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What’s an ‘act of love’ in a marriage?

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What women consider selfless gestures of love, men often see quite differently.

Maggie’s marriage is in crisis. After 15 years, her husband Chris moved out, and is staying at his brother’s home. He told Maggie there’s no other woman in the picture, but he needs a break.

“What does he need a break from?” yells Maggie. “I should be the one to take a vacation from all the cooking, cleaning, ironing, consoling him because his boss doesn’t understand him and his colleagues want to replace him. I made him a good home; I gave him two great kids; dinner was always on the table on time, and all the while I have a challenging job of my own! A week ago a spice shelf fell in the kitchen, and I was the one who jumped to get the hammer first … can you believe it?”

It’s natural, hearing this, to see Maggie as the heroine of the house: always doing and fixing. And of course, Maggie sees it this way, too. And my first reaction was to feel nothing but admiration for her strength, and sympathy for her marital situation. But then another thought occurred to me: Did she ever stop to ask her why she felt the need to do everything? Where along the way did her husband stop participating?

“I was committed, and I worked hard, and he didn’t appreciate it at all,” complains Maggie. But did she appreciate herself? In the role of a brave wife, mother, and lady of the house, yes, certainly. But besides that? Not so much.

When I ask her what she did for herself recently with equal dedication, she looked at me as if I had just taken Chris’s side. “How was I supposed to find time for that? I preferred to give up my pleasures, and I won’t let anyone tell me that sacrificing yourself for the family is a bad thing.” She continued, “Every day I tried to give him heaven on earth!”

‘I feel helpless’

When you want to give someone heaven on earth, it’s probably good to first find out how he imagines heaven. And an even more important question is how you imagine your heaven. Because it sounds like Maggie has been toiling away to create a home that doesn’t feel like heaven to either of them.

When Chris left, Maggie felt like a victim. But maybe she was already a victim of her own self-perpetuated cycle. She took care of everything herself. But being a victim doesn’t ennoble you, or nominate you for sainthood. Maggie is full of painful feelings like disappointment and anger, but I don’t think they appeared just because of Chris.

Somewhere along the way, Maggie stopped relying on her husband. She stopped saying things like, “I’m scared, I feel helpless, or I can’t do this.” All natural feelings that we should be able to share with our spouse to ease the burden and find solutions.

When I talk with unhappy men, whose wives are angels, I see that the devil is in the details. What women consider acts of love, men understand as limiting, controlling, and forcing dependence.

When we broach the subject, Maggie admits that she’s overprotective, but she thinks there’s nothing wrong with a wife caring for her husband. “I just want him to be happy.” Chris doesn’t notice those loving gestures, though. He tells me: “Maggie is possessive. She lives my life. She keeps me on a short leash. I have to be on time because dinner on the table is the most important thing.”

A well-fed lion in a nice zoo

In my experience, I’ve often seen that excess concern can destroy even the greatest loves. It creates an invisible wall of requirement and unhappiness.

The beginning of it all is usually made up of small, harmless and well-intentioned acts (after all, this is a problem seeded with nothing but good intentions). The wife gladly makes an effort to do more, and the husband is happy. But then, somewhere down the road, she continues to take on too much. She is in a constant state of alertness, but more and more tired and lonely. Her husband begins to feel like a well-fed lion in a nice zoo. Content, but with nothing to contribute. Maybe he craves a little more action, but the cage is clean, and the food is always ready. And so he starts thinking (consciously or unconsciously) that maybe life would be better if life weren’t so good.

When we love, we want our love to be reciprocated, and we want it to last “till death do us part.” But sometimes we forget that a wife’s excessive “doing” and caring for her husband does not safeguard the relationship; her sacrifice won’t translate into the durability of marriage.

Helping each other is an element of what builds closeness in a marriage, of course. But it doesn’t mean one person should become the exhausted helper, and the other the reluctant recipient of help. Wise help is like a tender touch of a hand at a difficult time, not a firm grip to hold on and lead that person like a child where we think is best.

Maggie’s story shows that it is possible to endlessly, in her opinion, strive to do good, and yet be unappreciated. But if she thinks about it, and peels back the layers and years, she might not find that she’s surprised by Chris moving out. Did Chris ever tend to her emotions, care for her in return, and help out? Was he ever asked to?

Maggie has difficulty giving a concrete answer to this last question.

A high-functioning domestic machine

Marriage is not a state of emergency; it’s not a prolonged moment of danger when we must drop everything and sacrifice ourselves. In marriage, we should expect reciprocity and symmetry in helping. I take care of him, and he shows up when I need him. Not in return for something he got from me, but as a natural expression of love in a relationship.

So if you see a little bit of yourself in Maggie, try to roll up your sleeves a little less often. See the good in not being the first one to jump for the hammer or rearrange your schedule to pick up the kids. Stop, ask for help, and see what happens. You might find something unexpected happens: your husband may step up. And if he doesn’t, there’s an answer in that as well.

The bottom line? You don’t need to be a high-functioning domestic machine. You’re a human with real emotions and real problems. You’re one half of a team, and it’s time to pass the ball to see if the other player is still on the court.

You’re a helper by nature. So this time, I suggest you put down the hammer, and find a way to help yourself.

This article was originally published in the Polish edition of Aleteia.

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