, above all, a day of passion. Instead of regular old predictable passion, try throwing yourself down with abandon, writhing around, and doing that howling gargle thing for no reason at all. It’s a special day, so why not ratchet up the excitement by whacking the side of your head against the table leg and then vomiting in rage? Everyone will think it’s a concussion, so you can finish off the rest of the evening in the romantic low lights of an emergency room getaway, where you can laze away the hours far from your responsibilities, hour after hour after hour after hour after hour after hour, waiting for the certain special someone to call your name, pronounce it wrong, and charge you $475 to shine a penlight in your eyeballs and say you’re fine. ¡Ay, mamita!
6. IT IS ALWAYS OURSELVES THAT WE FIND AT THE SEA
Speaking of getaways, how overdone is the “romance on the beach” thing? Basically all it is is something gritty underfoot, and the sound of water sloshing around. You got this.
7. SOUTHERN EXPOSURE
Don’t forget photography, you know, CANDID photography, snap snap, grin grin, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more. Load up your beloved’s phone memory with 532 pictures of your nostrils, your thumb, and part of the couch leg, and also some brief videos of you shrieking, “NO, YOU’RE A POOP HEAD.” Stand back and watch the sparks fly. Homina homina homina.
8. TURN UP THE HEAT
by turning up the heat. Seriously, they still haven’t figured out a way to lock down the thermostat. Twiddle away! How you doin’?
Image of box of chocolates by Stewart Butterfield (Flickr: Valentines Chocolates) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
My husband and I both work at our computers off and on throughout the day, and we email back and forth a lot. Every once in a while, I get what looks like an empty message from him — just a series of dots in a box. This makes me laugh every time, because I know what happened: It’s just Gmail being too smart for its own good again. When you end every email the same way, Gmail thinks it’s your signature, and thinks it doesn’t have to include it in every email, especially if it’s a response to a response to a response to a response to a response. The recipient must know who it’s from by now. So smart, right?
And so, when I get an empty email from my husband, I know it’s because he wrote “I love you.” He says it so often, at the end of so many emails, Gmail thinks it’s part of his name. Gmail thinks that’s who he is.
I used to be skeptical of people who dashed off a hasty “I love you” all the time. “Don’t forget to pick up some ketchup and laundry detergent!” — “‘Kay, love you!” Way to cheapen the sentiment, I thought to myself. Why not save it for when you can say it from the bottom of your heart? That way, you both know it really means something.
I don’t know if I’ve grown softer or what (mentally, I mean. Physically, there’s no question), but I’ll tell you what: I need it now. I need to hear him tell me he loves me, over and over again, especially when we’re talking about ketchup and laundry detergent and dentist appointments and parent-teacher conferences and taxes and who needs more fiber in their diet. I need the reminder that he knows who I am, even on the days when, according to our accomplishments, we could easily be replaced by some unskilled laborers and an adding machine.
And I need to hear it when I know he’s mad at me. He writes it then, too. He always writes it, and he always means it, because that’s who he is. It’s almost like it’s part of his name.
Husbands and wives, do this for each other. Say “I love you.” You don’t have to do it all the time, but do it! Don’t let it go unsaid. We all need to say it, we all need to hear it. And, if we want to stay married, we have to act like we mean it.
[This post originally ran at the National Catholic Register in 2013.]
Image: Anonymous (Old postcard) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Well, I did change the lightbulb,” my husband, gathering up the last bits of my underwear out of the milkweed.
“That’s awesome,” I said. “I’m sorry I crushed the picnic table.”
“No problem,” he says. “At least we made it to the swamp first.”
So what happened, see, was my husband asked me if there was anything he could do for me. He is a wonderful man, and asks me this question often. The catch is, I find it so deliriously romantic that this big, tall, handsome man with smoldering eyes and a cleft chin wants to do things for me that my answer tends to be, “Ohhh, no-o-o-, I’m fine!” and then later, when I get out of his beautiful eye tractor beam, I remember, “Dammit, I should have said shovel dog poop! Or at least do something about all those bean cans full of meat grease on the stove!”
