I’ve encountered a problem. It’s something that I’ve felt for a long time but never really thought much about.
I feel like I’m a crazy, hysterical woman. But it’s not my fault.
I spent a long time in college studying writers who talk about the unfair stereotypes women receive. I’ve read a lot about the unfair stereotypes men receive. However, I’ve never felt either of those problems heavily. Sure, I feel like I’ve been put in my share of uncomfortable positions. I had a golf instructor who insisted on making cooking analogies to teach me how to play. In general, I’ve found it to be more amusing than problematic.
But there is a powerful stereotype that I’ve only begun to realize is ever present in my life. It’s the relationship stereotype.
You know these: The unfaithful husband who only is interested in preserving his college days as long as he can. The materialistic wife who can’t resist nagging and insists on always being right.
You see them everywhere in our culture. Everybody Loves Raymond, Knocked Up, Old School, the examples set to us by celebrities, the Christmas push to get your wife “what she really wants” (jewelry), and even commercials like a recent one for cable that shows a wife rolling her eyes at her “immature” husband because he’s made a fort with the kids right in front of the TV she was wanting to watch!
What about the cliche that women are overly emotional, or get upset about nothing, or are always finding fault, or are trying to change their spouse, or seek to emasculate them, or only care about their spouse’s finances?
What about the cliche that men are perpetual adolescents, or that they must be nagged to take initiative around the house, or that they are always secretly oogling other women, or that they can only find companionship in their male friends, not their wife?
How does seeing these stereotypes played out over and over again in popular media affect our own ability to be in a stable and caring relationship?
I mean really, these images telling us what a husband-wife relationship means are every where. And they can be incredibly damaging.
I know I hear it from girls that I talk to…”But that’s just what guys are like!”
I had a professor who said her Aunt told her on her wedding day that all men cheat and she needs to think about how she is going to deal with that now before it happens.
I’ve heard it from women joking that you have to “train” your husband before he’ll really be any good.
There have been times in my own relationship when I question my husband, not because of anything he has done, but because I have trouble believing a man could feel that way.
I still marvel that any man would actually want to get married, or want to have a baby. Although most men I know would readily say that they do, it has been so indoctrinated into my mind that men dislike marriage and being responsible for children.
The worse part is that if you are looking to find those stereotypes, you often can, which can make them even more difficult to get rid of.
For instance, if a husband is feeling low about life in general, he can quickly assume that his real difficulty is his wife. She becomes stereotyped and scapegoated. Suddenly the comment she innocently made asking him if she should pay the water bill becomes a barbed question that he defensively takes as her questioning his ability to take care of their family.
That sounds so ridiculous but it happens. All. The. Time.
Luckily, sometimes all it takes it verbalizing our concerns to make it clear to ourselves how silly we’re being. Telling our spouse what they did to make us feel bad can often have the reverse effect of making us see the ways in which we allow our solitary thoughts to run away from us into the absurd.
These baseless stereotypes can often turn from fantasy into reality. I will never forget hearing a guy talk about how his girlfriend’s incessant instance that she was overweight eventually began to make him think she was. No doubt his girlfriend didn’t really believe she was overweight either, she simply wanted affirmation from him that he found her attractive. The words we use about our relationship can quickly become reality. There is even a lovely little poem to remind us of this fact:
Watch your thoughts, they become your words. Watch your words, they become your deeds. Watch your deeds, they become your habits. Watch your habits, they become your character. Character is everything.
As I said earlier, I can expose myself to wife stereotypes. I have a more emotional time than normal and instantly begin to belittle myself, talking about how crazy and overly emotional I’m acting. I do it because I want reassurance that I’m not but how long can I insist on something before my husband will agree, “Yeah, you are kind of crazy right now.”
How often do we fall into these well trod roles without ever exposing our true wants and needs?
How much do we tell ourselves lies about ourselves or our spouses because we’ve been told so often that is what we should believe? What part of a meaningful relationship is waiting for us there, beyond the grey, if we’d only allow ourselves the clarity of mind to see it?
It reminds me of an article I was reading the other day in which a woman was explaining the reasons behind her failed marriage. She asserted in the beginning that it was because they had married too young without knowing who they really were. However, as her story continued it because clear that there was a lot of distrust and selfishness in her relationship that eventually caused her divorce. Her behavior was immature but that had little to do with her age and “knowing herself.” She simply relied on a cliched assumption about marriage, that a person must know themselves and only an older adult has this capability, without thinking about how her own actions led to behaviors and emotions that broke apart her marriage. You won’t be surprised to learn that after this she was married and divorced a second time before having a “successful” marriage on the third try.
