My wife and I have this bad habit of arguing in public. I mean, we argue in private, too. We’re definitely equal opportunity. But it’s the arguing in public that seems to be a bit of a faux pas. When you argue in private, it’s not a big deal. The doors are closed, maybe the kids are glued to the television, and you can have it out. But it’s clearly different when you’re in public.
I honestly hadn’t been clueing in to this difference until one day, after church, Ren and I got into it about some issue I don’t remember now. Our friend, who was standing with us, quietly started backing away and looked a little embarrassed. To me, it was kind of funny to see. I think I said something like, “If you think this is arguing, you should sit in on some of our other conversations.”
I’d like to think he was out of the ordinary, but this experience has happened a few times now, which means my wife and I probably need to change our Argument Policy, but it makes me wonder, what do people think marriage is supposed to be? Husband and wife blissfully holding hands all the time as the little ones ask for a healthy tofu lunch with all their proper “please”‘s and “thank you”‘s?
Some of it I’m sure has to do with the kind of household you grow up in. Some families remain very reserved when it comes to their emotions, and others lay it all out (think “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”). But whatever family you come from, especially in the church, there can seem to be this unspoken assumption that one’s family needs to look perfect – which is dangerous.
When I was single, I had my list of what I wanted in a spouse. I tried to keep my standards reasonable. Certainly, she had to be a Christian, but mostly, I just wanted that spark. I wanted someone who was, on the one hand, a friend, and on the other a lover I could feel attracted to. Aside from the stipulation of faith, I was open to a whole lot in between.
But when I got married, I realized I wasn’t quite as reasonable as I thought. Other expectations started coming out of the woodwork. “Why does she need so many breaks? So much self-care time?” “Why doesn’t she want to read the Bible and pray as much as I do?” And from there, it’s a skip and a hop to, “Perhaps she needs so much self-care time because, she really doesn’t want any children now that we have them. She’s not truly ‘open to life'” “Maybe she doesn’t spend as much time with God because she was faking her faith.” You can see just how far down the rabbit hole you can go.
Some of these expectations may have been entirely legitimate. A wife may very well be right that her husband needs to beef up on his faith. A husband may be right when he thinks his wife is on Facebook too much. But the danger in holding up our perfect idea of marriage and the family against our real marriage and family is that it can lead us to mental or emotional (or, God forbid, physical) violence in trying to force the round peg of our relationships into the square hole of our ideals.
Earlier in our marriage, I would try to get my wife to be more of the kind of mother and spouse I thought she should be. That’s my role, right? I’m the shepherd of the home. I expected her to act more Christian around the kids instead of losing her temper (even though I lost my temper quite often as well). I tried to convince her of spiritual truths that she believed in her head but had a hard time accepting in her heart.
What I found out later was that she was struggling with a mental illness that neither of us knew about. It’s like trying to pull someone out of a swamp, not realizing that person’s foot is chained to an immense boulder. It’s taken a few years now for me to adjust to the fact that we will never look like the perfect Christian family. She has grown a lot, and I like to think I have also, but we’ve had to make changes in how we do “family” that could easily make the average “good Christian dad” and “Proverbs 31 woman” looking from the outside wonder what’s wrong with us.
I realize that other families don’t have such an extreme situation to deal with, but this can still be a danger even in a “normal” family. Someone blogged a quote recently from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that hits this nail on the head:
“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” (italics mine)
Replace “Christian community” with “family”, and read it again. Then replace it with “marriage”, then with “husband” or “wife.” Insist on everyone around you being perfect, and you’ll end up destroying them.
“But shouldn’t we strive for perfection?” one might ask. Absolutely. But first we have to figure what “perfection” actually means, for one. Are my expectations of my wife and family God’s expectations as well? Or am I imposing something on them even God doesn’t ask for? But then, once that’s sorted out, and we know for sure that our wife or husband needs to change, will we leave room for mercy?
There’s a passage in the Old Testament where God commands the Israelites to “Be holy as I am holy.” (Lev. 20:26) The statement comes after God has laid down the Law for the Hebrews – the implication being that they needed to follow everything He’s commanded them to. Perfection, and nothing less, right? That must be what God meant.
But then Jesus says something interesting and very similar in Matt. 5:48: “…be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And if you just saw that statement, you would probably think He was making the same point Lev. 20:26 does. “Get in line! Don’t screw up or else!” But I want to quote the verses just before that one to fill this out:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matt. 5:43-48
Again, this is not to say we shouldn’t strive for perfection. The intervention or difficult conversation sometimes needs to be had. But Jesus is trying to say that perfection also means showing mercy – even when we don’t think the one receiving it deserves it.
Marriage and family are institutions that the Catholic person (under most circumstances) is not free to walk away from. That means that, for the most part, our children or spouse’s serious character flaw’s are things we can’t walk away from either. But love can cover over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). The act of a man and woman trying to forgive each other and bear with each other’s weaknesses is an act of holiness.
I would love to have a perfect wife, and I would love to be a perfect husband, but there is the most profound comfort in knowing that mercy is at the center of our relationship. Yes, we are comfortable arguing. And yes, we hurt each other in those arguments sometimes. But for me, that’s not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. I am so secure in her love for me, and my love for her, that something as insignificant as a disagreement is not going to change that.
That may not be perfect, but it’s holy.
If you are the victim of domestic violence, please don’t think that I am implying that you should stay with your spouse. The answer might be separation or even divorce. Get help.