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.

 

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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. 

How Do I Get My Husband to Do Housework?!?! (Part 3: Giving Back Responsibility)

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While being unable to change your husband through your attitude or great communication skills may sound bleak, this doesn’t mean you’re doomed to handle everything by yourself. You still have power and control over your own actions. You can control what you will do and what you will not do. You can decide what you will tolerate and what you won’t tolerate. That is, you can give your husband’s responsibilities back to him, and you can reset your boundaries so that your husband’s irresponsibility hurts you as little as possible.

We can give our husbands back full responsibility for their actions: the mental burden of remembering and thinking about those tasks, the emotional response when it isn’t completed, and the hassle and consequences of dealing with undone tasks.

A great place to start is the responsibility of picking up after oneself. Even the smallest of children are responsible for cleaning up after themselves. It’s absolutely unacceptable for any individual, especially an adult, to delegate this most basic responsibility to someone else. A grown man is responsible for throwing his trash in the garbage, putting his laundry in the laundry basket, cleaning up the messes he makes, placing his dishes in the dishwasher, and putting away the things he takes out.

If you’re doing any of those things, stop picking up after your husband. Release the full mental, emotional, and physical responsibility of picking up to him. Don’t give a flying flip to his mess. Turn a blind eye. It’s his responsibility. Let him be bothered by it if and when he’s bothered by it.

And that’s key: you’re releasing the responsibility to him not as a manipulative move to get him to change but as a gift to yourself. The difference between releasing full responsibility and trying to manipulate him into changing is noted in your emotional response. If you’ve truly released responsibility over his actions, you’ll see the clothes he threw next to the laundry basket, shrug, and step over them. If you’re trying to manipulate him into changing, you’ll see those clothes, get agitated, and scream a long list of grievances at him when he comes home that night.

It’s not that it’s wrong to feel frustrated, embarrassed, maybe even a bit disdainful when you see your husband’s chronic irresponsibility. Feelings are feelings. But it’s a fine line between feeling and expressing legitimate feelings because that’s your emotional response, and feeling and expressing legitimate feelings because you still feel responsible for getting your husband to change.

For some women, it’s difficult to step over piles of laundry or see stacks of unwashed dishes. Those messes affect their emotional balance, or make taking care of their own tasks difficult. In these cases, not picking up after their husbands still leaves wives inconvenienced and suffering the consequences of their husbands’ irresponsibility.

Here’s where you get creative and come up with ways to disentangle yourself from the consequences and inconveniences of your husband’s bad choices. If he leaves trash, dirty dishes, or belongings strewn out in shared spaces and isn’t bothered by them, put them in a place where they will not bother you but will only bother him — his desk, his side of the bed, his lounge chair. If it’s really bad, you might move your belongings to the guest room so that you each have a space of your own to keep or not keep at your choosing without inconveniencing the other person.

This concept of disentangling yourself from your husband’s rightful consequences applies to things other than picking up after oneself. If you’re sick of scheduling your husband’s appointments, reminding him about them, and rescheduling them when he misses them, stop. If he doesn’t care enough about his health, his teeth, or his haircut, that’s sad and unfortunate, but it’s not your job to care for him. If he misses an important meeting because he failed to write it down, keep a planner, or check the planner regularly, that’s frustrating, but it’s his responsibility to face the consequences — whether it’s rescheduling, angering a friend, or missing out on an opportunity.

Does this sound cruel? It can look like cruelty if we’re used to believing the lie that a good wife will bend over backwards to take care of her husband. Our culture promotes the idea that men are helpless; that marriage is designed to make them better; and that good wives exist to do all the things those silly, dear men just plumb forget about.

This is ridiculous. Grown men are capable of doing everything their wives do for them. They may choose not to do everything their wives do for them, but that should be on them.

And on the receiving end, yeah, it certainly doesn’t feel great. But as a Formerly Horrible Homemaker, I can assure you that I only changed into a Fairly Decent Homemaker because my husband stopped picking up after me, and I was the only one living with the consequences of my mess.

Words, emotions, even guilt — none of those things changed my mind the way dealing with the consequences of my undisciplined life did.

Just as I took twenty-four years to feel the effects of my lack of discipline, our husbands have their own journey in becoming aware of their problem, feeling motivated to change, discovering the root of their issues, and finding the tools needed for their transformation. You can’t do any of that for him, and you’re not supposed to. 

