Created To Be His Help Meet, pp. 40-42
Debi’s goal in this passage is to show how thanksgiving produces joy. She starts with a story called “My Jolly Playmate.” This story is sort of divided into three parts: the first part continues Debi’s pattern of urging women to just be happy rather than actually dealing with things that irritate or bother them; the second part involves a heavy dose of gender essentialism; and the third part takes a bizarre turn as Debi makes light of the idea of marital rape.
Part I: Never Get Irritated
As a rule, my husband just doesn’t take the trash out. I could be annoyed, or I could learn to enjoy taking the trash out. I’m smart; I have learned to really enjoy taking the trash out.
When we first got married, my husband Sean and I sat down and split up the chores. I’ll be honest: Sean doesn’t always remember to do the chores that we decided would be his area. And sometimes, when he doesn’t do those chores, I get really annoyed. Given that I didn’t see communication modeled very well growing up, my tendency is to get angry and be passive aggressive. Sometimes I simply don’t mention any of this, and do his chores with some bitterness, anger building up inside of me over time. Debi suggests that if I’m “smart” I should just do those chores that Sean is supposed to do but do them happily. That strategy would probably work best for me if my husband were unreasonable, not open to listening, or prone to getting angry. Fortunately, my husband is none of these things. So when I’m being “smart,” I follow a very different strategy: I talk to my husband about the fact that he is not doing his share of the chores, and about my feelings, and we work things out. This would, however, go against Debi’s apparent vendetta against communication.
One day recently, my husband saw me struggling out the door with huge sack of trash in one hand and several empty boxes in the other. Since he was headed in that direction, he volunteered to carry the heavy sack. He walked about ten feet ahead of me, holding the sack out from his body with one hand. I knew he was just showing me how strong he was. I was amused, as usual, with his display of manhood. After nearly thirty-five years of having me appreciate his muscles, you would think he would tire of showing off, but he knows that I have never tired of watching him perform.
Actually, this part kind of makes sense to me. From, uh, personal experience.
When he got near the large trash trailer, he was really getting into his macho thing. With great fanfare, he flung the large trash bag as if it were a cement block instead of a thin plastic bag too loaded down for its own strength. Of course, the string broke, allowing the bag to hit the side of the trailer, bursting open and dumping trash all over the ground. I could tell he was a little embarrassed as I rushed over to clean up his mess, but he continued on his merry way. I remember a time when all this would have irritated me to the point of bitterness. I would have made sure he felt my irritation, and our relationship would have been strained, all for a bag of trash. Such a stupid waste of our lives.
As I said above, I understand what Debi is talking about when she speaks of how she used to get “irritated” to “the point of bitterness.” Let me offer a specific example. What with two children now, it takes a lot to get out of the door. They both need coats, and Sally needs shoes while Bobby needs a clean diaper. We also need a bag to take with us with diapers, extra clothes in case they get messy, and a bag of cheerios or jar of baby food. The thing is, Sean isn’t used to having to think about this. For a while, I just did it myself, and stewed about the fact that Sean did nothing more than get himself ready. And then I realized that that was a completely pointless way to go about things. So instead of continuing to stew, I talked to Sean about it. And guess what? He hadn’t even thought about the work I was doing to get the kids ready! Since then he has made an effort to help, and things have gotten a lot better.
The point I’m trying to make is that while at one point Mike making a mess and leaving it for her to clean up would have “irritated” Debi to “the point of bitterness,” she solved this problem not by talking to Mike about it but rather by just deciding not to let it bother her. This is very much like what we talked about last week as Debi argued that women can become happier if they just purpose to be content where they are rather than working to change or improve their situations. So, without further ado, I give you:
Debi’s Rule #3: If you are irritated or discontent, just smile and be happy.
I’m adding this to my “Debi’s Rules” list.
Part II: That’s Just How Men Are
But now, as I watched him humbly slink off, I had to grin. I think I have finally come to understand the male psyche, at least this male’s. I know that the dumped trash bag was hard on the old boy. It is funny to think that men think women are so difficult to understand, but can you imagine a woman flinging a heavy garbage sack to prove how strong she is and then, having spilled it, leaving it for someone else to clean up?
Throughout her book Debi engages in this sort of gender essentialism. The thing is, her simple dichotomies don’t describe the world I live in.
None of the men I know today would do what Debi describes, and that I know plenty of women who would feel embarrassed if an attempt to show off didn’t work out. There are two things going on here, I think. First, the men Debi knows are not the men I know today. When I think about it, I could see some of the men I knew when I lived in circles influenced by Christian Patriarchy doing just what Debi describes. But the men I know now? No. This isn’t an essential male attribute or something here. It’s cultural. Second, Debi comes from a long line of authors explaining that men and women are so very different from each other that one woman practically needs a decoder ring to figure out anything about her significant other, and vice versa. The strong gender essentialism she’s preaching, while it might not be natural or describe the world I live in today, is not new.
