What Do You Owe Your Spouse?
I've come across a few books recently, those published by reputable houses and those that are vanity- or self-published by people who wouldn't even get through the front door of a major publisher, that focus on the shock, indignation and outrage that many husbands currently feel about their wives' so-called "dereliction of duty". These books are written humorously, because to do otherwise would likely incur the wrath of even the most devoted of wives, and all of them whine about the same thing: my wife isn't "wifely" enough. She made a promise to be my companion, to cater to my every whim, to stay home and do her duty in the kitchen, laundry room and bedroom without complaint, and yet now, good God, she wants a life outside the home! I didn't sign up for this when I took my vows in 1962, where's my crisply dressed, attractive young wife to greet me with a martini when I get home from the office? What do you mean she's gone back to university?
The lament is becoming louder, unfortunately, as more and more men - usually older men, from the old school - find that their marriages have changed into something they find too challenging, or too upsetting, to adapt to. Long term wives generally have accepted their husbands, warts and all, a long time ago and would never dream of pressuring him to get hair transplants or lose fifty pounds or restore his previous testosterone level so that he could be the man she married thirty five years ago - women, in this case, seem more realistic about the physical, spiritual and psychological changes that naturally occur as one matures. Why some men have become trapped in a time warp in which all wives are silent, smiling, homemakers with 22 inch waists and not a thought in their pretty little heads, is as perplexing as it is sad.
Sometimes, some women view marriage as an opportunity to drop all the activities and attitudes of their courting days and so their husbands are justified in being confused or upset at their wives' lack of interest in them - but this is not the impression I get from the men who have written books on the subject. Their message seems to be that any change, any difference in lifestyle or attitudes, no matter how many years or life experiences have intervened, is an affront to them and the contract that they feel they have the right to enforce but not live by themselves.
It is true that many women like to nurture, they like to care for their loved ones and their homes and it's true that many men like to conquer the business world and be good providers for their families - but if you understand that both of these things are just a function of masculinity and femininity, then you'll understand that there really is no such thing as "husbandly" or "wifely" roles. A woman CEO who financially supports her family can still choose to be feminine in other ways, a man who stays at home and raises children can still be masculine in other ways, neither person ever has to fulfill some expectation of gender roles in life or in marriage.
This is partially because you can't define yourself in life as merely a "husband" or a "wife", any more than it would be satisfying enough to define yourself as a "high school graduate" or "an Asian man". Being a husband or wife is never stimulating enough for an active adult brain, you simply cannot devote your entire self to being someone's spouse, you'd go insane if you did. Each person has to be a vibrant, intelligent, spiritually satisfied whole in order to contribute to a happy marriage - and so it's ludicrous to expect any modern woman to want to devote her entire life to laundry, to cooking, to childrearing and to lovemaking-on-command - i.e. to her "wifely" role just as it's ludicrous to expect men to slave away at a job until they fall dead from a heart attack just because you have to keep up with the Joneses.
The bottom line is this: there are very few things your husband or wife "owes" you. A wedding ring isn't a slave's chain, you are voluntarily married to each for the purpose of navigating life together as a loving and co-operative unit, however that may manifest itself. If you start out supporting your husband while he goes through school, and then he supports you while you stay at home and raise your kids, that's a perfectly equitable arrangement that sees both partners as contributing to the success of the marriage, irrespective of "roles".
So if we agree that there is no such thing as "wifely" or "husbandly" role, if we finally shake loose this petulant demand for a mommy-wife to slavishly worship us or a daddy-husband to break his back working for us, then what are we left with? Surely there must be something that being married entitles us to, right? Otherwise, what's the point in being married? Doesn't the marriage contract entitle us to something?
It does. But no part of it ever attempts to violate the rights or freedoms of the spouses, and no part of it ever seeks to stuff a mature, self-realized adult into a little pink box for girls and little blue one for boys. Here's what you do owe your spouse:
1. Sexual exclusivity
The essence of marriage, as is readily and universally understood, is that it is a mutually exclusive sexual relationship. We know this going in, we know that sexual fidelity will be required of us, and expected of us, and punished if it is abused. Because marriage is voluntary, and because it can be ended at any time, it's reasonable to assert that those who willingly and knowingly go into it can expect to give up the "right" to sleep with other people, and must abide by those terms or else face divorce. If we don't like this, if we don't think we can handle this, we do not have to get married.
This is why I and many others feel that adultery should be against the law, punishable as any other crime involving fraud or breach of contract should be punished. It is a violation of the terms of a contract that two people willingly entered into, and should not be exempt from prosecution just because it involves a husband and wife. Again, those who balk at this are perfectly free to remain single their whole lives, no one will ever force them to marry. But if they do marry, they owe their spouse sexual exclusivity and must face the consequences if they violate this agreement.
Part of the requirement of marriage is that you trust your spouse, and make it clear that you trust him or her, unless and until they give you solid reason to withdraw that trust. It means that you don't go into a marriage expecting that your spouse will cheat on you, or remain ever-suspicious that they will somehow hurt you in the future. If you don't think you can trust someone, don't marry him or her, and if your intended expresses constant doubts about your ability to remain faithful, put off the marriage until he or she matures enough to understand how crucial trust is. Husbands and wives owe each other confidence and trust in each other, as an absolute, unless they have certain cause to do otherwise.