We have to let our husbands make mistakes and feel the consequences of their irresponsibility. We have to let them make the journey toward responsibility in their own way and their own time. We can offer insight and support, but trying to change them will only cause us frustration and stall our husbands’ journeys. We also must relinquish the guarantee that our husbands will make the changes needed to be equal partners in household matters. Maybe they will never change. That’s heartbreaking, but it’s 100% their responsibility — which means you don’t have to feel responsible for it.

Obviously, the nature of marriage and living together means that wives will still be affected. Some irresponsibilities are so severe that a wife cannot disentangle herself from the consequences of her husband’s choices without separation. But I’m finding that in my particular circumstances, with a husband who cares about equality and my happiness, just freeing myself from the lies that drive me nuts, figuring out the real reasons why he doesn’t follow through, and giving back his responsibilities to him alone makes a huge difference in our marriage — and the household.

How Do I Get My Husband to Do Housework?!?! (Part 2: Why He’s Not Following Through)

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What with gender roles, enabling parents, uncommunicated expectations, and personal problems, sometimes your husband just doesn’t know what to do or how to do it. And wives aren’t immune to the same flakiness when it comes to certain tasks too.

There’s a lot to hash out when it comes to household responsibilities. These are the conversations I’ve found productive.

Decide what tasks need to be done, when they need to be done, how they need to be done, and who needs to do them. 

There’s often a big disconnect between husbands and wives about what even needs to be done, much less when and how. Your childhood households place emphases on different things. Different levels of tolerance for mess lead to one spouse pulling her hair, while the other doesn’t even notice a problem.

Upbringing makes a huge difference, too. Adults with enabling parents may not know even the first thing about what’s involved in running a home. Spouses who come from homes with gendered roles may be unaware of what’s involved in a “man’s job” or a “woman’s job.”

I used to scoff at the idea of homemaking being a full-time job. Scrub a couple of toilets, wash the dishes, throw in a load of laundry. No big deal. Once I became the full-time homemaker, however, I quickly sang a different tune. It’s not just household tasks. Scheduling appointments, staying on top of communications, finances, planning, organizing, shopping, researching, and learning new skills, as well as keeping up with regular chores, all involved more steps and time than I thought. Just when I thought I’d finally got on top of everything, another bill would come in, something would break, and the realization that I really needed to declutter the hall closet would come crashing down.

Just the mental load alone was enough to drive me batty.

All that to say, if your husband isn’t aware of what needs to be done, he won’t know to do it.

When and how those tasks should be done is another important conversation that involves laying out preferences. In any relationship, somebody is bound to be more bothered than the other about different sorts of things. After I yelled at my husband for being a slob, my visiting sister commented that my personal tolerance for mess would make me difficult to live with. Ouch. Were I living with my sister, would be the slob taking advantage of her neat ways.

It’s all about perspective and preference. There’s nothing intrinsically “worse” about leaving a full bag of recycling by the door for a couple of days if it’s not bothering anybody, and there’s nothing intrinsically “better” about taking out the recycling right away. You could make great arguments for and against those practices. Our differing preferences for what constitutes “clean,” “organized,” and “livable” are not necessarily better or worse than our husbands’.

We have to come up with timelines and standards that work for both spouses. This may involve letting go of some preferences, or agreeing to preferences you don’t really care about.

This solves the exhausting conversation we’ve all had: “I thought we agreed it was your job to take those boxes to storage!”

“I know! I’ll take them out eventually.”

“It’s been two weeks. Gosh, you are so lazy. I’ll just take them out myself.”

It’s not necessarily true that the offender is lazy or will never follow through on his promise — not anymore than we are, with all the things we procrastinate on. It could really be that he’s not bothered by the boxes as much as you are or is prioritizing other things.

If it matters to us when and how tasks get done, we need to communicate those preferences and agree on them. Otherwise, we need to give the other spouse space to take care of his responsibilities in the way and time he chooses — or do it ourselves without complaint.

The final component of this conversation is who does what. Permanent task delegation — transferring the mental and practical burden of doing certain tasks — has made a huge difference. I know exactly what I’m supposed to do, what he’s supposed to do, and what responsibilities we must hash out along the way.

This saves us from vague arguments over feeling like we do everything, as we can pinpoint exactly which task is causing problems, and we don’t exert any emotion or responsibility toward the things the other is supposed to do. If we want help with our task, the other spouse is usually willing to contribute, but the responsibility to delegate specific tasks within that area lies squarely with the person to whom that area belongs.

