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.

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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?

A Definition of Egalitarian Parenting

In interpreting Ephesians 5:21-6:9, egalitarians argue that the gospel erases hierarchical lines between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. All are equal before Christ. All mutually submit to one another. And this makes sense — what qualitative difference do Jews have over Gentiles to make them spiritually superior? What do men have over women, or one adult over another?

But in the middle of all these adult equals, Paul addresses the parent/child relationship: “Children, obey your parents. Fathers, do not exasperate your children.”

Does the gospel change the nature of the parent/child relationship? Does it, in fact, elevate children to the level of equals, tearing down the authoritative hierarchy between parent and child?

I’ve thought about this. It makes no sense that the gospel would leave the parent/child relationship unaffected and untransformed, but children as equals to their parents? The parent/child relationship is the only relationship out of the three that Paul addresses here where there is a qualitative difference between the two parties.

Adults possess more wisdom and experience, and are explicitly charged with guiding their children. Children eat Tide pods, leave their chores undone, and get caught up in peer pressure. Due to their immaturity, children cannot stand alone as equals in the way a slave or a wife can. How could the gospel break down the hierarchy of parent over child in a way that still allows a parent to fully guide, care, and take responsibility for their children?

After thinking about this, I would argue that egalitarian parenting ought to treat the parent/child relationship how complementarians explain their marriages: equals with different roles, with the parents laying down their lives in service to their children and children receiving the instruction and guidance of their parents, all under the higher guidance of God.

Let me provide a contrasting example first.

A Non-Egalitarian Approach: Authoritarian Parenting

In many so-called “Biblical” parenting paradigms, the point of parenting is maintaining a strict hierarchy — even without using those exact words. Parents are unquestioningly at the top, dispensing their views and desires. Children are unquestioningly at the bottom, obeying their parents’ every word as law and meeting their parents’ every desire.

In this paradigm, the key virtues of childhood are instant, cheerful, unquestioning obedience, and respect and honor toward parents. “Because I said so” is a valid and often-repeated justification for whatever the parent requests. There is no recourse for the child beyond that — no appeal to reason, emotion, or another authority. Parents are further encouraged to make their word law and be consistent, even if their initial demand was unreasonable. After all, the point is maintaining an appearance of control at all costs.

Parents train children to come on command. Defiance or disrespect are the worst of all offenses, punishable by painful and humiliating strikes across the buttocks or other shaming tactics. Parents are encouraged to hit the defiant child until her will breaks. “Talking back,” whining, even trying to explain one’s point of view — any emotion or communication that doesn’t show cheerful compliance — is not allowed, and also qualifies a child for any sort of painful, embarrassing, or harsh punishment the parent deems necessary.

According to this parenting model, children owe parents respect and honor simply because their parents are their parents. No matter how unreasonable, unkind, or even unlawful their parents’ actions may be, children are required to respond with superhuman respect. Natural feelings of frustration, injustice, fear, or hurt are interpreted as disrespect and a threat to the parents’ authority. Maintaining the hierarchical system is what’s important here — the system of parental authority and a child’s compliance is what produces happy, well-regulated, respectful adults, regardless of the way that system is implemented or maintained.

Since the desired outcome of this parenting style is the maintenance and adherence to a strict hierarchical system, parents view their children’s actions as a direct commentary on their parenting. Since controlling another human being is impossible without utterly breaking her spirit, this inspires a constant, fearful insecurity in one’s parenting that shames parents. It also justifies even stronger reactions to their child’s misbehavior, since parents are told that their child’s behavior is something well within a parents’ control.

If their children are for the most part obedient and respectful, they feel that they have succeeded in parenting and take the credit for raising well-behaved kids. If their children struggle with emotional outbursts, defiance, or rebellion (whether real or perceived), parents feel like failures. With their own reputation at stake, parents often find amusement and vindication in seeing their child as embarrassed, disrespected, or hurt as they feel.

Even if parents feel inclined to give themselves or their kids a more generous pass, critics will blame and shame parents when their children throw tantrums in the grocery store or can’t sit still in church. And parents dare not justify these breaches of obedience with reasons like, “She was tired and hungry.” It’s expected that parents keep their children reined in and respectful at all times, no exceptions, no excuses.

It’s no wonder that many children under these hierarchical rules experience abuse of all kinds and sometimes even death. And many parents feel frustrated, defeated, and inadequate due to the impossible demands of breaking the spirit of individual little humans who have their own reasons, opinions, and feelings.

I would argue that this hierarchical structure of parenting is the most predominant understanding of the parent/child relationship today. It might take the more extreme forms of come-when-I-whistle servitude, but it most often appears as “common sense” parenting that interprets most misbehavior as disrespect, which only a strong parental hand (that is, shame, punishment, and spanking) can break.

If you take a look at some of these images, you’ll see what I mean:

This isn’t to say that respect isn’t a virtue or that children shouldn’t listen to their parents. But just as complementarians zero in on “wives, submit to your husbands” and interpret “husbands, love your wives” as authority over their wives, this hierarchical view of parenting is all “children, obey your parents” and no “fathers, do not exasperate your children.”

If we look at child development, we’ll see that many of the underlying assumptions about and responses to children and their (mis)behavior often exasperate children. I’ve used my research into child development and the theology of relationships to craft a new, egalitarian paradigm of parenting.

Toward an Egalitarian Understanding of Parenting

In egalitarian parenting, children are fundamentally human and thus entitled to the same respect, understanding, and influence adults accord to other adults. This is the key difference between authoritarian parenting and respectful parenting: while respectful parents do guide with authority, they do so not to maintain a hierarchy but to help children regulate their emotions and actions in accordance with their own beliefs and interests.

Instead of demanding unquestioning obedience, egalitarian parents foster self-regulation. This is the ultimate virtue of egalitarian parenting: self-regulation. This allows space for children’s questions, explanations, and differing opinions. This allows for parents to be wrong and children to be right about their own experiences and emotions. In short, the pursuit of self-regulation allows children to be independent of their parents rather than reflections or servants of their parents.

Since children intrinsically deserve the same sort of respect that adults do, egalitarian parenting requires the parent to follow every command in Scripture about interacting with other humans: doing unto others as we would have them do to us, responding to anger with gentle words, outdoing one another in showing honor, living with understanding, being patient with the weaker ones among us, responding with blessing when we are wronged instead of revenge.

Egalitarian parenting decriminalizes children’s — and parents’! — misbehavior. The parent/child relationship is a relationship dependent on mutual respect, not on an authoritative system to obey. This means that if a child loses her temper and shouts, “I hate you!” at her mother, the damage is relational and requires a relational — not a punitive — response.

