I’m Wearing Braces for Lent

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Photo Credit

The timing couldn’t have been better. I was having trouble thinking of what to give up for Lent this year. I’m not huge into fasting as a beneficial thing, as I’ve practiced enough self-flagellation in my lifetime that it doesn’t help me all that much. Once when I was younger, I tried fasting from food for twenty-four hours. In reality, I only skipped an additional snack or two, since it was normal for me to avoid cooking and eating in order to get on with my writing and reading. Cooking and eating three square meals a day would’ve put my feet to the spiritual fire. Intentionally nourishing my body and soul — that’s often the truer sacrifice for me.

I’m not a fan of giving up what’s good or needed (like food) for some ethereal higher purpose. Theologically, I think asceticism is anti-Christian. It introduces a dichotomy between body and spirit that’s confusing at best. We do not become more like Christ by abandoning our body and its needs. Christ became man so that our path to God could be distinctly human — not body-less.

But I do appreciate the practice of Lent when approached as giving up what’s easy for what’s good and necessary. Last year I gave up social media. The initial day or two was a bit hard, but once I was freed from the fear of missing out — it was, after all, only for forty days — I was free, indeed. I tapped into something my body and soul desperately needed: the headspace and time to do other nourishing things, headspace and time that Facebook had monopolized.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t feeling led to give up social media this year. So what would I give up?

Enter adult braces.

Yes, folks, I am a twenty-four-year-old in need of braces. Two days before Ash Wednesday, the orthodontist glued the brackets onto my teeth, strung them up with wire, and sent me off with a goody bag full of strange cleaning tools.

Braces are insanely primitive — a whole bunch of METAL and WIRE, GLUED (yes, GLUED) to your teeth, in order to wrench bone through gums. And your body responds to them as the primitive contraptions that they are: it salivates over them as it does any foreign object. Your poor teeth ache from the pressure. Your even poorer lips and cheeks get shredded and sore until they literally callous over from the braces rubbing up against them.

P.S. The only real way to circumvent your mouth’s inner suffering is sticking wads of wax all over the brackets. Attractive.

And actually functioning with braces? Well, it’s about as gainly as walking with your shoelaces tied together. There I was on Ash Wednesday, the alto section leader, trying desperately to swallow excess saliva at every breath mark, my lips getting stuck on the brackets, my soft consonants going tacky.

It’s a great way to remember one’s mortality, in a reverse fashion — your once normal adult mouth getting reduced to a goulish metallic grin that cancels out all the maturity you worked so hard to project in your already youthful body. And by youthful, I don’t mean the sexy kind. I mean the kind where someone asks what high school you attend, even though you’re married, with a child, six years out from your last high school experience.

I haven’t even kissed my husband yet. Mostly because it hurts, but also because I feel thirteen again.

That’s really the worst part of adult braces. You’re supposed to have your teeth together by now — you’re married with a child six years out of high school, for Pete’s sake. You’re supposed to have your teeth together, and you don’t, and everyone knows it.

It’s my worst nightmare: everyone, from total strangers to my in laws to my coworkers to my beloved husband, everyone, everyone, everyone knows something weird and unattractive about myself, and I can’t do a thing about them knowing.

It’s one of those things that are private enough (or gross enough?) that nobody feels comfortable acknowledging, so it becomes the elephant in the room. You know they know about your mouth full of metal and wire, but they’re too polite to say anything, and it’s silly for you to pretend your entire mouth isn’t radically altered, but you’re too polite to weird them out with your dental sob story.

I’ve never felt much insecurity about my body, but now I feel all of it. I try not to smile too big or talk too much — mostly because, again, it hurts, but also because I’m desperately trying to cling on to control over how I appear to people. I want to be that put-together adult woman with all her teeth in a straight row, and now I look like a thirteen-year-old with obvious dental problems.

That’s what I’m giving up for Lent: my carefully curated self-image of perfection — an image that’s as unobtrusive, benign, normal, and put-together as possible. An image all can love. An image that doesn’t shock or confuse or weird anyone out. An image that invites affection and admiration. An image that doesn’t let out all the crazy and gross and problematic unless it’s on my terms.

And with that carefully curated self-image, I fostered a belief that I could only be loved and appreciated if I was lovable and appreciable in every minute way; if I was normal and benign and mature and put-together, not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature. And along with that was a belief that by being normal and benign and mature and put-together and not quirky and flawed and needing a couple more years to mature, I could ensure that people would love me.

Well, my adult braces have blown that smokescreen right up.

Being forced to give up control over a very noticeable part of my body — I am forced to realize a few facts of life that were true before I had braces, are true now that I have them, and will continue to be true when I get them off: I am flawed, and I am loved, and I can’t control either of those things.

The response to my monstrosity of metal and wire has been nothing but gracious. My preschool students didn’t notice at first, and when one did, they all demanded to see them, open-mouthed, studious — and then they moved on without a word of praise or censure. My husband asked to see them, and I said no, and he said okay, and didn’t indulge me my wild fantasies of him either having a thing for metal-mouthed women or filing for divorce at the sight of me. Nobody has done the no-you-look-good! protest that we all know is fake. They’ve just noticed and been kind. No admiration, no pity, no revulsion.

Because really, adult braces — and adults with obvious flaws — are incredibly normal.

For Lent, I’m letting myself receive grace, love, and normalcy despite those obvious flaws, dental and otherwise.

And I’m obsessively brushing my teeth.

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Marriage Is Not for Sanctification

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If you read almost any Christian marriage resource, you’ll hear something along the lines of marriage being about sanctification. Its purpose: to reveal just how selfish and awful we are, and to make us more loving, patient, and kind. That’s what makes marriage hard, you know: we’re such awful, selfish people, but that’s what happens when two sinners marry. That’s marriage.

Anybody who’s been in a relationship with anybody, married or not, will certainly agree that they do see ugly, selfish sides to both themselves and their loved ones. Marriage is hard.

But I think there’s a crucial difference between saying that “you will be sanctified through marriage” vs. “marriage is for sanctification,” or “marriage is hard” vs. “marriage is supposed to be hard.” When we say that marriage is for sanctification or that marriage is supposed to be hard, we run the risk of normalizing dysfunction or even abuse.

If you’ve internalized complementarian teaching, there’s a good chance you struggle with setting appropriate boundaries, understanding the difference between a responsibility to your husband and a responsibility for your husband, believing deep in your soul that you matter, and expecting to be treated with love, decency, and respect. And frankly, I think trying to figure out an egalitarian marriage with a post-complementarian mindset is brutal. You swing back and forth between pulling yourself up to your full height and demanding equal treatment, and crumpling into guilt and acquiescence.

This creates a cycle of dysfunction that keeps you down: the more you feel disrespected and unheard, the more harshly you demand and expect; the more harshly you demand and expect, the more you feel guilty and acquiesce. The more you acquiesce, the more you put up with dysfunction. The more you put up with dysfunction, the more you feel disrespected and unheard, and so on.

Things cycle through the brink of disaster to happy making up to tolerableness, resulting in a marriage that’s never bad enough to be worth ending, but is it worth much else?

