Now that I’m done addressing the blokes, it’s time for me to talk to the women-folk.* As you probably know, these two latest articles are my answer to the question posed by author Don Miller earlier this week in his blogs “How To Live A Great Love Story.” I personally think Miller is shooting a little left of the target by describing a healthy, long term relationship and marriage as a love “story.” To me, a story is something you make up, something created in your imagination, something you relate to people to entertain them or put them to sleep. I’m being a little facetious. I know that he means marriage should be an adventure. But all are great adventures foreseen, structured and organised into chapters before you even set out? Is a great story one where you’ve already decided what challenges you’ll face, what fun you’ll have and what the happily ever after will be like?
Even if something as dynamic and organic as a marriage between two human beings could be reduced to the convenience and predictability of a storybook-style narrative, should we do it? And does it help us get married to someone we’re suited for, and stay married?
I can’t help thinking that many marriages hit problems because either or both parties have already decided how the story ought to read before the first page was even turned.
There’s nothing wrong with imagining how your ideal marriage might look and play out in the future. But a marriage is not a stand alone story in and of itself. It weaves in and out of other stories, and other peoples stories. And you never know what other people will do, or where your lives will lead you. There will be anxieties about the past, anxieties about the future. There will be interruptions and hiccups and disasters, no matter how well you prepare, no matter how much you do to stop them from happening. Life, and marriage, is not about good organisation, as much as it is about adaptability. We don’t live in a story. We live in the real world. We need to know how to live a better reality.
When it comes to marriage vows, I think we should ditch the “I do.” and replace it with “I will be.” I think this is much more helpful. This is why when I addressed the guys in my last post I didn’t ask them to do anything in their relationships. I gave them a list of things they could be. I said they could be someone who forgives, someone who stands, someone who has values, etc. I said that if they got busy on being the kind of man they want to be, doing will just come naturally.
Thank me later.
But you don’t get out of it that easy.
Here’s a woman’s list of things to be, to live a better love reality.
- Be a person not given to fear
You will sometimes be afraid. Fear is natural, and shows you what is important to you. You cannot help feeling fear, but do not give yourself to your fear -
You may have fear that you are not attractive enough, fear that you will be rejected, fear that people will find out about your past. fear that you will fail at what you attempt, fear that others will judge you, and fear that they are justified to do so.
Fear that if you do not sleep with this guy, he will leave you and you won’t find someone else. Fear that what you gave in exchange for your freedom will make you unloveable to anyone else. Fear that you are too much, fear that you are not enough. Fear that you have no choice, and fear that you will go to hell for choosing it.
You will fear being abandoned, fear being alone forever. Fear that you will never get away, and fear that you will not have the strength to endure. Fear that you are too strong, fear that no one will understand. Fear that you need them too much, and fear that they need you too much. Fear that you will lose yourself, and fear that you will find out who you really are.
You will fear that you won’t be able to protect them, and fear that they will never come home. You’ll fear that it will not be good enough, fear that you will not be good enough. You’ll fear that they will not be good enough. You will fear that you won’t be able to hold on, and you’ll fear they will not keep hold of you.
All of these are natural, even legitimate fears. But do not let yourself be a person who is controlled by fear. Never leave yourself in a position where you have no choice except one which compromises you. Sometimes what you fear the most is simply something you think you won’t be able to do very well. Like have a baby. But many times it turns out we can do, and handle, a lot more than we think, or have been told, we can.
A woman given to her fears seeks out all manner of consolations. Sex. Things. Isolation. Attention. Radical modifications to her physical appearance. However, whatever is installed to placate fear will form a scab which is very painful when bumped. When your scab is bumped, you may react in irrational ways. The most common way that fearful people behave is with anger.
- Be a person who is not given to anger
Conflict is a natural part of any relationship, because no one can agree all of the time. But there is a reason why marriage counsellors try to teach communication as a high priority. It’s because nothing gets sorted out whenever there is yelling, or when someone decides to punish the other with silence. A lot of women don’t seem to need much provocation to get angry quickly. I know, because I am one. My anger, like all anger, comes from fear. There is no use trying to deal with your bad temper, unless you are willing to admit there is something else going on other than what you are angry about.
