Valentine’s Day is coming up, and with it, a middle-aged married person’s thoughts turn to love. I’ve changed a lot regarding how I think about love and relationships. It’s astonishing to me to think about some of the bizarre notions I used to hold about how to conduct a good marriage. The blind led the blind, I guess. Long ago, I thought the idea of “one flesh” in marriage was just amazing. Now I know it’s a disaster in the making. Two of ’em, at least, actually. And here is why.
There’s something about the idea of a “one true love” that is like a merged twin self with me that really appealed to me when I was younger. I really wanted to believe in the idea of a couple who was joined that tightly. Stories and songs talked about it; even now, it’s common to see wedding invitations talking about the couple’s desire to blur the line between them so much that eventually the line can’t even be discerned. I’ve seen it even more than I’ve seen the sentiment that couples are “marrying their best friend.”
But is that a good thing? Is it fair? Does it work?
I say it is not a good thing for everybody. It can lead to a lot of unfairness. And for many couples, no, this conceptualization of marriage does not work.
Like a lot of things in modern Christianity, this vision of an equally-yoked couple is very deeply rooted. It’s also considered the big ideal for a marriage. This is what I and countless couples got taught we should aim for–to become “one flesh.” Once they’re that tightly joined, they can’t be sundered at all (except in Heaven, I guess, where there is “no marriage or giving in marriage,” as the Bible verse goes, so it’s your guess about how you’d be seeing your spouse–would Jesus magically un-marry you and then do some weird threesome? Again, this was something I was not encouraged to question or wonder about). When you’re one flesh, you put your needs last, after your spouse’s needs, and you put your goals on hold so you as a couple can reach your collective goals. You think of your partner first and yourself last and protect your spouse at your own expense if it comes down to it. Once gripped by love (or by Jesus’ will, which often looks absolutely indistinguishable from your own), you can’t even think about your own needs because you’re now a couple. It’s actually a charming concept–if you’re fifteen years old and having your first crush.
Disaster One: Enmeshment
What this vision leads to for way too many real couples in the real world, however, is something called “enmeshment” that isn’t really that good at all for anybody. Enmeshment is when a couple merges so much that they stop being their own individual selves. One person will become subsumed into the other person and stop doing the stuff he or she likes or even talking freely. The other person tends to set the tone for the relationship at that point–disapproving of anything that doesn’t fit the narrative or fall in with that person’s goals for the couple.
In enmeshment, the couple begins to think of each other as their sole source of companionship, entertainment, and edification. That might sound awesome, and some couples do great like this. But a lot of other couples don’t. Inevitably, one person emerges as the dominant person in the family, and that person’s tastes and desires set the stage for both or even all of the rest of the people in the family.
The hits just keep on coming though. The couple begins to think of themselves as responsible for each other’s well-being and development. They start thinking of each other as fix-it DIY projects instead of as their own people. And it’s almost impossible to keep from taking each other for granted.
When you start thinking of your partner as someone joined and fused to you at the hip, you stop thinking of that person as an individual–and moreso, as an individual who chose to be with you and who makes that choice anew every single day. You stop seeing that person as a real person and start seeing that person as a movie extra in the movie of your life, starring you. That partner stops being quite so real, and stops having needs that are distinct from your own and ideas that are different from yours. That partner stops being someone who might want different things than you do.
And it becomes all but impossible not to start abusing that person to make yourself more comfortable–they’re not really “real,” after all. You start assuming that whatever you want, your partner will want too, and that whatever makes you most comfortable, your partner will be totally fine with you doing. You may even–as one of my previous boyfriends did–start thinking your partner is actually morally required to stay with you no matter what tomfoolery and abuse you heap out upon that person. I’m not kidding. He said that. And wow, did he ever get really mad at me for all but laughing at that idea and breaking up with him anyway. He wasn’t a Christian, by the way, so this idea isn’t unique to any religion, and I’m not saying that it is.
But real love doesn’t always work with enmeshment. If I only had a dollar for every couple I’ve seen suffering from long-simmering resentment because someone’s getting taken for granted and doesn’t know how to turn that Titanic! If I did, you sure wouldn’t see my shiny white heiney around the blogosphere, that’s for sure.