For many women, this is all they know. This is what they witnessed growing up. This is the treatment they experienced as children. This is what they encountered in dating relationships. This is what they think marriage is. And when Christians say that marriage is supposed to be hard, that marriage is supposed to manifest your rotten core, they normalize this dysfunctional cycle, this feeling that marriage is such a pointless struggle, this burden of feeling unloved, unnoticed, and frustrated most of the time. Instead of teaching that hard times are an inevitable part of marriage, the “marriage is for sanctification” line makes hard times — and indeed self-loathing and despair — the default.

If you’re not suffering, do you even have a real marriage?

“Marriage is for sanctification” makes finding a truly respectful, mature, loving spouse a daydream. A mostly happy, satisfying marriage? That’s a girlish fantasy. True love is hard work and sacrifice. And it is, at times, but it’s purposeful and productive work, not spinning your wheels in a dysfunctional cycle.

“Marriage is for sanctification” presumes that the normal capabilities of adult men and women are dysfunctional and sinful, that the sanctification process men and women experienced before marriage isn’t terribly effective to making a mostly happy marriage possible.

“Marriage is for sanctification” makes signs of dysfunction and abuse signs that you’re doing it right, that God is working on you, that you’re truly loving each other, so hang in there.

Some Christian teachers explicitly tell women to stay with abusive partners and dysfunctional marriages for sanctification purposes (theirs or their husbands’). This occurs again and again even in complementarian rhetoric that decries the abusive use of husbands’ authority. But even more egalitarian marriage teaching, or complementarian couples who function with mutual submission, use this line. It’s especially confusing when couples who do have happy marriages say things like “marriage is hard” and “marriage is for sanctification” — without clarifying that marriage is not meant to be a daily struggle.

Marriage is supposed to be a supportive relationship. Marriage is supposed to be a solace, not a struggle. Marriage originated pre-Fall, before the need for sanctification and sacrifice. Marriage is supposed to be for you and for your spouse. If marriage feels like a burden, a drain, or a frustration, if marriage is the biggest trial in your life, if “love your enemy” is your mantra to get you through your daily marriage interactions, this is not how it’s supposed to be. This is dysfunction, not sanctification. This is not a sign of normalcy. If you’re not married yet, these should be blaring red flags. They may be depressingly common struggles, but they don’t comprise a normal stage that all healthy relationships go through.

Marriage is not for sanctification.

We are not rotten, awful people who need our sin thrown in our faces until we get it right. We are people with inherent dignity and value who require a secure attachment to people who love us for who we are, even though we’re not perfect.

Actually, I take it back: if we define sanctification as becoming our best selves, marriage is for sanctification — but that sanctification ought to come through being unconditionally loved, respected, supported, and gently corrected — not torn down, run over, or wrung out. 

I don’t want to take away hope from those currently within dysfunctional marriages. Nor do I deny the redemptive ways couples view their hard times. It’s not possible to be in any relationship without experiencing some sort of disappointment, hurt, and conflict, and it’s important for our marriages that we come to situate those moments within a story of mutual and personal growth.

But there’s a big difference between saying that God can redeem a dysfunctional marriage and implying that a dysfunctional marriage will redeem you. I don’t believe that Christian teachers are making this distinction clear or that it’s coming across clearly to those whose definition of “normal” is dysfunction and disrespect.

A disrespectful, inattentive, immature, selfish, angry, or emotionally unintelligent spouse is not going to change you into a better person. It’s going to derail and exhaust you from personal sanctification, sucking you into that dysfunctional cycle of rage and guilty acquiescence. But a marriage to a respectful, attentive, mature, selfless, self-controlled, and emotionally intelligent spouse? That’s the kind of marriage that sanctifies you.

It’s Not Right That You Got Screamed At, but It’s Good

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I write a lot about the importance of civility when discussing and debating beliefs and experiences (even though I personally want to throttle some people with certain disgusting, ignorant views). It’s a matter of pragmatism, if not principle: People can’t think when you’re yelling at them. People are less inclined to hear you when you hurl insults at them. Plus, it’s unkind and unloving and all that.

That is true. I believe that. I believe we all need to take that to heart — victims, minorities, the oppressed, everyone. Everyone needs to extend grace and understanding. Love begets love, hate begets hate, ignorance begets ignorance, understanding begets understanding, and so on.

But, on another pragmatic note, I’m realizing that not everyone can, will, or wants to extend grace, understanding, or even the pretense of civility. Trauma, oppression, stress — it impairs people’s ability to self-regulate, just as being cussed out for your opposing viewpoint impairs your ability to listen and extend sympathy. As a person of privilege, it’s my job to hang in with what I perceive as tough conversations or unfair treatment or misunderstandings that make me, for that moment in time, feel dismissed or unheard.

It’s not because I think that my hurt is less valuable. It’s that I usually have less to lose if I’m unheard and misunderstood than disadvantaged people are. Hurt feelings and harsh encounters are no fun, but at least my way of life doesn’t ride on me persuading others to hear, understand, or accept me.

I think it’s important to sit with the hard conversations where I feel attacked and misunderstood, if only for this pragmatic reason: oftentimes I don’t truly understand a minority person’s lived experience unless they are speaking without any limitations or fear of repercussions at all — especially the limitation of civility or the fear of being “not nice.”

In my ongoing journey of becoming a foster parent, I joined a Facebook group that sought to give adoptive parents and hopeful adoptive parents the honest-to-God truth about adoption from adoptees’ perspectives. One of their rules was absolutely zero tone policing of adoptees. None. There were no protections for adoptive parents or hopeful adoptive parents. Adoptees could say exactly how they felt in whatever way they felt like it.

It was a brutal experience. Unsuspecting new members left in droves, unable to withstand the cursing out, the taking to task, and the rude, unsympathetic treatment of their questions or experiences. I almost left myself. Like I said, I value civility and nuance, and I didn’t feel like that this group provided that. I felt unsafe. I struggled to learn. I didn’t experience any grace. I was afraid to ask questions or say anything for fear of evisceration.

But I hung in there, and finally, slowly began to understand this group’s perspective — and even value the space’s no tone policing rule as critical to my learning process. Adoptees cannot share their honest opinions about adoption or their adoptive families because they’re out on the street (emotionally or literally) if they can’t figure out how to appease their adoptive families and fit in. Plus, there is such an entrenched narrative about how amazing adoption is and how lucky adoptees are, such a strong parent-centric focus, that any dissenting voices in the conversation get brushed away. There are so few places for adoptees to speak candidly about their experience that nobody is listening. Nobody is sitting with their full experience — especially not their pain, anger, and powerlessness.

As a person privileged enough to be unattached to adoption issues, I am not going to have a chance at understanding their life experience if I want to deal with only the civilized, sanitized version — a version they didn’t experience.

It’s a frustrating reality for everyone on all sides of conversations where disadvantage and privilege exist: it’s difficult to learn about another person’s pain when it’s coming at you no holds barred — and it’s difficult to learn about another person’s pain when it’s presented tactfully, civilly, and graciously. It’s difficult to be humble and compassionate towards someone when she’s lambasting you for a microaggression — but it’s difficult to be humble and compassionate enough to recognize just how much of a negative impact your well-meaning action had when someone calmly explains your mistake.

If I’m remembering this anecdote correctly, Ta-Nehisi Coates heard a white student share about experiencing prejudice on an historically black campus — something along the lines of others openly looking at him as if he didn’t belong and wasn’t welcome. Coates commented (paraphrased), “It wasn’t right, but it was good.” It wasn’t right that the student experienced such a shunning and an unwelcoming, but it was good for him to understand that this is the black experience in predominantly white America. Perhaps that was the only way he could understand.

