According to novelist
Anne Taylor Flemming, "A long marriage is two people trying to dance a duet and two solos at the same time."
A friend of ours, frustrated by her husband's apparent inability to brown hamburger meat, conceived of a T-shirt slogan intended to prompt self-reliance over dependence (on her) in such situations:
"Pretend I'm dead, and figure it out!"
Duly pleased with herself, she shared her pop-genius on Facebook, and enjoyed enthusiastic support from female friends who feel her pain, along with some spot-on ribbing from a couple of male friends . Clearly, she hit a nerve - the same one Cathi Hanauer hit with
The Bitch in the House, a collection of essays on how women struggle to combine marriage, motherhood, and career today.
According to a
report by Heather Boushy and Ann O'Leary for the Center for American Progress, half of all workers in the United States are women; two-thirds of mothers contribute at least a quarter of the household income; 40% of mothers are the sole bread-winner for their families or have incomes at least as high as their spouses'. Yet now that both men and women currently bring home the bacon in most households, women continue to be responsible for
at least 70% of household work, with her workload increasing in terms of hours once children arrive.
No wonder women are apt to explode.
Sometimes they should, suggests the informant in Michael Drury's classic
Advice to a Young Wife from An Old Mistress. "At times it is wisdom to air one's brains; it unheats [her]." However, she adds, "A woman who habitually complains against a man is quibbling. Either live with him, and hold your tongue, or act, but don't harp, unless you really mean to keep from being loved."
The two friends who responded negatively to the T-shirt slogan went further. Words as well as sticks and stones "hurt."
They're right, of course. The words we use to communicate with one another are critically important to establishing and maintaining healthy relationships, period. So much so that I bet most of us are familiar with some variant on the Biblical retort, "Reckless words pierce like a sword..." (Proverbs 12:18). Furthermore, I have yet to find any marital advice that includes spousal put-downs.
The problem is that it's incredibly difficult to understand, let alone judge, the dynamics of a marriage or other like relationship from outside of it.
Life is lived by one person at a time, amid particular events, and has genuine import only where it imparts this distinctiveness to the one who lives it.
friend continued this Facebook discussion in a well-crafted reflection on Biblical sources of guidance for a good marriage. Honestly, her characterization of gender-specific marital roles provides terrific rules of thumb for heterosexual married couples. A husband must love his wife and expect to be held accountable for his marriage and family. A wife must respect her husband in the sense of recognizing his position as head of household, and the awesome responsibility it entails.
Rules of thumb, however, are not meant to be applicable in every situation.
At the very least, the world has changed a lot - A LOT - since God last opined on marriage. Specifically, though gender roles followed fairly directly from biological sex during the first centuries of Christianity, we know better now.
Susan Allport, for example, argues persuasively that the capacity to rear children does not necessarily follow from the physical ability to bear them. Anthropologist
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy goes further to report that a male rat (a typical human stand-in for the purposes of scientific studies) left in the nest with his kittens adapts by "mothering" the helpless young. Late last year, we learned that men's
testosterone levels drop when they become fathers, rendering them arguably just as genetically predisposed to house-keeping and child care as women are.
Uh, yeah, I can't help questioning the inability of our friend's husband to brown ground beef. Obviously, both men and women can support their families, and both men and women are capable of responding to their children's needs. Then why is it odd that a woman might rightfully expect her husband to prepare a meal, or outrageous that she might call him out on his unwillingness to do so unaided?
This question begs another. Considering the mounting evidence for gender neutrality in capacity for work inside and outside of the home, isn't it disingenuous to suggest that husbands should love their wives unconditionally, and that wives should respect their husbands, regardless of performance? Drury's informant may well be right in saying that
, "we have got it backward when we insist that love causes personality...character comes first...without [that], there could be no love or exchange of any kind."
A married woman can get along nicely by fulfilling the outward forms of relationship, keeping up appearances, running a home well, savoring a social life. There is nothing wrong with that; those elements too are a part of living and so much a part of marriage that it can stay afloat on them. But the wife who would not remain and amateur values these forms correctly.
That is, no matter how masterful, a couple's performance as husband and wife is not, in fact, love; it is not respect.
Navigating the righteous rage and ecstasy of spiritual and physical union that accompanies contemporary marriages and other mature and loving adult relationships requires fairly tricky footwork that is mostly unique to each couple.
One woman hauls the trash to the curb when her husband forgets.
Another sometimes prepares dinner, fiercely yet silently, when she arrives home - late - from work to find her husband resting on the couch; other times, she explodes: "I'm starving and exhausted and I don't really feel like waiting around for you..." Yet another woman shares a flippant response to the frustrations of daily married life with friends.
I don't think we can say with any certainty which woman makes the best wife.