“Are you okay? You seem preoccupied…?”
Jeanette knows me, so of course, if she’s asking about whether or not I am preoccupied, the answer is yes. I tried to ignore her question, though. To avoid a lie, I reciprocated it with one of my own. She didn’t press me on it, and I didn’t offer up the truth.
Three months ago, I took Jeanette out for breakfast. As is often the case, I spent the evening prior with a racing mind, wide awake long after the rest of my family had fallen asleep. During that time, I wrote down three qualities that I love about my wife — things that she excels at — with the hope of encouraging her the following morning.
One of my specific goals was to encourage Jeanette that the investments she had been making in her health were not in vain. She works incredibly hard at keeping in shape, eating correctly, and maintaining a general sense of well-being.
Throughout the years, Jeanette has suffered a list of discouraging medical conditions that often cause her to be overwhelmed by what she is (or is not) eating. Each issue comes with a different recommended diet, so which condition should she be “eating for” today?
That morning, Jeanette told me that she wanted to try intermittent fasting, which a friend of hers had recommended, given the fact that she needed to work on lowering her cholesterol. Jeanette is one of the most highly disciplined people I know, so why not? For her, a new meal schedule would be a breeze.
Fast-forward to the present. Jeanette has been diligent about her eating. Tireless in her attempts to lower cholesterol, specifically. A few days ago, she had a doctor’s appointment, where she received a slew of test results that gave us a picture of her progress. I called after she left the office, excited to hear the results.
Nothing had changed. Her cholesterol was at the exact same level as it had been three months ago, on the day she started.
A couple of nights later, when we found the time to talk more, I asked Jeanette a few questions about her weight. Though it hadn’t done anything to improve her cholesterol levels, I wondered about how intermittent fasting had been affecting the scale, and whether it was helping her goals, there.
As an aside (or maybe this is the main point), I should recommend treading lightly when it comes to weight questions with your wife because no matter what, you’re screwed in these waters.
If you have to ask, it means you don’t know. And how could you possibly not know? If your wife lost weight, and you didn’t notice-why? And if your wife gained weight and you didn’t notice, you’re suspect (you liar). She certainly noticed. Are you avoiding acknowledging the reality head-on in exchange for a passive question by which you hope she’ll admit the truth that you clearly see?
It’s like trying to answer the question of whether or not “these jeans make me look fat.” If you respond “no” too quickly, you’re lying, and the answer is “yes.” If you answer “no” too slowly, it also means “yes.”
Jeanette avoided my question. And it bummed me out. Which is ironic, considering it’s what I did to her at the start of all of this. Nevertheless, it did, but I didn’t know why her avoidance was affecting me so negatively. It made me worried that perhaps her test results were direr than she was letting on. I love Jeanette, and I want her to be around for a long time. I wasn’t trying to hurt her with my question about her weight — I was trying to understand.
Which brings me to the crux of this chapter: I’m not always convinced — no matter how long a couple has been together — that men and women do understand one another.
Where is the disconnect? Did I offend because I didn’t ask the right questions, or did I offend because my question about weight triggered something inside of my wife, who is constantly comparing herself to other women? To their physique. To their beauty.
Today, I have to write a blog post for XXXchurch about “the visual nature of men” and “the mind of the woman” (me — who can’t even get inside my wife’s brain). Sometimes, I feel like the best I have to work with is presumption. But that’s what I’m doing right now, and I can’t help but pull from my recent conversation with Jeanette. I suppose this will be as specifically for her as it is for anyone following our work with the ministry.
When I have an idea, I usually write it down or record it immediately for fear of forgetting and losing it later. More often than not, it spews out like word-vomit, and I have to forward the message along to someone else who can help me organize my thoughts. This time is no different. I sent a series of four, rambling voice memos to my friend and co-worker, Carl Thomas, who responded with a concise summary of what he thought I was trying to say:
- A man has a difficult time explaining the visual nature of his brain to a woman without it hurting her feelings (despite how he phrases the conversation).
- A woman is often comparing herself to the images that capture her husband’s brain all day long.
That’s all good and well, and I’ll get there, but I’m still preoccupied with my dilemma.
Did my weight question sting because it made Jeanette feel as though she wasn’t measuring up to some other hypothetical woman I might have been comparing her to?
Beyond our situation, what we’ve learned through our work at XXXchurch is that wives, in general, have a difficult time believing that they live up to the women their husbands see every day — on the street, on a billboard, watching porn. The comparisons eat away at a woman’s confidence because at the end of the day, she wants to be the subject of her husband’s visual fantasy, and it crushes her to see him looking elsewhere for what she is designed to give.
And then Carl offered up a horrendous, awful, and not-quite-comparable analogy, which I’m going to use anyway because it is as funny as it is horrifying, and might help me get the point across.
“A husband,” he said, “has no idea what is going on inside of his wife’s brain when she sees him with eyes gawking at someone other than her. Just like a wife has no idea what is going through her husband’s brain when he sees some woman walk by or an image on a screen.”