It’s never right to treat another human unkindly, and it’s not right to codify unkindness as a communication method. We all carry our pain that deserves sensitivity; we all deserve dignity and respect, regardless of what privileges or disadvantages we posses. (And we all are a mosaic of privileges and disadvantages.)

But there are many not right things in this world, so many that it would require an impossible measure of strength from people who are already laid flat to accurately but civilly convey their experience to people who mean well but don’t get it. Since there are so many flaws both in delivery and reception of hard-to-fathom experiences between the privileged and the under-privileged, it is always good to listen and learn from all people — even the ones uncivilly screaming in your face. Everyone matters, but when we triage for justice, we must prioritize those facing oppression, discrimination, and prejudice over our own hurt feelings.

(P.S. I’m extremely bad at this.)

The Importance of Blast-Ended Skrewts and Other Harmful, Useless, and Annoying Creatures

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Via Pottermore

One of the things I love about J. K. Rowling’s Wizarding World is the presence of all kinds of humans, magical creatures, and different mixes and sub-categories of the two. There are quite literally different kinds of beings — house elves, centaurs, giants, blast-ended skrewts. They all operate under their own laws, in their own communities, in their own ways. And a good many sub-plots deal with the inter-mingling of these different kinds of creatures — particularly, how to treat them as equals without necessarily treating them as human (as if humanness were the ultimate standard of being, as the centaurs scoff in The Order of the Phoenix).

It’s a big but sometimes subtle theme running through the series: peace between different worlds, communities, and kinds of creatures requires an appreciation of individuals and kinds for who they are. Hagrid admires and cares for the worst of the magical creatures, finding joy in dangerous and ugly things that aren’t tamed or meant for human companionship or service. Mr. Weasley, despite being a pure-blood wizard, is fascinated with the Muggles and their way of life, not only protecting Muggles from regurgitating toilets and biting doorknobs but allowing Muggle influence into his own life (like trying out medical stitches as an alternative treatment). And in Hogwarts itself, Dumbledore shelters, employs, and trusts a whole host of characters who are incompetent, useless, and sometimes evil — the emotionally abusive Snape, all the Slytherins with Death Eater ties, phony Professor Trelawney, crotchety Filch whose idea of justice is stringing up students who track mud through his halls, and the mischievous Peeves who exists solely to wreak havoc in the castle.

We learn throughout the series of these characters’ hurts, back stories, and vulnerabilities. While Dumbledore is aware of these shortcomings and their effects on pupils, he extends patience, respect, and understanding to them, and expects students to do the same. They are inconvenient, annoying, and even harmful, but that, it seems, isn’t the litmus test for acceptance in the Hogwarts community.

This is what fascinates me about Dumbledore’s accepting community: He includes people we in the Muggle world are busy trying to oust from our communities. Only when people arise with the true power to harm students through taking away their agency (Professor Umbrage, ahem) or destroying who they are altogether (Voldemort) does he oppose and remove them from Hogwarts. The racist Slytherins remain at Hogwarts, but the racist Umbrage is removed from control of the community. The authoritarian Filch remains, but Dumbledore never allows him to act out his authoritarian wishes. Flawed — even horrible — people remain in the community as long as they cooperate with or are able to be kept in check by Dumbledore’s restrictions.

Otherwise, the message is clear: Since you’ve got the freedom to be who you are, stand up for yourself, switch classes, and appeal to sympathetic authorities, you’re expected to live at peace with everyone.

(This, I think, is where the Christian message of love and grace breaks down: too often Christians teach a radical personal love without trying to set up a community or a concept of self that protects everyone. All churches, countries, families, marriages, and other relationships must ensure the above freedoms and agencies, or people will not be safe enough or empowered enough to love their enemies or their obnoxious neighbors.)

Everybody in the series has their own struggles with this expectation. For instance, Hagrid’s love and respect of all creatures leads him to try to capture, tame, or interact with dangerous creatures best left at a distance. (See the disastrous blast-ended skrewt lesson pictured above.) Hermione tries to figure out how to respect the house elves’ dignity on their own terms while challenging their unfair treatment. And then there’s the obvious problem of racist pure-blood wizards who harm or look down upon Squibs, Muggles, and Muggle-born wizards — or otherwise good-hearted people with prejudice, like Sirius, who treats Snape and Kreacher in horrible ways for understandable, if close-minded, reasons.

I’ve been thinking about how badly we in the Muggle world need to understand these things: There are truly different kinds of people and different kinds of communities who thrive best when allowed to live according to their own internal standards. Often when we do see different kinds of humans, we categorize them wrongly — either along the wrong differences (race, ethnicity, sex) or in the wrong way (through power hierarchies or through division, separation, and restriction). We judge and value different kinds of people by how similar or how innocuous or how useful they are to our ways of being human.

In my marriage, in my raising of kids, and in my interactions with other people, I’ve become aware of just how different my husband and my son and other individuals are. They are interested in different things. They prioritize different things. They struggle with different things. And it’s tempting to try to shape them into ways of being that minimize all annoyance, inconvenience, and hurt for me.

Of course, where people have true power to harm others or to restrict their being in Umbrage-like fashion, they must be opposed, and they must change. Where people aren’t growing well in the ways of their own kind, or in ways that aren’t conducive to peace, I must support them in changing and growing (if they’re willing) and/or set appropriate boundaries (if they’re unwilling). But where there are simply inter-species, inter-house, inter-kind differences, it’s my job to love them, appreciate them, and encourage them to be as they are — just as I want them to love, appreciate, and encourage me to be as I am.

This doesn’t mean ignoring my limitations and weaknesses or their potential to harm me. In fact, it’s imperative that I understand my vulnerabilities, their triggers (which are often their own vulnerabilities too), and what happens when you mix the two. We instinctively understand this when we humans interact with animals (or magical creatures). We keep our distance, or wear protective gear, or move more slowly, or interact in ways the animal recognizes as peaceable — bowing to the hippogriff, as it were, instead of looking it in the eye and basically asking for it to strike. We understand that hippogriffs aren’t dangerous unless blatantly provoked, that peaceable encounters between kinds rely a lot on education and respect.

I’m learning to do the same with the people I love…and the people who annoy me to no end, or even harm me in some ways. The Gottman Institute reports that 69% of marital conflicts are unsolvable — resolutely and immovably rooted in fundamental differences. The difference between happy and unhappy couples is not fewer differences or more compatibility in a sameness sort of way; it’s the ability to reframe, respect, and work around those issues.

It’s the same sort of situation (if not more so) with our children, or with our co-workers or with our fellow parishioners and countrymen or our enemies — with people we didn’t choose to spend a good amount of time and energy on.

It all comes back to this basic understanding of others’ inherent dignity and our duty by them: People exist to be respected and appreciated and living the lives God created them to live — not bent to my will, convenience, or way of life. They are important not because of what they can do for me or to me but simply because they are.

The world may not need all kinds in a way that makes sense to us, but the world involves all kinds — squibs and wizards, centaurs and humans, Slytherins and Gryffindors, and yes, even blast-ended skrewts, obnoxious ghosts, vindictive caretakers, children of Death Eaters and real world people with problems and prejudice. And since they exist, and they exist differently from us, and we’ve got to get along under a roof or a church or a school or a country, we must love, respect, and understand them as we want to be loved, respected, and understood.