Many of us become so dependent on our spouses that we fail to see them as unique individuals. We spend so much time together that the word "I" all but vanishes from our vocabulary and is replaced by "We", so that after a time we can't do much of anything by ourselves, and don't often want to. But an important part of marriage is remembering the sovereignty of the individual, that marriage is only possible between two individuals who come together to share their lives, not meld them into one indistinguishable whole.
If your spouse wants to go away for the weeekend, or spend at least some of the money they earn on some hobby or personal interest, you have to respect their wishes. If you're worried that this separation may mean there's some problem between you, you should talk to your spouse about it instead of just refusing permission for them to go. Chances are there's no problem, even the most loving couple needs time apart sometimes to remember who they were before they became a spouse. It's healthy, it's normal, and it will help your marriage if you acknowledge this.
It becomes hard, sometimes, to know what you can expect from your spouse. Often, husbands and wives begin to "expect" dinner made by 5:30 every night or house repairs conducted every Saturday without fail, and become incensed if these entitlements are not met. If you start to feel this way, always consider whether you would treat your spouse this way if it were your first date, or if he or she were someone you just met today. Would you be demanding and angry? Would you question their every move and insist that they do what you want, right now? Or would you be more respectful of their privacy, their wishes, their interests? It's helpful to remember that marriage does not give you the right to treat your spouse with less respect than you would a stranger or friend, it means you give them more respect - and space if they need it.
Not quite the same thing as being completely honest, disclosure as I define it here means simply that relevant, important information that might affect your spouse is to be fully disclosed. If you lost your job, if you have a sexually transmitted disease, if you have secretly developed faith in a religion, if you've invested a lot of money in a volatile stock, if you have a child out there somewhere, if you've been married before, convicted of a crime - anything that your spouse should be aware of because of how profoundly it might affect him or her is absolutely to be revealed to them so that they may decide how to proceed, and preferably well before the wedding takes place. Things that arise after the wedding must also be disclosed in the same manner, out of respect for your spouse's right to make an informed decision as to whether to stay in the marriage.
Some marriage advice books or websites advise couples to be completely honest with each other at all times, but I think this is both impractical and disrespectful of an individual's right to his or her own privacy. Each person is entitled to keep their own "secrets" provided that doing so doesn't cause harm to the spouse or constitute an attempt to gain something from them by deceit. Not telling your husband that your son isn't his, for example, is a major violation of his trust, his ability to decide whether to continue to raising someone else's child, and his basic dignity. Not telling him that your son got in a fight after school because you didn't want to anger him and cause an unnecessary problem over an insignificant event is harmless and not an attempt at deceit at all.
Look at it this way: if you were applying for a long term, lucrative position, it would be forgivable to conceal that you didn't particularly like your last boss or that you left your left position because they wouldn't give you a raise - these things would have no bearing on the kind of work you could do for the new employer. But it would not be forgivable to lie about having credentials the new employer needed, or to invent experience you didn't have, or to conceal the fact that you were fired from your last position for theft. This is because the former is inconsequential and does not allow you to try to gain something - a job, a raise, etc - through deception, whereas the latter is essentially fraud, trying to deceive someone - in this case, the employer - into giving a value, such as a job, raise, etc.
For those who think lying is always wrong, consider this: if an assailant broke into your home with a weapon and demanded to know where your children were, would you tell him the truth? Or would you lie? Of course you would lie. Lies that protect a value are often justifiable, whereas lies that attempt to defraud a value out of someone, never are. Disclosure simply means respecting your partner enough to give him or her all the information he or she needs for self-protection or make informed decisions about you and your relationship. It doesn't mean that being married requires you to open up your soul and expose every private moment of your life, thoughts or ideas - in other words, to abandon your own sovereign privacy.
Whenever you are about to make a major life decision, whatever it involves, it's fair to say that you owe your spouse consultation on it. When someone shares their life with you willingly, they are entitled to know what you plan to do with it, since it affects them. Disclosure involves things that have happened already, consultation involves things that are about to happen, or changes you would like to make.
If you're offered a job in a far off city and are considering moving, if you would rather quit your job and try to be the novelist you've always dreamed of being, if you would like to have a child or have an abortion, if you want to buy a house or invite your mother to live with you or anything major that would affect the life of your spouse, you owe it to them to have a frank discussion about it. Whatever decisions you reach, or whatever impasse you reach, is up to you. I won't pretend that things always work out. Sometimes your spouse and you will have conflicting views on some major change, so conflicting that you can't work it out and you end up parting ways. But most of the time loving couples can come to an agreement about major life decisions and stay together - provided they discuss it openly and neither party feels as though the decision has already been made without them.
And that's about it. Nowhere in there does it say you have to provide sex four times a week or put a Lexus in the driveway, nowhere does it say you have to be an excellent cook or be able to fit into your wedding outfit thirty five years after the ceremony. And nowhere will you find references to the small, subtle little things that so many married couples take for granted will always be there, whatever they happen to be. It's as basic a list for respecting and dealing fairly with your partner in life as you will find anywhere, and I promise if you follow these tenets with determination, your marriage stands a very good chance of surviving the changes and ups and downs that life will inevitably bring.