There is more than one way to cheat on your spouse — or, I should say, cheat your spouse. And it seems that many husbands are being cheated by their wives in a way that is no less damaging and no more justified than being cheated on. This form of “cheating” is all the more common because our culture tells women that men aren’t owed anything in the first place. You can’t cheat them out of something you were never supposed to give them, after all.
But a husband is owed something, and his wife is obliged to provide it. He is not only owed it; he needs it.
That is: respect.
A wife who belittles her husband, cuts him down, nitpicks him relentlessly, holds her affection — both physical and emotional — as a ransom, nags him endlessly, criticizes him constantly, humiliates him in public and to her friends and in front of the children, and will not allow him to take a leadership position in the home, cannot be terribly surprised when he begins to withdraw. And if he cheats — which would be a great and indefensible evil, no matter how cold and domineering his wife may be — it cannot be said that he was the first. She cheated him; she lied to him, by promising to respect him and treat him like a man, only to turn around and treat him like a child.
Men have a deep desire for respect. It is truly a catastrophe that we are not raising our girls to understand and appreciate this fact. Instead they learn, often from their own mothers, from the media, from television, advertisements, academia, and so on, that men are worthless oafs who should be handled accordingly until they prove themselves worthy of better treatment. “My husband will be respected if he earns it,” the wife declares. “Let him do the chores I assign to him, let him accomplish everything I require, let him dance to my tune, and then perhaps I’ll reward him like a circus animal with little pellets of respect.”
This is not the right approach.
A husband does not need to earn his wife’s respect any more than a wife needs to earn her husband’s love. A wife ought to respect her husband because he is her husband, just as he ought to love and honor her because she is his wife. Your husband might “deserve” it when you mock him, berate him, belittle him, and nag him, but you don’t marry someone in order to give them what they deserve. In marriage, you give them what you’ve promised.
This doesn’t mean that a man has a license to be lazy, abusive, or uncaring. Precisely the opposite. He is challenged to live up to the respect his wife has for him. But if his wife parcels out her respect on a reward system, the husband will feel demoralized and empty. He will not feel at home in his home. He will not have the sense of masculine purpose and fulfillment that his family life ought to afford him. After a while, he will dread coming home at night, preferring to remain at work where his contributions are appreciated and his talents are admired. Now the marriage has entered a very dangerous place. If a man feels more like a man when he’s away from his wife than when he’s with her, disaster is right around the corner. The marriage is already half-dead. It won’t take much to finish it off.
We all seem to understand that love is supposed to be unconditional, but we struggle to see how respect must be the same. I wonder: how would we respond to a husband who says he is not going to love his wife because she hasn’t earned it? What would we say about a man who chooses to act unlovingly toward his wife because she isn’t doing a good job of keeping the house together, or she doesn’t have dinner ready when he comes home, or she isn’t properly satisfying him in other ways, or she isn’t doing all the things he demands on the timetable that he prefers? Even if it were true that the wife is slacking in her responsibilities, we would consider the man to be a monster for holding that over her head or using it as an excuse to degrade and demean her.
So, why do we accept this approach from women? Why is it considered appropriate for a woman to order her husband around, but not the reverse? Why is it normal in our culture for a woman to assign a list of chores to her husband (the “Honey Do List,” we call it), yet we would think a man tyrannical and possibly abusive if he gave his wife her own list of mandatory assignments for the day? “Headed to work, honey. Your chore list is on the fridge.” Why do we think nothing of women who sit around complaining to each other about their husbands, even when those very same women would be devastated if their husbands did the same? Why is it acceptable for a woman to kick a man out of his own bed and banish him to the living room like a scolded puppy, while it would be seen as entirely unacceptable for a man to pull the same stunt with his wife? Imagine a wife saying to her girlfriends, “I’m really in the doghouse, girls. My husband made me sleep on the couch last night.” Her friends would probably tell her to call the police and file for divorce.
I am blessed to have married a woman who operates differently. She respects me without condition, even when I have not earned it. She builds me up and in the process helps me to become more deserving of the respect she has already granted me. GK Chesterton said the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is that a thing must be loved before it is lovable. I would add only that a man must also be respected before he is respectable. I have grown as a man, a husband, and a father, because my wife treated me as a leader in the home long before I had any idea what it meant to lead or how to do it.
Sadly, the average man in America is not always given this advantage. He enters marriage and finds himself immediately in a hole. He must prove his worth if he wants to be treated like he has any. His wife paints a line on the floor and expects him to walk it perfectly. But he will inevitably stumble, as all men (and women) do, and his wife will chastise him and use his mistake as blackmail against him.
A man in this situation is called nonetheless to endure, to fight for his family, and never to be unfaithful to his wife or leave her. But if he does wander, it should be noted that he is not the only traitor in the marriage. She betrayed him. She promised him a wife and instead gave him a stepmother. The two have now betrayed each other, each in their own way.
There are two sides to every story, as they say. I think this is the side that is not often told.
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A version of this opinion piece was previously published in December 2017.