There are so many of these trite, cliched arguments that people give as reasons behind their actions. These relationship stereotypes obscure the real problems that people are facing. It’s not unusual for men to push the cliche with his girlfriend that he’s not “the marrying type,” or “not ready for the commitment of marriage,” only to quickly marry the next girl he dates. Some would say that he simply found The One, but a much more likely reality is that there was something in the previous relationship that was missing. Something that probably could have been mended but because of a failure to express how he really felt, was left unfulfilled.
This is why people who divorce once are more likely to do it again and again. It is not because they haven’t met someone who could be their life partner, it is because they cannot understand the true honesty that being in a relationship requires. If you build your spouse up with stereotypes instead of trying to understand who they really are, finding fault becomes much easier. It is much harder to find fault in someone who lays themselves out to you because you can understand their motives and their feelings. You can understand the struggles they face and sympathize with them.
This is not just about allowing yourself to be open to someone else. It’s about respecting your significant other as a person, with their own needs and desires. For women especially, our modern culture tells us that having needs and desires is a dangerous thing to “allow” in a husband. We are constantly bombarded by the stereotype that men are perpetual children who need to be watched and guided at all times. We’re told we should essentially teach them what they should want out of life.
I know that my husband can see when the lawn needs to be mowed and if he chooses to watch TV when he gets home, that is his choice. It does not reflect an inability for him to be a responsible adult, or require nagging from me to get it done.
Similarly, my choice to not work does not mean that I am wishing to be a pampered housewife.
Freeing yourself from certain expectations about your relationship not only can be freeing for your spouse but yourself as well. It takes a certain amount of self reflection to know how your own actions can be misconstrued and misunderstood but self reflection can help you create a relationship based on empathy rather than hostility.
For instance, there are definitely times when I question my husband’s love for me. It is easy to search through our days and see little signs that confirm what I fear. But a quick reflection on my own actions and my own feelings can quickly bring me back to reality. I know I don’t always demonstrate my love adequately but I know that I rarely waver in my feelings. I know I don’t feel the urge to be unfaithful and I still am capable of interacting with other men (even attractive men) and feel no temptation. I know that I can act incredibly selfish, especially when I’m having a trying day, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be willing to give everything I have for him if he needed it. I know that I can be snappy and really mean it when I give him the stink eye, but I would be beyond crushed if he ever took my anger too seriously and left, even for a day.
So why do I sometimes demand such a different standard from him? It is because I have been told so often that despite his actions, men don’t really enjoy their wives. I’ve been told so often that I need to keep my eyes open because despite him never giving me reason not to, I can’t really trust him. I’ve been told he needs to give himself completely to me or else his love isn’t genuine but I need to remain guarded or I’m just being foolish and exposing myself to vulnerability. I’ve been told he should put up happily with nagging and possessiveness but I should never tolerate the same archaic behavior from him.
The second greatest commandment after loving God is to love others like we love ourselves. I talk to my children a lot about this; you would never allow yourself to be hungry or cold, so you shouldn’t be ok with others living life that way. We parents are very good at loving our children like this. We know they need us and we seek to fulfill their needs, even above our own. But God doesn’t ask us to love only our children like this, we are to love every one this way. That includes our spouses. Instead of focusing on only the outline of the person, those little stereotypical things we use to quickly sum up a person, we need to focus on the person inside the outline. We are told to understand each other like we understand ourselves, to sympathize with others like we sympathize with ourselves, to be kind to each other, and seek to make each other happy and fulfilled, just as we seek that for ourselves.
Relationships are never as simple as “He/She is this way,” or “This is how a husband/wife acts.” Every person is an individual and it would make sense that relationships are individual experiences. They are fluid as well, and stereotypes fail so tremendously simply because they are not. While stereotypes argue that this person will always act in this way, being in a relationship means that you are always responding to each other. People are never intrinsically ill suited to being a good partner (which is good news) but they are always capable of being pushed to the edge (which is the bad news). A strong relationship doesn’t require “finding yourself,” or “being ready for it,” or any of those other cliched bits of advice people give. Relationships require a deep sense of honesty to one another. They require the ability to respond to each others honesty with warmth and caring. And they require the ability to tune out what everyone else says/thinks/does and see yourselves as you really are.