The elephant in the room | Marriage Monday

Almost a year ago, I stumbled across a blog post dealing with the issue of marital rape, and whether a husband is in the wrong for insisting on sex even when it is painful to his wife. Frankly, the post along with a number of comments — and pretty much everything I read on the blog — is so problematic and disturbing that I don’t even want to link to it.

Even though other comments have been approved since then, mine is still awaiting moderation, about eleven months later:

This is what I see as the major issue — the elephant in the room that no one is fully addressing, although a few have hinted at it.

We cannot expect an unbelieving husband to want to love his wife as Christ loves the church. But the real elephant in the room? Most Christians have no idea what love means. They think it means leadership and a skewed, worldly view of authority. We gloss over the part where a husband is to lay down his life sacrificially for his wife, or we romanticize it by saying he should take a bullet for her should armed intruders ever enter their home.

Really? What husband in his right mind would do that if he is unwilling to forego sexual pleasure when his wife is in pain? But it’s nice to pretend he would, nice to pretend he would be a hero — because he knows the likelihood of that scenario is next to zero.

Our culture has made an idol of sexual pleasure, especially male sexual pleasure, and in order to avoid the appearance of bowing to the same idol, we have enshrined this as a need. We have bought into the lie that sex is mostly about meeting this all-consuming NEED on the part of the husband, rather than about unity, intimacy, and procreation.

Men no longer see sex as the physical expression of the sacrificial gift of themselves that they give to their wives in marriage. If they did, they would not avoid true intimacy (emotional and spiritual) in marriage, and they would abhor the very thought of asking the wife they love to give them a blow job while she is recovering from childbirth.

Sometimes the sacrifice men might be called to give to their wives is a foregoing of selfish sexual pleasure. But we don’t want to hear that.

The elephant in the room is that we have no idea what love means. We may sing songs about amazing grace and the love of Jesus, but our hearts remain hard, selfish and idolatrous. That is why our lack of compassion is so painfully obvious to everyone but us, why we can demand wives submit to demeaning and painful sex, and why we criticize women who suffer pain during intercourse for being selfish, childish, and refusing to go to doctors. (An aside: such statements betray woeful ignorance. Sciatica and chronic coccyx pain — just to name two potentially debilitating and devastatingly painful conditions off the top of my head — are not easily fixable.) We teach husbands that their compassion should be limited and fleeting, and should run out if their wives suffer ongoing pain. After all, the idol of sexual pleasure rules our hearts, not love.

May God have mercy.

When husbands hate their wives

“The problem is…my brother-in-law didn’t [come] out of nowhere and become a murderer. These people are cultivated, they’re raised by families, they’re raised by friends, they’re raised by churches, they’re raised by their educational institutions, and they are chronic bullies from a very young age. I knew him, my friends knew him, my family knew him, and all along the signs were there, and they start small, and they turn big, and this is what it comes down to.” — Aleksandr Katane, brother of Lyuba Savenok who was murdered this past week by an abusive husband

To donate to Lyuba’s children, go here.

My podcast episode addressing this tragic situation can be found here.

Questions about hugs

Note: This is a follow-up to my previous post: Hugs: giving versus taking

Where can I find someone who will teach me how to hug in a giving way? Apparently my technique is all wrong.

Even though Nick Vujicic was born without limbs, people say he gives the best hugs.

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How is that possible? As one high schooler says, “Nick hugs with his heart.” Go and do likewise.

Then again, that might be your problem. (See the final question below.)

If I ask a friend for a hug, does that make me a hug-taker?

No. It probably just makes you a hug-receiver. With good friends, sometimes we may need a shoulder to cry on and other times we may be the one offering that shoulder. But if we are always, or even just usually, the needy one — without ever giving in turn — that’s not healthy.

There is another aspect to this as well. Even the neediest of hug-receivers may end up giving far more than they realize. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has found myself blessed and comforted by the very person I’m trying to comfort. If nothing else, you can receive the hug with gratitude, and your hug in return can express that.