But do stay away from their blasting-end.

You Aren’t Wrong Just Because Someone Else Is Upset

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I’m indebted to Robin Einzig’s (above) and Harriet Lerner’s wisdom on this subject.

As a highly sensitive person, as a devoted wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend, and as a woman conditioned to care far more deeply about others’ feelings than her own, I find it difficult to say no, to disagree, to disappoint, or to be in conflict with others.

It comes out in different ways with different relationships. With anyone else besides my husband or son, I feel intense anxiety and sometimes terror about conflict, even on the most innocent of subjects, like personal preferences. I tend to clam up and nod along. If they find out my hatred of sausage pizza, our friendship is done for. 

With my husband, this discomfort with conflict comes out in, ironically, angry fights, criticism, and arguments. I’m not comfortable with actual differences between us, not okay with holding to an opinion that he doesn’t completely support too, certainly not able to take a stand that evokes a strong negative reaction in him. Since I have no faith in my own opinions, I have to be right — unequivocally, universally right. My opinion being not mine but God’s own truth, I must therefore argue my husband into submission.

Funny, isn’t it? Argumentative people are so crazy insecure about being wrong that they have to be right, especially when they’re not sure they are.

With my son, my anxiety over our differences in opinion (I want to make breakfast right after I take a quick bathroom break, he wants breakfast NOW) manifests in indecision, guilt, and, eventually, irritability.

I point out these different manifestations because I think both dogmatic, critical people and insecure, guilt-ridden people are just two sides of the same coin: uncomfortable with making decisions that others disagree with; uncomfortable with sitting with someone else’s loud, conflicting emotions; unable to see the difference between causing disagreement and causing harm. And as a result, we lose sight of our own agency and responsibility, as Einzig’s quote above demonstrates.

We are ultimately responsible for our own choices. We are responsible for believing what we believe and acting on what we believe in accordance with our conscience. For those of us with a neurotic need to be right (and thus safe from harming others or eternal judgment or loss of love or whatever it is we fear most), the scary reality is that we are sometimes wrong…or that there are several reasonable choices available to us, and we’ve got to pick one if we want to live a life. We’ve got to risk being wrong.

Other people’s opinions and reactions make that difficult. Of course, it’s good to consider people’s reactions to our choices, as those reactions indicate the effects of our choices on others. Making responsible, ethical choices for ourselves ought to factor in the impact of our lives on others. A good number of people ought to pay more attention to other people’s reactions, frankly.

And then there are people like me, who swing wildly between crying, “Hang it all, I’ll do what I want!” and cowering in the same spot, petrified of any negative reaction. More scary realities: there are many reasons why someone, somewhere would have a strong negative reaction to our choices — whether that’s our husbands or toddlers or the world wide web. We sensitive people must never construe the presence of a negative reaction to be a surefire indicator that our decision is wrong, selfish, or harmful. We must separate our agency from other people’s feelings.

We lose our agency, our responsibility, and thus our own selves when we cannot separate a decision and our ability to make a decision from someone else’s feelings. Just as Einzig points out, in our discomfort with others’ negative reactions, we start shifting the blame of our indecision or our own feelings onto others: “He won’t let me. I can’t do it.” Eventually we feel trapped. And this entrapment shrivels our souls and boils up into angry conflict with those we love.

There will always be consequences to our choices, for sure. It may be true that you can’t go to the bathroom without your toddler melting down, or that you can’t say no to sex without your husband stonewalling you. But that doesn’t take away your choice. It doesn’t take away your responsibility to make the best decision you see fit. Their reaction is only one piece to puzzle of decision making.

Often it comes down to choosing your consequences: Do you want to sit on the toilet while your toddler screams and bangs on the door, or do you want to take a pee while your toddler destroys your under-sink storage? Do you want to stand your ground and experience your husband’s bitter disappointment, or do you want to have a tiring, empty sexual experience that leaves you resentful?

There aren’t universally right or wrong answers. And to be clear, others’ emotions aren’t right or wrong either. Your toddler is entitled to feel unhappy and disappointed by your decision. Your husband is entitled to feel unhappy and disappointed by your decision. It’s unfair to expect that their emotions should align with yours, and it’s not okay to invalidate their feelings just because they make you uncomfortable. BUT. That doesn’t make your decision wrong. That doesn’t make your feelings invalid. And that doesn’t take away your ability and responsibility to make choices in line with what you think is best.

True boundaries allow you to sit with your own emotions and acknowledge that your feelings don’t take away someone else’s right to feel his own feelings. True boundaries allow you to sit with another person’s emotions and recognize that their emotions don’t take away your agency or responsibility.

It’s a scary but liberating reality.

Can Abstinence Be Sex-Positive?

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Abstinence before marriage is decidedly unpopular these days. It’s not sex positive, people say — that is, it perpetuates negative views about sex and human sexual desire. On the flipside, just having sex is seen as sex positive because, well, it doesn’t require you to withhold your sexual desires and it allows you to express your sexuality however you want.

I think neither approaches are inherently sex positive. We’ve focused so much on can you or can’t you, should you or shouldn’t you, that we’re ignoring the real reasons people have sex and all the different parts that make sex either great or traumatic. A just-have-sex ethic fuels rape culture and exploitation of women and minors because it views the act of sex as good regardless of the different components of that sexual encounter. A just-don’t-have-sex-until-marriage ethic ignores the good things of expressing sexuality in beneficial ways even outside of marriage.

Bottom line: marriage isn’t a magical key to great, safe, consensual, meaningful sex, and merely teaching abstinence before marriage is a shell of a sexual ethic — just like having sex isn’t the magical key to great, safe, consensual, meaningful sex, and merely teaching “it’s okay to have sex” is a shell of a sexual ethic.

Instead of teaching either abstinence or participation, full stop, we need to teach sexual integrity — sexual wholeness — sexual regulation. Sexual integrity welcomes our sexuality even before marriage and understands its affects, good and bad, on both ourselves and our partners. Our sexual ethic needs to move seamlessly from before marriage into the marriage bed.

Abstinence education is notoriously incomplete. It’s goal is getting people to not have sex until marriage, and it doesn’t really care how that objective is achieved. It withholds information, spreads misinformation, and catastrophizes sex before marriage. As a result, lots of shame, ignorance, and abuse build up.

Sex before and within marriage is more complicated than that. There are many, many different components of sexual integrity, and when to have sex is only one of them. Those different components shape sexual experiences positively or negatively. They create radically different experiences.

Abstinence is incomplete when it lists “marriage” as the major component to safe, good, and holy sex. Marriage is the ideal, in my mind, but marriage ought to mean a set of specific things: a loving, committed, mutual relationship with the safeguards of supportive community pressure. Marriage at its best is the most committed, intimate, and loving of relationships, providing stability for children, individual personhood, and intimacy.

Not all marriages are like this. In fact, marriage often shelters some of the worst sexual ethics violations. Rape and consent violations occur in marriage. Domestic violence is a huge problem. Unwanted pregnancies can happen.

And conversely, committed, consensual sex can occur outside of marriage. A loving, committed couple having sex before their marriage or a lifelong cohabiting couple are radically different experiences than teens getting it on in the back seat for a one night stand.