Think I’m kidding about how prone to abuse this model can be? Do you ever hear men, especially working dads with stay-at-home wives and kids, complain about feeling like “walking wallets”? There’s a reason for that. Their wives start taking them for granted. I’m not talking about something that just men or just women do. This is universal human nature here. I’ve seen plenty of examples of everybody doing it, in same-sex and mixed-sex marriages and in polyamory. You hand someone the ability to use a partner with no repercussions, and chances are that using that unfortunate partner is what is going to happen. That’s why it’s vitally important for couples to cultivate their own interests, their own friends, their own personalities, and their own private spaces in a relationship, and to constantly strive to be the partner their partners would choose every day–and to be proud and dignified enough to know when their partner has completely stopped being the partner that they would choose again.
The real problem is that this model of enmeshment is considered the Christian ideal and put in front of young people, who are taught from childhood that they are supposed to be looking for a “soulmate” who will complete them and be their twin half, and that this person will become their end-all and be-all best friend, confidante, partner, sidekick, companion, bitching post, and perfect lover. I’ve taken to calling this soulmate a “woobie” in gaming and movies–this is the person the universe/a loving Daddy God (UGH!) awards you for being so awesome and deserving. And yes, I know TVTropes’ definition is slightly different and I totally don’t care. I thought of it before I thought to go to TVTropes see if it was there, so I’m keeping it like this because I’ve been using it for a couple years now. (Though on one MUD I played, this type of Reward Person was called a “shmoo” for more obvious–I hope–reasons.)
There is just no dignity in this kind of love or this kind of relationship, for many of us. I think it’s important for people to separate out a place for themselves mentally and emotionally. Even if it’s just a quiet reading nook, even if it’s just a desk in a home library, a forum to play on, even if it’s just an hour to degauss after getting home from work, I think everybody needs their own space. How much varies with the person, obviously. Some people need a lot; some don’t need much at all. But I think we all need that space. Christianity especially doesn’t really respect personal space or private time, and Christian couples end up with the idea that such concepts are really harmful somehow. They get really threatened by the idea. I know my Christian husband did.
I know part of the fear is that if someone keeps growing, and that is what this private space may well engender and encourage, then that person might grow clean out of reach of his or her spouse. And yes, that might happen. That’s one reason why it’s not wise to marry very young–as appealing as the idea is to fundagelicals to marry their
livestock daughters off very young, that’s a period of huge growth, and those couples are going to face some huge stresses as they continue to grow. This brings us to the second part of this post:
Disaster Two: Lack of Room To Grow
For me, I changed dramatically in my mid-20s, and my deconversion was just one small part of an arc of development that lasted until I was almost 30. I referred to that period as my second adolescence. (You really don’t want to know how much Hello Kitty swag I still own from that time.) I think now that even if I’d found a way to reconcile my new feminist outlook and rejection of Biblical inerrancy and omnimax ideas with Christianity somehow, like some Christians are doing nowadays, these changes would have spelled the end of my marriage all by themselves even if I’d come out of it calling myself some kind of Christian.
I know that Biff found a lot of these changes really uncomfortable because a lot of them were studied rejections of male privilege and rigid gender roles, both of which he’d gotten really used to enjoying. We had no real way to discuss those changes or how we felt about them, and no real way to figure out how to honor the changes I was making in myself and yet continue to live together amiably. We entirely lacked a vocabulary to handle those changes, and the level of respect I was starting to demand fell completely outside the comfort zone Biff had expanded to inhabit. When he realized he had absolutely no hold on me with all his conventional tools, you know what happened at that point, I reckon.
In an enmeshed couple, though, this change can be very slow–if it happens at all. If the dominant partner doesn’t like how the changes look, he or she can demand those changes be put on hold, or even rolled back. Biff sabotaged my weight loss efforts for years, even while criticizing my weight, for example. When he went to boot camp in the Army, I almost immediately lost the weight I’d been trying to lose for years, and his response when he returned was to criticize my new “worldly” clothes–not ogle his new Size Healthy wife. He never said a word of compliment about the positive changes I had made. Later he admitted that he’d felt much more comfortable with me as an obese woman because he was sure no good-looking man would ever make a play for me if I was fat (and he wasn’t bad-looking, so he figured I wouldn’t “trade down” by going for one who was less attractive than I already had). When I lost weight, he became very threatened and challenged at the idea that I was no longer obese and, in his opinion, undesirable. Now I was desirable, and my market value had improved. Alas, at that point he was no longer dominant, and I was no longer subsumed, so the changes he wanted to roll back did not get rolled back.
