Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Submission: As Good as it Gets

In the comments of a recent post, we were discussing what "being submissive to your husband" might mean in practical terms, and especially how to live this teaching when it feels like your husband is not the "head of the family" that you might like him to be. The thought was this -- what if my husband is not a bad guy, but just sort of "ok"? It might be easier to be submissive if I felt like he was actively taking the lead and steering us in the right direction, but what if your husband is lukewarm in his faith, or lacks solid Christian formation, or is just a little burnt out himself? Does submission require that you just allow the family to drift? Well, the Kennedys have got me in a sailing mood, so my advice is this: trim the sails and get the boat moving, and you may well find he takes the helm in the very best ways.

I am going to give some specific, practical advice. Because it is specific, you will probably find that at least some of it does not apply to your situation. Take what is useful and disregard the rest, or take these things as babysteps a little bit at a time. What I can tell you is that my husband is a wonderful man, which is why I married him. When I have struggled, this advice has come either from the builders, spiritual directors, or my mother and grandmother, and when I follow it, my marriage is terrific.

1. When you want or need something from him, ask for specific things using nice language.

Sure, we all wish that our husbands could read our minds, or were just so sensitive that they knew what we wanted, but this kind of attitude is unfair and unrealistic. If your husband is a decent guy but doesn't take out the trash, tie up the trash bag, and ask him to please carry out the trash. While he is doing that, replace the trash bag. If he stinks at celebrating your birthday, you can say "my birthday is next tuesday, I am arranging a babysitter, would you please make a reservation at LeCirque." He will do it.

For a real life example, this principle made a huge difference in Red's recent family beach week. She got all the bags ready, and then told Mr. Red "It is important to me to leave before 8:30 because sitting in traffic puts me in a foul mood at the start of the vacation. The bags are all ready, so would you please pack the car the night before and plan to get an early start?" It was a reasonable request, she asked nicely, he is a reasonable man, and they were sitting on the beach at 10.

2. Don't give negative feedback as soon as he has done something.

This is a toughie. If you are asking for help inside the house, or with anything to do with the kids, he might not do it the way you would have done it. His way might be different, or it might be just plain wrong, but either way, bite your tongue. If you ask him to dress the baby for church and he comes out with stained overalls, let it go. Keep this in mind: the fault was yours, you should have been more specific and asked him to dress the baby in clean clothes. If it really matters, next time lay the clothes out, but in most areas it doesn't really matter, so accept that if you are going to get him involved you are going to have to let him do it his way.

3. Praise and say "Thank You"

Let's face it, everyone loves to hear how great they are, and if you thank your husband for the great job he is doing in certain areas, there is a good chance that he will try even harder. Also, in looking for opportunities to thank him, you will have a chance to notice for yourself all the great stuff he is actually doing.

4. Don't Compare

It does not matter which one of you is working harder, and it also does not matter what is going on in anyone else's marriage. The truth is, you just don't know what goes on behind other people's walls, but more importantly you have to live within yours. The last thing someone wants to hear is how much better someone else is, and really, it doesn’t even help to think it.

5. Cheer for his team

I grew up a Yankees fan, but I have recently realized that embracing my husband's hometown team is an important part of "leaving and cleaving." One way in which he is the head of the household is that he gets to pick what team your sons are going to fall in love with. Now, I am not a football fan at all, but I learned last year that football was not going away, so I had a choice: it could unite us, or divide us. Going back to #1, I told him that I would happily make game day food and let the kids wear jerseys, but that we could really only dedicate one weekend day to football, and this compromise seems to have really worked out for us. Now, I am happy to watch part of the Phillies game, then do the dishes or fold laundry while he watches, happy to have him shout to me when there are exciting plays, happy to have a household that is obsessed during the playoffs.

Recently, some guy friends were complaining to my husband about their wives hating sports, and he was so excited to say that I love watching the game with him. Now, Red can testify that I am not a true Philly fan and that I know very little about sports, but the key words here are “with him.” The reality is, football is his "man zone" so I am just glad that he wants me in there at all. I think of it like dating – you would try to find out a little bit about his team before you went to the Monday Night Football party at the fraternity, so give yourself a shot here – order some hot wings and get in on the fun.

Please note: If you are yourself a die-hard sports fan and you can cheer for a different team in a flirty-friendly rivalry sort of way, then by all means, keep your loyalties.

6. Find common ground

Of course, I don't want to watch sports all the time, and my husband has no interest in scrapbooking, so it has helped to find some things that we have liked to do together. This can mean compromising. I ski on easier ski slopes because I enjoy skiing with him, we DVR'ed American Idol and watched it every week, even though it is cheezy, because it was something fun to do together, we go to the driving range and he watches me do a terrible job hitting golf balls, and I let him show off as he does a better job, and we have fun. These are all things we would have done when we were dating, and they are an important part of maintaining the relationship.

7. Hire help

JM is laughing because I got all negative when she suggested this, but the truth is, she is right. If you are overwhelmed and burnt out, you need help, and if he can't or won't give it, you have to hire some to get over the hump. If there are areas of major contention in your marriage, like house cleaning, yard work or child care, hiring help may ease the tension. I have had a revelation recently, becuase our budget is tight, that hired help can come in the form of a frozen pizza and a DVD on Friday nights. Seriously, I don't have to cook dinner and kids are glued to the TV for 90 minutes, what a way to start the weekend!