One thing I know, men can’t hear you when you are angry, whether you are yelling, or deathly silent. They cannot read minds. They just will just want it to stop. They aren’t being hurt so much as they are being jammed up in their minds by your visceral aggression. A good man can actually tolerate a lot of yelling, and a lot of peace and quiet, but no man can cope with a contentious woman in the house for very long. Angry women end up alone, or living as if they might as well be.
If there is one thing I would change about my marriage history, it would be the time I spent being angry. I thought that the way to sort things out was to follow my antagonist around the place screaming at his back and have the thing out good and proper. But I was wrong about that. I learned that my anger changed any problem we had from a something that could be solved into a someone that needed to be placated. Anger is an addiction. Like alcohol, anger smothers any real issues that exist and defers them for another day, where they resurface along with the crap that’s accumulated because of the fight and the hurt and the broken trust and fear and the remorse and the communication breakdown. Also, anger isn’t ladylike, but if you’re getting angry on a regular basis, being unladylike is the least of your problems.
- Be a person who will listen
The best thing that happened when I stopped being angry was I had more time to listen to what my husband had to say. He doesn’t say much, but I found what he did say made a lot of sense, and if I’d never shut my mouth, I’d never have heard any of it.
Being a person who will listen is really important because your man has useful information about himself you are really going to want to know, and most of it you will get not by asking him stuff, but by watching the way he goes about things. I would suggest you talk a lot less than you usually would for at least the first twelve months of your relationship. Practice just being with him, the way you see two men fishing just being two men fishing. It seems weird to women that two people could be together and not talk, but men do a lot of communicating in what we would consider long, uncomfortable silences. Just be happy to be his company. Men love this.
When a man learns that you are someone who will listen, he will give you more than his attention, he will give you his trust, and his heart. But you must be prepared to let him be your man, and not your girlfriend. Which leads me to my next point.
- Be a person who likes men.
You’d be surprised how often this comes up, even in Christian marriages.
Many women have very legitimate reasons not to like or trust men. That’s fair enough. But if you get yourself into a relationship with one, or marry one, you ought to be sure that you are actually capable of liking men as human beings. I have known women who are married to men, have sex with men, have babies with men and share bank accounts with men, who actually can’t stand men at all. In fact, I think the only reason some women marry men is because being single, or homosexual, or shopping at Lusty-licious Adult Sex Toy Supermart are all against their religion.
If you don’t enjoy the company and conversation of men, their interesting physical, intellectual and emotional make up or their funny way of thinking and doing things, then you have no business marrying them, taking their sperm to make babies with or taking their money to put a roof over your head. That would be fraud, and probably a worse sin than just being alone with a cat and a vibrator for company. Why not just be honest with yourself and take up with a woman instead.
Men are not women, They think differently, act differently, and that’s perfectly okay. You want your man to be able to fully carry out his function, and not be constantly in a state of apology for his masculinity. What his functions are will differ from relationship to relationship – my husband and I still argue about who will make dinner. However, we don’t argue about whether I know best what it means to be a good father to our children. I’m his wife, not his mother, or his conscience . I do, however, get to decide what we have for bloody dinner, whether I like it or not.
- Be a person who forgives.
I told the men that being a person who forgives is absolutely essential to a great relationship. This is not to say that I told them first because they have to do it more frequently or at greater depth than women. In fact, forgiveness is generally easier for men because they are not very good at holding grudges against people they are very close to. Plus, they don’t have the attention span. Men are also mercenary by nature – they have to get over things quickly or they know they’ll have nowhere warm to sleep, and nothing warm to eat.
Women are a whole other species when it comes to remembering the infractions of their partners. Men hold distant grudges, but for a woman, a grudge is pointless unless the person they have it against can feel it, acutely and with menace. We can infuse tasty food with seething hatred, and make a bed that sticks daggers in a man. We can dial a phone number with such spite that it can be sensed before the person we called even answers it. Forgiveness is difficult for women, because we see it as a bejewelled, fragile thing, far too precious to be given arbitrarily to so brutish a creature as a man. His repentance must be with tears, ashes and solemn vows, whereas ours can be by text message if we so choose.
