Saint Paul urges wives to "respect" their husbands (Eph 5:33) and husbands to "not be harsh" with their wives (Col 3:19). The opposite of respect is contempt, and the opposite of harshness is gentleness. It has been said that men need love in the form of respect and admiration, and women need love in the form of affection and attention. If this is the case, then the enemy of human nature, as master of division, will seek to ruin marriages by inducing men to be rough and brutish towards their wives, and women to be critical and contemptuous towards their husbands. Of course, these are generalizations and simplifications, but they have their uses.
Stereotypes often have a foundation in reality. They may be caricatures, distortions of some kind or another, but at some level there is often an element of fact. Let us look at two of the typical stereotypes of man and woman, husband and wife, to see if there is anything in them that might shed light on the way we live our relationships and the devil's tactics to destroy them. These stereotypes represent just one exaggerated version of how men and women sometimes co-exist.
In order not to be seen as unchivalrous, perhaps we should begin with the stereotype of the wife. In other words, ladies first.
The stereotype of the nagging, henpecking, chronically disappointed woman has many manifestations and is the subject of many jokes. She is characterized by a profound and permanent hypercritical negativity, an exhausting joylessness, a perpetual weariness of which she herself never tires.
Sometimes she will seek psychological and/or spiritual help, from friends, professionals, or priests. A priest I know once said, in such a situation, "Hey, I don't mind having the blood sucked out of me, so long as it's to give love and life. That's what Jesus did. But if it's just so that you can continue to die and make me die too, count me out. Do you understand what I am saying?"
All too often, she doesn't. Nothing changes. Negativity prevails. It's as if sadness is her natural habitat. Despair is somehow a comforting friend whom she does not wish to dismiss from her head, heart, and life.
When asking for help to feed the baby, for example, she will say, "Honey, can you feed the baby, please?" but she will say it in a tone of voice that also says, "You should have the wits to see for yourself that this needs to be done, but since you're a complete moron, I'm going to have to ask you nicely to do it." Of course, the husband picks up on this tone, and, to her indignation, reacts accordingly. The children pick up on it too, and quickly learn to imitate their mother in despising their father. Once they reach adolescence, both parents have lost all authority.
The combination of resigned negativity and subtle psychological bullying provokes a standard reaction in the man. He feels like he is being sucked into a swamp. The dynamic of constant crushing criticism is sick, suffocating, soul-destroying. It threatens his peace, and joy, and love of life. So the man will disengage and walk away, as a survival tactic.
If the man happens to be emotionally and sexually attached to her, he will lash out. And thus, the behavior patterns of both parties, husband and wife, harshness and contempt, are perpetuated and worsened, until divorce becomes the only "solution", and the children receive the idea that human love is hopelessly finite. Since the children know no better, they are condemned to repeat the dynamic in their own lives.
So much for Saint Paul and women being "respectful" towards their husbands. Let us look now at the stereotype of the man, the husband.
A certain Internet commentary by a comedian about the difference between men and woman has been very popular. In it, he talks about men having a "nothing box" in their brains which women do not have, and claims that it is men's favorite place to go to. When their wives or others ask them what they are thinking about, the men shrug their shoulders and say, "Nothing."
The image of the man who arrives home from work, grabs a can of beer from the fridge, and spends the rest of the evening vegetating in front of the television set watching sports, is familiar to us all. The Fred Flintstone type; he likes to eat, drink, smoke, chew tobacco, spit, swear, hunt, and fish.
His appetites are simple and primitive. His emotional IQ is low or non-existent. He feels he has an indisputable right to retire as frequently as he wishes to his “nothing box”. After all, he is doing "nothing" and harming no one, minding his own business, and asking only that others mind their business and leave him alone, not bother him. He is not much interested in them and simply requires that they not have much interest in him. This seems to him a fair and reasonable deal, not much to ask.
He is a frequent user of pornography and curses his misfortune at having married a woman who is unwilling to perform the sexual acts he has seen on the computer screen. Sooner or later, he will engage in online affairs and/or visit prostitutes.
His conversation is strictly confined to sport and sometimes politics. He expects to be obeyed by his wife and children and will even invoke the authority of the Bible if he is not obeyed. If his wife does not meet his simple needs and desires he will fly into a violent rage, quickly resorting to verbal and emotional abuse, and eventually, often, to physical abuse. His dominant vice, his habitual disposition, always brimming just below the surface, is anger.
So much for men, as Saint Paul puts it, "not being harsh" with their wives.
It seems not too much to infer that when Saint Paul speaks of contemptuousness in wives and harshness in husbands he may be referring to distinct wounds in our fallen human condition, wounds that are typical of the male and female psychologies.
Sadly, and aware that by writing this and signing it I may well be opening myself to all kinds of criticism, I have to say that in my experience as a priest I have encountered manifestations of both of these stereotypes in varying degrees with a disturbing frequency.
How to "fix" it? The consoling fact is that we all also know many examples of married couples who have successfully built beautiful friendships. That's a topic for another day, another article.
My blog “Random Reflections”
Fr. Colum Power, born in Cork, Ireland, in 1965, is a Servant Priest of the Home of the Mother. He obtained a Master's degree in literature in 1991 and a doctorate in the History of the Church in 2013. He is author of A Touch of the Gardener's Hand, Honey from the Lion's Carcass, and James Joyce's Catholic Categories. He devotes his time to apostolic activities for the youth organized by the Servant Brothers of the Home of the Mother.
Fr. Colum Power is author and editor of the Blog "Random Reflections", which can be found on the website www.familiesfullyalive.com.