For Carl’s scenario to work, though, one has to pretend that a woman’s brain works the same as a man’s when it comes to visual stimulation. He continued:
“Imagine I am walking around the mall with my wife, Katie. Everything is normal except that nothing is normal because all of the men (myself included) are pantless. We’re all completely naked from the waist down. Now, Craig, you know me — I’m a pretty confident guy. But with my pants off, I immediately start to compare myself to everyone else. In my mind, I’m losing it. I’m wondering: am I big enough? Does my wife think I’m big enough? In this world, instead of me being the one trying to avoid Victoria’s Secret store to my left, my wife is pretending she’s not entirely taken by all of these other men’s genitalia. She doesn’t take out her camera, but I know she’s taking a good look at everything that I don’t have to offer her (and there are some massively large penises out there, Craig).
So then, later that day, Katie starts up some casual conversation with me after dinner.
‘Hey! Have you ever thought about the size of your penis? Like, don’t get me wrong — I love it and everything, but I’m just wondering if you have thought about trying to make it bigger?
I mean, you’re not small, Carl.
I am not saying that, Carl.
I didn’t even notice all the penises at the mall today, Carl.
I only have eyes for your penis, Carl.’”
I laughed and immediately thought of the blog title, “What If America Was as Fascinated by the Penis as We Are With Boobs and Butts?” And look, I get it — the analogy is dumb, and it breaks down immediately because penises are disgusting (however, the hilarity of what fun “cleavage” clothing might be available to men in that scenario has me losing it).
How would that make Carl feel, though? Pretty thankful for jeans.
We live in a world where the woman’s body is on display far more than the man’s body. The point of that scenario, however dumb, was to get husbands to consider what it might be like in their wives’ minds when they’re doing the same thing — comparing, contrasting, measuring up and against their spouse.
What kind of insecurity does that create?
What kind of insecurity did I create in my wife, who is a part of this world? Who is already concerned about her health without her husband asking tactless questions about her weight, who is also measuring herself up and against other women. Either “just because” or under the assumption that I am doing the same?
I was so bummed the other night. All I could focus on was trying to solve the problem: why didn’t Jeanette feel comfortable enough to confide in me? And is there anything that I need to learn from this situation that would be helpful to pay forward to others once I do?
After sitting with it, feeling it and allowing the weight to press down upon me, I came to this conclusion:
I don’t do a good enough job of encouraging Jeanette or telling her that she is beautiful.
However disconnected or discombobulated the collision of these stories may seem, they have led me here, to a list that I made for myself — and am now paying forward to you, reader — about how I can better understand and/or do a better job of navigating difficult conversations with my wife, as opposed to skirting around them, or feeling as though concerns are being avoided.
The change must begin with me.
- Tell your wife that she is beautiful. Often.
- Encourage your wife when you see her working hard at things (for example: working out, eating right, dressing up).
- Do #1 and #2 in front of your kids (and others, as well).
- Expect your wife to be hurt by you, angry at you or insecure about your love if you don’t practice #1, #2 and #3 and especially if you continue to do #5.
- Don’t humiliate your wife by looking at porn or gawking at a woman. My friend Shaunti said this, and it ever since she did, it has been before me.
- Looking once means your alive. Looking twice says you dissed your wife.
- Join your wife in some sort of activity together (gym, bike, skateboarding, whatever).
- Your wife’s level of security in your love is a key predictor regarding her passion and confidence in physical intimacy with you (another Shaunti win).
- Keep up on yourself, as well (i.e., don’t let yourself, or your physical and mental health, go).
Beyond that, while I’m well aware of not being a woman, here are a few numbers that wives might consider adding to their list, as well:
- Your husband thinks you are the most beautiful woman in the world (even if he doesn’t say it enough).
- Remember that it is not your fault that men are wired to notice a good figure in tight clothing.
- Everything in our society is fighting against him, luring his eyes and his brain. That doesn’t make him a victim (and he is still responsible for his actions), but if possible, make an attempt at appreciating or empathizing with his efforts to fight against the temptation that is ever before him.
- If you happen to catch his roving eye, gently express the intimidation it makes you feel, rather than blasting him with a derogatory cut about his caveman practices.
- Openly engage in conversations about these experiences and be open to trying new things (sex with the lights on is much more relaxed after this conversation).
A brief disclaimer about Point #1 on the woman’s list above. Recently, I read a great response to a question (on Quora of all places) that seems to align itself well here regarding whether or not a wife should believe her husband when he reinforces her “unrivaled beauty.”
After all, plenty of adulterers have told their wives that they “don’t have eyes for anyone but her.”
So, a woman posed the question, “Does my husband believe that I am the most beautiful woman in the world?”
In short, the response was this:
Yes, because beauty is more than physique. It is more than sexy. Does that mean there aren’t more attractive women in the world? No. You likely aren’t at the top of the proverbial food chain (and neither — I’m willing to bet — is your husband). Objectively speaking, and especially if you are only looking at and comparing yourself to one facet of beauty, you aren’t the most beautiful woman in the world. But as the woman who encompasses more than “sexy” for your husband — the woman who’s personality, connection, romance, emotion, desire, chemistry, and multifaceted uniqueness attract him to you — then yes, you are the most beautiful woman in the world.
And Jeanette is undoubtedly mine.
I think I’ll let her know.