I’ve written before about the lessons we learn from the men in our childhood about what to expect from men. (See Unbearable Lessons.)
We also learn much from those men about ourselves.
My husband and I recently stayed in a hotel when we were getting our daughter moved into her college apartment. It is one of those places that includes a breakfast as part of your stay, and we managed to hit the room right at “rush hour.” As we ate, we watched a man with his teenage daughter, her friend, and his younger daughter (around five years old).
The man was as smooth as could be–nice tone of voice, polite demeanor, and pretty clean-cut looking. At a glance, we thought he was a nice guy.
But then we watched him interact with the girls.
The older girl’s friend had some food that was being cooked. While she was waiting, she went to pour herself some juice. When her food was done cooking, she wasn’t able to retrieve it immediately. The man proceeded to take the food, doctor it up with the flavorings of his choice, and begin eating it. His words were so nice: “Thank you for making me this wonderful food. It’s too bad you didn’t make one for yourself.” His actions, however, spoke much more loudly than his words did—and those actions were not so nice at all.
The younger daughter had asked for hot chocolate. He got her some, but she took a while to drink it because it was, you know, hot. When he was done eating his food, he decided that it was time for them all to go back to their room. He told the little girl to drink her hot chocolate quickly. He said, “When you don’t drink your hot chocolate when I tell you to, you make me sad.” “It’s too hot, Daddy!” she said with lower lip all a-quiver. He announced that she must not want it then and threw it out, telling her that the next time she asked for something, he would remember that she’d lied.
I watched this little girl with tears streaming down her face as she followed her dad. I had watched her try to suppress her feelings in order to earn her dad’s approval. She failed at that, and she was reminded that his happiness was conditional and based on her behavior.
After they left, my husband was flabbergasted and livid, as was I as my husband filled me in on things he’d overheard that I hadn’t.
This man had expected his daughter to ignore her own body’s heat signals and drink the hot chocolate just so she could make him happy. How is she supposed to grow up and be able to trust anyone if her own dad expects her to burn her tongue so he doesn’t feel sad? It’s horrible to put expectations like that on a little girl.
I thought about what would happen to her heart as she grew older. How will her marriage be affected? What lessons is she learning from her father now about her own feelings and her own worth?
She is learning that what she is experiencing doesn’t matter. She is learning that her happiness is less important than his. She is learning not to ask for what she wants or needs because it will be used against her.
She was young and so vulnerable. I began to wonder how much longer it would take before she learned effective coping skills.
I thought back to her older sister. The man’s interactions had been with the older girl’s friend and with the younger girl. He didn’t interact at all with his older daughter. At all. It was almost as thought he didn’t even see her.
Throughout the entire breakfast, the older daughter had sat looking completely disengaged and disinterested. She’d grabbed food that required no preparation time and that she could eat quickly. Had she learned that even the basic task of eating required her to do so in a way that wouldn’t upset her father? She didn’t look at her father, nor did she speak. Had she learned to be invisible? When her sister began to cry, she walked away. Had she learned not to care? Or had she learned that if you show that you care, that can be used against you in some way, too? And what did her younger sister learn about whether she could count on someone to aid and comfort her in her hurt?
When we learned difficult lessons about ourselves in childhood, those lessons can pack the baggage that we drag into our marriages.
We don’t ask for what we want or need because we never learned how to, or because we learned that it would be turned around to hurt us.
We learned that our inner sense of what is right for us can’t be trusted. We learned that we matter less than other people do.
We learned to live life based on someone else’s expectations of us. We learned either to adjust to meet those expectations (thereby becoming a doormat and completely suppressing our own selves), or to build up walls to keep those expectations from hurting us.
When we sense an expectation from someone who is supposed to love us, we freeze within our walls. Or maybe we reinforce the walls. Or we turn around and run.
Far too many women have come from childhoods where we had to grow strong walls in order to not be crushed by the unpredictability or unfair expectations placed on us by those who raised us.
We may hope for so much better in our marriages—and then the first time our husbands have an expectation, wham! Those walls go right back up with a vengeance.
Our thoughts may be all over the place:
I thought he was different, but it turns out he’s just like any other man. He’s no better than my father. I allowed myself to be vulnerable, and when he had expectations, it hurt me in a way it hasn’t hurt in a long, long time. I will never let myself be vulnerable again. Why couldn’t I pick a better man?
I liked being able to think of myself as lovable and worthy, but now I know that I’m just as worthless as I always believed I was. He finally saw through to the truth of who I am. I don’t deserve joy.
My dad always had expectations of me. Now my husband does, too, and that must mean that he is treating me like a child. How dare he treat me like a child?! I am an adult now and should not have to put up with that ever again.
Our husbands’ expectations may be about many things—sex, housekeeping standards, participation in church activities, or even what flowers should be planted in the front yard.
It might not even matter. When we come out of a childhood with negative lessons about ourselves, any expectations at all can trigger feelings of anxiety, fear, failure, and low self-worth.
How do you unlearn something like that?
The simple–but not easy–answer is to choose to unlearn it. Learning—and believing—the positive truths about yourself can be a hard thing. You may need to face painful memories of times when you felt bad. You may need to confront your feelings about the people associated with those memories. This can stir up feelings of disloyalty, anger and deep vulnerability—but it can ultimately lead to feeling healed and whole.
Turn to God’s word to learn the real truth of your worth and God’s love for you.
Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows. Luke 12:7
For you formed my inward parts; you wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are your works, and my soul knows it very well. Psalm 139:12-14
He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. Psalm 147:3
Perhaps I’m reading too much into what I saw that morning in the breakfast room. There may have been important pieces of context that explain this man’s interactions with the girls. I saw only a small piece of their lives and am not in a position to judge.
I have rarely seen my husband so distraught on behalf of someone else. His righteous anger served to remind me that my man is a good one—and a refreshing contrast to the man I had just seen. Although my childhood wounds are different ones, Big Guy showed me that he would’ve been angry on my behalf, too, if these had been the wounds I’d experienced.
My heart broke as I thought about that little girl’s future. My heart broke again as I thought about her older sister who seemed to have learned some sad lessons all too well.
And my heart breaks to think of all the women who are hurting in their marriages because of sad and difficult lessons learned about themselves when they were young.
How many of us still carry that little girl inside of us?
How many of those little girls are now women married to men who will be their champions in fighting the lessons of the past?
Your husband is not your father, or your grandfather, or your uncle, or any other man you knew as a little girl.
And you, Daughter of the King, Beloved Child of God, don’t have to be that little girl anymore.
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net