And besides all that, the picture Debi paints of men isn’t very pretty. For example, if Sean had thrown a heavy trash bag just to have it miss the mark, split open, and spill all over, the two of us probably would have just laughed. Yes, Sean would have been embarrassed, but he’s pretty good at laughing at himself in this kind of situation. He wouldn’t have retreated out of embarrassment, and he certainly wouldn’t have left me to clean up his mess! That actually strikes me as extremely immature and juvenile, on top of being extremely thoughtless, unkind, and selfish. For all her emphasis on men needing respect, the picture she paints of men is one that doesn’t make them look like they deserve much respect.
Part III: Make a Run for It
Debi says that she knew that Mike would be looking for a chance to redeem himself in her eyes – not by doing extra cleaning to make up for the mess he left for her, but by taking out the trash the next time to prove his strength and discredited ability to throw straight. And sure enough, the next time Mike caught Debi heading out with a heavy trash bag (two weeks later, she says), he offered to take it out.
Just as he stepped out the door, I raced for the laundry room window. This time he carefully and gently pitched the heavy sack, and I was ready. Just as the sack left his hand, I let out a bloodcurdling scream. You would think he would get used to my tricks all these years, but I got him again. I wish you could have seen his reaction. His T-shirt shook as if a strong wind had hit it, as every inch of his body quivered with shock. Of course, my own body was in spasms of wild laughter.
I bet you didn’t see that coming.
Oh, it was a grand moment — until he turned to meet me eye to laughing eyes, and I knew I would have to pay for my rowdy entertainment. His addled brain came quickly back to the present, and he took off running back to the house at a speed the likes of which I thought he had long since become incapable. I knew there was no sense in trying to hide, because he would find me sooner or later, so I decided to use my “innocent lady” pose.
So when Mike came barging in the door, he found Debi calmly washing dishes.
My demure stance did not stop him. He grabbed me by the arm and started pulling me into the bedroom. Since he outweighs me by a hundred pounds, it was no contest, although he had to drag me all the way. I could only imagine what the office staff (right next door) might think if they happened to drop in at that moment. I was ready with another scream just in case our very reserved business manager appeared. It would have been really funny to see the manager’s horrified face. I can just imagine him thinking in horror, “And THEY teach marriage relationships.”
Mike thought he was going to scare me with his show of force, but he was dragging me to my favorite winning spot: the bedroom. While he shut and locked the door, I quickly arranged myself in a very inviting seductive pose. It gets him every time. It sure his handy being a woman. So he started smooching on me, while I continued giggling for a little longer. He smooches better than he throws a garbage sack. Well, that’s enough of this story! But can you see how much better a merry heart is than an ugly pile of hurt feelings?
I understand that Debi means this as a light-hearted story about how smiling and laughing is better than becoming angry and bitter. I also understand that this sort of banter, practical joking, and horsing around is normal, healthy, and enjoyable. In my reading of the second half of the story, Mike and Debi were just playing around and having some from. But.
This whole section makes me very uncomfortable. First, marital rape isn’t a subject that should be treated lightly. Second, talking about the bedroom in terms of “winning” and “losing” makes me uncomfortable as well (and confused as to where speaking of the bedroom as her “favorite winning spot” meshes with her description of sex as her way of “ministering” to her husband). Finally, I’m bothered by Debi’s use of language as she describes how Mike tried to “scare” her “with his show of force” and then speaks of him “dragging” her to the bedroom.
I get that this anecdote is supposed to be humorous and sweet. I also get the whole thing where a practical joke plus lots of laughter can lead to some pretty good sex. I really do! But I’m not sure the way Debi discusses this is very responsible. Why? Because the feeling I’m getting so far is that the advice Debi gives will probably have the greatest appeal to women stuck in bad relationships. And somehow I think laughing at the idea of marital rape, along with some of the terminology Debi uses to describe this situation, may not come across the way Debi intends when it is read by someone in an abusive relationship.
All this said, I get that regardless of how her piece comes across Debi’s goal in this section is not to make light of marital rape or marital abuse. Her point is that rather than becoming upset or angry, wives should simply clean up after their husbands with a smile, tolerate their husbands’ eccentricities, and make sure not to let the joy or fun go out of their marriages. I’m absolutely agree that it’s important not to get stuck in a cycle of bitterness, but I don’t like Debi’s way of avoiding this. I don’t think that, as was voiced in the previous installment, the solution is to simply stop demanding to be treated fairly. I think instead that the solution is open communication, especially about frustrations and hurt feelings.
But then, as I mentioned earlier, Debi appears to see men as in some sense alien, and perhaps that helps explain her avoidance of communication. If the men Debi knows can’t laugh at themselves when they spill a bag of trash while showing off, perhaps they wouldn’t respond well to their wives approaching them about the things that bother them. And if Debi views men as so completely different from women, that might explain why she doesn’t seem to see building marital partnerships based on communication and compromise as something to strive for. Debi’s goal, after all, is to help women learn to live more fulfilled existences as “helpers” to their husbands. And a helper would definitely clean up spilled trash.
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Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the religious right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving fundamentalist and evangelical religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the problems with the “purity culture,” the intricacies of conservative and religious right politics, and the importance of feminism. Her blog is Love, Joy, Feminism
NLQ Recommended Reading …
‘Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich
‘Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland
‘Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce