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

No, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” doesn’t need to be updated to emphasize consent

Unpopular opinion time! “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” isn’t a rape song. It’s not even a rapey song. It’s a seduction song, and we used to know the difference between seduction and rape, before we elevated consent to the highest good.

Apparently there is an arch parody that updates the song to emphasize consent. I despise arch parodies, so I refuse to watch it, and you can’t make me.

For the record, I don’t even especially like the original song. It’s okay, as far as cutesy duets go. It does an adequate job of capturing a familiar relationship between a man and a woman. As with any song, you can make it come across as creepy and criminal; but you can also make it come across as it was originally intended: as playful.  The couple is literally playing a game, a very old one, where the man wants what he wants, and the woman wants it too, but it’s more fun for both of them when he has to work for it a little bit. It’s a song about persuasion. That’s what seduction is, and that’s what makes the song interesting: the tension. If there is no tension, there is no song.

Here are the full lyrics. The woman’s lines are in parenthesis. If you’re convinced this song is a rape song, please do read through the lyrics before you read the rest of this post!

You’ll note that the only protests the woman makes are that her reputation might be soiled. She doesn’t say that she wants to go, only that she should. This is because  . . . I’m dying a little inside because I actually have to say it . . . she actually wants to stay. As women often do, when they are already in a relationship with a man they are attracted to and with whom they have been spending a romantic evening, and whom they have been telling repeatedly that they are actually interested in staying.

Most critics get hung up on the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?” The assumption is that he’s slipped a drug into her cocktail (or, occasionally, that he’s spiked her virgin drink with alcohol). Okay. Or maybe, at the end of an evening of dancing and drinking, he’s added a little more liquor than she’s expecting. Or maybe he hasn’t done anything, other than give her the “half a drink more” she just asked for, and she’s playfully making an excuse for what she’s about to do:  Whoo, what’s in this drink? I’m acting all silly, but it can’t be my fault, mercy me!  This was a standard trope of that era. Anytime something weird goes on, you blame the bottle.

Again: there is no indication, unless you take that one line out of context, that there is anything sinister going on. There is overwhelming evidence, if you listen to the whole song, that it’s a song about a pleasurable interplay between the sexes.

Heck, if we’re going to give this song the darkest possible reading, and single out one line while ignoring the context, why not call it the False Rape Accusation song? After all, the woman says, “At least I’m gonna say that I tried!” You see? She’s calculating a malicious plan to claim that she didn’t give consent, so that when her family and neighbors look askance at her for spending the night, she can make it seem like it was against her will!

Humbug. This is what happens when we’re all trained to see consent as the highest good. This is what happens when we’re trained to ignore context. People who can’t tell the difference between persuasion and force are people who have forgotten why consent is so important.

Consent isn’t valuable in itself. If it were, then it would be a holy and solemn moment when we check the “I agree” box when signing onto free WiFi at Dunkin’ Donuts. Consent is only a good thing because it’s in service to other things — higher things with intrinsic value, such as fidelity, free will, self sacrifice, respect, happiness, integrity, and . . . love. These are all things that you can’t have unless you have consent.

But when all you look for is consent, and you ignore the context, you get two human beings who see each other in rigid roles — business partners with black and white contractual obligations. In short, you have what modern people say they despise about the bad old days: love as a business arrangement.

My friends, I firmly believe there is such a thing as rape culture. When we wink and smirk and say, “Boys will be boys,” we degrade both women and men, and we teach women that they have a duty to give men whatever they want so they’re not a tease or a downer. We teach men that they can’t control themselves. We teach women that they can’t really say no, and that if they do, they’ll be scoffed at or blamed or disbelieved. When we tell the world that “no means maybe,” we’re setting the stage for rape.

But is this song doing that? Or is it just a little vignette of that deliciously warm in-between place, where reasonable people can have fun together? Because when we step outside, and make everything black and white, then, baby, it’s cold. So cold.

We degrade both men and women when we tell them that sex is just another contractual obligation — and that there’s no difference between a violent encounter between strangers, and a playful exchange between a romantic couple, and a violent exchange between a romantic couple, and a loving relationship in marriage, and a violent relationship in marriage. We’re told that the relationship doesn’t matter, and that the actual behavior has no intrinsic meaning. The only thing that matters is consent. We think that focusing on consent will ensure that no one will be degraded or taken advantage of; but instead, it has won us abominations like “empowering porn” and 50 Shades of Gray and even the suggestion that children can give consent.  It wins us a generation of kids that asks things like, “How can I tell if she consents or not, if she’s not conscious?” (A real question I read from a high school kid; I’ll add the link if I can find it again!) These miseries are not a side effect; they are the direct result of a culture that elevates consent to the highest good.

It’s not only promiscuous, secular types whose lives are impoverished by the cold rule of consent. I’m a member of a group of Catholics where one young woman wrote for advice about her husband, who, she tearfully reported, kissed her without first asking consent. This made her feel violated.

It was her husband.

Who kissed her.

And she thought he needed to ask consent every time.

This is where the pendulum has swung. We’ve pathologized the normal, healthy, give-and-take of love. We’ve taught people that there is no such thing as context: that’s it’s fair game to ignore the entire relationship and to reduce each other to business partners.

Now, if you’ve been victimized or abused, then this is probably not going to be your favorite song. You’re free to find it creepy, and you’re free to change the station. But we don’t heal from abuse by turning the whole world into an isolation ward. Healthy relationships, where the context does allow for some interplay and ambiguity, should be the norm, and they should dare to speak their healthy name.

And one more thing (and I could write volumes about this): not everything is a lesson. Not every pop song is a primer for how to behave. I tell my kids that it’s our duty to be aware of what the world is teaching us, for good or ill; but just because we’re learning something doesn’t mean there was a life lesson intended.  Sometimes art, including pop art (like pop songs) is just giving you a slice of human experience, and when it feels familiar, then it’s done well, period.

No wonder people have no idea how to stay married anymore. They expect everything to be a lesson, and they expect those lessons to be black and white. They think that life is going to give them crystal clear boundaries. They think that it’s always going to be obvious what they can expect from other people and from themselves.

I’m not talking about sex, here; I’m talking about love, and about life in general — life without context, life without tension, life without ambiguity, life without play. Baby, it doesn’t get any colder than that.

***
Image: Pedro Ignacio Guridi via Flickr (Creative Commons)
This essay ran in a slightly different form on Aleteia in 2015.