Once again, it’s a heart issue and the difference between giving and taking can seem subtle. Consider asking the Holy Spirit to reveal to you the hidden places and motives of your heart — that’s usually far better than endless introspection. If you purpose to become the sort of person who gives graciously to others, you probably will. At least that’s my hope for myself!

Can’t I just hug without all this analysis and soul-searching? 

Of course. Hug away. Just make sure your hugs are welcome and not an intrusion or imposition. Try to think of the other person when you hug, and don’t be self-centered or use their body for personal gratification.

What if I’m the “high desire for non-sexual physical affection” spouse in a marriage with a husband who: a) only “hugs” me during sex; b) refuses to give or receive hugs except as foreplay; or c) is a hug-taker on the level of Creepy Hugger Guy?

First, a disclaimer lest the “Not All Guys!” police manage to catch wind of this post and denounce me as a female chauvinist pig: I know that there are probably husbands with a higher desire for hugs and non-sexual physical touch than their wives. However, what I’ve heard/read tends to confirm the stereotype. Before you say, “Well, that’s because you’re a woman and so guys don’t tell you these things”, let me offer this: back in my single days, I worked with a lot of married men. Some asked me for “the female perspective” on their marriage issues. Others trotted out the “my wife doesn’t understand me” line. So I heard plenty from husbands who thought their wives were unreasonable for wanting physical affection outside of sex, but not a word from any husband longing to give or receive more hugs. (By the way: I also learned the best way to shut down a guy claiming “my wife doesn’t understand me” is to say excitedly, “Your wife sounds just like me!” Only once did I have to ramp it up a notch and say I’d love to meet her.)

After that long disclaimer, back to the question. Maybe you’ve tried everything you can think of, even marriage counseling, and your husband, an otherwise fairly good guy, can’t or won’t change. Maybe physical touch isn’t his love language. Maybe, when he was growing up, his parents taught him that hugs were wrong and bad. Maybe he was abused. Maybe he’s simply not wired for intimacy. Maybe he has other reasons for not appreciating hugs. Maybe he thinks there is nothing wrong with being Creepy Hugger Husband and you can’t convince him that selfish or forced hugs and gropings aren’t working for you. Maybe he actually hates hugs unless sex is involved. Maybe he just doesn’t have very much to give. The bottom line is that some guys will never “get it”, and will never change, even if they wish they could.

You can’t change anyone but yourself. Sad and frustrating, but true. Once you face reality, you have two choices:

  1. Dump the dude and find a guy who gives good hugs from the heart.
  2. Learn how to live with the dude you’ve got.

There’s a theory about the disparity in male versus female desire/need for physical affection. Some say it is God’s design; after all, we are the ones who breastfeed and nurture babies and children. However, that feature seems more like a bug if you don’t have babies to cuddle, and it does nothing to protect you from the hug-taker.

What to do? I’m not a marriage counselor by any stretch of the imagination, and probably not the best source of marriage advice, but this is my 2 cents worth, which might not be worth even that:

If you are married to a hug-taker, recognize that you might become increasingly reluctant to give him hugs, since you feel depleted already. Unfortunately, this may turn things into a vicious cycle. It’s hard to give, give, give when there is no mutuality, and when your gift is turned into another opportunity for someone to take from you. Unless you have experienced this dynamic for any length of time, what I’ve written here may sound whiny and overly sensitive. What’s the big deal? It’s only a hug! But if you are a high-desire-for-real-hugs spouse married to a hug-taker, you know exactly how difficult the struggle can be. I have no idea what to tell you, other than perhaps you might consider doing some boundary work to protect your heart.

Recognize that your husband will never meet all your needs. No one can. Find people who will give and receive good hugs. Years ago, I met an older woman who was on a personal crusade to make sure the people in her life got three hugs a day. She even had cute little cards printed up. I loved it! I could count on at least two good hugs every time I saw her. Cultivate a hugging culture among your friends and in your social group. It can really fill that void, and meet your need for physical touch. 

