Miserably Ever After

The other day at the store I saw a husband miserably pushing a shopping cart behind his wife as she browsed; he occasionally stepped in and picked out something, asking, “How about this one? Or this? This looks good.” Each time, his wife had a cutting remark: “Our kids don’t like those. They never have. How could you not know that?” or “Are you joking? Look at the price of that! Do the math—the multi-pack is cheaper.”  Sometimes the man’s wife gave no response beyond a sigh and an eye roll.  Eventually, the husband stopped trying to help and stood there, mute, demoralized. At one point he pulled out his phone; his wife responded with a disgusted look.

This is an all-too familiar scene; I’ve witnessed or heard dozens of stories just like it. Now, this might not seem like a big deal. At least they weren’t outright fighting. There were no fists flying. No blatant insults or abuse. But, it hints at a problem in our culture.

Women, we often treat our men like trash. Not all of us, mind you. And for those of us who do, sometimes we aren’t even aware we are doing it. But it is a common habit. We often feel miserable or complain about our marriages and husbands, and that discontent spills over into how we treat them.  It has permeated our culture to the point that it isn't limited to the confines of our home and has become acceptable enough to shamelessly bring into the public, in front of crowds of bystanders.

This does not come without consequences. Marriages suffer because of it. Happiness suffers because of it. We suffer, our husbands suffer, and our children suffer.

I am not completely guiltless in this area. Through trial and error, I have learned a few things about marriage and I have some things to say. Real things. Things that are hard to hear and even harder to live, and they all have to do with how we treat our husbands—which in the end, directly impacts the happiness of our marriages. So, here they are.

1. Stop believing the lies that the media preaches about relationships and men.

The first way Hollywood and the media undermine marriages is by glamorizing only one aspect of any relationship, and that is the "falling in love" part—the part that is filled with excitement, lust, attraction, obsession, and constant feelings of being high on love and having found an amazing, perfect person. But, after that—Hollywood skips town on the rest of the story. This gives many people a vastly unrealistic vision of what marriage is supposed to be; we fully expect that "twitterpated" feeling the entire time. This is just simply not the entire picture, and in fact, is completely unsustainable, as put so eloquently by C.S. Lewis:

The state called ‘being in love’ usually does not last. If the old fairy-tale ending ‘They lived happily ever after’ is taken to mean ‘They felt for the next fifty years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,’ then it says what probably never was nor ever would be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships?

The adrenaline, energy, and exhaustion that would come with such a constant state of twitterpation, sustained long-term, would probably kill us.

And so, we all face a harsh reality check at some point when we discover our spouse isn't perfect. Faults that didn't exist before now creep out of our newlywed walls. Things we used to find endearing are now annoying. Our disenchantment leads us to believe we have made a terrible mistake: How can I possibly have married this person, this person who has such glaring flaws? It is at this point that many couples just call it quits. Why stay with someone you are so obviously are not "in love" with?

What the media totally leaves out is that with time, and a lot of hard work, that first state of twitterpation is just a prelude to something much greater. To continue C.S. Lewis' thoughts:

But, of course, ceasing to be ‘in love’ need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense — love as distinct from ‘being in love’ — is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit;...They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself...‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise.

Once we realize that being "in love" isn't what marriage is all the time, then we can stop being disappointed and instead work on building something more powerful—lasting love built on a foundation of trust, life experiences, friendship, mutual respect, and a lot of hard work, sweat, and tears.

The second lie the media preaches is that men are basically ignorant, messy children and should be treated as such. In television shows, most of the husbands are fat, lazy, sports-and-food-obsessed nincompoops who get everything wrong. This leads to a message that is ironically the polar opposite of the short-sighted "happily-ever-after-in-love-as-newlyweds" lie we are fed: that, once married, we are doomed to a miserable-ever-after life with a ridiculous, buffoon of a man.

Not only is this lie insulting, it leads to an even more insidious consequence: the justification of women to be total wenches to their husbands. Men are stupid, so it's no big deal if you complain about it and treat them like dirt, right? After all, he needs to learn. You can do what you want, and he is supposed to roll over and take it, because you are above him.

Now, I'm not saying that any of us go around consciously thinking these things about men, but in the back of our minds, it's there. We are right, they are wrong. We have it together, they are a mess. We are the mature adult, they are incapable and infantile.

