|On the banks of the Mississippi River 1984|
Two books that have changed my whole outlook on relationships, particularly in marriage and parenting, are The Male Brain and The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine. I know I've mentioned her before and I really ought to get a kickback for all the free publicity, but the fact is, all the things I've suspected about girls and boys, men and women, have been validated by these new studies of the brain.
Our chemical and biological makeup is much of what determines our tendencies, desires and even basic emotional needs. We can't expect males to feel and act like females and vice versa when they are created from birth with very different brains. So many marriage struggles end when wives stop demanding that their husbands react to problems like their girlfriends would, and when husbands stop getting irritated that their wives want to them to change habits that their buddies think are just fine. Embracing and appreciating the differences makes us more tolerant and better people. Allowing ourselves to change and assimilate some of the thought processes of the opposite sex into our own lifestyle, makes us richer and wiser.
One quality I was never good at was arguing. I'd invent killer arguments in my mind after being humiliated in a confrontation. I'd sit and fume and stew and envision myself just raking them over the coals, and skewering every point they made until they'd grovel at my feet in remorse... I had a really vivid imagination! I hated being humiliated, especially publicly (as everyone does), and hated even more that I'd become paralyzed and not know what to do when confronted. My revenge would be lived out in the privacy of my room as I replayed the scene over and over in my mind as the undisputed winner, crushing my opponent beneath my feet. Needless to say, holding grudges was a big issue for me.
I hated unfair treatment, but I did not have an aggressive bone in my body when it came to defending myself or fighting back in any way. Part of it was from my upbringing, my parents' discipline and what I was taught as acceptable behavior. But much of it was because of my female wiring. I preferred keeping the peace and pleasing others over defending myself from wrong. Keeping the peace is a strong quality of the female brain, and is can be used to great benefit. It's a beautiful strength that can keep families together, to create a harmonious atmosphere at home and foster love and acceptance. But there are times when a woman does need to stand up for herself and have the confidence that she has the right to do so. That confidence was nowhere to be found in me as a young girl.
When I got married just shy of 22, I thought I was marrying a kind, good-hearted Christian man who understood the value of a happy marriage and knew how to respect and love his wife. I was right. He did. But... he was male, came from a family of three sons and one daughter, was accustomed to shouting and roughhousing growing up, and was wired with a far more aggressive nature than I was. So when we began to disagree in our first year of marriage and had our first arguments, I was paralyzed once again. I loved him, and I knew he loved me, but I couldn't figure out how someone who loved me could be so harsh with his words, use THAT tone of voice and THAT kind of body language. At six feet tall, he towered over me by a good 10 inches. He was pretty intimidating.
My response would be to try and explain myself according to how I felt. But he wasn't interested in how I felt and wanted to argue the facts. But somehow he'd manage to stack the facts against me in such a way that I couldn't figure out what was up or what was down. I was hurt, angry, confused and terrified of this barrage of very loud words that were coming against me. I'd silently pray, and retreat. If I told him I was sorry, and acted sorry, maybe he'd stop and we'd have some peace. So as mad as I was for being attacked, I'd apologize, and apologize, and eventually he'd stop and walk off into another room.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later, he'd come back out, and the issue would be forgotten - by him. He'd be ready for lunch or the next thing on our schedule, and I was still shaking inside from all that had just happened, and mulling over all those great come-backs that I should have yelled back at him, but hadn't the courage to do. Dr. Brizendine mentions that when a woman is faced with direct aggression against her, her body physically reacts the same way that it would as if she had just suffered a seizure. As soon as I read that, I knew it was right. I have felt that very sensation many times, but had thought it was just because I was weak.
Years of our marriage went by like this, and when the arguments would blow over, I would be left to calm down my frazzled nerves, and just be grateful that the subject had finally been dropped. In those years I apologized for a lot of stuff, just to end arguments.
One day another angry outburst happened, but it wasn't against me. It was just his frustration about a problem that didn't relate to me. There was no need to apologize, so I just kept my mouth shut and kept washing the dishes. I prayed and asked God to show me how I could help him. He finished his tirade and walked off into the bedroom, and I prayed for him. A few minutes later, he was back out at the kitchen sink, demanding to know why I just stood there and let him speak like this. "Why don't you ever argue back? Sometimes I need you to show me how wrong I am, but you don't do anything!"
Talk about a smack upside the head! Was that my answer to prayer? Is God telling me that I have to start arguing back? It was a funny moment of realization for me that retreating into silence and fear hurts us both. Not standing up for myself was harmful to me and to our marriage, and my apologies were defense mechanisms, not sincere apologies. Clearly I didn't want to be like other women I knew who blasted their husbands with curses and accusations. I didn't want to tear him down or destroy my marriage, but I had to learn a balance. I had to start speaking up.
So slowly I began to learn the art of healthy, rational debate. In the beginning stages I went overboard and blurted out things I regretted later, but I had to learn to face aggression and not be afraid of it. I had to learn to interpret what felt like hatred and realize it was just his manner of expressing his own frustrations - it wasn't hatred towards me at all. I had to believe in my convictions, ready to concede that I might be wrong, yet not be fearful of speaking up in my own defense. We went through a phase of about ten to fifteen years of periodic arguments, heated discussions and flare-ups. And though I was still usually the first to apologize, I made sure to first make my point as clearly as I could without caving in to fear.
As years went by, I learned to think and act more like him, and curiously, he was learning to think and feel more like me. Disagreements that used to erupt every two months, started to space themselves out over a few times a year, until now, hardly ever. Just as soon as they threaten to appear, they are snuffed out and we move on. We can now laugh and talk about these different phases of our marriage in our Marriage Course and Dave enjoys telling our classes how he likes beating me to be the first to apologize! Somehow, miraculously, I have rubbed off on him as much as he has on me.
I am glad he has an aggressive side. I'm glad he's a go-getter, a defender of our family, the kind of guy that isn't scared to pick up a baseball bat and clobber a thief if one ever broke into our house (thankfully that has never happened!) I'm glad that he can relate to our boys and push them to do more and be more in ways that I can't. I'm so glad I'm not married to another version of me!
I am also very grateful to have developed a thicker skin because of Dave. The world is full of scary stuff. Not just people, but problems can confront us and appear very intimidating. Learning to face confrontation in marriage has helped me stand firm in many other circumstances, to keep my cool and define what it is I believe in and be confident about my convictions. I've also learned that angry people are not always out to attack, but are just voicing dissatisfaction that is often a reflection of how unhappy they are with themselves, and not with me. A lot of grumpy, unhappy people come through our church doors, seeking counsel, but are furious with God, with Christians and with the world. Years ago I would have run from them the moment they opened their mouths. Now I enjoy the challenge of turning around their frustration into understanding, and proving them wrong with intelligent arguments. Many of those angry people now come to church joyfully to give thanks to God for changing their lives. They give me hugs and smiles instead of anger. How would I have helped them if I hadn't let my marriage change me?