Cuddle babies. Pet cute little puppies. But don’t stop there. Hand out hugs to teenagers. Hug lonely widows. In other words, give hugs to those who will appreciate them. You never know the difference you might make in the lives of people who sometimes go days, weeks, even months, without a single giving hug. Meet your need for hugs by meeting the same need in others. (For the sake of your marriage, it’s wisest to limit or avoid hugs with warm, attractive, emotionally available men.)

What if my wife claims I’m a hug-taker? Or what if I am the low-desire-for-hugs spouse? Or what if even the briefest hug fills me with an uncontrollable desire to have sex immediately, so I avoid any except as foreplay? Or what if I think hugs are wrong or stupid? Or what if I happen to like grabbing and groping my wife and think she needs to get over herself? Or what if I just don’t feel like hugging my wife unless there is something in it for me, like sex or at least getting to feel her up?

I don’t know. Maybe you should ask your wife and be willing to listen, really listen, without defensiveness. Then again, she may be way past the talking stage on this one, especially if lack of physical affection has been an ongoing issue in your marriage. You might try reading articles addressing low sexual desire in marriage and adapting the advice for hugs rather than sex (e.g., how to be an eager and willing hug partner even if you are never in the mood to hug). Personal therapy might help you figure yourself out. At the very least, try getting lots of prayer…for you and your wife.

For husbands of survivors| Trauma Tuesday

This short video is an excellent resource for Christian husbands of survivors, although I would urge caution about one of the recommendations made by the speaker.

My reaction to this video was almost entirely positive. I especially liked what the speaker said about husbands pursuing their own healing and growing in sexual purity. The husband who takes this video to heart would truly end up being a tremendous blessing to his wife as well as receiving much blessing in return.

However, I do want to voice a few serious cautions to husbands about seeking support from other men:

  1. Only disclose your wife’s sexual trauma to someone with her full knowledge and consent. Do not pressure her — not all women are ready to go public with the most traumatic events of their lives, especially trauma of a sexual nature, and the thought of a man knowing can be especially frightening, shameful, and humiliating. Your wife’s ability to trust you and feel safe should trump your need or desire to tell “the guys”. A therapist might be a far better source for support, since not many men are equipped to offer the wisdom, insight, and confidentiality you need.
  2. Choose your confidante carefully. We like to pretend that men don’t gossip, but this is sadly not the case. Furthermore, the last thing you should want is to confide in a man who believes in rape myths, insists that your wife made the whole thing up, tells you to “make her submit!” or even angrily confronts your wife about “crying rape just because she regrets her slutty behavior, and is making up a lame excuse to withhold sex”. (One woman had to deal with more than one such angry confrontation after her husband confided in his men’s group at church.)
  3. Choose as a confidante only a respectful, godly, tender-hearted, safe, loving, compassionate man who is a friend of your marriage. Such a man should not press you for details about what happened to your wife or about any of her current sexual struggles. (Those issues should probably be dealt with in therapy anyway.) Instead, he should encourage you to be more Christ-like. One husband was shocked, and later convicted, that the man he confided in was moved to tears — in marked contrast to the husband’s own lack of tenderness and compassion. The best confidante will challenge you to grow in sacrificial love, rather than further enable you in selfish indifference or impatience.
  4. Be prepared that telling people may make your wife the target of gossip, false accusations, harassment, intimidation, and even worse. One wife was continually harassed by a man who accused her of lying about her sexual assault because, as he insisted to her, “you are too ugly to rape”. Some survivors have had to endure “rape jokes” or “incest jokes” supposedly in order to get us to lighten up and not take ourselves so seriously. Men have attempted to intimidate rape survivors with, “I hope someone rapes you again.” Even more frightening, a woman was confronted in her own home by a “friend” of her husband who threatened, “I could rape you too, you know, and this time no one would believe you.” The worst case I know about personally is the woman who was assaulted by her “pastor” after he learned of her past sexual trauma. Predators and abusers don’t usually identify themselves as such in advance, and are all too often the last person we would suspect.

Obviously I am not suggesting rape survivors hide in silence. After all, I’ve gone public. But it should be our own choice, and we should not be outed as survivors without our consent — especially not by the very men who have vowed to love, honor, and cherish us.