8. Lay off the in-laws.

Of course his parents annoy you sometimes, even your own parents annoy you sometimes! Try hard to let it go, because no one wants to hear nasty comments about their family, and it is just going to lead to bad stuff. He loves you, he chose you, but he loves his parents also and he, and you, owe them some respect. Nobody's perfect, and they do things differently than you do. It is hard to blend families together, but this is another important part of "leaving and cleaving." You can follow #1 and set reasonable boundaries about the role they play in your life, how much you see them, etc, but err on the side of generosity and remember, you will be someone's mother in law someday, too, and no matter how much better you think you will be, you will still drive her a little crazy.

9. Respect him

Do not insult or belittle your husband, especially in the area of "manly" things that he is not good at. Do not list off all his faults to your mom or your girlfriends on the playground. We all need a good vent now and then, but do this with a trusted friend who will, at the end, tell you something wonderful about your husband and encourage you to get right back to loving him. Most of all, encourage your children to treat him with respect and do not enumerate his faults to them. There is nothing so inspiring to a man as being his little child's hero, and if you pop that bubble you also lose all the chance for growth that your husband might have had in that role.

10. Exercise

Everything is better when you exercise. If your husband needs to exercise, too, leave that aside, and just worry about yourself. I often leave for a run with a list of grievances, but I always come back in a much better mood. I have come to realize that it is so important for me to take care of myself in this way. If your husband wants or needs time to exercise, make that as easy for him as you can, he will be better for it, in health and disposition, so the time is very well spent.

11. Pray

Pray for your husband, your marriage, and your family every day. Go to the sacraments. Seek out a good priest for Spiritual Direction. Have faith that marriage to this man is your path to sanctification, but that does not mean that if your husband is not dragging you to prayer you do not go yourself. I spent a lot of time on "if only" -- we would pray a family rosary if only he would take the initiative, we would stop falling into certain sins if only he would take the lead. Well, that will get you nowhere. First, get yourself right. Next, feel free to invite or suggest, but stop nagging and let him come to it in his own way and God's own time.

I hope at least some of these suggestions are helpful. All I know is, this is what works for me, and my marriage is as good as it gets.

For more on men and prayer, you might check out the podcast at Faith and Family Live. Episode 20 has a great comment from a married man about his growth as the spiritual leader of his family.

An important disclaimer:

This advice assumes that neither you or your husband have underlying mental health, substance abuse issues or other reasons for needing therapy. If you do, or he does, there is really no amount of friendly advice that is going to help you, you need to seek professional help. If you are in an abusive situation, tell someone you trust and make a plan for leaving as soon as possible. It is not your fault, it will get worse, and it is not up to you to "be nicer and work it out."


MargaretJDMom said...


This is all so true and it took me years to figure it out. One additional thing- don't hold a grudge. Even if you do get upset, work at getting over it faster, give the benefit of the doubt etc. DON'T pout, refuse to speak, withhold affection etc. Treat him like you want to be treated. I know it sounds like a no brainer, but when we are caught up in ourselves it can be pretty easy to get huffy. So often we women can treat our husbands worse than our sisters, mothers, or friends. Sure, sometime we need to cool off a bit, but then begin again!!!

St. Josemaria said that you don't love your husband if you don't love your husband with all his faults. We have our own faults, and we expect to be cut slack about them, and our husbands deserve the same.

Thanks MA for taking the time to set out this advice in practical form.

Helen said...

Great follow-up post, Mary Alice! I would add one thing(from my Marriage Encounter Days): When you have an area of disagreement with your spouse, or there's something you want from him you should focus on "I" messages, as opposed to "you" messages and, as Mary Alice said, be SPECIFIC. For example, "I feel frustrated when dishes are left in the sink, it would really make me happy if you loaded the dishwasher after dinner" is usually much better received than "Look at this mess! Why do I have do everything around here?!" I am a professional complainer ;)and this change in language is the #1 thing I did to improve the communication in our marriage. As Mary Alice said, it also helps to let go of having things done "my way"- I'm just grateful to have them done! BTW, this works great for teenagers as well ;)!

And for the record, this change in communication style (on my part) was effective in our marriage for spiritual shortcomings too. We had a very serious issue that threatened our marriage years ago. After years of complaining - to no avail - I changed how I communicated the problem and my feelings about it,and my husband was (finally!)able to see the effects of his choices on me, our marriage and our children. With Christ's help (and my prayerful support), he HAS changed and IS the holy husband I always dreamed he could be.

In his book, "Three to Get Married," Bishop Fulton Sheen talks about Ephesians 5 and our mission as married couples, which is to get each other into heaven. That mission requires that we challenge each other to overcome our own sinfulness, even as we "mutually submit" to the overall mission destination - the heavenly banquet.

You need to pick your battles, however, always staying focused on the ultimate destination. In that light, having a picture-perfect house with a husband and children who never lay around in front of the TV is not nearly as important as unconditional love, commitment to the marriage and family and a genuine desire to grow closer to God, avoiding things which threaten those goals. We have learned (the hard way!) to let go of the little irritants that plague every marriage and focus on the larger areas of good, nurturing them as much as possible, and gently and prayerfully challenging each other in the areas where careful pruning of sinful branches will help us (as individuals and as a married couple) yield the best spiritual fruit.

Right Said Red said...

#2 and #3 are wonderful advice, and in our marriage if I focus on these things it really helps.

#9 is a major problem area in most marriages! Most of the conversations at the playground, story hour, and other places where moms gather are just husband bashing sessions (I think this was the point of an earlier post by JM). The disrespect is unbelievable! I would be absolutely heartbroken if my husband spoke about me in this way, so there is absolutely no excuse for us to do it to them.