Women’s forgiveness is harder because we may consider we have more to lose when men do wrong. But even the worst acts of treason can be forgiven. Just remember that while forgiveness is a gift, our having given it does not mean that trust must be automatically reinstated. Trust must be earned, and it’s within your rights to decide if you will trust a man again who has betrayed you with his lies, or with his irresponsibility. However, a woman who forgives on the condition she reserves the right to punish her man as if she did not forgive him has not actually forgiven at all.
Being a person who forgives mean that you will not only have peace while you are married, but you will have peace sooner if your marriage comes to an end. If you part ways, quickly take back the part of your brain you might have used to hate him with. You and your children will need your physical and emotional energy to be completely focused in the present, and the future. Your unforgiveness costs you more than it hurts the person you refuse to forgive. I was talking to a friend of mine once about six months after she and her husband had separated. For the whole hour, she talked about her ex-husband incessantly; about what he’d done, and about what he was doing now, and and about what she was going to do about it. It was exhausting for us both. In the end, I mentioned that I had spoken to him the previous week, also for about an hour, and he actually hadn’t mentioned her once the whole time. Sooner or later you have to just get over it. Why not now?
- Be a person with imagination
Vision is good. Confidence is good. Loyalty is good. Good organisation is good also. But better than all these put together is a good imagination. You’ll need imagination when there are decisions to be made, and imagination if you want have input into that decision. Call it tact, call it wisdom, you can even call it submission if you like, just as long as you do not presume that a wife never having input is somehow an option. You’ll work it out. Like I said – imagination.
Imagination is essential for times when thing don’t go quite to plan. Sometimes, despite all the forward planning, dreaming, visions and good organisation, you will find yourself in a position where you have nowhere you can go and nothing you can do. Everything you thought was going to happen didn’t, and something you didn’t expect came long instead. You’re going to need to be flexible. You’re going to need to know how to think on your feet. Imagination is useful for those times when the decision that was made and the plan that was agreed on doesn’t quite work out. Instead of resorting to indignation, whining, apportioning blame or deferring responsibility, you can activate your imagination and get busy doing something; like making something ugly into something gorgeous ( which could turn out to be your own attitude), or putting something wrong back to being right again. You could also try loving something or someone unloveable, including yourself. This is a good use of your time and energy. Much better than complaining because the holiday to Fiji didn’t eventuate.
- Be a person who knows how to be contented.
Contentment isn’t easy. In fact, it’s so challenging for most humans to be contented that Paul wrote in the Bible about how he literally needed the strength of Jesus Christ to do it.** So don’t be alarmed when you have trouble with it. It’s so difficult, most men will never even try it. Thats why there are twenty different kinds of football, a thousand different kinds of fishing rod, and a million different kinds of car.
But you are a woman, and because you have a well-rounded and active imagination, contentment will not be as big a problem for you.
Humour aside, I would say that in my experience, men find contented woman heaps sexy. They smile more. They laugh more. They relax under his touch when he puts his hands on her. She is great value to be around. And he will want to give her the world because of it.
- Be the expert on your own emotions
Men and women are different. Men think and feel in lines, junctions, angles and boxes. Women think and feel like tangled string. Your mans feelings and emotions are in a box he accesses when necessary. Your feelings and emotions are unleashed, powerful, elemental like the ocean. We always underestimate the power of our emotions to effect things. We think people are ignoring us, but their indifference is really just their attempts not to be drowned, not to be as overwhelmed as they see we are. It takes a lot of strength to fight against a woman’s strong feelings. Your feelings can change things, but you won’t be able to see it.
Men cannot read women’s minds, not their emotions. They can fix things, reach things and even build things, but they are not God. Sex with them does not transmute your brain cells into his by osmosis. You have intuition to help you – he’s just got his short term memory. A man will always presume he finds you just the same as when he left you. You have to tell him what you think and feel. He’s not lying – he really doesn’t know.
A woman needs to give herself a few years after she leaves her adolescence to begin to appreciate and understand her own emotions. If she doesn’t learn to see them objectively, she will be pulled along by them like a boat is pulled along by a current, and anyone who is in a relationship with her will find it hard to row against that tide.
