Control of the other

I once read a polemic against marriage about a month before I got formally engaged. It argued that part of the reason that marriage was outdated, and unable to be separated from the patriarchy from which it originated was because of the way that we perform marriage, and we perform our roles as husbands and as wives.

The main example that was given was that of the husband: Suburban Wage Earner, commuting home from the city, and entering his household where he is immediately claimed by his wife, and no longer able to have friends. Since reading that, seeing the wisdom of its antidote in the eyes of both my father and my partner’s father — both of whom seem to have no friends — I began to worry.

I began to worry about how I was seen in the eyes of Tim’s friends, and worrying that Tim wouldn’t keep his friends, and worrying in general about what it meant to be someone’s wife and partner. One of the most telling and poignant things I learned in our premarital counseling is this adage: one person cannot meet all of your emotional needs.

I can’t meet Tim’s need to play D&D, but I am a pretty kick ass partner in Super Mario. His fraternity brothers can’t meet his needs to dance, for that he needs me. But he is responsible to our relationship, and I suppose that’s where I want to start the story I want to tell you all.

Tim’s buddies wanted to go sky diving. Tim wanted to go sky diving, because it’s something he’s always wanted to do. Knowing that I did not want to go sky diving, and knowing that I could not meet his need in this way, and wanting to be supportive of him fulfilling one of his dreams, I told him that he should go.

I arranged to be busy the day of the jump, because I didn’t want to know when it was happening. I would have actually preferred to be there in person (though I am told it was dreadfully boring) because I would have preferred the illusion of being in control and able to help when my husband was falling out of the sky. But as luck would have it, I actually had a work thing that weekend, and I couldn’t join the intrepid group as they went to Wisconsin to jump out of a plane.

As the jump got closer, I implored Tim to be safe, over and over again. He tried to assure me with statistics about how landing a plane is the most dangerous part — so why shouldn’t he jump out before that bit? He tried to assure me with statistics about how driving a car back and forth to work each day was more risky than jumping out of a plane.

Before I put my phone in a safe place to ignore it until Tim was safely on the ground, I texted him, “Don’t die. I’ll never forgive you if you die.”  When I was done being busy for the day, I retrieved my cell phone from where I had left it.  It was supposed to have been after they jumped. But, there was no message from Tim. I began to panic.

I performed as a wife. I called the significant other of another one of the jumpers and demanded to know if he had heard from his girlfriend. He had, and they hadn’t jumped yet. Oh.

I spent the rest of the afternoon fretting about Tim jumping out of a plane — fearful. I was afraid and I was having a hard time expressing it, and when he got back on the ground and let me know that he had fun, I demanded to know if he was ever going to go again because I didn’t think I could stand it and I would take drastic measures to prevent it. (Run on sentence purposeful, in this case.)

We got into a fight then, about being bullies, about control of your significant other. My old fears about being the wifely ball-and-chain returned, and amplified my fear — and we got into an even larger fight about perception and intention and why we were even fighting at all.

What I did, telling him that I’d never forgive him if he jumped, that I’d take drastic measures to prevent him from jumping out of a plane again — that was bullying, that was attempting to control him. I don’t want to do it, but I return to the pattern of behavior again and again. And I can’t deny that it’s something I see validated in RomComs and SitComs — the idea that the wife should prevent her husband from doing things she’d rather him not do.

It gives me a lot to think about — what does it mean to be a wife? A committed partner in a marriage, an institution that is tinged with all sorts of ways of acting that people expect? Culture is partially about performances, and we perform.

I don’t have anything to teach with this post. Fellow married feminists, if you’re struggling with this, with this method of communicating, know that you’re not alone in trying to figure out how to relate to your partner, when society says you should do your best to control them and their behavior.

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