Karen said...

Wonderful post! I am going to print in out to remind myself and check my behavior every now and then.

With God's help, you can love your husband for who they are right now.

I can defiantly testify to praying for your husband. God is so much better at changing our husbands hearts then we are.

Mary Alice said...

Margaret, thanks for that addition, I was just thinking about that this morning. It goes not just for arguments but for all those little annoyances that are part of living with someone.

It sometimes helps to attach these things to prayer. Every time I close the closet door in the morning, I try to thank God that my husband stays with us for breakfast and then rushes off to work, it has helped me to stop being annoyed that he doesn't close the door. All marriages have these little things.

Helen, my in laws recently attended marriage encounter and watching the changes in communication has been inspirational for me. Thanks for sharing your story and I am glad that God turned things to the good in your marriage!

Red, yes, and these are also great places for Mother In Law bashing. I have only recently realized that the less I talk about someone's faults, the less I notice them! So this is not only a matter of respect, but it actually helps us to be more loving. I do find it hard to tactfully turn the conversation if it goes this way, though, I often join in, I need to pray about this more.

Mary Alice said...

Karen, Amen! God is good!

mad cow said...

Mary Alice,

Great thoughts. I will be forwarding to Mrs. Mad Cow.

Mad Cow

Anonymous said...

Many thanks for this, Mary Alice. I really needed it after the week we're having!

Mary Alice said...

No doubt Mr. Mary Alice will also be forwarding this to me!

Juris Mater said...

MaryAlice, wow, thank you so much for taking the time to compose this. This is a playbook for ANY marriage, regardless of how easy or difficult the marriage is. It's affirming for me, too, to be reminded of these things from another Christian woman I know personally. It's one thing to read such wisdom in a wife book, but another to remember that my close friends are ever-mindful of being excellent wives that I'm not the only one around who thinks this is worthwhile. It CAN be so discouraging to listen to the talk around us, and can make us feel silly for investing all that we do in building dynamic marriages instead of giving in to complaining and just riding it out. ALL of you, builders, readers, thank you for your example and presence in my life as Christian women who light the earth on fire for God by how you live. The witness of a woman who is loyal to her husband in her words, docile to her husband in her attitude, faithful to her spouse to end changes the world, everyone notices this, from the kids, to the neighborhood children, to the playground moms, to the extended family. EVERY effort is worth making for the sake of marriage, because of its effect on our earthly and eternal happiness and on the well-being of the whole world. Saying marriages are the bedrock of civilization isn't just poetic language, it's the way God designed humanity. Thank you, MaryAlice, for reminding us of the small, practical ways that we can create excellent marriages. Also, I think that where charity and all its associated virtues (loyalty, faithfulness, self-control) are, in marriage, romance isn't far behind.

Heather - Doodle Acres said...

Thanks Mary Alice for your beautiful and thoughtful post. It takes a lot of courage to speak the truth and you do it beautifully!!! Miss you here on Long Island!!!

Marcy K. said...

This was excellent. I will be sure to pass it on to all my friends. I always try to give my hubby lots of affection (it comes naturally) and be sure to tell him he is great and a wonderful husband. All of it is true, and it is good for men to hear it since they take such bashing in society.

Anne said...

I'm printing it out, too! Thanks!

Honestly Wondering said...

I was one of those who asked the original questions in the previous post. I think Mary Alice's advice is great... But.
The big "but" for me is summed up in this verse: "as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone." The first part is key because where there is a married couple, there are TWO wills. I mean that these tips from M.A. work very well when the husband WANTS to be a good leader and a good husband. I am the first to agree that respect, kindness and gratitude can also go a long way in inspiring the best in a man (and anyone, for that matter), and it also can make for a peaceful home.
But back to the original question: what about when they don't WANT to be better spouses.
Now to get a little more personal: my husband actually does want to be a good person, and tries his best to do things that he knows will please me. But over the last few years, he has confided that he no longer has any kind of faith. He is sad about it and wishes he believed in God, and of course I am completely devastated about this and hoping and praying for a renewal of faith in his heart.
So I do not have that abusive marriage you mention in your disclaimer, but I also wouldn't say it's great, either. We have kids, but only one of us cares about imparting the faith to them. This is really tough and has all sorts of day-to-day challenges. And of course when it comes to things like spiritual leadership, I can't do all the right things to get him to care about his spiritual role when he doesn't even believe he ought to have one. So I have come to a place where I have had to accept that besides prayer, there is very little I can actually DO about it. I tried all sorts of things at first, but I am learning to be humble and back off and let the Holy Spirit do the real work.
Kimberly Hahn's "Graced & Gifted" has some really beautiful things to say about humility in all areas of the home life--marriage, child-rearing, house-cleaning. No amount of "trying harder" is going to change the fact that I simply cannot do everything that needs to be done in a day, in my heart, in my husband's heart... For me this is part of learning abandonment and hope, and I have great peace about it now.
So I guess this is what I like about this post: that it is full of hope and that it is founded on true respect for the dignity of each spouse. I know I am not alone out there in having a spouse who lacks the will to change or aspire to be more, so I figured I would post some thoughts here.

Oh, one final (humorous) thought on this part of M.A.'s post: "Keep this in mind: the fault was yours, you should have been more specific and asked him to dress the baby in clean clothes." Ok, so we shouldn't lash out in anger, but can't we even laugh at the guy!?! Some of us have very brilliant and educated spouses, so can't they be expected to use some common sense!?!
(Mr. M.A, I hope you are reading this...) :)

Geoff said...