What do we do when an adult loses her cool and says something you know she doesn’t mean? We maintain our cool. We deescalate the situation. We calmly and firmly express our hurt and/or walk away from the situation if we’re getting upset ourselves. We model the kind of behavior we want the other person to emulate, and eventually, ashamed, the other person calms down, apologizes, and the conversation often gets at the heart of what’s really going on. 

And if we do respond back in anger and shout something equally rude? Well, in egalitarian parenting, we’re not trying to maintain an impossible facade of rigid authority. Our authority is maintained by mutual, organic respect, not imposed obedience, which means we can apologize or change our minds if we said something unkind or issued a consequence that isn’t fair, and not worry that our children will lose respect for us.

This relieves a huge burden from the parents’ shoulders: they are not responsible for controlling their children, an impossible task. They are merely responsible for controlling their own behavior and maintaining their own end of the relationship — a powerful, magnetic force that draws wayward children into better ways of behaving. 

Egalitarian parenting isn’t passive parenting, however. In a relationship of equals, personal boundaries are key. Parents are allowed to be human and to set their own boundaries when they’re tired, annoyed, hurt, or inconvenienced. If a toddler continues to hit his mother, the mother is fully within her right to set the toddler down and walk away until he can use gentler hands. If a teenager refuses to be responsible with her tasks, her father is fully within his right to not save her from the consequences — unwashed clothes, a messy room, missed deadlines. But the consequences are natural, not punitive, and not meant to reestablish a parent’s hierarchical authority over their child or shame their child into compliance. 

Again, this is the key difference between authoritarian parenting and egalitarian parenting: any consequence or parental response is meant to aid the child in regulating herself and restoring their relationship, not reminding the child who’s boss and wrestling them into begrudging compliance. In egalitarian parenting, parents are not maintaining a hierarchical system. They are maintaining a mutually respectful relationship where parents seek to serve and build up the child into mature independence. 

In another post, I will break down some typical examples of authoritarian parenting and suggest more egalitarian, respectful ways to firmly and compassionately handle children’s undesirable behavior.

But How Do You Make Decisions?!

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Real-life footage of how we often argue

Complementarians incredulously ask egalitarians, “If someone doesn’t get the final say, how do you make decisions as a couple?”

This question amuses me, because I can’t imagine how else to make decisions than by discussing our opinions on equal footing and coming up with a decision on which we both agree.

It’s not always easy, of course. Sometimes I’ve wished decision-making were as simple as having the husband step in and call the shots. But there’s intimacy and oneness in making a tough decision together, with both spouses equally influencing and fully supporting the outcome. There’s wisdom, too, as two brains are better than one alone.

How do we egalitarians do this magical thing of making decisions together? It’s very similar to how most complementarians make decisions: we discuss, we listen, we look at things from all angles, we try to come to acceptable compromises or alternatives.

The only difference is that when egalitarians reach gridlock, the husband doesn’t say, “Well, looks like we can’t agree. I’m taking it from here.” The only difference between a complementarian couple making a decision and an egalitarian couple making a decision is that egalitarians keep going.

In my experience, and the experience of other egalitarian couples more seasoned in marriage than I, the perfect solution lies just beyond that huge bump in the road where you’re convinced you will never, ever agree.

Okay, but what does it really look like?

It kind of looks like an extended discussion that can span anywhere from a whole day to years, along with much personal reflection that seeks to understand one’s spouse’s position, as well as one’s own, with as much respect, charity, and open-mindedness as possible. 

Joint Decisions

When it comes to joint decisions — decisions that significantly impact both spouses — we generally yield to the person least comfortable with the decision. This isn’t something we decided on in writing; it’s just something we do, and it’s worked for us so far.

Right now, my husband is excited about buying a house. I am not. He would be happy moving this year. I would not be. Our mutual submission to each other looks something like this:

On my part, I listen respectfully when Erich tells me about a new house. I try to show genuine interest and understanding about where he is coming from. I go to showings of houses. I try to remain open-minded. I try to make sure that my objections to moving are reasonable and fair, not about being contrary or getting my own way.

On my husband’s part, he hears me and tries to understand my perspective. He does not drop the discussion or hide his enthusiasm, but he doesn’t push the issue too far so that it comes between us or gets disrespectful. He knows that since I am not comfortable with buying a house right now, we will not be buying a house until I am comfortable. He also knows that I am happy to entertain his thoughts and opinions.

For other joint decisions, sometimes we yield to the person most passionate and/or opinionated on a subject. One of our first arguments was (of course) about Erich leaving the toilet seat up. Unused to sharing bathrooms with boys, I’d tumbled into the toilet bowl a couple of times. It obviously wasn’t fair that I had to put down the toilet seat whenever I wanted to go to the bathroom. The toilet seat must stay down at all times! Then Erich shot back that it wasn’t fair that he had to put the toilet seat up every time, either.

An impasse.

I was so stunned with this excellent point that I’ve been putting down the toilet seat ever since.

Now that I think about it, Erich is much more opinionated about smaller household decisions — which brand to use, what foods to eat or not eat, how to fold socks — and since I don’t care, or don’t care as much, I shrug and do it his way. Why not?

For joint decisions that require more expertise, we generally delegate to the person more capable, interested, and/or available.

For instance, Erich handles long-term financial issues (retirement savings, the budget, investments, etc.), and I handle issues surrounding childcare and education. We do research, we come up with plans, and we present those options to the other spouse. The final decision still lies in both of our hands, but the mental load of sifting through the millions of different options rests on only one person’s shoulders. The more expert party might ask the other spouse to research a particular point or familiarize themselves with basic principles in order to make a more informed decision, but only one spouse does the mental heavy-lifting.

It’s kind of like the Congressional/Presidential relationship: one spouse is Congress, debating the options and presenting the final legislation; the other is the President, who gets veto power and can send the legislation back to Congress for further review.

That’s for joint decisions.

Personal Decisions

When it comes to personal decisions, we strive for “transparent independence.”

It’s difficult to have a truly “personal” decision in a marriage; our personal lives directly and indirectly affect the other spouse. But Erich and I agree that while it’s important to run personal choices past the other spouse, the responsibility for making some decisions lies with the person it most affects. 

We firmly believe it’s important to maintain individual autonomy in these matters. We need opportunities to fail, succeed, change, and respond to our own personal needs and desires within a supportive relationship. Exercising authority over the spouse, no matter how benevolent (as in complementarianism) or informal (as in constantly nitpicking and henpecking), is disrespectful and unnecessary in a relationship between two adults.