Abstaining from what and for what? The answer to that is the answer to whether abstinence is sex positive or not. Abstaining from sex is not sex positive in and of itself, no. But abstaining from sexual relationships or experiences that compromise sexual integrity — whether that’s commitment, love, consent, health, or parental preparedness — that’s sex positive.

The problem is that many of us growing up in the sexual purity movement thought we had a sex positive understanding of abstinence. We were waiting for God’s glorious and good gift of marital sex! How much more sex positive can you get? But we didn’t know anything about sexual integrity or wholeness — about consent and our own sexual natures and truly giving a whole person instead of a girl desperate for male attention and favor. We only knew the goodness of sex in terms of “premarital sex = immoral” and “marital sex = moral.”

Without a concept of sexual integrity and wholeness, we brought a ton of brokenness into married sex — misinformation, shame, ignorance, trauma — and experience a ton of brokenness with married sex — rape, consent violations, manipulative arguments about whether to have sex that night. Shout out to everyone who’s had to Google “how to actually have sex” on their wedding night or shelled out hundreds of dollars for sex therapy or got blamed for their husband’s affair.

This is what happens when we teach abstinence from sex instead of abstinence from an unregulated sexuality.

People have sex for a host of reasons, ranging from really good, healthy ones like “I love and am committed to this person” to “I like sex” to “I only feel worth something with male sexual favor” to “I want to dominate someone.” Sexual integrity and wholeness teach us to be aware of the many reasons we desire sex and sex with this particular person and to regulate those desires in accordance with healthy, safe, loving, committed, consensual, beneficial sexuality. This could look like abstinence from sex or certain sexual acts or going for sex or certain sexual acts, depending on how the different factors line up.

It should be the same for both within and without married sex: considering the desires and needs of both parties, honoring those desires and needs, and using wisdom, love, and grace in responding to them. An unmarried couple deciding whether or not to kiss before marriage should be, in my mind, making the same sort of decision with the same sort of sexual ethic as a wife contemplating turning down her husband for sex that night or debating whether to allow porn in the relationship.

Sex is profound. It affects us and our partners deeply, both positively and negatively. It reveals much about our needs and desires, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Being a sexual person is a normal, good thing. Not all the ways we express our sexuality are normal, good things either for us or for our partners. Saying no or yes to sex is a good thing only in accordance with sexual integrity and wholeness.

 

The False Spirituality of Those Who Deride “Me Time”

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In my formative days, I read lots of articles calling “me time” selfish. The job of a wife and mother was to give and give and give, these women insisted. Any unhappiness, resentment, or exhaustion about this endless giving was a sign of her pride and selfishness. She didn’t need a break. She needed to give more. The blessing of giving and giving and giving was the only satisfaction she needed in life, and the only respite she was allowed was one quiet time with Jesus — at the crack of dawn, of course.

This is spirituality at its falsest. This is the corpse-stinking spirituality that Jesus railed against when he called the Pharisees white-washed tombs. On the outside, this spirituality sounds so good: how selfless, putting everybody’s needs ahead of oneself! How pious, having all the needs you can’t ignore met by Jesus alone! How can anyone argue with a spirituality like that? But on the inside, it’s just death and decay: frazzled, resentful, tired, cranky, unfulfilled women, always striving and never satisfied.

The only reason they continue like this is because they think their sinful nature brings this dissatisfaction on themselves and that someday God will reward their selflessness.

They’re right that they bring most of this on themselves, what with their refusal to acknowledge their human limits. They’re wrong that God is passing out participation prizes for Most Burnt-Out Woman in the hereafter.

A False Humility

Christians get selflessness and humility wrong. Even C. S. Lewis’s famous correction misses the heart of humility: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”

Christian spirituality’s ultimate goal is not selflessness — that is, it’s not a negation or repudiation of self. It’s redemption, reunification, restoration: all things come together in shalom through Christ. Shalom means more than peace or the absence of chaos. It means wholeness. As one rabbi explains it, “In the Hebraic way of thinking, wholeness is the joining together of opposites. … [T]hat is the source of peace – the knowledge that all my opposing energies are somehow linked and part of a single whole.”

When Christ says he has come to give us life to the fullest, he is referring to this shalom. It’s a reordering. It’s a balancing. And in the context of shalom, humility is a reckoning of how my life affects others’ lives and how that in turn affects the shalom of the whole world.

A selflessness defined as unending giving is self-centered and proud. It ignores two important realities: you have limits, and you are not the driving force in other people’s lives.

A truly humble person recognizes and accepts her limits. She knows she is human. Just as she needs restorative sleep and good food, she needs meaningful self-care. While the anti-me-time articles bemoan the self-centeredness of today’s culture, frankly, I haven’t met a single person who practices intentional and meaningful self-care. We all seem to operate at half-power, eating junk, skipping sleep, burning the candle at both ends. We act like we can go forever, like illness and exhaustion and hunger and burn-out are just unfortunate little accidents instead of warning signs that we’re overextending ourselves.

From a purely utilitarian perspective, this is wasting our potential to serve others. We’ve all been there, pouring ourselves out as living sacrifices to one group of people, and then coming home to yell at our husbands and kids before crying ourselves to sleep.

From a perspective of shalom, this is about as unbalanced as we can get. We refuse to accept our mortality. We refuse to accept our bodies and minds as good things in need of love and stewardship, rather than annoying extremities getting in the way of real spirituality.

Besides, if we’re truly interested in other people’s well-being, constant giving is not everybody else’s default need.

There is a self-centeredness that says, “I am the center of the universe. Everyone must serve me.” But there’s also a self-centeredness that passes as humility: “I make the universe go round. I must serve everyone.”

Both share an inflated sense of importance in other people’s lives, while ignoring the actual impact we have on those around us. Giving indiscriminately often devalues others. It teaches us to see them as fundamentally helpless, in need of our particular help. It enables them to depend on us in areas they need to depend upon themselves. It takes away chances for them to develop skills and virtues. It’s critical for children and husbands to respect their mom and wife’s space and time: it teaches them generosity, patience, empathy, and, yes, selflessness.

A False Contentment

This is a really weird thing about humans: it’s sometimes harder for us to say no than to say yes. Again, while our culture may applaud self-care, few people practice it. Our understanding of love is codependent and conflict-averse. We’d rather give in to our kids’ and husbands’ demands than stick to our principles. It’s far easier to limp along with everybody else superficially happy than face their displeasure — or the reasons why it’s so hard for us to say no.

When women tell other women to give more as a solution to their burn-out, they’re peddling a false contentment. “It’s just the way it is,” they say. “This is just the season you’re in. Get over yourself and stop looking at other women’s green pastures.”

There’s a grain of truth in this. The world is broken, and life is hard and unfair, and sometimes there’s just nothing you can do about it.

But as Christians, our work is one of redemption. We must see our restlessness and groaning and “ill content” as signs that the status quo is not God’s best. We must be prepared to do the hard work of redeeming and re-balancing that everyday brokenness around us. This starts with our own imbalanced lives.

Often our constant giving and our “just accept it and move on” attitude mask the true issues we need to work on. Do we really need to get over our “selfish” desire that our husband cook dinner once a week, or do we instead need some work on our fear of holding our husband accountable? Do we really need to check that attitude that wishes we could go to the bathroom without tiny kids tumbling in after us, or do we need to deal with childhood abandonment issues that make it impossible for us to disappoint our kids?