I agree with Juris Mater, there are many useful tidbits in here that should make it into a playbook for marriage. Specifically, points 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 10 are great pointers, though it seems to me that none of these concerns submission.

Point 2 is a great example of how to avoid making tiny disagreements any more important than they need to be. It's so easy to let little outcomes take on cosmic dimensions. This is good advice that applies equally to men and women, and is part of each spouse dying to self, the whole idea of "mutual submission". Same with point 6, where each spouse submits their individual preferences for the sake of the other. OK, not very controversial so far.

Point 11 gets interesting-- it shows that in your house there is definitely a hierarchy in prayer. Am I correct in saying that, on principle, you decided that as the mother you would not lead a family rosary? If so, what was this principle, and how did you come to bind yourself to it?

Now in the spirit of making this blog a place to talk about the more thorny issues, I raise these questions with the hope that we might flesh them out and get some good answers.

In point 5, I'm curious as to how your family decided that football could only be a one day a week event. How did that conversation go? Did your husband have the final say? If so, is this proper? If not, is that proper?

Point 1 gives three examples (trash, birthday celebration, beach trip) of how a woman can make suggestions in order to achieve some desired result, but it doesn't necessarily illustrate submission in action, especially since each example you provided ended with an obliging husband. Some questions that interest me: 1) how might a wife respond in each of these situations if her husband thoughtfully (not capriciously) decided that he would not accommodate the request? 2) when a wife specifies her birthday gift for her husband, is it an inherently emasculating action? 3) would it be better to encounter the suffering of a birthday-done-poorly than to take the gift out of a birthday celebration? 4) is there another solution to the problem of a husband as a chronically-lousy birthday celebrator?

Right Said Red said...


I think that in a good marriage, submission (truly doing what your husband wishes, against your own wishes) is a very unusual situation. It will happen from time to time, but should happen only rarely. MaryAlice's suggestions are a means to avoid a power conflict within marriage, and for a wife to show respect and love for her spouse.

Your questions seem to imply that a wife should stop expressing her wishes, or when she does express her wishes, she should be content when her husband refuses to oblige. If this sort of scenario is happening regularly in a marriage, such that a husband doesn't want to do basic things that his wife asks him nicely to do (such as leave the house at a certain time to get the vacation off to a good start), I would have serious concerns about the overall health of such a marriage. MaryAlice was writing with the assumption that the husband was rational, and took the commitment to care for his wife and family seriously.

Marriage is a two way street, and, as Honestly Wondering pointed out, sometimes the best and only thing left for a wife to do is pray. I think if the husband takes the power approach you hinted at in your post, then prayer is probably the only way for a wife to approach her marriage.

Geoff said...

Thanks Red, for your thoughtful response.

I agree that if a husband is consistently making decisions that seem to ignore his wife's legitimate and reasonable preferences, there are big problems. The marriage would be a parody of submission if the husband so clearly mocked the mandate to love his wife as Christ loves the church.

So, let's assume that this sort of scenario is not happening regularly in a marriage, such that a husband only rarely decides not to do certain things that his wife asks him nicely to do, and only then with a legitimate reason. Let's further assume that the husband is rational, and takes the commitment to care for his wife and family very seriously. Perhaps for the sake of discussion this rules out the trash example and the beach example, though not necessarily the birthday example.

Now, with these assumptions in place, might I be able to re-submit the questions above?

I ask them in an honest spirit of curiosity because submission is a very thorny issue, and for this reason it often doesn't get discussed nearly enough. It never gets preached from the pulpit, and only rarely does it come up in the context of Christian fellowship. I applaud BC for tackling it, as y'all are no doubt doing a lot of good by so doing.

Mary Alice said...


Thanks for your questions. Also, I think your mode of asking is a great model for promoting dialogue and even, perhaps disagreeing with a post, in a civil way. As a man whose wife reads the blog, it is helpful to have your feedback, and important to discuss this advice in case it is misleading in any way.

Also, thanks for your response to Red. I think that flat out "no" is a rare response is an important one, so I answer with that in mind.

First, on that note, I would say that the more that I am following the other points, the more likely it is that my husband will say yes when I ask him. In part, this is because we are not in a power struggle and he does not have to prove that he is the alpha in the house by denying my rational requests. I think it can build to this point if you are disrespectful of your husband in other ways. So, I would say that it is very rare for my husband to say, flat out, no, to the specific things that I ask of him. I will address those "no"s in a minute.

Second, I was educated in a school where a popular motto was "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." So, for me, everything that I do to improve my marriage is an act of submission to the very idea of him. I love my husband and family dearly, and yet I have a burning temptation to chuck the whole thing and have a totally independent life, just to prove that I can. I wonder whether other women struggle with this.

On #11, I guess that is not really about submission, but it is for me because exercise has become so important to my husband and he has encouraged me to exercise as well. I exercise sometimes because I know it is the right thing for my family, to improve my mental and physical health, not because I am enjoying it. Also, we have had comments before that allowing husbands to take time to exercise is a tough point for already overworked mothers, so in that area it is about submission, and for us I have put his exercise needs ahead of mine for the sake of his health and well being, and I found that after I gave him plenty of support in that area, which I guess also corresponds to personal time, he supported me, too.

On point #11 -- this post was in response to a comment about a husband who did not pray, so it does assume that there is a difference in that area.