Further, we need opportunities to see, understand, and respect that other people can do things differently than we do. It’s not necessary to be uniform in order to be united! [1]

Issues about how we spend our free time, how we spend smaller amounts of money, how we parent, how we practice our faith, how and when we perform our household duties, what job we get, etc., all fall under “personal decisions” to us.

We’ve always run everything past each other, even if it’s not technically the other spouse’s decision or doesn’t affect them that much. “Do you mind if I spend the evening playing games with my friends?” “Would you care if I bought some snacks during the grocery run?” “I’m spending over a hundred dollars on this particular thing. Is that okay with you?”

This isn’t about permission. It’s about transparency and accountability, and an acknowledgement that our personal decisions do affect the other spouse. Normally I’m happy for Erich to play games with his friends, but maybe that particular day I’m worn out from being a stay-at-home mom and want him to watch Emmerich while I nap. Normally Erich doesn’t care about what I buy at the store, but maybe he wants to point out that I’ve been eating too much junk food or am constantly going over-budget. Of course, we trust each other’s judgment on larger purchases, but maybe we feel the money would be better spent or saved in another way.

Even with big personal decisions that hugely affect the family, we try to give each other as much autonomy as possible.

With parenting, for instance, we split along traditional mom/dad divides: I am more nurturing and cautious, Erich plays rougher and rowdier. I don’t always like how Erich parents (and vice versa!), but after saying my piece, I give him space to be the dad he thinks Emmerich should have. (And normally Emmerich giggles over whatever crazy game his daddy comes up with — even the ones that give Mommy a heart attack!)

An Important Reminder

This is what works for our particular relationship. None of this is formula for all marriages.

We’ve been egalitarian from the start, so we don’t have to deal with any latent authoritative male headship issues that might require a wife to be more assertive. We’ve never dealt with infidelity, substance abuse, or addiction, which might require one spouse to set boundaries stricter than appropriate in a healthier marriage.

And even in our own marriage, individual situations require a slightly different approach or end up with a slightly different outcome. Sometimes one of us changes our mind, sometimes we reach a compromise, and sometimes we hit upon a completely different third way. We just never know until we get there!

I firmly believe that there is no one way to reach a united outcome. It’s not about a wife yielding to her husband all the time, or a husband yielding to his wife all the time, or a wife asserting herself all the time, or a husband asserting himself all the time. It’s a dance of submission and assertion, of staying silent and speaking up, of changing one’s own mind and challenging the other’s. 

But the common denominator in of all of these variables is that we never close the discussion or make a decision unless both of us are happy with the outcome. While some decisions seem more impossible than others at the time, we’ve always found a satisfactory conclusion to our disagreements.

And let me say again: this way of decision-making is not always easy. Whether from selfishness or simply difference, becoming a united front is daunting. The decision-making process surrounding family faith and parenting, for instance, started at the beginning of our dating relationship and only reached an acceptable compromise sometime during our first year of marriage. That’s around four years of debate, frustration, discomfort, tears, and despair.

But as hellish as that time was, the outcome has been amazing. There is no resentment, no feeling that we weren’t heard or understood, no frustration about having to do things the other person’s way — only unity and understanding we never thought possible at the time.

[1] Dr. John Gottman, a prominent researcher on marital health, says that even in happy marriages, the majority of disagreements remain unsolvable. It’s important to pick your battles and give lots of grace and understanding!

For the Wife Who Married Wrong

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Women, find yourself before you decide to go find a man.

I didn’t do it this way and a lot of us didn’t…doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world.

But a confident woman who knows who she is actually knows what she is looking for in a partner. She isn’t looking to validate herself with a good looking lover. She knows what her deal breakers are and so she easily rules out any companions who do not fit.

She knows she is valuable and unique. She understands herself well enough to have an idea when someone isn’t compatible with her.

Lastly, she loves herself already so when she does find a partner and God confirms, she is able to love out of an overflow of a healed heart. She isn’t trying to soothe the wounds of the past with sex and lust… And who knows…maybe once she is whole she realizes the gift of singleness is grand.

Whenever I see good dating advice, I feel regret.

Regret because I didn’t follow the good advice. Regret because I made huge mistakes. Regret because I ignored things that should have been addressed. Regret because I never gave myself the option of breaking up or waiting for something different. Regret because I feared to be unloved. Regret because I feel like I got married too soon, too young, too naive — and I didn’t realize any of this until after I got married.

It’s funny to say that out loud: I regret getting married when I did, I regret dating the way I did, I regret the choices that I made and where I ended up. All of those things are true, but once the eternal covenant is made, there’s no Plan B, no what if, no way to turn back time and try again.

But I need to say the regret out loud. I need to name mistakes as mistakes, bad decisions as bad decisions, if not for my own benefit then for the benefit of others.

I didn’t do the dating thing right.

I was verbally abusive and manipulative.

People were right to tell him to break up with me.

I was far too insecure to know what I wanted out of life or marriage.

Marrying during a catastrophic existential crisis was a terrible idea.

And it hurts — it kills — to say “I shouldn’t have” and “I wish I’d done,” especially when other couples are happy, and not in therapy, and still madly in love with each other, and telling everybody that marriage is the best thing that ever happened to them.

*

Saying those things, it feels like a betrayal of the one you love most, but it’s not. I love my husband. I’m in love with my husband.

Love doesn’t make it any easier.

It makes it more confusing, because you don’t regret marrying him, but you do, in a way, but not because you regret him, even if you sometimes do. You recognize that it’s not his fault, not even when you yell at him that it is. You recognize that it’s not the marriage’s fault, either, even though it’s so dang difficult every day. (“If you’re in a relationship, sometimes you probably feel like you’re fighting a caged death-match with an invisible spider monkey. And the monkey is rabid. And you don’t have any legs. And then a buffalo jumps in there and starts head-butting everything and your face catches on fire and there is a general atmosphere of chaos.”)

It’s a you problem, and always has been, even if the marriage exacerbates the problem and salts the wound you’re trying to heal.

Marrying before you’re ready, before you’re healed, it’s like trying to bench press 250 on a broken arm, all while trying to smile for the camera the whole time. Maybe marriage would be easier, maybe life would be easier, if I knew who I was and what I’d believed, and had the courage to be that way instead of melting down into existential angst.

I keep telling myself, I thought marriage was for broken people?

Isn’t it?

Maybe I’m a different kind of broken.

*

It feels like there’s a textbook brokenness that marriage only strengthens — and I didn’t have that textbook brokenness. I didn’t have textbook anything — an ENFJ marrying an ISTP; a recovering fundamentalist marrying a cradle Catholic; a narrative, empathetic soul marrying a facts and figures brain.