These sorts of conversations are especially key for stay-at-home moms married to working husbands. Since we’ve been dealing with the home and kids all day, we intimately know the routines, the needs, the finished tasks, and the priorities of the household. When our husbands walk through the door, they may feel out of their depth and uncertain where to begin, just as we would if we walked into their workplaces and were expected to know what, when, and how to do things. Since they haven’t been stepping over the pile of dirty laundry all day, it will likely not occur to them to notice, much less make it an urgent priority.

Even if you’re not a stay-at-home mom, it’s important to make our homes a truly egalitarian environment where you welcome your husband’s preferences as well as his participation. Sometimes I see wives complaining about their husbands’ lack of involvement while making it clear that they view their home as the woman’s domain — insisting on certain decorating styles, criticizing how husbands do things, keeping the home off limits to the husband’s projects, or relegating his “own” space to a den or garage.

If our husbands have no say in how the home looks, operates, or is used, they’re not going to take responsibility. Our husbands can’t feel a sense of ownership if we expect them to do everything we find important on the timetable we find important in the way we think is best, with no room at the table for their preferences. Micromanagement discourages responsibility. 

We all naturally fail to notice or ignore tasks that aren’t our responsibility. Deciding who does what and making space for both of your preferences for when and how those tasks are accomplished eliminates this problem.

Put yourself under the mental load of the other person.

The first breakthrough in my marriage surrounding household tasks was the concept of “the mental load.” The mental load is all the emotion, mental effort, and ultimate responsibility it takes to manage things. It’s not a big deal to physically get in the car, drive to Meijer, and buy things off a shopping list. But making the shopping list? That involves knowing what we have and don’t have; deciding what we want to eat; figuring out the ingredients necessary for those recipes; factoring in diet, nutrition, and picky eaters; perhaps planning around the sales at different stores; writing it all down; and choosing when, where, and who’s going shopping. That’s the mental load.

This is what’s so aggravating when husbands say, “Just tell me what to do! I want to help.” When wives are burnt out, they don’t need help with the physical tasks. They need someone to shoulder the mental load — which is why I think it’s so important to divide up specific tasks and their mental loads between each spouse.

Usually, the mental load of everything falls to the woman, and it’s hard for husbands to even understand what their wives are talking about because they’ve never encountered the pressures and expectations society puts on women.

I explained this concept to my husband multiple times, and it didn’t seem to stick. He still failed to contribute to the household in the ways we agreed, or understand how much his failure stressed me out. I chalked this up to laziness and lack of care for me.

One day, he complained about the mental load he was bearing alone. I almost laughed in his face, but asked him to explain what he meant. He listed a whole bunch of things — mostly related to finances, like investments, savings, planning for large purchases, insurance — for which he alone shouldered the mental burden. He reminded me of the many times he’d asked me to look up something in order to help him make a big decision, and I’d failed to do the research I’d agree to do, or contribute in a meaningful way. He felt overwhelmed, alone, and frustrated with my flakiness.

Finding myself in his shoes as the “lazy, uncaring” spouse, I realized our promises to take responsibility for a task often failed because of the learning curve the task required. We meant well, and we agreed that it was fair to split responsibilities, but the mental load was too overwhelming. It was far easier to face a spouse’s wrath than put in the effort to learn, especially if we knew the other person would cave and do it for us. After all, we didn’t really care about the task in the first place.

When I saw my own tendency to shirk responsibilities with which I was unfamiliar, I gave him the same grace and understanding I wanted him to show me.

It might not be the learning curve that’s holding your husband back from taking responsibility. Maybe it’s perfectionism, depression, discouragement, other marriage or personal issues, or just confusion about what’s involved in the task he agreed to. Continuing to harp on him for failing to follow through without talking about the underlying reasons will be unproductive and frustrating for both of you.

I also realized that communicating preferences, understanding where the other spouse was coming from, and agreeing on a task list would not magically get us to follow through on what we said we would do. It was a necessary start, but the real change came when we put the tasks back on the responsible party.

Check back tomorrow for the last installment of this series!

Meaningless Marriage Advice: “Put God First”

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At every wedding, I hear marriage advice that sounds Christian-y and spiritualish, but makes no intelligible, practical sense.

The advice I hear most often, taking up space somewhere in every Christian wedding ceremony, is this: “Put God first in your marriage.” That, we’re told, is the secret to a lasting, happy marriage.

What the heck does this even mean?

“Putting God first in your marriage” implies a dichotomy, even a competition, between loving God and loving your spouse. Does “putting God first” mean talking to God before talking to your spouse when you start or end the day? Does it mean spending more time with God than with your spouse? Does it mean heeding God’s call to ministry at the expense of your marriage? In what practical way should you “put God first” ahead of your spouse?