In my particular case, my husband, while Catholic and a man of strong virtue, did not grow up with the tradition or habit of family pray and also does not have the religious formation that I have. My prayer life changed after marriage, at first because I was waiting for him to lead and suggest, and later because I was using him as an excuse for my own spiritual laziness.

Praying for your husband is important regardless of where he is on his walk.

In the case of mortal sin, we cannot submit to participation in this, so firm lines can be drawn. Good spiritual direction can be very helpful in this.

In the case of prayer routines, no, I did not decide that I would not lead a family rosary. I decided, instead, that I would submit to my current situation, which requires that I lead the rosary. I see a much stronger need for family prayer in our house now that my children are coming to the age of reason, so I am trying hard to establish these habits. The more I pray for my husband, the more likely it seems to be that he joins in and even takes over leadership of these areas. I would be careful, however, not to do this in a way that is condescending or manipulative, I think there is a fine line there.

Mary Alice said...


On TV Sports, I think this is a legitimate question, and it also comes in to #1 -- and the question of whether we should be speaking up at all. I would say that in the spirit of fraternal correction, I saw that for a man who works during almost all of his children's waking hours to spend much of his weekend watching TV was a problem. For a while, I just whined about it. Then, Red came to visit, and I saw how much fun she had watching the Eagles game, and how important it was to her. I began to see football not just as "the annoying thing that husbands use to tune out their families" but instead an interest/hobby of my husbands. I also saw how our family became part of something exciting when the Phillies were in the playoffs. We were more a part of our community when we were participating, and we were also having a lot of fun as a family. So, for me, the first step was to see that TV sports was not all bad. I hear so many women say "I just hate football season." Perhaps this is because it is taken to excess in your home, but perhaps it is because it is just another socially accepted "husband failing" to watch football. In submitting to football, I had to make sure that I was not doing something that was going to damage our family, and so I asked that we only watch our team play, so that the children did not sit in front of the TV all day. When Sunday afternoons turned into a party with a game food dinner at halftime, my husband seemed happy to turn off the pre-game on Saturday. If he chooses to watch a game on Monday night after the kids are in bed, I usually just choose to do something else. He is not a big college football fan, and he does not play fantasy. I think either of those would make it harder to stick to the "one game a weekend" rule, which is not a rule that I am at all universally promoting, just an example of how giving a lot can get you what is right in the end. Again, I would say that this was an area in which when football stopped being about who was in charge of our weekends and instead became about family we stopped fighting about it. We also got a DVR. This is expensive, but in this area it helps alot, becuase we can have dinner during half time, get the kids ready for bed, and then watch in pajamas without missing anything, and we often start the game late and fast forward the commercials.

My household is waking up, so I have to get back to real life, but I will have more to say later, specifically about birthdays, and what to do when he says no.

Mary Alice said...

Okay, so I want to look more at these questions:

1) how might a wife respond in each of these situations if her husband thoughtfully (not capriciously) decided that he would not accommodate the request? 2) when a wife specifies her birthday gift for her husband, is it an inherently emasculating action? 3) would it be better to encounter the suffering of a birthday-done-poorly than to take the gift out of a birthday celebration? 4) is there another solution to the problem of a husband as a chronically-lousy birthday celebrator?

First, now that we are in a good relationship, if my husband says no I would always just accept it. First, there is nothing I can really do about it, as you cannot (or should not) "make" another adult do something by force or manipulation. Second, often there is a wisdom there that I really can't see. In our case, this happens particularily in my husband's role as family protector. When he speaks in this way, I take his advice very seriously.

With smaller things, like a request to put away his cereal bowl, I might ask him, but I would also try to often, if he forgets, do it myself out of love rather than asking again and again.

With birthdays, this is tough issue for us. Perhaps I should just suffer the lousy birthday gift, and sometimes I do, but my husband does not want to give lousy birthday gifts, so he appreciates some direction in this area. This does not always mean totally destroying the surprise. In our extended family we do Christmas lists, and it is nice to get something knowing that it is what the person really wants. This does not remove the generosity, and it does not preclude some surprises. For us, having six kids under 8, my needs and wishes change from year to year. Last year, I really wanted to go out to dinner, and this year I really just wanted some family together time. It is too hard for my husband to keep up with this!

Perhaps for someone who is a natural "gift giver" being told what to give would be too much interference, but this is not the case for us.

It helps that this is not "emasculating" because my husband and I are both admittedly lousy in this area -- we have had a few years where we have had to take birthday "do-overs." I am happy to do what he wants in this area, but I am equally bad at figuring out what that might be. Party with family and friends, day at the beach, time alone?

I think that speaking up in nice ways can be very important and I have been thinking about it alot lately because I know some middle age couples who are struggling with the empty nest and a bitter wife, while the husband really thought that things were great all along. Perhaps he would have been happy to do things differently if he had known, but she, in an effort perhaps to be submissive but failing, or perhaps through lack of communication, has internalized a lot of hurt. Perhaps she even allowed him to do things which, while not explicitly sinful, turned out to be harmful to the family.

I think that tone makes a big difference here, and it is hard to find the right tone, and the attitude behind it, especially for a woman who spends most of her time mothering to not treat or view her husband as another child. Seriously, he is my rock, and the more that he knows that the stronger he usually is.

Anonymous said...

Very humble, insightful wise advice.
thank you.

Heather said...

Mary Alice, this was a great post. Thank you. As one of the people who asked the questions prompting it, I find the advice ver concrete--affirming many things I already try to do and challenging to improve in others.

