The wife’s role | Rethinking marriage

One would think that, after all the books, articles, and blog posts that I’ve read on the topic of marriage over the years, both faith-based and secular, that I would not be brought up short by something said in passing, something that should have been obvious to me years ago, but sadly wasn’t.

It was at, of all places, a conference on the issue of sex trafficking. One of the speakers, after he was introduced, in turn introduced his wife and proudly announced that they had been married for over 11 months — and he even announced the weeks, days, and hours! He made a few other remarks that, coupled with his obvious joy and enthusiasm, let us know that he not only loved his wife very much, but deeply respected her as well. Then he offered some advice to the unmarried men: “Find a wife who will challenge you to be a better man!”

He went on to give an excellent, dynamic talk, but those introductory words, not even meant for me, hit me hard.

Then, more recently, I saw this:

If I were to die today, I don’t think my husband could say that about me — that he is a better person for having been married to me. I haven’t challenged him. That makes me really sad, and disappointed in myself.

Of course, I could come up with all sorts of excuses and reasons and justifications and explanations for why that is. I could, for example, blame some of the ridiculous books and articles I’ve read. For example, there was the one that insisted that, if my husband made a disastrously poor decision and asked for my advice in how to deal with the terrible fallout, I was to smile sweetly and submissively and lob this passive-agressive insult at him: “Oh, I’m sure you’ll make the right decision, dear!” Luckily, I’m not that passive-agressive, nor self-controlled, nor submissive. But, I read enough of that nonsense, and too much of the not-so-extreme advice that I needed to treat my husband’s ego as some fragile flower, and accept everything about him, that “challenging” him would sinful and disrespectful. In fact, even admitting that he might have room for improvement was questionable!

It’s not just the books. The truth is, I probably wouldn’t have been so taken in by the “my dear Rebecca, you will never live up to the ideal of godly womanhood because you just don’t have what it takes” messages if it weren’t for my own issues and the over-all dynamic in our marriage.

But those are all excuses and the bottom line is, I’m without excuse.

Contrary to all the nonsense out there, no husband — no matter how wonderful and godly he may be — has obtained perfection in loving his wife as Christ loves the Church, nor is he infallible and thus worthy of being submitted to without question. Nor is any grown man so weak and fragile that his wife needs to prop him up and dare not question him lest his precious ego dissolve and he crumple into a little heap on the ground — or whatever it is we wives are supposed to be afraid of happening to the poor dears if we don’t treat them with kid gloves.

There is a teaching out there that our role as “helpmeet” is to help our husband fulfill his “vision”. If I had a dollar for every wife who has told me that she would love to help her husband fulfill his vision if he just had one, or who complained that her husband’s vision seemed to be watching as much TV as possible, I could probably finance at least one woman’s vision. (I have a sneaking suspicion that far more women than men have some sort of “vision” for their lives.) But apparently we are supposed to sit around, praying and waiting for our husband to come up with his “vision”. I guess it’s supposed to hit him while he’s busy at work, while he’s commuting, or during a commercial break. Nagging doesn’t seem to help.

If we read the Bible more, we wouldn’t come up with such nonsense, nor would we be taken in by it.

I look at this differently now. There are certain things that the Bible makes clear are what God desires of all of us who want to follow Him. We can challenge — which is different from nagging — and encourage our husbands in their pursuit of God. There are things that are required of husbands. How will our husbands know if they are loving us like Christ loves the Church if we never communicate to them when they succeed and when they fall short?

All too often, we get caught up in marriage as an authority structure or hierarchical relationship. We forget that we are supposed to be “one flesh”. I think that, in many cases, those of us who are wives understand and long for intimacy (as in real intimacy, not a code word for sex) much more than our husbands do. We can either buy into the cultural notion that “guys just aren’t wired for intimacy” and treat our husbands like neanderthals or boys — or we can treat them with respect, like equals, like our other halves, and encourage them to stop fearing vulnerability, to open their hearts to real love, and to become better men. We can hold them accountable to obeying the clear commands of Scripture, and not look the other way when our husbands compromise their integrity or purity. We can challenge and encourage them to become the men God wants them to be, strong and courageous men who allow God, rather than culture, to define manhood.

After thirty years of marriage, I’m finally starting to do what I should have been doing from day one.

I was wrong about date nights

It’s not that I was entirely wrong. I still don’t believe that couples need to leave their kids with babysitters once a week, lest their marriages be doomed. Nor do I think we should be trying to recapture the early, pre-marriage days of our relationship, when we were not only younger but far more immature and selfish, didn’t know each other as well, and hopefully — if we followed Biblical morality — weren’t having sex. Why go backwards?

