Marital or Martial?

Fred Smith draws on his 66 years with Mary Alice to speak about the culture of marriage.

By Fred Smith

We all know that corporate cultures tell us what goes and what doesn't go. We also develop the same thing at home. Oftentimes the stress in a marriage is really part of their culture. I'm thinking about the negative stress which I normally call distress. I have known families whose culture was built on conflict. They knew nothing but fighting.

I've had associates who could not go home and expect to sail into a quiet harbor. They had no place for repair. If during the day they got a slat knocked off of their ego, they could expect to pay a big emotional price at home for losing in the battle. I knew a man whose wife said goodbye with these words," Bring home the bones!" In other words, you had better be the victor. Mary Alice has always provided me with that wonderful place of repair from the trials and tribulations of the work place.

Two couples come to my mind that I've known ever since their student days. Both have unhappy marriages though the individuals are all fine people. Both of the men are easy-going, completely secure, and have each become extremely successful. Both of the wives are beautiful women who come out of very insecure family backgrounds. I believe that each probably felt that marrying such grounded husbands would give them the security they lacked, but it didn't happen. I am not a psychologist, I'm simply an observer of the human scene. But it seems to me that generally insecure wives attack secure husbands. Thinking of these marriages, I asked my friend Dr. Howard Rome, who was head of psychiatry at Mayo, what caused this kind of situation. He replied that these women look to their husbands for security and the only way they can be sure they are secure is to attack that security. If the husband stands firm, then the wives are comfortable for a limited time. When they would start to doubt their security, the process would start over. He said it was very important that the husband not "let the wife go through the fence." Unfortunately both of my friends didn't stand their ground, escaped to the office whenever their wives attacked to delay the confrontation. Obviously this didn't work and it has developed into a lifelong alienation. But they have created a culture of conflict.

From a man's viewpoint there seems to be a national attack on men. The advertisements make the women smart and the men dumb. There's a lot of talk about how inhuman men are. The quest for "sensitive men" is written about extensively. I certainly subscribe to men being sensitive, but being male-sensitive, not female-sensitive. I can't be sensitive in the way that Mary Alice is sensitive. Unfortunately society has mistakenly defined male toughness as meanness. Ironically I sense there's a turn developing. This attack on men is showing many sensitive "traditional" women that their men are changing in a way they don't want them to change. I feel that some of the extreme feminists actually hate men, and that's not going to develop into the kind of relationship that we need to build good marriages. A cultural shift of roles won't create stability. It is not a question of talent, gifts or leadership abilities. But healthy men shouldn't behave like women.

The culture of civility is attacked today. We live in an "in your face" environment. But happy marriages cannot thrive without courtesy.: Mary Alice and I have found that we can't always be loving, not even after 66 years of marriage. Idealistic Christian counselors can tell us to be, but we just can't be. But we have found that if we'll be courteous it lowers the stress considerably. Civility plays itself out in ordinary ways. For example, we believe in being on time with each other and when we borrow money, pay it back. We try to keep the tone of our voice civil. Ida May Cain, when their strong, opinionated children started to yell at each other, would correct them by saying, "your sweet voice, please." We have found it courteous to time our criticism correctly and only criticize in the amount that will be helpful. Courtesy doesn't permit very much needling.

Remembering special occasions like Valentine's Day helps, as well. You would think after 66 years you'd get a "bye" on some of these days, wouldn't you? I can tell you that you are still on the hook to remember.

The culture of marriage can be marital or martial… too many couples create conflict, live in it and eventually adapt to it. This results in alienation and slow death.

Recognizing the culture that you are building gives you control over the marriage that you want to build. And, when it is hard to love, you can always be civil. Courtesy and respect hold the ground until love blooms again.