I especially appreciate your definition of respect. Like love, it's more about action than emotion. Even if I don't find my husband admirable in many ways, I can respect him by refraining from belittling him to his face or behind his back.

MargaretJDMom said...

"I love my husband and family dearly, and yet I have a burning temptation to chuck the whole thing and have a totally independent life, just to prove that I can. I wonder whether other women struggle with this."

MA, I can vouch that you are not alone in this temptation! : )

Sophie said...

I hope I'm not too late to the party here, but I just had a few thoughts regarding the post. MA you are very gifted in your ability to summarize important aspects of a difficult subject and give examples in your own life. Thank you for your time in writing it down!
I especially think the last part you said about the empty nest couples is important.
What I feel is missing a bit is in the area of moving forward and growing as a couple. I believe that it's not only important to communicate helpful criticisms in charitable ways but for the husband and wife to work on those little annoyances.
So for instance, your husband always leaves his balled up socks in your path. It drives you batty. When you trip over them for the umpteenth time what to do? Communicate specifically, calmly, without judgment and irrational assumptions about "why" he may have done it. But it doesn't end with silence on your part the next time it happens. later on, in a calm voice it can be an area of growth for you and your husband. It can be an incredible act of charity for the husband to make a concerted effort to do something so small out of love to keep his wife happy. Yeah, maybe it's not a big deal to him, but to work hard to change habits that your partner finds annoying is huge act of love and the marriage will reap huge benefits.

I think the problems come when a wife thinks she's communicated about it, but did so in a nagging disrespectful way. The husband doesn't really get the importance of the thing so makes little effort to change, and wife just silently bears it (out of a warped understanding of submission) and grows increasingly resentful. It can be about the smallest thing or major things. Either way it's damaging.

So I guess I'd relate this to the dressing the kids for church on sunday. Sure, be specific, talk about it calmly, but I think it's also fair to expect some growth and effort on the husbands part in trying to dress them appropriately and if he's not sure, to simply ask, "hey I thought this was ok because_____ is it ok with you?" I really don't think silence is the answer for things like that.

As always I think the builders have done a great job in sparking a great discussion, and getting down to the nitty gritty.

Heather said...

MA, your comment about being careful to not treat your husband like a child prompted another question in my mind: what to do, if the more you cope with your husband's failings by some combination of gently asking him to do specific things and taking care of it yourself and/or hiring help when he won't, the more childish he becomes?

For instance, whenever I very gently ask my husband to do change how he's doing something (e.g. "Honey, in the future, could you remember to not put the bathing suits through the dryer because it can ruin them? Please hang them up to dry.") his usual reaction is something like "fine, I won't do the laundry at all" and/or he continues the same behavior even though I've made the same request several times.

Because I work outside the home and I can't rely on him to help with taking care of the baby for more than a couple hours or to help with housework and errands, we've hired help for all these things--my mother for childcare and errands, and a cleaning crew every other week. The problem with hiring all this help is that it gives him even more free time that he mostly uses for watching TV (or worse, looking at porn until I found out and put a filter on the computer). It's especially bad because he went to part time work when our baby was born so he could take care of her while I was at work, but then he didn't really want that much work and responsibility, and he hasn't gone back to full time work because he can't make up his mind about what his career goals are and is perpetually taking classes to get certified in more things that he may or may not ever do. (He's 35, by the way.)

Before we were married, he was in the habit of cleaning his own apartment, doing his own laundry, etc. and did a good job of it. Now he's gotten into the habit of other people taking care of things and he complains bitterly about the few chores he still does (washing dishes and taking out the garbage).

Bottom line, it seems that he WANTS to be treated like an adolescent. And I've found that the "it would make me happy if..." line doesn't seem to move the needle with him. Is there anyway to stop enabling the childishness? (I have a feeling this is a deep-rooted problem in his family--his brothers don't want to grow up either. They are 31 and one has a PhD and a good job and still lives at home, and the other is a perpetual grad student.)

Right Said Red said...


You said, "let's assume that this sort of scenario is not happening regularly in a marriage, such that a husband only rarely decides not to do certain things that his wife asks him nicely to do, and only then with a legitimate reason."

Under this set of circumstances, I think the wife should submit and allow her husband to make the final call. But as I said earlier, if the husband is truly following Christ, this should happen but rarely.

Geoff and MaryAlice,

I want to talk about the football example a bit because I think it brings up a key point regarding submission and marriage.

MaryAlice, you said, "In submitting to football, I had to make sure that I was not doing something that was going to damage our family, and so I asked that we only watch our team play, so that the children did not sit in front of the TV all day."

MaryAlice has a duty to respect and submit to her husband, but she also has a duty to care for her children. If her husband's preferences are such that he is putting her in a position where she would be breaching a duty to her children, she cannot obey or submit to his wishes. In their case, him watching too much football when he rarely sees the children during the week would be detrimental for their family. In such a case, I believe MaryAlice would be breaching her duty to her children if she just submitted to his wishes. Obviously if her husband was just being a jerk in a way that did not impact the family, I would think it better for her to obey because she wouldn't have an exuse not to. But when his wishes conflict with one of her duties, as in the football example, she cannot simply go along for the ride under the excuse of submission. This example holds true in other authority figure situations (such as a priest who asks a parishioner to do something that would damage their family, or the church). It is here that submission and obedience become rather grey, and a lot of prayer and discerning is necessary to determine which duty takes precedence.