However, there are some things I was seriously wrong about, and those are things that the best of the “date night” advocates are trying to get at. I’m addressing this to the wives, because…well, because I am one.

1. Intimacy is important, and it doesn’t just happen. You need to make room for it. By this, I mean real intimacy; I’m not just using the word as a code or euphemism for sex. It takes time, and a willingness to be open and vulnerable with each other, to build and maintain the level of intimacy that should be found in a truly healthy marriage. Otherwise it’s too easy to become harried co-parents passing each other like two ships in the night, whose conversations are mostly about babies and business.

2. Husbands aren’t just being immature and selfish, or child-haters, if they miss the “fun” person we used to be, or that they hoped we’d be, when we married. Unless you married a really irresponsible jerk, he doesn’t want to quit his job, sell the kids to the gypsies, and run off with you on some crazy adventure. But he might want you to play with him — however that might like look for the both of you — and to be his recreational companion once in a while. He might want to know that he can still make you laugh, that your life is not all drudgery and duty, and that there is still a fun sparkle in your eyes especially for him to enjoy. He might just want to see you happy, and to know it’s because of him.

3. Some husbands get lonely, and rely on our friendship more than we realize. This can be confusing if your husband’s friendship style is waaaaay different than yours. I was shocked to read a study showing that the majority of happily married men considered their wives their best friends, while the wives usually considered someone else their best friends. As a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom whose husband was usually busily involved in his business and in church ministry plus meeting weekly with a prayer partner for most of our marriage, it was easy for me to think my husband’s life was filled with people and rich relationships while I was isolated and starved for adult conversation. Yes, my husband was surrounded by people all day, but that did not meet his deeper needs for relationship. We would have both done things differently if we had realized that.

4. Marriage should be our priority human relationship. After all, we took vows with this dude. That doesn’t mean we sacrifice our children on the altar of marriage. We don’t have to do silly, rude things like couch time to let everyone know they are second, third, or fourth fiddle to us. It doesn’t mean we should spend more time with our husbands than our children, or that we can’t have a girls’ night out, or that we must not ever do anything without our husbands. Marriage should never be an idol. Neither should any husband. But it’s an extremely important relationship, not just because of the vows, but because it’s supposed to be a living analogy of Christ and the Church. So we better treat our marriage with respect (and the same goes for the children produced by it).

5. Marriage books are full of nonsense. But I already knew that. Of course, they are not all 100% rubbish, but we would do well to remember a few important things: a) most, if not all, of them were written by people who have never met you or your husband; b) most, if not all, of them are written by people you would never, ever want to be married to; c) authors of marriage books have their own issues and baggage just like everyone else; d) the more authoritative and dogmatic the author, the quicker you should toss his/her book on the scrap heap; e) too many marriage books are written by middle or upper class Americans who assume we all have enough discretionary income to spend on babysitters, romantic dinners, fancy lingerie, hotel weekends, and vacations without the kids; f) just as God created us all different and doesn’t want us all to look and act exactly alike, He doesn’t want all marriages to look and act exactly alike; g) marriage is first and foremost about becoming one — not erasing anyone, but becoming a whole that is greater than the individual parts — so don’t take anyone seriously who starts telling you marriage is like the military, or like a business, or like a sports team, or like any other wacky thing God never intended it to be.

6. You are neither a sinner nor a failure if you need time to relax and rejuvenate. Even Jesus withdrew for times with His Father. We need intimacy with our Heavenly Father. We need intimacy with our husbands, however that may look in each of our marriages. And we need a certain amount of intimacy with good friends. Those things are important and valuable…and we don’t need to pretend we are supermoms who are above human needs and desires. We need each other…and our husbands need us.

7. Marriages have seasons, and what works in one may not work in another. We need to cut ourselves some slack. Alone time with our husbands will not be our major priority when we have a newborn, nor should it. Going broke hiring babysitters, or stressing out over what mayhem the kids are engaging in without us, is not a marriage-building exercise, no matter what anyone tries to tell you.

8. We need to do what works for us. Even though I rejected the notion that my marriage would shrivel up and die if I didn’t jump through all the stressful, exhausting hoops a weekly date night would have required when the kids were little, I still thought we needed a weekly something. So I tried date nights at home and a bunch of other ideas I found in books or online, and they all went over like a lead balloon. In my misguided zeal, I forgot to do the most important thing. It never dawned on me to say to my husband, “Honey, I want us to have the best marriage possible, and to become closer to each other. What kind of things do you think would nurture and strengthen our marriage? And what kind of things would you enjoy doing together?”