Oddly enough, marriage sermons never give specifics on what “putting God first” looks like, other than vaguely “prioritizing” your relationship with God. But it’s one thing to say that your relationship with God impacts your marriage; it’s another thing to imply a conflict between your marriage and your spiritual life. It’s one thing to say that your relationship with God is important; it’s another to say that your relationship with God is the key to a happy, lasting marriage.

I understand the concept of how a strong relationship with God can and does affect your interactions with your spouse. If you find peace, strength, grace, and joy in your relationship with God, you can be peaceful, strong, gracious, and joyful in your relationship with your spouse.

But that is an if. Sometimes the transference of of peace, strength, grace, and joy drawn from your relationship with God runs into a hiccup when applied to marriage with another frustrating human being. Strong Christians still have marital struggles, whether self- or spousal-afflicted. Strong Christians still get divorced or live unhappily together. Some strong Christians are utterly nasty, unloving people, or good people with toxic or dysfunctional relational skills. Prayer, Scriptural study, knowledge of doctrine, good character, and a strong relationship with Jesus don’t always give you a leg up in figuring out sexual dysfunction or communication differences or how to split the chores equally.

Even Christians with an admirable spiritual life have blind spots, wounds, and faulty ideologies that can make marriage difficult. And non-Christians have happy marriages without any relationship with the Christian God whatsoever.

It’s objectively not true that simply having a productive relationship with God guarantees a happy, lasting marriage. It’s objectively not true that you cannot have a happy, lasting marriage without a productive relationship with God. When Dr. John Gottman created scientific studies on happy couples, “putting God first” was not a universal factor among them.

My guess is that the advice of “putting God first” as an almost silver bullet to marriage stems from a simplistic view of spirituality and human need. As I already said above, devotion to God, whether in the form of spiritual disciplines or an emotional connection, can do wonders in transforming the self into a spouse more suited to love and more enduring in inevitable marriage problems.

But just as the Bible does not and cannot give the specific medical advice needed to cure cancer, just as a relationship with God doesn’t guarantee prosperity, just as adherence to Christian principles and spiritual practices doesn’t stave off starvation, “putting God first” (whatever that means to you) does not, cannot, and will not solve marital problems alone. Spirituality may not even be a major component of either the problem or the solution.

There are relational and pyschological wounds that require more technical and marriage-specific help than “putting God first” requires. Acknowledging this doesn’t deny the importance of spirituality or a relationship with God, but it puts more emphasis on identifying the actual issues causing problems in the marriage and thus the solutions to them. Plus, it acknowledges the obnoxious but unavoidable reality that often the faithful suffer and the unfaithful prosper, and that the faithful are imperfect and broken too.

Unless a wedding sermon defines and qualifies “putting God first” with the above conditions, I consider this pithy little phrase just another well-meaning but meaningless bit of marriage advice.

Setting Boundaries with Children

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“Do no harm, take no sh*t.” — my new parenting philosophy, via Kay Bruner

I get stressed over hearing my baby cry or seeing a student upset after I enforce a limit. Am I being cruel and unresponsive, I fret, or am I being the calm, confident leader children need to feel secure?

One way I’ve been processing that question is by thinking in terms of boundaries. In an interview on Parenting Forward with Cindy Wang Brandt, Kay Bruner describes boundaries as “what’s me and what’s not me.”

I personally struggle with taking responsibility for children’s emotions. If my baby cries, I feel guilty. I feel like a failure. I feel like I need to stop his crying since, somehow, I caused the crying. I feel like I need to make the crying stop at any cost, including my sanity. Parenting success means my baby is tear-free as much as possible.

This is an impossible parenting goal. It’s impossible precisely because I am not responsible for my baby’s emotions. 

It’s important that we meet our children’s needs and hear their desires. Not hearing desires or not meeting needs disrespects children. But meeting every desire leads to child-centric homes and frazzled parents. In order to avoid any of those parenting pitfalls, we must distinguish between needs and desires, and even further, identify their specific need.

Take the age-old situation of moms being unable to use the bathroom alone.

When your two-year-old is pounding on the bathroom door screaming for you to let her in, you might determine that her real need has nothing to do with you in the first place; she may be hungry, tired, bored, or upset from you telling her she couldn’t eat pennies.