In the case of MaryAlice and her family, I think they solved their problem very nicely, and she now feels she can submit to football (even though she would probably prefer to do something else with the family time) because the limited nature of the commitment does not conflict with the duty of raising their children properly. Make sense?

Megan said...

Thank you for sharing these thoughts! :)

I've just come upon your blog now, and for this to be the first post I read is awesome. I've thought about this sort of advice and even given it a few times to women who were surprised to hear it, but realized how powerful it is. To "submit" truly has a practical place in the real world today, and so many women take it the wrong way. Wonderful insights. :)

Bethany said...

I find this post very enlightening as well as beneficial.

Perhaps this part of my comment would have been best suited under the other post but I feel I must restate that the text from the Bible regarding a wife's submission to her husband (Eph 5:22-24) is meant to be read in the same context as the next 9 lines (Eph 5:25-33). Given the fact that love as defined by Christ himself is "There is no greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends," for me personally it kind of settles the whole submission thing. (Eph 5:21, kind helps to, since it says "Submit to one another." The rest is just an explanation of how married couple may submit and love in different ways from those who are not married.)

Explications aside: First of all: I find it kind of funny that the subject of football is such a hotbed of thorniness when discussing the topic of submission. I think I find it funny because I am actually the football fan in the family. Actually sports fan in general. I remember watching the '85 Bears win the Super Bowl and I love Peyton Manning. Go Colts! My husband never really liked watching sports until long after we started dating and now he's a Packers fan so we have "friendly" rivalries in our household. My next goal is College Basketball (Go Big Ten!).

That being said, I find myself disagreeing with Red when she says, Obviously if her husband was just being a jerk in a way that did not impact the family, I would think it better for her to obey because she wouldn't have an excuse not to. If your husband is being a jerk about it and is purposefully not living up to the potential then he is failing at the second half of that Bible passage that I mentioned above. The one that always seems to get left out.

While we are indeed all humans and no one likes or wants to have their faults pointed out to them, when someone, anyone, is making a mistake in judgment, (and my argument would be that if the husband is being a jerk about watching too much football or not agreeing to take out the trash or refusing to at least try and acknowledge his wife's birthday then he is setting a bad example for the children, which does indeed affect the family- a mistake in judgment) then no, I don't believe the wife should "obey". Allowing your husband to continue to make mistakes in judgment without gently reminding them of their duties and responsibilities to themselves, their wives, and their children is not submission. It's resignation.

Moira said...

I am late in adding a comment here; I just had a thought about #9: i agree that there is much too much "venting" about their husbands that goes on when women visit with other women.
It hadn't occurred to me before, but after reading this I wonder if trying to extract ourselves from such conversations immediately might have an unintended result: if the "venting" was just a prelude to an honest confidence about a more serious marital problem, then our concerns about avoiding gossip might leave a friend feeling like we are not available to hear about real struggles.
I have been trying to take the "avoid gossip" approach lately myself, and I had not thought of this other possibility until today. I think there is a delicate balance here that is possible, but it means I will have to be careful in my choice of words...
Thanks for another thought-provoking post, Mary Alice.

Mary Alice said...

I think that this is a great point, and that sometimes being a good listener is just what someone needs. Also, if you are abrupt about changing subjects or just no fun to hang out with at the playground, it is hard to make friends!

I tend to be overly critical and also share way too much about what I am thinking, so instead of working on avoiding gossip I am going to try working on avoiding an "idle mind" -- if I read the news or some literature I have other things to talk about. My mother has been listening to college classes from the teaching company on her ipod, and was telling me all about how our brains work the other day, it was fascinating, a good alternative to our usual "dish session." I think that we women do need to talk, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Jennifer Frey said...

One of the best threads here yet. Submission can be tricky business, and when we pretend otherwise I think we get into real trouble (this was supposed to be the thrust of my original comment on the original post). And I think this thread has brought out the fact that it is really, really important that those of us who have really great and faithful husbands and a great family life realize how lucky and blessed we are. This is not the case for all women out there, and we should understand why this teaching will be difficult for them to hear, and very complicated to try to apply realistically.

I look forward to future posts on this topic, including how we can speak effectively to those Catholics who find this teaching too difficult to accept (including those with good husbands).

Kathy said...

Could someone please respond to Heather's comments/questions? I find myself in a similar situation and don't think it is addressed in the scenarios of the "very good marriages" written about here.

Is it the situation of "all you can do is pray"?

Mary Alice said...

To be honest, I think that Heather's problems are serious, and beyond the scope of blog conversation. I think that marriage counseling is probably needed. Pornography is a very serious problem and can be connected with other forms of addiction. Somehow, he has spiraled into a lazy and possibly depressed situation, and it might take professional intervention to find out the causes and the solutions.

Heather said...

Mary Alice,

You may be right about needing professional help. It would be nice if he or we could try just talking with our parish priest to begin with. (My husband does go to confession about the pornography, though I'm not sure he acknowledges that any of his other juvenile/selfish behavior is sinful.) Unfortunately, the young priests who are inspiring in their homilies and good confessors keep getting transferred out to the hinterland exurbs and there aren't any left within a reasonable distance from where we live. That's why he is angry at the Church and I think contributes toward depression. He wants to be challenged at Mass, but between bland homilies and trying to keep quiet a very active toddler, that just isn't happening. I also wish I could find a spiritual director to talk with about these things, but it's very difficult to find a priest who is trustworthy who has time to be a spiritual director, and it's hard to find time or transportation on my end too. It's very frustrating for all of us.

Mary Alice said...