While ignoring our emotions and pressing on is difficult, it’s often a cop-out to the harder but more rewarding work of redemption.

A False Gratitude

These anti-self-care women are like the Israelites in the desert. They moan for God’s provision (even if they won’t admit it) when they can just walk out of their tents and collect all the manna they want. They want the relief, but they aren’t willing to take responsibility for getting it.

We often don’t acknowledge how desperately we need something until we get it. We ignore our needs and burn ourselves out and don’t realize it until someone comes along and meets that need. That conversation or that day off or that time when hubby washed the dishes for us provide us a relief we didn’t even know we needed. Thank God for a hubby who occasionally washes dishes!

We treat the meeting of our needs as a luxury instead of a responsibility. We wait for met needs as something that falls into our tent instead of something God requires us to go out and gather.

And by “gather,” I don’t mean ignoring the needs and trying harder. I mean acknowledging our needs and adjusting the balance of our lives so that they consistently get met. God’s provision is miraculous, but in a mundane way that involves our everyday work.

I once read an article by a woman who claimed me time didn’t work because it made her want more time alone. It made her more resentful toward her husband because she was the only one putting the kids to bed and making the dinner and doing the dishes. It put her in a fouler mood. Her solution was to stuff her emotions and maybe get some Jesus time.

I can guarantee you that’s not working for her. Needs don’t go away. They resurface as something destructive — like resentment or health failure.

God made provision for those needs: the hard work of learning to say no, to set boundaries, and to require and accept help from her capable husband. It’s easy to pine away in our tent, stuffing our emotions, waiting for a miraculous provision to drop in our laps. It’s much more difficult to take responsibility for doing our part to meet those needs.

A False Understanding of Sin and Grace

Many Christians believe emotional, relational, and mental needs are sins in and of themselves. And because they are sins, they require censure and punishment. Stop being discontent, be grateful. Quit your whining, be kind. God’s grace is sufficient for you, so be happy about it. Give more. Try harder.

But all sin arises from brokenness. We’re grumpy because we’re tired. We’re discontent because we’re not living the way God desires for us. We whine because we don’t know how to convey our needs in an effective way.

Brokenness is not evil. Brokenness does not respond to punishment or censure. And God’s grace is not a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine of living life go down. God’s grace often is the nasty-tasting medicine, but it brings the spiritual life and spiritual health we most crave.

We wouldn’t expect a person on crutches to run at her full capacity. We wouldn’t yell at a cancer patient to get off her butt and do the dishes. We understand that broken and ill people operate on lower limits, and the only way they get better is to give them the time and space they need to heal.

This spirituality of stuffing your emotions and giving more is like demanding that a woman run on a broken leg. A spirituality that calls self-care “selfish” is like harassing a cancer patient for being sick.

Healing is not a walk in the park, to be sure. It involves waiting, inconvenience, tears, setbacks, unpleasant medicine, therapy, courage, and grit. It’s not all bubble baths and massages and shopping days at the mall (if any). But all healing takes understanding, time, and a break from serving others.

God’s grace invites us to acknowledge our brokenness in all its unloveliness. It allows us to prioritize our pain as meaningful and our healing as important. It allows us to take sick days, to slow down, and to ask others to help us in embarrassingly intimate ways.

A False Provision

Women who deride self-care as selfish say that the only thing they need is Jesus.

This is B.S.

Our physical needs can’t be met by the spiritual. Our emotional needs can’t be met by the spiritual. Our relational needs can’t be met by the spiritual. That’s not blasphemy. That’s how God designed us. We’re physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual creatures, with physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. And he has provided for those needs in numerous ways, often mundane, like working, being married, having friends, and developing into a mature adult.

The surprising thing about Christianity is yes, it’s a spirituality of giving, but it’s about God’s giving to us first. We love because He loved us. That order is important. The strong hold up the weak, the wise teach the foolish — and all strength and wisdom comes from God.

He is gentle with the broken. He values the burnt-out. His burden is easy. He prioritizes rest, to the point where he wrote it in stone: ON THE SEVENTH DAY YOU SHALL REST.

And as Jesus said, man was not created for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man.

You were not made for spirituality — that is, for endless days of sacrifice. Spirituality was made for you, to heal you, restore you. Out of that healing, you heal others.

If you mix up that order, you get the hypocritical religion of the Pharisees that Jesus decried. The worst part? It’s a false righteousness, because all of us are broken and none of us can be strong without true healing. It sounds good to ignore yourself and prioritize other people’s needs and desires by default, but that isn’t even a real possibility. At the worst, you will die in some capacity. At the best, you won’t experience the fullness of a whole, healed life.

If you ignore your emotional, mental, and relational needs, if you rally to push through without true rest and healing, they will resurface again and again — or live just under the surface, in a pit of anxiety and stress.

Listen to your resentment and burn-out and angry fights with your husband. They are symptoms, God’s invitation to heal. And yes, that will definitely involve some “me time.”

The Care and Keeping of an Introvert Spouse

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I noticed something weird about a year ago. All day, while I sat at home, I had a million different things buzzing in my head that I wanted to share with my husband. I was dying for someone to talk to. But by the time my husband walked through the front door, that part of me shut off with the click of the closed door.

“Hi,” I’d say.

“Hi,” he’d say back. “How was your day?”

I thought of all the million things I had wanted to share with him. There were too many. It was too hard to catch him up. I was too tired. “I don’t actually feel like talking about it.”

And that’s how our evening conversations went. Those three boring sentences, followed by parallel lives.

What on earth was wrong with me? never stopped talking. I always wanted to blab on in detail. There was no conflict or hostility in our relationship. My desire to connect just dried up the second I saw him.

Clearly, yeah, I was burnt out. Some sleep would help, for sure; some alone time. But I’d been alone all day. I’d had plenty of “me time.”

As we’re both introverts, my husband and I naturally made space for each other’s need to be alone and separate — so much space that we couldn’t easily reconnect. When we forced conversations and dates on a burnt-out soul, we just got more frustrated with each other.

After awhile, I realized that it wasn’t just solitude and separateness that we needed. The fix wasn’t indiscriminate together time. We needed meaningful self-care.

Sarah Bessey says self-care is what makes you come alive, “what fills the well of your soul.” It’s the opposite of self-comfort, which she describes as “numbing”: “the Netflix binges, the bad food, the laying on the couch for a day of reading” (though those can be soul-filling in moderation).

This was our problem: we spent our “alone time” doing numbing things, and came up empty during our “together time.”

Why Date Night Doesn’t Work for Introverts

Have you ever scheduled a date night and found yourself wanting to do nothing instead?

Scheduled date nights are made for extroverted couples — couples who easily come alive just by being together. Together time for burnt-out introverts ends up exasperating both parties: the burnt-out introvert feels irritated by the energy and talkativeness of the other spouse, and then the “filled and alive” spouse, ready to connect, feels rejected. It’s like the classic husband-wants-sex-but-wife-says-ugh-please-no situation, except with everything instead of just sex.

Actually, female sexual desire is a great way to look at the introverted couple dilemma. According to Emily Nagoski, author of Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, every individual (even the guys) possesses a sexual “brake” and a sexual “gas pedal.” Sexual brakes are things that turn off sexual desire, even if your sexual gas pedal is held to the floor.

