Recently while working with a young couple preparing for marriage there was a slightly pointed exchange between them. Overall it was quite innocuous, but in the midst of it the groom-to-be used the verb “nag” to describe a certain behavior of his fiancée’s. After we sorted through the exchange to get at the core insights the couple was raising, I briefly suggested to the groom that some words are rarely, if ever, helpful in marital communication, and in my experience “nag” is one of them. I did it lightly, as a simple heads-up or throw away remark.
But apparently it caught his attention because a day or two later he stopped by my office to apologize! I reassured him that there was nothing he needed to apologize for, and certainly not to me. He had been completely respectful to everyone in the conversation and my remark was only intended to flag a less than helpful element of the communication. He pushed back saying that he did want to apologize because he saw his use of that term as potentially “mansplaining.”
I told the groom, whom I have known for more than three years, that I am sure he was not in danger of that type of behavior. And again, he pushed back. He said that while he hopes that is the case, given the cultural landscape of committed relationships and especially marriage, he wanted to be particularly vigilant not to let that type of behavior begin to color their marital communication.
The whole conversation had begun with noticing the impact of one word, so we started cataloguing other words that are similarly not helpful in marriage. We quickly identified words such as “nag” or “nagging,” “bossy,” or “ball and chain.” These words are used almost exclusively for women or wives. In fact, when I talked to Joshua about the conversation later, he noticed that not only were they connected to a woman’s role, they also all seemed to be used pejoratively for a woman of strength–to devalue or at least diminish her or her words.
This got me to wondering: certainly there are similar words that come up for men. What are they? So, I asked Joshua what the words are that bother him or make him feel “less than.” It took him a little while and then he remembered an experience on a playground many years ago in Portland.
We were all out on a playground. Joshua was running around chasing two of the children on the play structure and I was talking on the side with another mom from the neighborhood. At one point, referencing Joshua and the other two children, she said something to the effect of “three kids in the house”—including Joshua in the count of children that I had to take care of! Joshua pointed to that type of language about men or husbands—language of immaturity or irresponsibility—as degrading, diminishing, and never helpful.
We do not have to look very far to see the stereotype of the nagging wife or immature husband played out in culture and the media. Since it is the daily cultural water we swim in, it is particularly easy for us to fall unreflectively into those same patterns.
But that is not what we are called to.
The Sacrament of Marriage is about being witnesses of the nature of God’s love to the world. The fullness of that love does not include name calling, nor inequality, nor lack of mutuality, nor diminishment.
Having identified these words and potential patterns early in our relationship, Joshua and I try to be attentive to not using them with or about one another. But friends or social circles are often not as aware or as careful. So while we may not devolve into unhelpful language with each other, we see it as equally important not to let it stand, even in simple conversation, when others use or allude to it. It is not the most comfortable thing when Joshua is making plans with a group of guys and one of them says, “you better check with the ball and chain” and he pauses to call them on it. But it is important because it is witnessing to the truth of who we are and what we are called to be. It is evangelizing…and it redeems the concept of “mansplaining.”