But this time I was ready, and I said, “YES, can you change the lightbulbs in our room?” Our room is pretty small, and you have to stand on the bed to reach the light fixture, and I have such a poor sense of balance that the torquing motion involved in unscrewing the little knob tends to make me fall over, and then I’m sprawled out on the bed and the whole “Mr. Brown Eyes” thing comes into play again; and the problem is that you can unscrew a little knob, but you can’t unscrew . . . well, anyway, now we have ten kids.
So this time, I wanted him to change the lightbulb.
Which he did, while I worked on my shopping list in the next room. And I heard a popping sound, followed by a tinkling sound, and then some cussing. With some reluctance, I strolled in to investigate, and found him standing on the bed looking sadly at his feet, which were generously dusted with bits of light bulb. “You should be able to toss a light bulb onto a soft bed!” he said, and I agreed. But I guess if it lands just right — for instance, if you toss it right onto the glass light fixture you just removed — then it will cetainly explode.
The part that was my fault was that I am a huge slob, and I leave my dirty clothes all over the bed and floor. And also one pair of pants that isn’t dirty, because I’ve never actually worn them out of the bedroom. Every few weeks, I like to put them on, feel sad about how fat I of course still am, and then pull them off and drop them on the floor. All, all were covered with little bits of broken glass.
We picked out all the big, easy bits of glass and then gathered up the bedsheets like a giant bag, bundling in blankets and towels and a week’s worth of laundry, and my husband lugged it out the front door (we couldn’t go out the back door because it was full of dog). I held my breath, waiting for some unfortunate child to say something about how Daddy looks like Santa, but for once they all shut up, so no one had to die. Then we lugged the bundle into the back yard and my husband said to put it on the picnic table, so we could carry it more easily.
It wasn’t a bad idea, but it was a bad table. I got it from the side of the road, and it makes my kids unhappy because (1) it reminds them of the time I embarrassed them by picking up rotten old tables, and one kid had to ride in the back of the Blazer with the door open so the table didn’t fall out, which was scary; and (2) when you touch it, the legs fall off. But it was free!
We did make it to the swamp, set the table down, and started picking out various sheets and pants and bras and shaking them vigorously into the “Dead Marshes” part of the yard, where we throw things we don’t want to deal with (rotten jack-o’-lanterns; dog poop; meat grease in bean cans; bedding from dead pets; dead pets).
I thought we were doing pretty well, and working our way through the heap pretty briskly. I didn’t start laughing until I heard my husband go, “Shit. shit. shit. oh, shit.” It wasn’t even a big deal. He was just trying to pick my striped sweater off a small blackberry bush that it had gotten heavily involved with, and I suddenly realized that the neighbors , with their bird’s eye view of our back yard, must be wondering for the millionth time, “What in the hell are those people doing?”
It brought to mind the time we were renting a house that was in rather poor repair, and one day the toilet just started angrily spouting stenchy water, which rushed downhill from the bathroom, down the stairs and out the door in an endless river of things that reminded me of why I didn’t want to live in that town anymore. I couldn’t figure out how to turn the water off, and while I was waiting for someone competent to come help, I decided, with the crystalline clarity so typical of these moments, that it would be best to gather up all the towels and blankets in the house and try to sop up the river before it warped the floors.
Then, crystalline, I would gather up the bundle — and why didn’t anyone warn me that such a large part of adult life would include gathering up bundles of things you are ashamed of? — and drag them out to the curb, wring them into the sewer, and bring them back inside for more sopping. And sobbing.
On my fourth trip out to the sewer, I realized that a little girl and her mother were sitting on the opposite curb, watching my frantic and wretched efforts with wide eyes. The little girl said softly to her mother, “Mommy, what is that lady doing?” And the woman answered just as softly, “Sweetie, I don’t know.”
The memory of this made me laugh so hard that I fell onto the picnic table, crunching it completely flat into the ground. But, my husband wisely pointed out, at least we were pretty much done shaking the glass out of stuff.
But he did change the light bulb! And what’s what we were doing, neighbors. It’s our love language, okay?