The Paternalization of Marriage: “You Need to Make Your Husband Do X,” “Get Your Wife to Do Y”

a wedding cake topper of a bride dragging a groom away by the leg
Image by nola.agent / CC BY

Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of people who will judge you based on what your partner does — or doesn’t do.

I noticed this when I first got married.  I’d fallen in love with my husband for a number of reasons. An unflappable sense of confidence, a warm sense of humor, a kind of charm that’s difficult for me even now to explain.

I Married a Spoiled Man Child

My new husband Seth did have a lot of things going for him…but work ethic wasn’t one of them. Whenever possible, he preferred to relax. And he didn’t seem to feel guilty when others gave him things he didn’t earn or waited on him.

Part of this, I think, was because he was a little spoiled. His parents had been dirt poor when he was little, in the part of his life before he could really remember much, and carried a lot of guilt because of the things he went without. It didn’t matter that my husband didn’t remember and carried no emotional baggage from it. His parents remember.

And so when his parents later became wealthy (as they both were hard workers, took turns going back to school, and later started a very successful business that took off), they didn’t hold back. They gave my husband anything and everything he wanted. And asked very little of him in return.

An intelligent man, he nonetheless struggled in school, having to retake courses because he just shrugged and walked away from his work, preferring instead to play video games or role play.

His mother didn’t respond by screaming or hitting (as mine would have done) or even by implementing more healthy forms of discipline (as other other parents would have done). Instead, she contacted the school, took him to a variety of expensive specialists where he was tested and  even retested until one of them finally bestowed him with a diagnosis that would explain his bad performance in school. Armed with this medical exemption, she negotiated different programs with his high school, changing the requirements of his graduation.

My husband would internalize and cling to this diagnosis whenever it became convenient. Usually it was when I was asking for him to do something he didn’t want to do. Whether that was help with the dishes or that he sit and listen while I talked about my feelings, he would often defer to his limitations rather than saying “I don’t want to do that.”

And yet, if the task involved something he really wanted, something that he’d derive a lot of personal pleasure from… well, he would become mysteriously adept, his limitations gone.

You’re probably wondering what the diagnosis is. The truth is that it doesn’t really matter. It was never his specific diagnosis but the way he responded to it, the way he used it to explain things that seemingly had nothing to do with it and the way his diagnosis conveniently ignored areas that should have been affected.

What mattered is as the years went on, arguing for his own limitations destroyed his last chance to develop anything close to good work ethic. He believed he couldn’t work hard and accepted it. Which was curious because Seth was a very intelligent, quite able-bodied man. I’d seen people with much graver psychiatric issues and even intellectual and physical disabilities work much harder and effectively.

Not him. He’d been spoiled by overindulgent parents, first via money and then via convenient excuses.

It Wasn’t Apparent at First, Not Until I Caught Him Lying About Losing His Job

But I wouldn’t realize any of this until we’d been together for a while. He didn’t initially come off as entitled or lazy. No, my first impression of him was that he was relaxed and confident. Laid back, sure of himself.

And at the time we met, he did have a job. Well, at least for a while. What I didn’t know was that he was only working that job because his parents had threatened to kick him out of their house if he didn’t — and that even so, he was always being written up there for not adhering to their expectations of him. Always in the danger zone in terms of attendance.

And later after we started dating, he’d lose that job and then pretend to go to work for quite a while before telling either his parents or me. Spending the time instead playing video games with friends.

But I Wasn’t Perfect Myself Either

When I discovered I’d been lied to, I could have been furious with him. But I had a hard time judging him because I knew I wasn’t always perfect myself.

My relationship with my own parents was a great deal more tenuous, and I bounced from place to place, one living situation to another. I worked hard to support myself via musical gigs in high school and this pattern continued while I went to college, although now supplemented by part-time jobs and student debt.

But I was also filled with emotional turbulence that made it easy for me to fall into self-destructive patterns. I was angry about a lot of things:

An authoritarian upbringing so strict that we had to ask permission before getting a glass of water because, after all, someone had to wash it. Where we were required to continually recognize the impact we had on others, that our existence was perpetually an inconvenience to someone else. Punishment was harsh, often physical, and non-negotiable.

