Stephane Wahl has found that truly being a good wife means that she’s not always such a ‘good wife’.
When I was younger, I had a friend, Maggie*, who was with an abusive man, Nate*, who had horrible anger issues. Screaming at people without provocation, nearly hitting one of her (female) friends, and flying off the handle about everything. He even on at least one occasion threatened suicide as emotional blackmail. One of our other friends, Anna*, spoke up about it. In response, Nate told Anna that a good friend keeps their mouth shut and minds their own business. Anna replied in turn that a good friend is willing to do whatever it takes to do what’s best for the people they care about. Maggie didn’t really talk to Anna after that. Soon after, when Maggie got engaged to this man, I lost her as a friend by speaking up, too. I was willing to have her hate me or cut me out of her life just to make the effort to try to protect her. Admittedly, it didn’t work. Maggie and Nate are married and have two kids now. I pray for them a lot.
So what does this have to do with romantic relationships? In my daily life, I’ve run across a multitude of people who think that being a “good wife” or a “good husband” (or even a good boyfriend or girlfriend) means keeping your significant other happy. It means not fighting, not disagreeing, not doing anything that’s going to upset the other person. In fact, I used to be one of those people. When I dated my very first boyfriend at the age of 18 (yes, I was a bit of a late bloomer), I fell into that mindset. I thought the goal of a relationship was to never do anything ever that might make him angry, sad, or upset. To that end, I was really more of a puppy than a girlfriend – eager to please, always underfoot, and willing to come back and beg no matter how much I was (metaphorically) kicked. He was the cool older guy, and I was just a kid who boys had never liked before – I didn’t know what he saw in me, and I wanted to do whatever I could to keep his interest and make him want to stay with me. When I confessed that I was depressed and he said he didn’t want to hear about it or know about it, I just kept it to myself. When he wanted space, I simply waited by the phone to be at his beck and call. When he dumped me, I was so confused – what did I do wrong? Hadn’t I done everything I was supposed to?
Then I started dating Mike. And Mike wanted to talk. He wanted to know if I was upset or depressed, or if something he did bothered me. He wanted to have debates about philosophy (a shared interest of ours – one of my college majors and his minor), politics, and which movies were better and why. He wanted to hear my opinion, even if it contradicted his. And it was with Mike that I learned that couples are supposed to disagree and argue. There were still rules – we don’t call names, we don’t curse at each other, we don’t hit below the belt, and we don’t push buttons we know will hurt just to get a reaction. He does things I don’t like. I do things he doesn’t like. And yet, after 2 years of marriage and nearly 10 years together, we still want to be with each other as much as ever. Not despite the fact that we disagree sometimes, but partly because of it.
A spouse, significant other, or friend, should always be able to speak their mind. Much like I want someone to tell me if I have broccoli in my teeth or toilet paper stuck to the bottom of my shoe; I also want someone who is willing to tell me if I’m being too stubborn or prideful. If I’m showing a disregard for someone’s feelings. If I need help. It took both my husband and my sister to make me realize that I had post-partum depression after I had Meredith. I didn’t want to hear it because I didn’t want to have it. I just wanted to be a good mom who was fine. And it couldn’t have been easy for them to bring it up to me, especially knowing that I felt that way. I could have reacted in a number of ways – I could have been angry with them, I could have denied it. But they wanted to make sure I was ok, so they brought it up anyway. Then that is love. A willingness to accept a negative consequence to yourself to make sure the people you care about are ok.
I’m not actually sure where the idea came from that a person should only have what makes them happy. My daughter, Meredith hated taking her heart medications before and after her surgery – she would cry like she was being water-boarded. But I gave them to her anyway to keep her healthy. She hates tummy time, but we give it to her anyway so she can strengthen her arms. It seems so obvious when it’s a baby, but the same concept needs to apply to adults, too. We don’t always see or know what’s best for us. An addict doesn’t want to hear that they have a problem, but they may still need an intervention. In the same way, Mike and I sometimes do things we believe to be best for the other, whether they like it or not. I don’t nag (stop laughing, Mike, I can hear you from here). And Mike doesn’t push me on little things. But the thing is, he will always fight for me. Even when the person he’s fighting is me.
I mentioned the post-partum depression. It wasn’t much of a surprise when I found out I had it. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my life. It’s something I keep very well in hand with a variety of techniques, and it’s not something you’d really notice if I didn’t say anything most of the time. I worked so hard to get it under control and to hide it, to avoid the stigma that comes with mental issues, that it became second nature to me to just withdraw and handle everything myself. In the beginning of our relationship, I’d tell Mike I was fine. I didn’t understand why he seemed upset by that – I was saving him the trouble.
Our first big fight was when we’d been dating for about a year. He told me I needed to start letting him in on everything – not just the good parts. I was ticked. I had it under control. I didn’t want to bother him with it and, more importantly, I didn’t need any help. I got so upset that it triggered a major depressive episode. I couldn’t stop crying, and I barely managed to choke out “Is this what you wanted?” (because 19 year olds are snarky and a bit passive aggressive). I was so mad at him for “doing that to me.” And you know what he did in reaction to my being upset that he pushed? He kept pushing. He knew that even though it ticked me off, that’s what I needed. If I wasn’t going to give him some of the weight to shoulder, he was going to steal it. I’d like to say he doesn’t have to push anymore, but that’s not true. I still forget sometimes that he’s my partner in everything. So he still has to give me a nudge to remind me. It may not always be what I want, but he’s focused on what I need.
So I won’t be a good wife. Or a good mom. Or a good sister, or daughter, or friend. And I couldn’t be happier that I didn’t marry a good husband, or a good dad, or a good son. I married someone who’s willing to fight with me to fight for me. Who understands that being “good” is really just being an enabler.
*Names changed to protect privacy
Image: Lara Schneider (Lara604)/Flickr