I know that there are times when I experience spiritual dryness related to the fact that I spend my time at mass supervising a toddler! Sometimes, I need to grow in patience and just sacrifice, but I am learning that sometimes I really need to have a chance to focus at mass. Perhaps you can get a babysitter so that the two of you can go to mass together? Perhaps you could do a date night on a Saturday where you do confession, mass, and then dinner?

I think in your case this would be better then trading off for mass.

I can also recommend trying to really see the beauty in every mass, no matter how mediocre the music or the homily.

If your husband is feeling like his confession and mass experience are both sort of not great, I would suspect that he is depressed. While I have not struggled with his specific issues, I have experienced some of the anger/frustration that you describe him feeling, and a few masses without a toddler go a long way for me. Perhaps even a weekday mass is an option? Weekday masses are sort of stripped down to the essentials, which can be really helpful. Then, Sunday becomes a time given to the Lord in whatever form he will take it, screaming toddler in the vestibule, etc, where the weekday mass is a mini-retreat for me, if I can get to go by myself.

Mary Alice

Heather said...

Yes, a Saturday night Mass and date night would probably be good, but it would have to be at a different parish for him to get anything out of it. He has been consumed with anger for the last year at our pastor: first, he was furious at the pastor's decision to start allowing girls to be altar servers (which I really don't care about either way). Then the pastor said nothing in the fall as many parishioners sported Obama stickers on their cars, yet AFTER the election urged us to sign petitions against FOCA, saying "we've elected the most pro-abortion President ever." Yes, he should have mentioned that BEFORE the election, but I don't think it's profitable to steam about that for months and months. The final kicker was that the junior priest we really liked got transferred away this summer after only one year, and my husband is convinced it was because the junior priest wouldn't allow girls to be altar servers when he said Mass so the pastor wanted him out of the way. Yes, my husband should try to look beyond these things and focus on why he's at Mass, and I've said that to him more times than I can count, but he is obstinant in his "right" to disapprove of female altar servers and concludes that he might as well "not care and just put in his time like everyone else."

There is one very conservative parish about 20-25 minutes away with no female altar servers and a priest who gives better homilies, and I've told him several times in recent months that we can go there, and it's near his parents so it wouldn't be hard to get babysitting most of the time, but most weeks he just wants to do the easy thing and go to our local parish even though it makes him angry. Maybe I should insist on it, instead of asking him what he wants to do? (But then we get back to the whole "subordinate" problem, and whether my taking charge only encourages him to be more adolescent in his behavior...)

What drives me nuts is that he thinks he's such a great Catholic because he's "traditional" and "conservative" but it doesn't matter at all to him that he's selfish and unaffectionate with his wife. I've said so many times that I think we should be focused on how whether we're being loving in our family and not on judging the people next to us in the pews we don't even know, but he just ignores it. I know one of his brothers sometimes says the same kinds of things to him, but he ignores him too.

Back to the "all you can do is pray" idea. Maybe at least I can find a way to make it to weekday Mass by myself once a week to give myself a little more opportunity to do that. Before I got married and moved to the burbs and had a baby I would go 2-3 times a week. But it's very now difficult because I have to schedule it around my work, his work, my mother having several doctor's appointments every week, and the fact we only have one car. Sigh. I feel very trapped.

Kathy said...


I have dealt with, and still deal with, many of the feelings and challenges you have expressed, particularly the confusion, frustration and sense of feeling trapped.

So, FWIW, a couple things I have found that have helped:

1. Look at what YOU can do, not what your husband should or can do. How do you want your situation to change and what can YOU do about it? Let this be your prayer every morning, "Lord, what is Your will for me this day?"

2. Spend 30-60 minutes each morning before anyone else is up seeking the Lord's will for your day. I follow the morning prayers in "Manual of Prayers", followed by the daily reading from "In Conversation With God". I keep a notebook with the inspirations God gives me during this time. Pray for the grace to do what God asks of you.

3. Be regular to the Sacrament of Confession (weekly is best during difficult times) and don't worry about your husband going. And don't worry about the priest who is your confessor. You are meeting Jesus there. Trust that He will speak to you. I've found that with that trust I can accept a lot of things I would rather discard. Weekly Confession will help you focus on what you need to be doing to help your husband to heaven.

4. Refuse to argue with your husband (this was one of those hard things a priest told me in Confession, and it has borne wonderful fruit in our marriage). Also, refuse to tell him what to do or even suggest what you think he should do. Only answer direct questions from him as in, "What do you think I should do about this?"

5. Stop enabling your husband's childish behaviors. Here is where you may need professional help to sort out where and how you are doing this. Pray to the Holy Spirit to show you where and how you are doing this.

6. Thank God for what you do have! Your husband is Catholic, goes to Confession, and obviously is interested in you and your family. This is A LOT! Force yourself everyday to thank God for all the goodness he has bless you with.

7. Prayer and fasting are very powerful weapons against the devil. If you can add some fasting to your prayers, you will find the way clearer. Recently I felt the Holy Spirit calling me to fast from alcohol (I always enjoy a glass of wine--or two--cooking and eating dinner), snacking in between meals, and from an internet group I'd become too involved in. These were very hard things to give up, but God's grace is sufficient.

God bless you. I will keep you in my prayers.

B-Mama said...

Heather, please know you will also be in my prayers. Your family is so blessed to have you. God speed.

Mary Alice said...


I have spoken to the priest I see for spiritual direction and he is willing to try to put you and your husband in contact with a spiritual director in your area if he knows one. If you are interested, please email me:

Mary Alice