I should have seen this fear of his coming. I read The Women’s Room, by Marilyn French, for a psych class not long before that deconversion process started, and when Biff saw me reading it, he grabbed it out of my hands and literally hurled it across the dorm room into the garbage can. I had to rescue it because I hadn’t finished it yet and it was for a class–but he didn’t care. He was terrified that I might become (GASP!) an evil feminazi (this was during Rush’s big swoop to fame and the term was already coming into fashion with Dittoheads). I finished it away from Biff, and never told him I had finished it. As far as he knew, I’d let it stay in the garbage. I did not wonder why I allowed someone to do that to me. I did not ask why it was okay for him to tell me what I could and could not read. But I would ask later. I would be angry one day about his presumptuousness and arrogance, about the level of control and misogyny he was displaying. And I’d ask a lot of questions, yes. And he would not like them.
In the book The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery, the heroine, Valancy Jane, is similarly enmeshed with her mother and aunt. Her entire life is nothing but boring and stultifying routines and schedules. When she makes the slightest noise about trying to change anything–like her nickname, Doss, which makes her feel childish when she’s now quite mature–her mother freaks out and chides her, then sulks all day. Does that sound loving? No, it does not. When I first read it, I realized just what I’d done to myself by allowing people to refuse to allow me to grow and change (I ran into it while deconverting and have read my way through a few copies of it since). But it took me a while to realize that Valancy’s mother is actually pretty scared of getting old and even more scared of her daughter growing too old to marry and have children of her own, and may well think that keeping her daughter “childlike” will stave off inevitable aging. In the same way, I saw Biff’s earlier behavior with the other book as a symptom of his fear that I would become someone he couldn’t control–that I’d become a living raised middle finger to the values he’d internalized. And one must admit, both of those things are exactly what happened.
Biff was convinced these values were important and that they were what his god wanted. He would not hear of changing them. The problem was me. It was always me. It was never him. If I’d only go back to the way I’d always been before, all this arguing would stop and we’d be happy again. Except I couldn’t and wouldn’t do that. He had no way to honor the changes in me, and I sure wasn’t going to suppress and stifle what I saw as very important personal growth for him or anybody else–I was already a seething hellhole of PTSD, rage, and emotional trauma from the suppression I’d already done for him and my religion. When he demanded I just forget about all “this stuff” and return to my docile ways, I saw it as a demand that I plunge back into that pit of despair and humiliation. As such, I flat refused.
That’s what such refusals to accept change are all about, aren’t they? Fear. Everything that people do to each other that’s bad seems like it’s rooted in fear somehow.
Doesn’t perfect love cast out fear or something like that?
Christians in the Unequally Yoked Club, I know how it feels to be afraid. I lived in fear most of my life. But please, please, please do not reject your mate’s changes. I don’t have a lot of advice here, obviously; my own unequally yoked marriage did not withstand my own. But maybe hearing about a really awful method of handling those changes will help shed light on some better ones. Love is about growing. It can’t sit still; it has to move. And if you love someone, you want them to grow. Right? Don’t you? I mean, isn’t that what love is all about? Even if they grow in a way that you don’t like, isn’t it kind of a dick move not to let them grow? You can’t grab someone’s throat so hard you choke them to stop them from breathing.
Don’t be afraid of change. We need to change. We need to grow. The pot must be stirred or the soup sticks to the bottom and gets all burnt. When you love someone, you want them to grow. Even if that growth moves away from you, you still want that person to be happy, and you wouldn’t ever want to make that person unhappy by asking for something unreasonable like “never change or grow again, mmkay?” And you know you can’t control that person’s growth. You shouldn’t even want to try. It should be abhorrent to even think about it.
Christians in the UYC, what change is your spouse trying hard to suppress just to make you feel more comfortable, just to make you feel like everything is still just the same as it ever was? Why are you okay with your spouse doing that? What are you afraid will happen?
Join me tomorrow for Valentine’s Day. I wanted to talk more about love, but this was getting long, so I broke it out and will be sharing one of the great love stories of my life next time.