Even now, writing this, I’m giddy over him and who he is and how different we are and how that makes me laugh and challenges me — but that doesn’t take away the regret, and it doesn’t take away the fear that because we weren’t a textbook case, we’re doomed.

I’m a rule follower. Life ends if the rules aren’t followed. I have no imagination beyond the rules. I have no idea what to anticipate, so I don’t know how to react. I have no skillset for improvising life or trailblazing my own path.

When your story doesn’t follow the rules, doesn’t make a neat equation (do x to get y), when it goes completely off the rails into uncharted, unadvised territory, it makes you want to stop dreaming, trying, and hoping.

This is how I think: I broke the dating rules, and now I face the consequences.

*

This was all weighing on my shoulders, unconsciously, when Amber Picota shared the block quote of advice. Everything, everything about her advice is spot on, everything I didn’t do and didn’t understand and should have.

But for the first time, I didn’t feel only regret. I felt hope.

This good advice wasn’t, for once, in the context of the woman who followed all the dating rules and ended up with the marriage of her dreams. It was in the context of, well, having broken the rules — regret, journey, mess, change, the sensibility that only comes from doing it wrong the first time.

“I didn’t do it this way,” she can admit. “A lot of us didn’t.” (Raising my hand.) “Doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world.”

Oh, thank God. 

And this is the hope, this is the challenge, this is what I grit my teeth to do every day: My marriage, my life will look different and messy and atypical and never the poster child for good Christian anything…but it doesn’t mean it’s the end of the world.

Maybe it’ll even be interesting, for once.

*

“You mean,” said Lucy rather faintly, “that it would have turned out all right – somehow? But how? Please, Aslan! Am I not to know?”

“To know what would have happened, child?” said Aslan. “No. Nobody is ever told that.”

“Oh dear,” said Lucy.

“But anyone can find out what will happen,” said Aslan.

I have lost the opportunity to know what would have happened had I waited, and healed, and collected my confidence and self-knowledge, but I can still find out what will happen now that I choose to heal, grow, and stabilize with a good, loving man.

That is still a choice I can make well, and not regret.

NB: I discovered this in my drafts folder. I wrote this a year ago, right at the end of the Seven Months of Marriage Hell where I felt on the brink of separation. I’m really happy to see that my conclusion proved true so far, and our marriage is doing fabulous!

The Truth about Spiritual Compatibility

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Not a day goes by when I don’t thank God for my husband Erich.

Not just because of all the side-splitting humor, support, and sweetness he brings to my life, but mostly because it’s horrifying for me to think of what life would be like had I married a different man — had I married a “spiritually compatible” man.

I understood spiritual compatibility as “almost identical agreement about important theological things” and “almost identical spiritual lives.” You talked the same talk and walked the same walk. Anything less was compromising.

And then I fell in love with a Catholic boy who fit none of the criteria I’d labelled “spiritual compatibility.”

I couldn’t even use evangelical buzzwords to cushion his Catholicism: he wasn’t “on fire for Jesus”; he didn’t have “a heart for [overt missional goal].” His spirituality didn’t fit inside any of the popular descriptors for an acceptable Christian life.

As for agreement on important theological things? He wasn’t even aware of most of the historic theological debates. He had simple opinions and didn’t spend his free time agonizing over the correct interpretation of this one obscure verse and its implications for theology as a whole.

And when he did have a fervent theological opinion, it was clearly wrong.

I didn’t want to say it aloud then (it meant I was compromising and we’d have to break up), but we were not spiritually compatible. 

When I wasn’t agonizing over obscure Bible verses, I was agonizing over this tension: I loved him deeply; we belonged together in ways I sensed but didn’t even see at the time; but we were not at all on the same page theologically or spiritually. In the most audacious, ill-advised move of my life, I stayed with him. I doubled down on making our relationship work, totally confident we’d clear these obstacles, totally afraid we wouldn’t.

If I was an outsider looking in and giving advice, I would have told myself to give up. I would have pointed out, like some did, that our relationship went beyond the acceptable limit of spiritual compromise.

Then a funny thing happened: I acknowledged my doubts, and every spiritual thing I held dear shattered.

I didn’t know that, that someone as confident and opinionated and Biblical as I could lose it all in the blink of two years. By the end of it, there was little left of my spirituality to be compatible with. 

But there was still Erich, and his love for me. There was still Erich, and his respect for me. There was still Erich, and his commitment to me. 

By this time we were married, foolishly enough. Married just in time for everything I held dear to go up in suspension. It was enough to destroy a marriage built on spiritual compatibility. 

But blessedly, our marriage wasn’t built on that. It was built on that love, respect, and commitment that could separate “what you believe” from “who you are” in just the right way. 

Instead of an angry husband jilted to find out he was stuck with a heathen for better or for worse, I had a calm husband who expressed implicit trust, respect, and space for this new chapter of my spiritual journey. His spirituality was not tied up in mine. My doubts did not shatter his faith. His faith did not require shattering my doubts. 

He listened. We discussed. He let me say horrible things about God and Christianity; he let me ask pointed questions about his own spirituality without any defensiveness or fear. He never held me accountable to what I no longer believed. He never pressured me to express my faith and spirituality in a particular way, much less his way.

He wanted me to find my own way.

That’s why I thank God every day for him — for not being spiritually compatible in the way I wanted, but for being spiritually compatible in the way I needed, in the way I’d sensed and not understood for all the years we’d been together. I thank God I didn’t marry the boys with whom I was spiritually compatible — the fundamentalist, Calvinist, opinionated, Bible-thumping ones more in line with my rigid theology and shallow spirituality, the ones who would have feared or opposed or damned my faith shift.

I’ve seen those marriages. I cannot fathom living in one.

Ironically, if I were to use the old definition of spiritual compatibility, Erich and I would be very much spiritually compatible now. That’s the funny thing about a loving, respectful, fearless Christianity: it’s really appealing.

He’s the one rare person in my life who agrees with me on every major thing and most of the minor things. We understand spirituality similarly, even if we practice it differently. And most importantly, we give each other the space and respect to work out our questions and beliefs in God’s own timing. We support and value each other even when we disagree, and disagree strongly.

I share our story not as a blueprint for those on the path to marriage. I don’t advocate finding and marrying someone totally different from you in case you end up changing your mind on everything. I don’t think it’s wise to ignore disagreements and their potential aspect on marriage and especially parenting.

I’ll be totally honest: it’s far less stressful when we agree than when we disagree.

But if I can distill our unique situation into any sort of universal advice, it’s this: spiritual compatibility matters less about what someone believes and more about how they can support, respect, and encourage you in your faith — even when you disagree.

Spiritual compatibility is important, but I would redefine it not as agreement but as encouragement. Does this particular person with their particular set of beliefs and morals support, respect, and encourage me in my spirituality?

Within that obviously falls important areas of agreement — I couldn’t marry a misogynist, or someone with wildly different ideas of how to raise our children, or someone who wouldn’t be able or willing to attend the same church together.

But that also allows for some important areas of disagreement. I see articles all the time asking if a Calvinist and an Arminian can marry, or a Catholic and a Protestant, or a Pentecostal and a cessationist, or even an agnostic and a Christian. As someone who has asked these questions, I think it’s important to acknowledge that people different from us can still benefit our spiritual lives, can still support us and encourage us and help us both because of and in spite of our disagreements. And it’s up to every individual couple to decide how much agreement is necessary before the support, respect, and encouragement are beneficial. 

It’s also important to acknowledge that not all differences are equal: marrying a “cafeteria” Catholic like I did is a completely different experience than marrying a strict Catholic, because there’s less room in strict Catholicism for butting out of people’s spiritual lives.

But even a specific faith tradition is no guaranteed success or failure: each person expresses their faith differently according to their personality and their spiritual priorities — which is why we all know couples with fundamentally the same beliefs who are still falling apart over “minor” differences.

The question shouldn’t be, can a Calvinist and an Arminian marry, can a Catholic and a Protestant marry, but can fully practice my faith with the wholehearted support and respect of my potential spouse, and can he fully practice his faith with my wholehearted support and respect?

That’s what spiritual compatibility really is.

Present Parenting: Beyond the Working/Stay-at-Home Debates

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There are huge rifts between working moms and stay-at-home moms. They form separate Facebook support groups. Real life groups have to go out of their way to say, “We welcome both working moms and stay-at-home moms.” There’s an awkward silence when you mention you’re going to be a stay-at-home mom to a group of working mothers, and there’s an awkward silence when you mention you’re going back to work in a group of stay-at-home moms.

Not necessarily a judgmental silence. Just the uncomfortable feeling that maybe we don’t have as much in common as mothers, after all.

It’s an issue of priorities, we often think — working mothers put themselves and their careers first and let the kids fall where they may. Stay-at-home moms prioritize their children. And we can know this, we can judge a woman’s commitment to her children or to her job based on where a woman predominantly spends her day.

Which makes sense — except that there are many other factors to consider. There’s the matter of finances. Having the option to be a stay-at-home mom is a privilege the working class and single moms can’t afford. (And not all women are cut out to be home entrepreneurs or start their own sustainable gardens.)

Then there’s the issue of less tangible resources — physical, emotional, and mental. In past days, extended families lived closer together, allowing extended family to look after all the grandchildren and cousins running afoot. Now it’s not uncommon for women to raise their kids states or even countries away from extended family. Some moms are new to the community and without any friends to trade date night babysitting or even let off some steam. Many fathers can’t afford or aren’t offered paternity leave, which cuts off more physical, emotional, and mental resources available to frazzled moms. All of this often adds up to stay-at-home moms unable to take a break, catch a breath, or engage in any other meaningful work until their last child turns eighteen.

While stay-at-home moms might indeed prioritize physical presence with their children over working moms, the isolation and stress of raising kids alone might not allow them to prioritize emotional presence. And while working moms don’t have the edge on physical presence with their kids, meaningful work apart from raising their children might energize these mothers to invest more emotional presence.

That’s where we need to center this conversation — on emotional presence, on present parenting. This goes beyond whether to work outside the home or stay at home. This is about evaluating and maximizing our emotional resources — and surprise, surprise, it looks different for every family.

As a teacher who loves working with kids and has a lot of patience with them, spending most of my day at home makes sense for me. Financially, we can swing it. My husband is already involved in daily household upkeep and expects to shoulder a good share of parenting when he comes home from work too, so I know I’m not in the parenting business alone.

On the other hand, I’m keenly aware of how loneliness, sleeplessness, and lack of adult conversation affects me. I’m keeping a part-time job (just a couple hours) outside of the home, leaving my baby in my husband’s care. This will give me the change in environment, the human interaction, and the independence of earning some money and doing other meaningful work that I need to keep my energy up. I would go insane stuck at home all day with a baby — and that’s not good for me at all.

But equally important, that’s not good for my baby, either.

[A]dvocacy for the full humanity of women cannot happen apart from advocacy for children. — Joyce Anne Mercer

And that’s another huge topic involved in present parenting — not merely “what works best for mama’s sanity?” but “what do my children most need from me?” We cannot effectively maximize our emotional resources if we’re not sure how much or what kind of emotional resources are needed to raise a happy, well-adjusted child. 

I recently read Erica Komisar’s Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters. Komisar introduced to me the idea of present parenting. Her thesis is that in the first three years, children particularly need their mothers. As a long-practicing psychotherapist, she links the rise in ADD/ADHD diagnoses and other behavior problems to the lack of present mothering in the first three years.

It was a hard and challenging read, even as a woman who knew from the start that I wanted to be my children’s primary caretaker. It was hard and challenging because as a feminist, I want to support all women’s choices. I didn’t want to hear another reason why women have to be stuck at home and pretend to be happy about it. I want to believe that all women’s choices positively affect their children.

But Komisar’s challenge isn’t, at its heart, a call for moms to quit their jobs and stay home until their babies turn three. She recognizes everything I noted above — the financial and emotional factors that require women to work, the reality of a workforce that penalizes mothers for taking maternity leave and quitting their job for even a few years.

All mothers can be present mothers, regardless of whether they work outside the home or stay home with their children. All mothers can prioritize their children’s needs, regardless of financial constraints. But mothers cannot be blind to the reality of their children’s needs, which often don’t fit conveniently with what we need or want. And children under three need a large amount of their mother’s emotional presence, in both quantity and quality — meaning mothers of young children must rearrange their priorities for a few years to match this reality.

In other words, mothers should maximize their emotional presence in accordance with their children’s developmental needs, not merely with their own needs. Again, this looks different for every woman, as a woman’s own financial or emotional needs factors into how well she can maximize her emotional presence.

This idea of present parenting doesn’t just challenge women regarding how much time they spend working or where they spend the majority of their day. A discussion on present parenting might prove an effective guide on how many children to have or when to have children — or whether to have children at all. Hey, quiverfull movement — can a mother really be emotionally present for a large number of kids in quick succession? Are advocates of large families blind to the reality of how badly children need their mother’s emotional presence and the reality that the more children you have, the fewer emotional resources you have? Maybe, maybe not!