But maybe she really does need time with Mommy. Nevertheless, her legitimate need for quality time with Mom does not mean you need to fulfill her desire to be with Mom right then in the bathroom in violation of your legitimate desire for privacy.

In this situation, nobody’s desire is “wrong.” It’s okay for you to want to go to the bathroom by yourself. It’s okay for her to want to be in the bathroom with you right then. It’s okay for her to express extreme frustration that she’s not getting what she wants. It’s okay for you to feel annoyed at her for feeling that way.

“What’s me”: holding the limit of using the bathroom by yourself, expressing your emotions in a healthy way, acknowledging and legitimizing her needs and desires, and meeting the correctly identified need once you’re done in the restroom.

“What’s not me”: preventing her from feeling upset, preventing her from expressing that upset, or being responsible for stopping her emotions.

“I’m not letting you come into the bathroom with me. I want privacy,” you tell her through the locked door. “I hear that that makes you upset. It makes you feel like crying and yelling. It’s okay to feel upset. I will come be with you when I am done using the bathroom.”

Maybe she stops crying and tearfully says, “Okay.” Great! Maybe you find her sitting quietly outside the door waiting for you. Awesome.

Or maybe she continues to scream. Maybe she even starts kicking the door in response to your calmly set limit. That’s okay too. All outcomes are parenting successes, because you set the boundary and held to it. You did what you were supposed to do. You were never responsible for making her emotions stop in the first place. 

Janet Lansbury reiterates that our responsibility is usually just listening, accepting, and acknowledging our children’s emotions without fixing them:

Instead of feeling responsible for preventing or fixing crying, we first accept it so that we can understand and accurately address what is being communicated.

Instead of perceiving feelings as a call to action, we work on staying calm and listening so our child can share and feel truly heard. …

Instead of acting out of fear, we lead with trust in our child’s basic competency.

This is why it’s important to set boundaries with our children: without boundaries, we disrespect their basic competency to navigate respectful relationships.

Without boundaries, we model an anxious, exhausting, unsustainable relationship.

Without boundaries, we teach them that it’s other people’s job to prevent their emotions and solve their problems, a textbook lesson in co-dependency.

Without boundaries, we imply that having emotions is undesirable, that a good life involves no tears, no inconveniences, and no disappointments.

It’s not about being a “tough” parent. It’s not even about putting on your own proverbial oxygen mask in order to help your child strap on his. It’s about supporting your child through the hard and necessary process of developing healthy relationships with others and with his own emotions.

In order to teach him respect for others, he needs to respect your needs and desires. In order to teach him respect for himself, he needs to see you respecting your needs and desires.

Of course, relationships are give and take, even parent/child relationships. Sometimes you say, “I’m not reading the Peppa Pig book again tonight because if I read it one more time, I will literally go insane.” And sometimes you read that Peppa Pig book again even though you will literally go insane.

Obviously, children require our support, especially the younger they are. They are more immature and less self-regulated, easily overwhelmed by their needs, desires, and the emotions accompanying them. If we ignore their bids for attention and support, we cripple them emotionally. But children are not helpless, and they rarely need our help in the form of fixing or eliminating their problems.

Yesterday, a student was building a spinner exclusively out of black Brain Flakes. He needed just a few more to complete his spinner, but another friend had the last three black Brain Flakes. She declined to part with them.

“Ugh, I want the black ones!” he cried.

“You could use different colors,” another friend suggested.

“No, I wanted it all black!” He looked to me, hoping I’d use my Magical Teacher Powers to force his friend into sharing the black ones.

I really wanted to. I knew how frustrating and disappointing it was to spend so much time creating something only to have it fall through. I could easily demand that his friend hand over the pieces, getting rid of the problem and his negative emotions in one fell swoop. It might spare me the annoyance of defusing a tantrum, too. But it’s important to me that children share willingly (another type of boundary) and that students not use my authority to coerce their friends into giving them what they want.

Trying to support him through this problem, I said, “That’s too bad that she won’t share with you. You could either use different colors like your friend suggested, or if you want your spinner to be all one color, you could start over with a new color.”

He sighed, visibly upset. Then he perked up and said, “I’m going to make an orange spinner!”

And he did.

Spanking Didn’t Traumatize Me, and I Still Won’t Do It

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I’m just going to say it: spanking goes against everything I believe as a parent, educator, and human being. Even as a kid, I felt in my gut that spanking is unethical, harmful, and a violation of children’s rights.