We cannot buy into the demoralization of men that occurs in the media. Of course our husbands are not perfect. But they are also not stupid doormats for us to wipe our feet on—they are equal partners worthy of respect and admiration. It is time we dignify their presences and stop acting like entitled princesses whose husbands only exist for us to bully.

Besides the many moral implications of such behavior, treating men like trash is a first-class ticket to divorce, disastrous relationships, and unhappiness in your own life—indeed, a miserable-ever-after existence.

2. Stop the husband-bashing

In the first couple years of my marriage I noticed that when I got together with my gal pals, we spent a good deal of time complaining about our husbands. We laughed, we cried, we vented and ranted. We were a group of women unabashedly husband-bashing, writing it off as a form of “necessary venting” and “supportive friendship.”

Here’s the thing though: after a while, I noticed that every time I got home from these sessions, I did not feel unburdened. Hashing out my husband's faults had not sent my frustration out the door for good; actually, it planted those frustrations even more firmly in my mind. I eventually came to the realization that these sessions were not helping me or my marriage, but only feeding the fires of discontent.

There is a psychological principle I teach to my students called “group polarization,” and it states that when you get together with a group to discuss something, you walk away with your feelings being even more extreme and intense than before the group chat. So, if we think that unloading our woes about our husbands is a healthy way to feel better about them, a good strategy for venting those frustrations, we are actually missing the fact that it does exactly the opposite.

This isn’t even addressing how disrespectful and demeaning it is to your husbands. Think about it: “Yes, I love my husband! Now let me proceed to demean and insult him to everyone!” We show love not only by how we treat our husbands, or what we say to them, but also in what we say about them. It sends a strong message about how we feel, and it is also a self-fulfilling prophecy: how you speak about them will influence how you feel about them.

Over time, as I observe married girlfriends of mine that are genuinely happy in their marriages, I have noticed they all have one thing in common: they try to avoid speaking poorly of their husbands...and something tells me this is not because they have perfect husbands. Coincidence? Of course not.

I’m not saying that every once in a while we can’t have a good chuckle over the occasional hilarious story, but that’s a far cry from openly mocking and dissing on the person who is supposed to be your true love, the man you chose to spend life with, your partner in parenting, love, trials, and every single moment. If we want to be happier in marriage, we need to be happier in how we speak of our marriage and about our partner in that commitment.

3. Stop trying to be the man in the relationship.

Oh, boy, this is a loaded one. In our world, it is easy as women to step in and try to do it all; in fact, we are told that is a way to achieve equality. And yes, we can sure handle and do a lot as women—we multi-task like pros, rarely forget things, and are driven by an innate sense of responsibility and awesomeness. So, sometimes, we just let men slack off. We take over. We get it done, because we know that if we do it, it will get done quickly, and done well. The result of all of this is that we inevitably promote the very things that we then turn around and nag our husbands about. They are lazy. Well, we let them be lazy because we pick up the slack. And then we nag them about it. See the vicious cycle?

In a world that constantly says men and women need to be equal, we often feel that means that as women, we need to act like men in order to be equal. Not so. Being a woman, which in and of itself is powerful and noble and awesome, inspires men—all the best parts of being a man: being protective; hard-working; a pillar of support; a provider who takes pride in his ability to care for his family; an example to his children of strength, morality, right and wrong, ethics and proper behavior. This is the noble part of being a man, and when we supplant that role, we take it away from our spouses; they are left as mere placeholders in the family structure. Stop doing what your husband needs to do. Step back and let him fill the shoes that are just waiting for him.

So, ladies, we need to treat our men better. Yes, we are powerful as women. Included in this awesome power is the ability to equally empower our husband, or to strip him of dignity. We don’t empower him by criticizing or demeaning him. We empower him by accepting and respecting him. We have the power to choose to embrace his differences instead of rejecting and supplanting them. We have the power to choose to love instead of to nag. Instead of taking our marriage cues from the insidiously dangerous messages of the media—cues that say we can live happily ever after with no effort, or that we are doomed to living miserably-ever-after—let’s take a step back and consciously mold our relationships into something more powerful than just man or just woman. Let’s embrace the power of our union, the power of marriage, and our role in making that a reality.