The director and the actress

As I posted before, I usually don’t write allegories. But then one came along and pretty much wrote itself. Every now and then, I’d re-read it, maybe tweaking a word or sentence here or there. I’d think, “I really should add a part where the actress talks with the director.” And that’s as far as it got until recently.

I hope it means something and is a blessing to someone else besides me.

Of course none of this will make any sense whatsoever unless you start reading here.

The director looked across the table at the actress and smiled. He had such high hopes for her — and for the actor, especially now that he’d begun to get through to him — and he was looking forward to finally being able to tell her of some of his plans.

She smiled back. It had been a year since the actor had begun to have his change in heart about her, but that didn’t really explain the dramatic growth she had gone through in that time.

“This has been my best year ever!” she enthused, as if reading the director’s mind. They began reminiscing together.

“What made the biggest difference for you?” he asked, fully knowing the answer, but never growing tired of hearing her tell of it. He loved how her eyes lit up, how excitement, joy, and wonder filled her voice.

“It was…well, everything you said to me that day that I came into your office, wanting to quit,” she began.

He would never forget that day. She was discouraged, frustrated, hurt, angry, at the end of herself. He had listened patiently as she poured out all her feelings, until she dissolved into desperate tears. “I can’t do this anymore,” she had finally managed to choke out. “I’m tired of failing. It’s hopeless. I’m hopeless. I can’t go on like this.”

He had found himself telling her the most hope-filled story that he knew. “Remember, I was friends with your parents, and I was there when you were born,” he said, “I got to hold you right away. I loved you then. I held you close and whispered a secret in your ear and someday, when the time is right, I’ll tell you what it is. On that day, I also told you what your real name is, the one you were meant to have from the beginning of time, the one you will not hear again until you are ready.”

When he had said this to her, she had wiped away her tears and looked at him as if he was crazy.

So he reminded her of their history together, the parts she could remember, and even some parts she had forgotten. He reminded her, over and over again, that he had always loved her as a father and a friend.

“Your problem,” he told her, “is that you don’t believe that. You don’t believe me. You’d rather listen to the actor, even though he will never love you the way I do and, all too often, he does not even speak for me. When will you realize that? When will you seek my approval more than his?”

Those final words had stung her. She had protested and argued, and then dissolved yet again in frustrated tears. Finally she had walked out.

“That was the turning point,” she said now. “Once I sat myself down and thought about everything you told me, all the things you reminded me — it all made me realize that you knew me longer and better than the actor did — and that you love me more than anyone else ever will. Plus…well, you’re the director, and he isn’t.” She flashed a relieved grin at that last sentence. “That’s why I came back.”

Now he looked at her more seriously. “So you finally believe that I love you and want what’s best for you, right?”

She nodded. “Of course! You’ve proven that time and time again but I was too blind to notice! You’ve always been there, my one constant, my most loyal friend. I’ve lost count of how many times you rescued me…how many second chances you gave me…how many times you let me start over…how many crises you helped me through. You’ve changed my life.” She paused for emphasis. “Now I think I really do believe that you love me as much as you say you do.”

“You trust me.” He said it as a statement of fact, calmly. She nodded again, but she looked slightly apprehensive, wondering if she was about to be tested.

“I have a new script,” he announced simply.

She looked excited. “Really? Tell me about it!”

“It’s the kind of complex, demanding role that you were born to play. It’s tailor-made for you, but it will also be extremely challenging. Extremely.”

“What about the actor? Is he in it?”

“Oh, you’ll still both be playing your same basic roles, except I’m developing your character much more fully than before, and expanding your part in the script a lot. Focus on your role and let me worry about the actor. The changes in the new script will require your utmost concentration, and you and I will have to work together more closely than ever before.”

“Great!” she said.

“One more thing…the new script also requires that you dance.”

“Dance? The actor hates dancing! He will never agree to it.”

“No, not that kind of dancing. You won’t need a partner for the dances I want you to perform.”