Present parenting also gets our husbands involved in the question of work/life balance. These aren’t just women’s issues. Many dads get sucked into their work life, thinking that buying that extra car or just putting food on the table (only in a monetary sense, of course) is needed to support their families. And some feel guilty for wanting to be their children’s primary caretaker. But this simply isn’t true — his children require his emotional presence just as much as Mom’s. Where are his priorities? How can he rearrange his career goals to be more emotionally available to his family?

Both father and mother must look at their children’s emotional needs and their own ability to meet those needs in order to prioritize the right things at the right time. This often requires creativity beyond “Dad is the breadwinner, Mom is the caretaker.”

And then it goes even further beyond individual families to our communities. Our culture doesn’t prioritize present parenting; it prioritizes the materialism of the American dream. We don’t value children’s needs, as evidenced by our largely ineffective schools and daycares and the subquality pay teachers and caretakers receive. Most of us who want to spend more time with our families simply cannot, because we’re expected to be on call on the job, put in overtime, take shorter maternity leave or let vacation days stack up unused, all to show we’re valuable workers. Our financial security depends on our workaholicism.

All of us — moms and dads and childless folks alike — suffer from a devaluation of emotional presence, whether that’s investing in our kids or in our friendships or in our marriages or in our mental health.

So, mamas, let’s lead a cultural revolution. Let’s stop talking about whether we’re going to be a stay-at-home mom or a working mom, and start talking about how we plan on being emotionally present for our children, our families, and ourselves.

Photo by Liana Mikah on Unsplash

Drawing Boundaries with Emotionally Abusive People

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Shelia Wray Gregoire at To Love, Honor, and Vacuum just posted an article on how to stop an emotional abuse cycle in marriage. The bottom line is consistently drawing a boundary — saying something like, “I will not tolerate belittling words. Come talk to me when you’re ready to have a respectful discussion” and then walking away.

As both a victim and a perpetrator of emotional abuse, I back this advice 100%.

I remember the first time, back in our dating days, when my husband refused to tolerate my berating. It was a late night, I was tired and stressed, I was being a classic jerk, and we were using that greatest of all communication methods — text. A small problem that could’ve been solved with a good night’s sleep on my end spiraled into a nasty character assassination. He finally texted, “I’m done with this conversation. Good night.”

It shocked me.

But it wasn’t his words alone that shocked me. It was the fact that he really was done with this conversation. He turned his phone off and went to bed, ignoring the tirade of desperate, angry messages I sent him in response to his boundary. When we both woke up the next morning, he still didn’t respond — and I was the one shamefacedly scrolling through last night’s vitriol, all so clearly one-sided and petty in the light of day. I felt so guilty that I sought him out, apologized, and moved on to more respectful conversations.

Boundary drawing works. (Not to be confused with stonewalling, which is another characteristic of dysfunctional couples and only further feeds the cycle of emotional abuse.)

The simple skill of meaning what you say and walking away from unproductive conversations and unwanted behavior applies to many other areas of life.

I use this regularly in comment moderation. If I say I am done with a conversation, I mean that I’m done. Even if the antagonist responds to that comment and tries to bait me back into the conversation, I don’t reply. I stay done. When engaging with someone disrespectful and intrusive, the best defense is a firm, consistent boundary I intend to follow through on.

It seems too simple, but it’s actually quite rare. The majority of people enter back into hopeless Facebook threads after dramatically announcing they’re through with the conversation. “I can’t believe I’m getting dragged into this again,” they’ll say,
“but….”

No buts. 

Say what you mean, mean what you say.

I instantly respect people who really do quit the conversation and refuse to budge, regardless of how the trolls play. And even if the trolls don’t share the same respect I do for that person, what can they do about it? They can’t touch a person who isn’t gratifying their disrespect with a reaction of any kind.

Oddly, this is the sort of thing we were supposed to have learnt in grade school. I taught my kids this little ditty about handling bullies and difficult people:

F-I-G-H-T
We don’t fight!
Talk it over, walk away,
Find another game to play. 

(And always feel free to come tell the teacher!)

It’s the same principle as Sheila shares in her article for adults. If respectful conversation isn’t possible, walk away and engage yourself in something else. Don’t get dragged into a cage match. It never ends well.

It’s unfortunate, but not unexpected, that many adults do not know how to appropriately deal with conflict or regulate their emotions even on this grade school level. We don’t talk it over and walk away. We don’t only say something when we have something nice to say. We don’t hold our hands and find our patience.

We all learned the catchphrases, but nobody explicitly taught us or modeled how to apply them when emotions ran their hottest. Now as adults, we feel as justified in lashing out because of our big people problems as we did throwing tantrums as little kids with our little people problems.

In fact, I see a direct correlation between a child having a meltdown and screaming out, “I hate you!” at her mommy and the wife having a meltdown and screaming similar epithets at her husband. There’s so much bottled up, legitimate, but unregulated pain and frustration that it explodes in verbal violence.

A parent’s response, much like a spouse’s, is often to fire back with sarcasm or equally hurtful words, to domineer, to in some way out-emotion the offender — or on the other end, to stonewall, cave in, bend over backwards, and just buy that bag of Oreos in the checkout line already. But none of those things are effective in the long-term, neither for children nor for emotionally unregulated adults.

That’s how I view both adult and child tantrums now — desperate cries for a cool head to step in and help deal with crushing emotion. And the first step to stepping in is often bowing out.

I once worked with a child who threw major tantrums — we’re talking overturning desks, hiding under tables, refusing to budge, along with the general symptoms of crying, screaming, and abandoning reason. I was at a complete loss until I picked up the simple tip of ignoring his tantrums.

“J,” I would tell him over his screams. “I can see you are frustrated that you can’t tie your shoes. I would love to help you. When you’re ready to calm down, come tell me and I’ll help you tie your shoes.”

Then I would walk away. Nothing he did drew my attention back to him. Inevitably — and it was a shorter and shorter period each time — I would feel a little tug and turn to find his tear-streaked face trying to burrow into my arms from shame and exhaustion. I would again reiterate how happy I was to help, and we would talk about how to handle future problems, and we would hug and spend some extra quality time together as we waited for the buses to arrive.

His behavior improved dramatically. All he wanted was attention, and he knew, both from my words and my avoidance of his tantrums, that the only way to get my attention was to approach me directly in a more regulated manner.

I think this is often the case in emotionally abusive relationships where the abusive partner isn’t suffering from a personality or character disorder like narcissism.* Something goes wrong in the relationship — someone doesn’t feel heard, loved, understood, respected, etc. — and the repeated efforts to fix what’s wrong fall on deaf ears and a hard heart. That’s when the adult tantrum — verbal and emotional abuse — starts to seem not only appealing but necessary.

If he doesn’t listen when I’m calmly, sweetly, respectfully presenting my thoughts and feelings, maybe he’ll listen if I scream it at the top of my lungs, slam a door, or throw a pillow or two. 

This is, obviously, a two-fold problem of emotional regulation on the one spouse’s part and of whatever behavior the other spouse committed that was contributing to the first spouse’s desperation.

Drawing emotional boundaries — and more importantly, keeping them — won’t snap boom bang fix the initial problem, but it will allow for the respectful conversations that will eventually bring about a solution. That’s a fresh start all relationships need from time to time.

*I’m going to offer a caveat similar to Sheila’s — many times the root of emotional abuse isn’t a misunderstanding compounded by emotional dysfunction but a serious psychological, personality, or character flaw in one individual. Drawing boundaries with this sort of person will neither save your marriage nor change your spouse. If you find yourself married to this kind of person, please empower yourself, seek professional help, and keep yourself and your children safe. 

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Should I Encourage My Son Toward “Feminine” Things?

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I’m publishing some thoughts on motherhood and feminism, particularly as they relate to raising boys. The first article addressed whether there are enough differences between boys and girls to warrant raising boys in a majorly different way than girls. This article is a continuation of that question.

It’s one thing to accept a boy who falls outside of gender norms. It’s quite another thing to raise a boy to step outside of those gender norms.

That is, if my boy ends up liking sparkles and pink even though I’ve dressed him in khakis and blue polos all his life, I can accept that — that’s just who he is. Masculinity and femininity are just two ends of the spectrum of human expression, right?

But I’m much more reserved about providing a pink, sparkly onesie as an equal option to khakis and blue polos. Alarm bells start going off: Will I confuse him about his gender or sexual orientation? Will he grow up into some warped creature? Will I doom him to a life of bullying and ostracization?

I can say I support equality for men and women, I can cite the research proving boys are more similar to girls than dissimilar, I can rationalize in my mind that there’s nothing inherently anti-boy about pink or sparkles. But there’s still a fear that femininity twists a boy’s innate nature. As one man (who clarified I could not call him a misogynist) described my future son after Monday’s post, “Sorry to say, you’re going to raise a girl-child.”

Heaven forbid.

Like I’ve pointed out elsewhere, we don’t have this same fear for girls. It’s more or less socially acceptable for girls to travel up and down the masculine/feminine spectrum in their interests, activities, and self-expression. “Tomboy” isn’t an insult like “girl-child.” Feminism has made great bounds in opening up girls’ opportunities in STEM fields and other male-dominated areas. There’s no woman card to lose.

Not so for boys, as my own fears betray.

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning: Is It Wrong to Influence My Son in General?

This is a silly question in light of all I know about child development and parenting work. If I influence my son is not a choice I get to make as a mother — of course I will influence my son. Nurture is a huge part of a child’s development of self.

Children are born with endless capacity. It’s their experiences that begin to limit that endless capacity. As Dr. Christia Spears Brown points out in Parenting Beyond Pink & Blue, babies’ brains create thousands of synaptic connections every day in the womb. This prepares them for the myriad of potential experiences life brings after birth. She gives the example of language: babies are born capable of distinguishing every sound in all languages. After a few months, they begin to lose that infinite capacity, focusing only on their parents’ native tongue. Whatever is used is strengthened; whatever isn’t used is lost — permanently.

The same is true for gender differences. The statistical effect size of differences between male and female infants is 0.21 — that is, negligible. As children grow and encounter peer pressure and gender stereotypes, certain traits can get exercised more in boys than in girls (and vice versa), producing the ubiquitous gender differences we see today.

To use another example from Dr. Brown’s book, the differences observed in how children play at recess — competitive, team-based, active play for boys and more one-on-one, low-energy, relational play for girls — comes from a small gender difference that gets exacerbated through socialization. Girls are slightly more likely to prefer low-energy play to active play. Since children fall prey to in group/out group thinking, even the average high energy girl will quit a game of kickball to play hopscotch or kitchen with her “tribe” on the sidelines — the other girls. And even the lower-energy boys will prefer to join in the game of kickball with the guys just to be with his in group.

The way children play affects how they interact with the world as adults. Since girls often spend much of their time playing low-energy activities in small groups, they’ve got lots of practice with empathy and relational problem-solving. Since boys often spend much of their time playing highly active games in large groups, they’re socialized less in interpersonal behavior.

But these gender differences, while prevalent, aren’t permanent. To complicate this even further, you can turn these gender differences on by priming a person to think of himself or herself as his or her gender, or level the playing field by priming a person to think of himself or herself as a gender-neutral identity (such as a student). Cordelia Fine, in her book Delusions of Gender, cites countless studies that show how men and women possess roughly the same skills in, say, math or empathy when they’re not thinking of their gender. Only when they’re triggered to think of their gender — perhaps by marking their sex at the beginning of a test or even being the sole representative of one’s sex in the classroom — do men outperform women in math and women outperform men in empathy.

All that to say, even though boys and girls aren’t born with significant, innate differences, socialization and experience begin to cull and shape their previously unlimited capacities. I’ve known this as an educator: The child who eats only French fries and chicken nuggets will likely not eat her vegetables as an adult (even though she’s perfectly capable of eating veggies). The child who doesn’t read over the summer loses two months of reading education, culminating in two years of learning loss by the end of grade six (even though she’s perfectly capable of reading over the summer). The child who uses iPads to entertain himself over creative, unplugged play will suffer a loss in imagination and attention span (even though he’s perfectly capable — you get the point).

Experiences can limit, or they can expand. This is childhood development 101.

As a parent, I have the responsibility to limit negative traits, interests, and activities and expand good ones, shaping my child into the best he can be. That’s not controversial. That’s just parenting.

What’s the Harm in Letting Boys Be Boys?

What is controversial is whether there is anything negative in traditional masculinity that I might need to limit or anything positive in traditional femininity that I might need to introduce to my son, if he’s naturally inclined to the stereotypical male model.

Is it really a big deal, I wondered, if boys and girls get socialized into their respective gender stereotypes? Will my son really suffer if I don’t introduce him to some of the great things about Girl World? Again, it’s nice to think my son will turn out more well-rounded than the hyperactive, truck-loving, gun-toting, strong, silent type who goes to college for business on a sports scholarship, but if he starts heading that direction, is it necessary for me to step in?

After all, I fulfill most of my gender’s stereotypes, and I turned out okay! (Until I ask myself again, and realize my life would be far better had I crossed the line on the gender stereotype spectrum and done more math, science, spatial reasoning, and sports as a kid.)

Another way of spinning my question is if gender stereotypes are inherently harmful. My research and gut instinct is pointing to yes. Both femininity and masculinity, as equally human traits, as the fullest expression of both humanity and the image of God, express important characteristics from which all children benefit. A steady diet of boy stereotypes for my son is like letting him read nothing but Pokemon graphic novels — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Pokemon graphic novels, unless they’re the only thing he reads. You’ve got to get some Dante and Dostoevksy in there, or his mind will atrophy.

Since we know that boys and girls are innately more similar than dissimilar, and girls are not at all harmed by their flexible interests, we should expect that intentional exposure to a variety of interests and activities will produce positive results in boys. It will encourage them to be themselves; it will combine the best of the masculine and the feminine; it will make them interesting, well-rounded individuals. How is that a bad thing?

When I look at the masculine stereotype, I think the biggest drawbacks are the lack of emotional awareness, self-regulation, and interpersonal skills; and the huge push towards aggression — the lie that men shouldn’t be expected to be nurturing, empathetic, and expressive because they’re primarily made to grunt, punch, and shoot things.

Boys and Baby Dolls

For a while, I felt embarrassed about listing a doll on my BabyList registry. First, everybody says the only way boys play with baby dolls involves some sort of experiment with physics (i.e., smashing or throwing). But mostly, I fretted, people would think I’m intentionally trying to emasculate my son.

This is silly, I know. Angering, even, when I stop to examine it. I think it’s absolutely horrible that many people not only fail to encourage boys to get in touch with their emotions and develop nurturing behavior but actively discourage it. It’s disgusting how the masculine culture celebrates aloofness and a lack of self-awareness. Women, too, for shame — we complain so much about the blank stares our husbands give us when we burst into tears, yet we continue to say, “Boys don’t cry.”

Articles keep popping up in my newsfeed about the lack of platonic touch and affection men receive. Men, predominantly, keep getting exposed as abusers, adulterers, and anger addicts. The majority of school shooters are male. I think this all points to a masculine culture that lacks empathy and emotional intelligence, to an inhumane idea of masculinity that suffocates our boys. (See Michael Kimmel’s research, particularly Angry White Men.) Men just stuff it…and then it resurfaces into something ugly.

Not my son.

I want his emotional needs met — meaning, I want him to be able to identify, express, and meet those needs in healthy ways. Not porn, not anger, not depression. I don’t want to find out that my son shot another kid because he couldn’t verbalize his feelings about being bullied. I don’t want to wake up to find my son dead of suicide because he felt he couldn’t trust anyone with his demons. These are extreme scenarios, but they are sadly far too common.

Emotional intelligence is absolutely critical for mental well-being. It shouldn’t be cute, faddish, or feminist to explicitly teach it to our boys. It shouldn’t be the rare man who can understand and express both his and others’ emotions. It should be the norm, the baseline, the first line of attack against the violence, anger, and lack of self-control shrouding Boy World.

And so I will teach him to rock his baby doll.

Boys and Guns

The stigma of boys playing with baby dolls comes from the mistaken idea that men are inherently more aggressive than women — and that since it’s just “boys being boys,” aggression should be allowed and encouraged as the dominant masculine trait. Only sissies and their liberal mommies complain about boys and guns (though we might draw the line at Call of Duty).

In Christianity, male aggression and proclivities toward warfare are celebrated as the essence of what it means to be a man, signs that a man is ready to be the provider and protector of the family.

There’s nothing wrong with providing and protecting others, being physical, or even, I would argue, knowing how to throw a good punch if necessary. Courage, bravery, strategy, innovation, adventure, physicality, and many other virtues associated with combat are, indeed, things I want for my son (and my daughters!).

But Christians go crazy for cocoa puffs over warfare itself. Certain authors go out of their way to redefine and strip any possibly feminine part of men’s identities — like love. The other day I read a quote about courtship from an article called “Wooing as Warfare”:

The young man who pursues marriage enters a foreign land where he wages war. On the hinges of that battle lie happiness or shame.

But though a potential bride may be deeply loved, she’s also at some level the foe. To achieve victory the young man must not only win her, he must defeat her and her family, snatching her from their bosom, converting her to himself, breaking her natural bonds with father and mother, brother and sister, nurse and friend, dog and home. There’s little that’s tender about it.

That’s sick — that in order to excite young men to marriage, you must twist the most intimate, loving, and yes, tender relationship on earth into something violent. That’s toxic masculinity, right there.

It’s common for Christians to “woo” other men to involvement in their family and church with the promise of warfare, to make peace, love, humility, and vulnerability into the image of aggressive masculinity. And I know, I know, I’m just a woman who doesn’t understand the male psyche’s need for war, but I’ll say it anyway: I find Christianity’s marriage between masculinity and violence one-dimensional and unhealthy.

I’ve been thinking how this will translate practically in our household. No cowboys and Indians? No guns? No violent video games? No books on weapons?

I don’t know what it will look like, and I don’t want to be extreme (weapons, after all, are just tools, and my husband’s strategy games all involve killing and capturing magical creatures), but I know this: if my son’s experiences shape his brain and his preferences, I want him to play in ways that form him into a person who can handle real life challenges in a real life way.

Hopefully, he will not grow up during a time of war or conflict where violence is necessary for survival. He will more likely face the evils of bullying, prejudice, and interpersonal conflict than war. You cannot solve school bullying with guns. You can’t fight prejudice with your fists. And since his struggles and conflicts will revolve around these non-combative evils, I want to equip him with non-combative solutions — namely, empathy, understanding, intelligence, courage, vision, etc.

I want my son to be a peacemaker, a builder, a life-giver — dare I say a man like Jesus.

So I will teach him to diffuse a bully’s anger rather than throw the first punch, discern and meet a wife’s emotional needs, and fearlessly speak out for what is right.

And even if that’s a more “feminine” way to handle conflict, there’s nothing sissyish about that.

Photo Credit by Devany at Still Playing School, via 30 Photos of Boys Playing with Dolls That Will Make You Go “Awww”

P.S. The more I work with little boys at my preschool, the more I am amazed at how silly our fears about boys being “feminine” are. The two-year-old boy who knows how to put his friends into wrestling headlocks also loves to play with the sparkly My Little Ponies and turn his tube of diaper rash cream into a cherished baby. Boys are so much more complex and unique than we typically allow them to be.