One thing I will say for Helen’s writing: she is organized. The book is split into two primary halves based on Angelic and Human qualities, and each quality is broken down into parts in order to be explained efficiently. The Angelic quality “Understands Men” is introduced by chapter three, “Accept Him.”
This chapter does have some solidly good advice, which can be summed up in two words: “don’t nag.” I think most people would agree with that– in general, nobody likes a nag. This was one element of the chapter that I could basically agree with, although I completely disagree with where she goes with it. Don’t be a nag becomes, quite easily never talk to him about things that could create conflict, and, if it is absolutely necessary, be as insipid as possible.
Helen does make caveat-like statements all the way through this chapter; don’t be a doormat, don’t deceive yourself into thinking your marriage is perfect when it isn’t, don’t resign yourself to unhappiness. However, sometimes in the same sentence, she contradicts herself. So, while she does make these caveats, she completely overrules any help they might give through everything else she says.
Accepting him, to Helen, is based on a concept I’m the most familiar with as a joke: women marry men expecting they’ll change, men marry women hoping they won’t. Personally, I think this is a ridiculous stereotype that I’ve never seen played out. People have expectations, especially expectations for what their marriage will be like, but Helen completely dismisses this. Women don’t get to have expectations. They are not allowed preferences or wants; in order for a woman to be happy, she must have a husband who loves her, and in order to have a husband to love her, she must do everything she can to cater to him.
She gives a list of the things women try to change about their husbands (which could as easily be read as a list of things that men like to change about their wives) which includes things like spending habits, ignoring the children, and social behavior. The most interesting thing to note about this list is that none of the items she lists are insignificant. They are all things that I would discuss with my husband and have major concerns about if it wasn’t something we could come to an agreement or compromise.
If he would only change, you may say, your life would be better, happier. Review your husband’s faults to see if this is true. If he changed, would your life be more pleasant? Would your eliminate some problems, have more comforts . . . or other benefits?
These questions, Helen goes on to say, are the completely wrong questions. Because you’re the wife: your happiness and personal comfort don’t matter. Talking to him about anything you are concerned about could “create discord,” and “no matter how carefully you word it, he will likely respond with resistance.” And to that I say: what human being doesn’t occasionally respond to any kind of critique without resistance? I want to meet that person.
The discussion that follows this idea, though, is downright disturbing, because she starts using words like unhinged and violent, and she concludes with “isn’t love and harmony in marriage of greater value [than talking to him about your concerns]?” If your husband is doing something you’re uncomfortable with, like spending money unwisely, and you can’t even talk to him about it without him becoming “angry” and “unhinged,” that is a serious problem worth addressing.
Next, she uses one of her historical examples by referencing Leo and Sophia Tolstoy. Tolstoy is well-known for eventually giving up all his wealth and embracing voluntary poverty, even giving away the publishing rights to his books. Understandably, this caused some tension in their marriage; after all, Sophia had married a financially stable Russian noble, and expecting continued financial stability . . . well, at the time financial stability was the primary motivation for women to marry. The fact that her husband completely abandoned the responsibility to support his family for the sake of his ideals . . . if I’d been Sophia, I’d have been just as pissed. She’d supported him all through his literary career– she hand-copied War and Peace seven separate times. And then he pays her back by forcing her, a doctor’s daughter and a Countess, to live in abject poverty.
But that’s not what happened in Helen’s point of view. To her, Sophia tried to “change her husband.” She was selfish, she “longed for wealth and riches.” She claims that it would have been “noble” for her to have “accepted his way of life” to “let him have his freedom.”
When one of my best friends told me she knew someone I should meet, one of my first questions was is he employed? When she said he was an engineer, I was more than ecstatic. It’s not that I would never have considered someone who was unemployed, especially nowadays, but with my health conditions it is difficult for me to support myself. When it turned out that he was more than capable of providing for us, it was a huge comfort for me.
If he ever decided to leave engineering and pursue a dream, I would be supportive– because we would discuss it, and I would know exactly what the plan was. And it wouldn’t be to go live in poverty for no reason except that living in poverty is some sort of “ideal” that I didn’t agree with. Maybe we’ll end up in Nigeria with him being an emergency pilot and me working in a fistula hospital, I have no idea, but it would be a decision we would make together, and my concerns and desires would be just as important as his.
One of Helen’s main arguments through the book is that what women are “used to doing” just doesn’t work. Do it her way, and presto, your husband will love you and your marriage will be fantastic. However, this is what she describes as being normal behavior for women:
You might as well give up trying to improve your husband because it doesn’t work. Hints, carefully worded suggestions, or even pressures won’t change him . . . Sometimes women try to change men by force in the form of demands, ultimatums, or threats. Usually, however, they resort to pushy suggestions, criticism, disapproval, or nagging.