That’s exactly what was happening with poor old introverted me: I was gunning my relational gas pedal, what with all the excitement to share my thoughts with my husband — but unbeknownst to me, other things were slamming the brakes. Emotional intimacy felt nearly impossible, and the thought of trying to fight those brakes exhausted me.

More Then Solitude

I’ve thought for a long time that simply being away from people would release those brakes. That’s what worked in college, when we started dating. But what I didn’t realize is that the college setting provided me the stuff that filled my soul in a way that sitting at home alone with a sink of dishes did not.

When I was away from my then-boyfriend during college, I was having amazing conversations with my girlfriends, thinking about interesting things, and involving myself in activities I loved. Those conversations, relationships, and activities filled me up, helping me come alive and ready to engage with my then-boyfriend.

Now that we’re married, lots of things I did hit the brakes on emotional intimacy: working full-time, the stress of adult life, housework, small talk with coworkers or hardly any interaction with adults at all, and, ironically for an introvert, spending too much time alone or alone with a non-communicative infant.

Thinking I just needed more alone time, I spent evenings mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or bingeing Netflix. Those things numbed me from the exhaustion I felt, but they weren’t restorative.

For both my husband and me, unregulated screen time is the thing we turn toward as a numbing agent. He plays his computer games, I putz around on the internet. It not only fails to fill the well of our soul, it saps our desire for intimacy even more. It messes with our headspace, to the point where all I’m thinking about is drama on the internet and all he’s thinking about is Fortnite. Great, we think. We live the lamest lives, and we don’t feel like sharing those lame lives with a lame person who just does lame stuff all day.

Trying to connect with burnt-out, boring person is a big emotional brake in itself — as is trying to share your burnt-out, boring self.

The biggest thing we’ve done for our marriage is prioritizing self-care — not self-comfort, but meaningful self-care. We prioritize it individually, and we prioritize it as a couple.

So far, that looks like a few different things:

(1) Before launching into a deep conversation or another meaningful attempt at emotional intimacy, we check in with the other spouse about how they’re feeling. “Are you able to have this conversation right now?” I ask a lot (because I’m the talker in our relationship). Sometimes my husband will say no, not really, he wants to do this thing right now. I know that he means he’s burnt out, and trying to focus on a really intricate and involved thing like his wife’s conversations (cough) will not fill his soul. Sometimes he does his own thing all evening, and I put off the conversation until the next day. Sometimes he does his thing for a while and emerges a little later, refreshed and ready to interact. On rare occasions, sometimes he’s engrossed in a project for most of the week.

I respect his assessment on what he needs and is able to give. If I really need to talk to somebody, I either communicate to him the importance of my needs and let him reassess, or I find somebody else to talk to.

(2) Even though I respect his final assessment of his needs, I’ll check in to see if the activity engrossing him is really filling his well, or just numbing his burn-out. I can tell the difference between long hours that result in a buoyant attitude, excitement, and productivity, and long hours that result in grumpiness, irritation, and even more exhaustion. Part of prioritizing meaningful self-care is holding each other accountable to actually do meaningful self-care.

(3) Even though I think it’s important for couples to hold each other accountable, take responsibility for filling my soul well. I know that I can’t function in relationship with my husband if I’m burning myself out with busyness or meaningless “me-time.” I’m (trying to be) really intentional about knowing my limits, setting my boundaries well before those limits, and doing the things that make me come alive. I count meaningful alone time — intentionally not doing housework or playing with the baby — as part of the wife-and-mother job description. If I’m trying to be the best wife, mom, and human I can be, pooh-poohing meaningful “me-time” as selfish seems absolutely irresponsible to me.

(4) On Thursdays, we turn off screens. It’s not a date night, per se, and we started it simply as a way to kick our screen addictions, but it’s evolved into a night where it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll connect well. Our headspace is free, there are no distracting people or things via the world wide web, and we naturally gravitate towards each other. It’s almost too easy: merely removing screens puts us in a mental space where we share deep conversation, quality together time, and lots of laughs. I look forward to Thursdays every week.

Of course, since it’s not strictly a date night, sometimes being untethered to screens results in working on separate projects — that is, we get in meaningful self-care. Either way, it’s a good mid-week reset.

(5) Our introvert date night is technically Wednesdays, but we don’t call it date night, and we’re not really consistent about it. We just do not have the energy to plan or do the stereotypical date nights — dress up, go out, get away, or even plan a more structured night in. That’s not our style and never has been. Instead of fighting that, we’re embracing it. We’ve been trying out a date night at our speed — watching documentaries and discussing them. Mostly it’s not working, and I fall asleep halfway, but it’s a good thought. We connect more on the weekends when my husband isn’t trying to squeeze in his refueling time between family time, dinner, chores, and sleep.

That’s the care and keeping of an introvert spouse.

My Divorce-Proof Marriage

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Me, trying to pretend I’m a strong, independent woman who doesn’t need a husband to sleep

I used to hate sharing a bed with anyone. The few unfortunate sleepovers and vacations I got stuck with strange bedfellows, I ended up with a sore back from trying to sleep as close to the edge as possible.

Then I got married, a choice that left me dependent on my husband for several crucial sleep needs: (1) a personal bed warmer; (2) a back support, especially during pregnancy, when the only way I could sleep was wedged between pillows and my husband; (3) a kind and groggy ear to pretend to listen to my middle-of-the-night ramblings or disturbing nightmares; (4) a monitor of the duration and intensity of my snoring, hitherto unknown before marriage; and (5) someone else for the baby to claw at when he woke at six in the morning.

I cannot sleep well without my husband. This is, of course, a pain when he goes on vacation for a whole week with his college buddies. But it’s the magnet that forces our marriage back together.

Consider: When I get angry at him for something that seems much more important and unfixable at 11:02 PM, and storm out of the bedroom, and declare, “I’m sleeping on the couch tonight!”, it’s only a matter of time before I remember that I can’t actually sleep on the couch tonight without my bed warmer, back support, listener, snore monitor, and baby scratch post. Then I am forced by sheer necessity to slink back to the comfy bed and admit my overreaction.

When another petty midnight argument goes down, and he grabs his pillow to go sleep on the couch, I can go a max of 30 minutes before conceding that I’m not good at the silent treatment between 10:30 PM-6 AM. I slump towards my couch-sleeping husband to make up. I need a warm bed.

When I huffily roll over to my side of the bed, daring to let the sun go down on my anger, I end up huffily rolling back over and begrudgingly admitting to my husband that okay, fine, I love him and can’t live (or sleep) without him and yeah, let’s not try to address outstanding marital issues at two in the morning any longer.

I never get any sleep when he’s away, but at least my marriage is divorce-proofed!

Happy Couples Don’t Give 110%

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No.

It’s one of the most important, life-giving words for marriage, I’m finding.

No, I can’t. No, I don’t want to. No, I don’t like that.

Whenever I wanted to say “no” to anyone, Paul’s words always popped into my mind: As much as it is possible with you, live at peace with everyone. For the past twenty-four years, I interpreted that as a challenge. I would pride myself on my flexibility, on my limitless tolerance, on my 110% giving. It was possible for me to give it all and then some.

When resentment and burn-out poked their heads up (and they did, often, and more often), I took that as a challenge too. I just needed a new perspective. I just needed an attitude adjustment. I just needed to root out whatever sin was causing me to resent the recipients of my love.