“But…but…” Tears filled her eyes and she bit her lip. “What about my leg? I can’t dance. You know that. I’ll stumble and…and…I’ll fall down. Besides, who wants to see a cripple like me try to dance?”

“I’ve choreographed the dances, and I’ve taken your leg into consideration. I will teach you myself. Trust me: you will dance more beautifully than you can possibly imagine, even if it feels awkward to you. Are you forgetting that I’m also a doctor — the very one who attended your birth and took care of you after your accident? The dances I’ve created for you are therapeutic and healing — they will strengthen and restore your leg. Eventually your limp will disappear.”

She looked incredulous. “Seriously? You mean that?”

“Of course.”

“I never dreamed I would ever dance…” she whispered in amazement, as if afraid to speak the words aloud.

“That’s not all,” the director said. “The script I’ve been writing — it’s based on the stories you used to write as a little girl, and the stories I used to tell you. It’s based on your fondest hopes and dreams, the ones you’ve long given up, even forgotten. I remember them all, every desire of your little girl heart and, in the script I always meant for you, they all come true. Well, except for some of the silly or dangerous ones.” He smiled. “But the good ones all come true.”

Her tears flowed freely. “But…why?”

“Because it’s the role you were meant to play all your life.” He paused to let the words sink in. “You just weren’t ready before now. I think that now, finally, you truly want those things again — all those long ago hopes and dreams — more than you want anything else.”

She sat there in stunned silence, trying to process it all. Finally she spoke, “So, despite everything, all my failings, all the ways I’ve messed up and disappointed you, I get to play my dream role? That doesn’t make sense.”

“Yes, it does,” he countered gently, “if you remember how much I love you.”

“But what about the actor? Does he get his dream role too?”

“Leave him to me. After all, I love him too, far more than you ever will. But your role — this new script — is far less about him than it is about you. Promise me one thing: always look in my eyes instead of his, and never forget that I am the director, not him. He’s just another actor, like you, and he has his own script.”

He paused and grew almost stern. “I have to caution you about something. You finally stopped believing his criticisms and stopped veering off the script in reaction to him — right about the time he was becoming less negative and critical. But now he could pose an even greater danger to you, if you become used to and dependent on his kindness and praise. You’ve longed for him to approve of your performance so much that I’m afraid his positive words might have more power over you than his negative ones did, and you might become willing to do almost anything for them to continue. You must never forget that he is not the director. My approval must matter far more than his. Look to me only.”

She nodded.

“Always, always act as if I’m your only audience.”

She nodded again, and he thought she had never looked more beautiful and more strong. He thought her face could have lit up the darkest room. “This is amazing…too good to be true…I must be the luckiest actress alive!” she burst out.

“I think it’s time.” he said abruptly, standing up.

“Time? Time for what?”

“This.” He beckoned her to stand and, leaning down towards her, spoke softly in her ear. “It’s time you finally heard what I whispered to you so long ago, on the day you were born. And, after you hear it, you won’t just dance. You’ll fly!”

“Fly?”

He didn’t answer, didn’t explain. Instead, he whispered a sentence, the secret he had told her the day she was born…words she hadn’t realized that she had longed to hear all her life, words that explained everything, words that set her free, words that frightened and exhilarated her, words that were both healing and challenging, soothing and provocative. It was as if she was hearing his voice, his real voice, for the very first time.

She gasped. Tears flowed. And she threw back her head and laughed. That’s how powerful his few, seemingly simple words were. What he spoke wasn’t just a statement — the truest words she had ever heard — but a glorious invitation.

He was calling her forth into her destiny.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes, yes — ” the words tumbled out in enthusiastic agreement to the new script, to the director being her audience of one, to everything he wanted her to be, and to everything he would help her become.

In return, he held her closer, in a fatherly embrace…and spoke her name: her name he had whispered to her at birth, her real name, her beautiful, beautiful name that no one else but them had ever heard.

This time she shouted — shouted loud — with joy, throwing back her head as if she wanted the heavens above to hear her. She lifted her hands high in the air and shouted with triumphant eagerness, “YES!!”

And then she danced.