Notice how none of this is open communication. It’s not a wife engaging her husband in a conversation and treating him like a human being. It’s women playing coy, beating around the bush, and expecting passive-aggressive manipulation to work. In this case, I do agree with Helen; passive-aggressive behavior, while it can be effective in the short term, isn’t about building a productive, healthy relationship, but about control. However, she doesn’t go on to say “communicate your concerns,” but, in fact, the exact opposite. One of the more hilarious parts of this chapter is an explanation of how a man’s freedom to make his own decisions is crucially important– and why is this the case? Because God gave man free agency and autonomy, that it is one of the “most fundamental laws.” But do women get free agency? Hell no.
Interestingly, Helen does answer the question “should I ever try to change him?” with “yes.”
At first, I was shocked. Yes? You mean, women actually get some sort of say?
Not really, though, no.
She lists out a specific set of circumstances: when he is blind to a fault that is causing him damage. In this case, it is alright for his wife to point out that flaw to him– but not as a flaw she personally feels is there, but a flaw she supposedly thinks his authority or “the world” could see. “I think you’re just absolutely wonderful, sweetie, but don’t you think showing up two hours late for work everyday could make your boss think you’re lazy?” There’s no way this could come off as anything except disingenuous.
The second circumstance is when is abusive to his children, and she is perfectly clear that she does mean abuse, and not just harsh disciplinary methods. She says that a mother has a moral obligation to remove her children from an abusive situation for their safety, but then she turns right around and says:
Don’t judge him or condemn him for his actions. Be firm but kind, letting him that you are doing it for the protection of the children. Your firm but kind attitude, accentuated by your actions, may humble him and bring him to repentance.
This is one of the reasons why I don’t trust Helen– because she has no concept of abuse, abusive patterns, or of the people who are abusers. People who abuse others in the way that Helen describes aren’t doing it because they just don’t know any better– they are abusing the people in their life because of a hugely overblown sense of entitlement, a consuming and absolute need to control, and the willingness to do anything to get what they want. If your husband is abusing your children, leave and never look back. Maybe one day he’ll get counseling and grow into a realization that what he did was evil, but it is NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO BRING THAT CHANGE. You need to get out. That’s it. Don’t focus or worry about anything else– getting away from an abuser is hard enough as it is.
She also applies the same advice to husbands who verbally abuse their wives:
Should you try to put a stop to his behavior? No, count this flaw as a human frailty. But, do respond to his mistreatment in the right way: don’t be a doormat. Don’t shrink back and act wounded, or retreat behind your shell. Instead, have some self-dignity. Stand up to him and he will love you more because of it. But take care you do it in the right way.
This . . . this passage is horrifying.
I survived an abusive relationship– it was emotionally, verbally, physically, and sexually abusive, in that order. Verbal abuse is supremely dangerous because people who use verbal abuse are good at using their words as weapons to get what they want. Very good. They purposely create triggers, they use “set ups,” they trick and deceive and manipulate. Verbal abusers are ruthless.
And do you know what happened when I “stood up” to my abuser? When I confronted him about how he was treating me and how it made me feel? It escalated to physical abuse. The first time he hit me was when I stood up to him. As our relationship progressed, he deliberately trained me to “cower” and “shrink back” and “retreat.” If I did anything else except almost literally bow down to him, I would be severely punished and degraded.
Sadly, this manner of viewing abuse and abusers continues through the rest of the book.
And she wraps up with this:
Try to understand that any advancement to a better, happier life is difficult. For example, living the Christian religion is not easy. You are taught to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you . . . a devout Christian does not set aside these goals because they are difficult. The ladies talking over the back fence [about accepting their husbands being too difficult] might as well give up being Christians as to give up accepting their husbands at face value.
In one sense, Helen is right. Living out Christian values like turning the other cheek and loving those who curse you: not easy. Impossibly difficult, at times, and I realize that is true.
However, loving your enemy does not require anyone to remain in an abusive relationship, as Helen continuously maintains. Even when she says “take your children and leave,” she only means physical absence, not cutting off the relationship. She believes that continuing an abusive relationship is the only right thing– in order to “bring him to repentance.”
To compare the two– living out Jesus’ teachings and staying in an abusive relationship– and saying that giving up on one means giving up on the other is insane.
This is the fourth post in a series. You can find links to the rest of the series here.