How low could I go? Watch me.

It was possible for me to live at peace with everyone, at all times, in all ways. I could be all things to all people. I could swallow my opinions and blur my boundaries and run into another person’s life and fix all their broken pieces for them.

It’s more blessed to give than to receive — but the longer I lived like this, the more the resentment and burn-out drained me. I never felt blessed. I felt used and used up. 

I was missing a key part of love that many Christians don’t recognize: As much as it is possible with you is not just a challenge. It’s an acknowledgement of reality: it’s not possible to live at peace with everyone. There are limits to who you are and what you can give. There are moments when you come to the end of yourself. You max out at 100%. That’s a fact.

I believe that resentment and burn-out are rarely signs that you need a new perspective, an attitude adjustment, or a quick pick-me-up. They are signs that you have reached your limit. They are reminders that you need to say no to whatever is draining you.

Christians are often idealists. I am, at least. I live in light of what I should be doing. But the reality is that I am a broken, finite human. There are things I ought to do but cannot do ever because of the limitations of being human, and there are things I ought to do but cannot do now because of the limitations of being an imperfect human. 

In an ideal world, all things being equal, I as a good Christian wifey should be happy and willing to have sex whenever my husband wants, listen to the intimate details of my husband’s latest Fortnite game, pick up that random thing at the store for him, and take on extra work to give him a break. But can I do that thing on this day, during this period of my life, without reaching the end of what I can give? No, not always, because all things are never equal at any given time.

Like all my other fellow female mortals, I get tired, sick, overwhelmed, scarred, pregnant, preoccupied, burnt out, and other negative adjectives because we are limited persons.

As much as it is possible with you, make your husband happy in the ways he wants. But sometimes it’s not possible. There needs to be space in the marriage for the wife to say no, I don’t want to or no, I can’t. Burn-out and resentment are signs that she’s reached her limit. She needs to say no for her own soul.

And she needs to say no for her marriage. 

We all subconsciously know we have limits. Unacknowledged limits have a way of expressing themselves in destructive ways — like failing to follow through on our yes because really, we wanted to say no. “Yes, of course!” my husband and I will tell each other (I sometimes with an added, “Ugh, do I have to?”) — and then, because we don’t want to, we never do what we agreed to do.

This causes far more harm than if we simply said “no” at the outset. Now we have depended on each other, and we didn’t hold up. We have trusted one another, and that trust is broken. We have relied on each other, and now we’re inconvenienced and scrambling to pick up the ball the other person dropped.

Over time, these little betrayals add up until we don’t feel like we can trust our spouse. My husband has a list of things I said yes to and never intended to get out of. We joke about them, as they’re small things — I promised to play Fornite with him, I said I’d read the book series he really got into, stuff like that, stuff that I thought was little but turned out to be a big deal to him.

We’re left wondering why on earth our spouse keeps falling through — does he not love me anymore? Is something wrong? Is he not telling me something?

And, of course, since we’re too “nice,” and “obligated” to keep saying “yes,” we respond to our spouse’s fears and confrontations with more false promises that we subconsciously don’t intend to keep: “Yeah, I know I should have done that. I’m sorry. I’ll do it after I finish this.”

It affects our own sense of self, too. We beat ourselves up because we don’t understand why we keep falling through on our yeses. We’re just so tired, and burnt out, and busy, and disinterested, and we don’t want to be. We want to do the things we said we’d do. We want to make our spouses happy. And then we can’t, and we wonder what on earth is wrong with us.

Because we’re so busy feeling guilty and resentful and burnt-out by saying yes to things we don’t want to do (whether we do them or not), we don’t have any energy or emotional space to do the things we can and want to do for our spouses, or to work on why we don’t want to or can’t do the things our spouses ask us to do.

A simple starting place for fixing this whole mess is to be honest with ourselves and our spouses: say no when we mean no and say yes when we mean yes. For some of us, this requires more introspection and self-awareness than we normally use, so familiar are we with tuning out our guilt, resentment, and burn-out.

I think a lot of us ignore our limits because acknowledging our limits creates conflict — within ourselves (“It’s just a little thing! I should do it! I’m a horrible person for not wanting to do this one little thing!”) and within our marriages (“He’s going to get mad at me for saying no. I don’t want to hurt his feelings!”).

We often try to head off those conflicts by holding out for our spouse to let us off the hook. I want my husband to notice that I said yes with a long sigh. I’m waiting for him to immediately retract his request: “Don’t worry about, honey! I can see you’re tired and burnt out.” I want him to sense when I’m hovering at zero so that I don’t have to risk disappointing him or hurting his feelings. I want him to mitigate my guilt and take responsibility for my burn-out.

It doesn’t work that way — and now I’ve said I’d do something I don’t want to do and I’m grumpy about my husband’s lack of mind-reading skills.

It’s a huge relief to both of us when I take responsibility for meeting my needs and let go of responsibility for his emotions. He is not responsible for knowing my feelings. I am. And I am not responsible for controlling his reactions. He is. My no may disappoint him, hurt him, or affect him negatively. I can’t change that, and I can’t ignore my limits either, as giving out of nothing means I end up giving him nothing and causing more hurt and resentment.

But saying no has some beautiful affects on marriage that I didn’t believe until I experienced them myself, again and again. As I’ve been listening to my limits and saying no, I’ve felt even more eager and energized to give of myself. A little but significant example: Ever since I’ve set limits on picking up after my husband, I’ve found myself happily clearing away all our plates after dinner just because I know it’ll make him feel good. Before, I would clear the plates to be nice, yes, but also subconsciously hoping he’d catch on to my niceness and reciprocate by picking up after himself since his love tank was now filled — or whatever.

Didn’t work. Result: more resentment.

Empowered to say no, I feel energized to say yes. Now that my no means no, my yes means yes. We trust each other more now that we know the other spouse feels the freedom to say yes or no and mean it. There’s less passive aggressiveness and resentment and fewer unspoken needs now that we encourage each other to take responsibility for our own energy levels instead of hoping the other spouse will notice we’re running on fumes.

The other day, my husband and I had planned to meet at the park after work to fish and spend time as a family. As I was leaving work, he texted me several times to ask if I could pick up some leaders (whatever those were). I checked in with myself. I instantly wanted to say “maybe” and then make up some excuse — sorry, not enough time, work went late — because I really didn’t want to and I didn’t want to him to feel bad.

If I said yes, I’d use up precious family time wandering through the fishing aisle in Meijer and driving an extra ten minutes. I’d feel stressed trying to figure out what leaders were and which ones my husband wanted. I’d feel resentful because of all of those things. I just wanted to get off work and spend time with my family. At the risk of inconveniencing and frustrating him, I texted back: “I don’t want to pick those up today. I’ll see you at the park soon!”

Turns out it was absolutely no big deal. He picked up leaders himself the next day, and we enjoyed a stress- and resentment-free time at the park. (Well, a relatively stress-free time — e.e. did puke all over himself and eat rocks, but, you know.)

It’s important in marriage to give what you can, for sure, even if it inconveniences you.

When it is in your power, don’t withhold good from the one to whom it belongs.

As much as it is possible with you, live at peace with everyone.

But sometimes it’s not in our power to give. Sometimes it’s simply not possible for us to make others happy in the way they want us to. We all have limits. When we acknowledge those limits, we regain the power and the possibility to love freely and sacrificially.