Oh, great. One of those special snowflakes claiming that spanking traumatizes children. Look, what’s wrong with kids today is that they need a good whipping. None of this time out, trying to reason with them stuff. You can’t reason with kids. The only thing they listen to is a swat on the hiney. My parents spanked me when I was growing up, I spanked my kids, and you know what? None of us were traumatized. In fact, we all grew up to be respectful, well-behaved people. I’m glad I was spanked.  

This is many people’s experience: spanking is either neutral or positive. It didn’t harm them, it didn’t harm their kids, and they credit spanking with their development as decent human beings. Even though the American Psychological Association claims there’s a strong case against any benefits to spanking, these pro-spanking anecdata are compelling enough for many spanked children to grow up and spank their own kids.

And I’ll be frank: I don’t consider myself traumatized from spanking. I view it as unnecessary, ineffective, and deeply hurtful, but not traumatic. I don’t credit spanking with making me who I am today, but I don’t credit spanking for making my adult life problematic.

The thing is, spanking doesn’t need to be traumatic in order for it to be wrong.

The idea of purposefully hitting a child with a hand or an object, the idea of intentionally causing pain, goes against my ethical beliefs. “Do no harm” is a mantra of mine that of course extends to the vulnerable children under my care. Yes, (emotional) pain happens during discipline of any sort, but I believe it is never appropriate to intentionally cause pain, whether emotional or physical, or to leverage pain as punishment.

It’s such a slippery slope. When does spanking become hitting, beating, violence, or abuse? When it leaves a mark? What if you meant well and it leaves a mark accidentally? When it causes too much pain? Why is too much pain bad if pain is the thing that turns your child into a good human? And how do you determine too much pain? When your child cries or begs you to stop? Isn’t the whole point to cause them enough pain to get a strong emotional response so that they never do wrong again?

Spanking advocates often point to the emotional state of the parent as the thing that draws the fine line between appropriate and inappropriate corporal punishment. Never spank in anger is the rule.

Personally, I find it downright chilling that any loving parent could calmly and quietly spank their children, especially if the child is crying out in pain. I find it less disturbing that a parent would strike their child out of anger and frustration, then realize with horror what they did. Instead, with this model, parents make a calculated decision to inflict physical pain upon their children, with no remorse whatsoever.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t loving parents spanking their children. Of course there are. The overwhelming majority of parents spanking their children do so out love and fear for their child’s future, not because they enjoy seeing their child suffer. But that makes it all the worse: their love and empathy, their strong parental instinct to protect their child from harm, gets turned off and replaced with a conviction that physically harming their child is the most loving thing to do. This is one instance where that niggling mom guilt is right on the money.

On a personal note, I am not perfect enough as a mother to have spanking in my discipline arsenal without risking a harmful outburst. I am not always patient, kind, or self-controlled. This is why I cannot have corporal punishment of any kind as an option, even as a last resort. I can’t risk spanking my child in anger, accidentally hitting too hard, or unknowingly harming the innocent party if I misinterpret a negative interaction. Instead of allowing myself the possibility of spanking, I actively work on safer, gentler approaches.

Lauding physical harm as an ethical method of discipline is an anachronism in today’s world. We decry excessive police violence. We are appalled at anyone in a position of authority using their position to physically correct a subordinate. We expect children not to hit their siblings and friends. We don’t beat even convicted criminals.

Yet it’s tolerated and encouraged for parents to hit, thrash, beat, whoop, smack, pinch, whack, swat, or slap their children, their babies, the smallest, most defenseless, most powerless people.

Even if the line between spanking and abuse weren’t so thin, even if the danger of physically or emotionally bruising children weren’t so present, I still wouldn’t spank my children.

There’s another way.

It irks me, actually, when parents say things like, “Spanking is the only way to get them to listen.”

As a teacher, I can’t tap into the instantaneous submission that spanking brings. I must work to gain respect and authority through other, gentler means. It’s tough, but it works.

And I didn’t work with angels all the time. I worked with difficult children. You bet I sometimes stood shaking in frustration, thanking God through gritted teeth that spanking wasn’t allowed or else that kid would be hurting right now. I am not an angel myself.

But if teachers can keep a large class of students in some semblance of order without spanking, parents can handle their handful of children too without resorting to physical harm.

If spanking really were the only way to get to the hardest, most defiant kid to listen, I can understand the parenting philosophy of using spanking as a last resort punishment. But I know from experience that spanking is not the only way, and that it is the very opposite of more effective ways of disciplining.

And if there’s another way, why wouldn’t I choose an option that didn’t involve physically harming my children — even if spanking didn’t cause trauma?