A mother who was a mystery to me. Some days she was ebullient and sweet, sewing curtains that would have made Martha Stewart jealous and baking whimsical cakes shaped like things, and other times she was irritable and avoidant, mocking me for every little thing I did and criticizing everyone around her. The rules of the game seemed to change every day as my mother struggled with mental illness that affected her memory and ability to reason about the world that surrounded her. In hindsight I’m amazed that someone didn’t figure out sooner that something was terribly off about my mother, but even after things hit their breaking point and authorities became involved, my family was loath to admit that she’d lost touch with reality.

sexual assault by a much older ex-boyfriend and his friends. And the aftermath of it. How much that betrayal affected me.

A long string of women that I’d fall in love with who kept leaving me for men. And a deep sense of shame around my bisexuality.

And instead of confronting any of these issues, I was on the run from them. I suppose it didn’t help that I had yet to find a stable support system. One where I could feel safe processing emotionally.

Whatever the case, I was a very hard worker, but there was something inside me that caused emotional storms to erupt without warning. I’d be doing well, and then I’d hit a bad patch and mess up. And because in those days I had extremely low self-compassion, I felt like everything was doomed when I’d make even a small mistake, and so I wouldn’t bother to fix it. This would often cause a small mistake to turn into a larger one which would spiral into catastrophe.

Looking at Seth’s lies, I decided that maybe that was what had happened here. He’d goofed and had let lies turn it into a bigger deal than it had to be.

I Forgave Him. He Stopped Lying to Me But Continued to Mess Up

So when Seth screwed up, my first instinct was to give him what I craved from others when one of my own storms hit but was too scared to ask for: Forgiveness.

I didn’t have much else to give him frankly. I was still figuring myself out. Trying to get the storms inside of me to stop. A latchkey kid and couch surfer since my middle school years, I was only just learning how to parent myself. That was a tough enough job.

Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t parent both of us.

So Seth screwed up. Lied about it. I forgave him almost immediately and tried to calmly talk over the situation with him. Form a plan to get his life back on track.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. It became a pattern. Over and over, Seth would continue to screw up. But he also began to lie less and less to me, as he noticed that I didn’t scream at him when he told me the truth.

And I quickly became the person that Seth lied the least to, something that believe it or not made me feel really close to him and proud.

As I Figured Myself Out, I Became a Very Responsible Person

I continued to work hard on myself. It wasn’t a straight trend line up. There were a lot times when I took two steps forward, one step backward. I was fighting bad habits, my own mind, the dark corners of my history. But I kept fighting and gradually, I did figure myself out while I worked entry level jobs and wrote for literary magazines.

By the time I hit my mid 20s, I was fairly responsible. Sure, university had been tabled for now (I’d go back and finish that later on), but I’d completed an associate’s program, earning a partial scholarship my second year and even graduating with a 4.0. With my new degree, I worked for the hospital full time, making a good wage. And working my way through more schooling by taking classes online that the hospital was paying for.

For the first time in my life, I had enough to maintain a small apartment on my own comfortably. I felt like I was in charge of my financial future. After spending so much of my life bouncing around and being at the mercy of other people’s whims, the feeling was indescribable.

But Seth wasn’t terribly impressed by that. Not all by itself. Instead, he was always reaching to buy more. He wanted a bigger place, not really caring what the extra rent cost. And he wanted higher end computers, more video games and peripherals.

Because I liked to see him happy, I did the best I could to give him more (often cutting corners on anything that applied only to me). But it did get pretty annoying. Especially after he stopped working. At first, he was going back to school, too, but I soon discovered that he was only enrolled part time and even then was failing half of his classes (ugh).

And after a while, I did begin to resent it. But not for a very long time.  And until that happened, by far the most annoying thing in my life was how much shade I got from other people around me. Especially from other women.

“I Don’t Know Why You Let Him Get Away With That”

They’d see that Seth was always around and seemed to have very little responsibility. “You need to make your husband get a job,” they’d say.

Which was something that always puzzled me. Make him? He was a grown autonomous adult with his own agency. I couldn’t really make him do anything. I could threaten ultimatums, sure, but I knew I wasn’t going to leave. That I wasn’t in the emotional place where I would do that. So any ultimatum I could issue would be an empty threat and quickly turn into a Wolf-Crying situation if I ever did reach that point.

I’d already talked to Seth about our financial reality (many times actually). We’d also both been honest with one another about our emotional situations, and he’d been clear that he wasn’t going to budge.

And to be honest, I was fine with him not having a job so long as he applied himself at school. He didn’t need to work at the moment for us to pay our bills, so it made sense to me that I could financially support him through school and that instead of coasting and squandering that support that he’d do something with it.

