Unbearable Lessons


What did your childhood teach you about men?

During our difficult years, there were times when our marriage felt like a war. Sometimes there were loud battles that would last for days. At times, we would retreat to our foxholes to rest and wait for the next round. If I’d been asked, “Who is your enemy?” I would have answered, “My husband is.” It took me a long time to realize that it wasn’t my husband who was my enemy; the Enemy is my enemy.

All We Can Bear

In The Things They Carried, a book about the Vietnam war but even more about how we remember events that have shaped us, Tim O’Brien weaves stories of the emotional baggage men carry with them when they face death. What are the memories that soldiers carry into war with them? What are the experiences that have shaped them into the men they’ve become? How do those memories become a part of how they deal with what they face on any given day?

He writes, “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

When we marry, if we have any emotional baggage, we bring that with us into the marriage. We have memories and experiences that have shaped us into the women we are and into the way we approach marriage, our husbands, and our role as wives. This baggage and our memories easily can become part of how we deal with what we face in our marriages on a daily basis.

Sometimes, our burdens are heavy.

We learn a great deal about men when we are children. My best friend had a dad who was a Korean War vet. One afternoon when her parents were gone and her sister was supposed to be watching us (but instead was on the phone with a new boyfriend), my friend whispered, “Let me show you what I found.” Underneath the blankets in the hall closet were her father’s war pictures. Her dad was quiet and always seemed like a nice enough guy, so I figured we would be looking at pictures of scenery. She pulled out a picture. There was her dad, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, standing on a pile of human heads (several that were female) with a big grin on his face. No matter how hard I try, I cannot erase that image from my head. That picture permanently altered how I saw her dad. He seemed to be a nice quiet guy, but under the surface he was a monster who saw people as less than human. I learned to suspect that a man was not truly what he seemed to be. As an adult, I understand intellectually why soldiers dehumanize the enemy. This adult knowledge does not erase the impact of that childhood lesson on me.

From men in my own family, I learned that men do not see me as valuable. I learned that men misuse their power and control women. I learned that men don’t value my voice and that they expect to be served by women. I learned these lessons while sitting on the sidelines of family gatherings, while playing with my Barbies when the adults were talking in the background, by watching the women in the family jump up to get refills on dishes when the men said they wanted more.

A woman I know learned a different set of lessons about men during her childhood. Her best friend’s father had stacks of porn magazines in the master bedroom and centerfold pictures on the wall. This was the room where the upstairs phone was, and when my co-worker needed to call her parents for a ride home, this was where they told her to place the call. She learned that men are obsessed with sex and that she wasn’t worth protecting from bad images. As she got older, she began to question the seriousness of marriage vows, since this man who had a wife still chose to have centerfolds stuck to the wall of the marital bedroom.

Another woman I know has a father who she describes as “a philanderer, a cheat, and the most charming man you’ll ever meet.” She learned lessons, too. Don’t trust a man who says he is interested in more than sex. Don’t trust a man’s words. He will smooth-talk you right into bed, because that’s what he wants. He lies to his wife, and men’s words can’t be trusted.

One of my childhood friends remembers the time her parents had friends visit for the weekend. She was eleven years old, and she woke up to her father’s friend fiddling with her pajama bottoms. She feigned sleep and rolled over. He went away, but she always wondered what had happened before she awoke. Her own father was a wonderful man. She has older brothers. She has always trusted the men in her family–but she couldn’t trust any other man. She is divorced now. She says her ex-husband felt she would never trust him no matter what he did.

Sadly, far too many women learn hard lessons in childhood about men. They may be survivors of childhood sexual abuse. They may have witnessed domestic violence or experienced child abuse at the hands of fathers or other men in their lives. Lesson? Men are not safe.

The lessons we learn from the men who are supposed to care for us most (fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers) are the lessons that teach us most deeply. How they treat us is part of what we learn, but we also listen to how they speak about women. We find their magazines. We hear them speak to our mothers and to their own mothers.

We learn that men are not what they seem. They control women. They expect to be served. They lie. They cheat. They devalue women. They violate. They hurt.

We learn that we cannot trust men. And for many of us, this ultimately means that we also don’t trust God. When the very men who are supposed to cherish and care for us (fathers) aren’t trustworthy, how do we learn to open our hearts and trust our Father who created us? This inability to trust God simply adds to what we carry forward.

Terrible Power

We marry, bearing memories and emotional knowledge about men. Since our husbands are men, we think we know what to expect. So that’s exactly what we see. We may hope for better, but we expect what we know.

Being human, our husbands are bound to make mistakes–sometimes big ones. We go into marriage, not even aware of what we expect from him simply since he is a man. When he messes up, we see it as proof that we were right all along.

Your husband asks you to get him an iced tea; it is proof that he expects you to serve him. He tells you something you think is untrue; it is proof that he lies. He yells at you out of stress; it is proof that his anger is out of control. He touches you when you’re in the middle of washing dishes; it is proof that he doesn’t value what you are doing. He gets an erection while you are changing clothes; it is proof that all he wants is sex. You see the real him that no one else in the world sees, simply because you are his wife and you live with him in a way no one else does; it is proof that he isn’t what he seems to be.

We see what we expect to see instead of trying to see with eyes of love, eyes that strive to see as God does.

In The Things They Carried, O’Brien writes, “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

The same can be said of the emotional baggage we carry into marriage. We carry all we can bear, and then some. We drag these memories into our interactions with our husbands, with our expectations and beliefs about men hovering over our marriages.