Strong feelings can cloud good judgement. So don’t have sex with, or marry, someone just because you feel that you love them. And don’t think you have to give yourself to the first person in trousers who you feel loves you back again. You will feel love for a lot of people in your life, some will be great, some not so much, and some of them may even fancy you back. Some of the really great ones who fancy you back may even come along after you’ve married someone else. You will need something more than than feelings to make you stick with the one you took a ring from in the first place. Like character. And self-control. Commitment, even. Self-respect is another. Your emotions need management. Learn how now, or learn down the track when your therapist or your lawyer tells you your demands are unreasonable and you ought to have known better third time around.
- Be a person who understands joy
One thing I do know about men; they can adore the company of a plain-ish, chubby girl in track suit pants who is relaxed in their presence and will laugh with them, over a thin girl in a mini-skirt with a snarl and a please-me attitude any day of the week. Men love to be around women who are happy from the inside out.
And it’s not just about pleasing men. Joy and contentment go hand in hand. In fact, contentment without joy is just resignation. Resolve to be someone who can arrange, appreciate, identify and express joy, both in situations and with others. Joy is one of those great things you don’t need a man for, and one of the first things many women give up once they actually get one.
Just so’s you know, I told the men that they didn’t get to police your virginity, or complain about how sad they feel when it isn’t there by the time they come to avail themselves of it. But you know what? For our part, I think if we probably should take on board how important they think it is, just a little bit. A little bit.
Oh, and please don’t make your husband pay for the rest of his life for not being your first love, your girlfriend, your father, Jesus, or Aragorn.
Other advice. Your wedding is just one day. Marriage is an act of grace. Love is a decision. If you have four children you’ll have to buy a van, and you won’t be able to get a family admission ticket anywhere. Always kiss each other at least twice a day. Never tell lies.
Eight years ago today, I sat in a chair in an oncology ward while they put chemotherapy down a tube into my arm. I didn’t know if I was going to survive the lymphoma, or the treatment they were planning to give me for it. I was in my early thirties. We had fourteen years of marriage behind us, and four children we were still raising. This, by the way, was not part of our ‘story’. This was certainly not part of our plan. But this was just the beginning. Oh, I got better, but Ben struggled to cope with the realisation that even though he was the man, and a man who trusted God, that was not enough to keep us from harm. Neither he, nor God, seemed to be as in control as we’d thought. As I came back from the cancer, Ben slipped into a deep, disabling depression that drove him to drink. We separated for good the day he took himself off to rehab. But thankfully, miraculously, we have been able to rebuild what we lost in those terrible, painful years.
What we’ve learned is that it is not enough to plan or envisage a lasting, happy marriage. We had plans, we had goals, but when the unthinkable happened, the plans and the goals meant nothing any more. All we had to work with was who we were, and what we meant to one another, and we realised we simply hadn’t done enough work on those. We had to find a way to become the kind of people who would be able to get through it. I learned a lot about myself when I was sick; about what really mattered to me, about my emotions, about contentment and joy and forgiveness and imagination. And when Ben went to rehab, he did the same. In fact, I think we learned more about how to be married, and how to be human, in the few years we struggled with cancer and alcoholism than we’d learned in the fifteen sweet, happy and well-organised years before all that stuff happened.
Ben and I have a great love story. But that story isn’t anything to do with what we dreamed we’d do, wanted to do, thought we’d do, planned to do, or got to do. Our great love story turned out to be about who we turned out to be, despite, or perhaps because of what ended up happening in reality. As it turns out, we’re not characters in a story. It’s us who are being written.
We are the story.
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* I am addressing and specifically describing heterosexual marriages in these blogs. This is because these articles are in response to blogs by another author who referred specifically to this particular marriage model. I am heterosexual, and involved in a long term marriage relationship, so I am writing what I know. I would like to say that this does not infer that heterosexual marriage is the only kind I advocate for. Please see my blog “Why Christians Are Not the Boss Of Marriage” for a clarification on my views on same-sex marriage. ** Phillipians 4:13