He’d given me assurances that he was working towards a degree, just taking a bit to figure out what he wanted to do and how best to manage schoolwork (especially in light of his diagnosis), but he promised me he would get there and probably sooner than I thought (several years later, this never materialized, and he actually got progressively less motivated and lower output as time went on).

But none of this was ever good enough for judgmental friends and relatives. “I don’t know why you let him get away with that,” they’d say. And suggest that I lie to my husband about how much money was in our bank account.

Or that I attempt to emasculate him or invoke a defensive response by comparing him unfavorably to other women’s husbands we knew who worked.

“Just Stop Taking the Pill”

They also seemed quite puzzled that we didn’t have any children. Personally, I’ve been a no-leaner on having kids for a very long time, as long as I can remember, really. I assumed that I’d only have kids one of two ways:

  1. By becoming accidentally pregnant in spite of my best efforts
  2. If I became involved with someone I loved dearly who desperately wanted children

Seeing as the first never happened and that Seth didn’t want kids either, it was a fairly straightforward situation.

But oddly, people around me assumed that the only reason I wasn’t having them is because Seth wouldn’t agree to it. They’d tell me that I needed to make my husband have kids with me. Either by mentally and emotionally strong-arming him somehow (???) or, failing that, by tampering with birth control (!!!).

“Just stop taking the pill,” a friend advised me.

“But I don’t want kids,” I’d say.

“Sure you do,” they’d say. “You just don’t know it yet.”

Some People Viewed My Divorce As My Failure to Control Another Person

When Seth and I would go on to later divorce, it wasn’t a decision reached lightly. I’d personally done a lot of soul-searching. Seth and I’d had a number of difficult talks. It was painful and devastating to walk away from a relationship where I’d given so much for so long. To walk away from someone who had come to feel like they were actually part of me.

But I’ve never doubted that breaking up was the right thing to do. We are both better for having known one another and better for having ended it when we did.

What was interesting, however, was how many people peripheral to us thought they were a better judge of this than either of us. And how many of them disagreed with our divorcing.

More than a few would tell me, either subtly or explicitly, that they thought that if I’d just controlled my husband a little better, if I made him do all the right things and kept him from doing the wrong ones, that we would still be married.

They viewed the divorce as my failure, believing that it happened because of my inability to control another person.

The Paternalization of Marriage

I’ve seen this over and over again. As a society we judge people based on how well they control their romantic partner.

Even though I’d opted out of parenting a child, I was expected by everyone around me to parent another adult. To do everything I could to attempt to rob that person of agency.

To other people, being a good partner meant restricting what they could do, whom they could see, where they could go (so I could lessen the odds that they could have additional sexual or romantic partners, at least conveniently).

And it also meant being able to exert my will upon them and force them to assume responsibilities through any means necessary (passive-aggression, trickery, threats, emotional blackmail, dishonesty, etc.).

And by not doing so, I was viewed as dooming my relationship to failure.

So when those behaviors did lead to divorce, it reaffirmed what they already knew to be true of relationships.

You Shouldn’t Have to Parent Your Spouse; They Should Parent Themselves

And it would have been easy for me, too, to buy into that explanation… if life hadn’t gone a completely different way altogether.

Because, you see, as fate would have it, I went on to remarry. My second husband was a good friend of mine named Justin.  And instead of trying to control Justin, I did things exactly as I had with my first husband Seth.

I supported Justin in his autonomy, his agency, and his freedom. And he’s done the same for me in return.

And instead of things turning into a shit show, it’s worked out really well long term. We’re both very motivated and responsible people who enjoy working hard. Do we like to relax and have fun? Sure. But in moderation. We both feel guilty if we laze about for too long.

Having experienced my first marriage, I know that there are people out there who won’t lift a damn finger unless you act like a strict parent to them. But the marriage I’m in now tells me that this isn’t the way things have to be. In spite of what some other people might say, that’s not just how all relationships are.

And it’s certainly not the kind of relationships I want. I want a life partner, not a puppet. I want to treat other adults like adults.

You shouldn’t have to parent your spouse. They should parent themselves. And you should parent yourself.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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2 Comments

  1. Just so much YES to all of this… having had nearly the same experience in my first marriage for nearly the same reasons, it feels like i could have written this. And my second marriage, also to a wonder-full Justin, is as you describe… a partnership of two adults who can parent themselves. Its bliss.

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