If we let them, the childhood lessons we learn about men have a terrible power over us. They shape our reality. Instead of responding to our husbands based on their actual words and behaviors, we respond to them as though are the men we carry in our memories. We stand in awe of these lessons, believing in them more than we believe what we actually observe in our husbands.

Have you ever heard your husband say, “I am not your father/grandfather/brother/neighbor/uncle?” Has he said, “What will it take for you to trust me?” The burdens we carry are more than we can bear; what do we risk when we heap these burdens onto our husbands as well?

Bearing the Burdens

When I married, I tied my life to a man. My husband is a good man. He comes from a family of good men. They worship their Lord. They honor their women. They love their children. They are honest.

Yet when I married my husband, I didn’t see the man I’d married. Instead, I saw the memories of what I had learned men are like. My husband bore the burden of what I had learned from childhood about what a man is and what a man does.

I have challenged myself to look at my husband through God’s eyes. Rather than looking at the blips that I perceived as proof that my expectations were accurate, I try to see the pattern that has developed over time in his behavior. My husband is an honest man, and he is nothing other than what he seems to be. The choices I have watched him make over the course of our marriage have helped me unlearn that lesson.

Nonetheless, the terrible power of these lessons sits, silently, while the Enemy waits to pounce. As I was writing this post, I was dragged right back into the mindset of the lessons I carried into my marriage. While I was in the middle of writing, my husband asked me a question about our bank account. My mind immediately went to the place of “I’m so undervalued that he doesn’t even care what I’m doing, even though it’s important to me.” I snapped at him. I cried. And then I realized what I had done. Because I was visiting those lessons in order to write about them, they were far too easy to tap into when my husband spoke. The men from whom I learned my childhood lessons still have a power over me.

Lessons learned long ago lay down patterns that require our effort and attention in order to change. Are you married to the man your husband is? Or, do you speak and act as though you are married to your father, grandfather, brother, neighbor, uncle, or other man who added to the burdens you bear?

Does your husband bear the burden of the terrible power of your childhood lessons about men? Do you sometimes respond to them instead of to your husband within your marriage (just as I did while I was writing this post)?

My husband is not my enemy; the Enemy is my enemy.

The teachers of my childhood lessons are not my husband; my husband is my husband.

When you look at your husband, who do you see?

What did your childhood teach you about men?

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16 Comments on “Unbearable Lessons”

  1. Oh wow…so true. Its only been in the last six months or so that I’ve realized how things done to me as a child, the example from my parents’ marriage, and emotions turned into “beliefs” have greatly affected my marriage. My husband and I have been married for almost 11 years, but things have become so much better since I decided to take control of my life and not be ruled by my past or my parents’ beliefs. This was a great post!

  2. I showed this page to my wife & it really helped her to see I was not the enemy. I’ve said more than once, “I am not them!” Thank you for publishing this page.

  3. I fight this battle a few times every year. My wife’s parents fight all the time. Her father used to smash things in their house when he got angry. He cheated on her mother with her mother’s sister. Her mother cheated on her father after that with his brother to get back at him. Both were married and divorced before this marriage. I constantly have to remind her that I am not them. She is getting better about it but it still pops up from time to time. My parents stayed peaceful long enough for me and my sister to grow up but then they divorced also. How does anyone have a shot at a good marriage with all these bad examples? I am tired of paying for the mistakes of others. I just want to be judged on my own actions. I am by no means perfect but I have never done anything that would hurt my wife like that and it hurts me to know that she assumes I eventually will.

    1. Sometimes we don’t even realize that we are making those assumptions about our husbands. The lessons can be so ingrained that we don’t realize there is a different way that our husbands can be. She isn’t making an assumption about you as much as not realizing that anything else could even be possible. She is trapped by the lessons as much as you are.

  4. I was forwarded to this post from another blog, and while I do agree with it from the vantage point of a women and how male relationships in childhood surely shape adult perspectives of men, I feel this is so one sided b/c the same could be said for the way men view and treat women.

    I do think that needs to be addressed or else this puts the burden of lack of intimacy and trust solely on the women. My H was the only boy raised with 3 sisters and a mother. His parents remained together until the kids were grown and out of the house. In the beginning of our relationship I thought his being raised around girls was a good thing and gave him better insight as to how to treat women. But, b/c he was the only boy, his parents did raise him with certain gender role entitlements. So I find that while he is sensitive to the emotional tendencies of women he has learned how to lie to avoid them. I have said time and again ‘ I am not your mother, I am not reprimanding you, I am your W, I am trying to express my dislike or disapproval and have a conversation’ rather than him just shut down and take his ‘punishment’. Or the countless times I felt as though he’s treated me as a sister rather than a lover.

    I understand this is written from a female perspective, but I don’t think it’s solely the burden of the women and her H is the victim of the impressions left by other men.

    I feel society, life experiences, and culture help shape our expectations of the opposite sex and it is the responsibility of the married couple to communicate and share their experiences and expectations with each other.

    1. It isn’t so much that I write from a female perspective as that I write for women about what is theirs to do in working on their marriages. Other blogs write to men about what they can do. I do sometimes write about how we can encourage our husbands to do what is theirs to do (or at least stay out of their way).

      You are so right that men bring their childhood views of women into their marriages. When these lessons have been negative ones, they should work to identify those connections and release themselves and their wives from the chains.

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