Sunday, July 18, 2010

One Myth that will Destroy your Relationship

Spring, 1989

The sun was high overhead and hot, and it beat down as I played with two of the dogs in the run area, the early spring heat mitigated only slightly by a light breeze blowing in off the canal. The dogs, both German Shepherd mixes, had their tongues out, but they looked over at me, ready for more. They didn't get to play very much, and even in the heat, they had a lot of energy. The slate gray building next to us, with its blue aluminum roof, had always evoked sadness for me. The Welland Humane Society was a place of suffering. Most of the animals would never find a home. Like the two dogs now sitting in the grass with me, people weren't interested in the adults and the mixed breeds. Purebreds, on the rare occasion when one was dropped off, would sometimes find a home. And puppies and kittens had a good chance of being adopted. But the adult female cat, with her ear slightly torn and raggedy fur, would not attract much attention. Neither would the eight year old Shepherd/Collie mix. Walking through their kennels, listening to their steady cries, was upsetting, so unlike my mother and sister (who I admired), I rarely came out to help. It was too painful.

I brought the dogs back inside and made sure they had water before locking them up again. The vet, Doc Paulson, was in the cat room, and I wandered over. He was checking a new group of kittens. He lifted the tail of each one and jotted something down on his clipboard.

"What are you doing, Doc?" I asked him.

"Checking to see which one is a boy and which is a girl."

I bent over behind his shoulder.

"How can you tell?"

"Well, just lift their tails. The boys look like they have a colon. The girls have a semi-colon."

I checked, and sure enough, it was the best way to describe it.

"What if they have an exclamation mark?" I said.

He looked at me and smiled slightly, but kept on with his examinations. I chuckled at my own wit, and decided to head home. Semi colon and colon, I thought. That was funny, and completely different from people. Girls were so different from guys, they were like another species. I'd heard that a number of times from both my peers and adults, but I'd experienced it the past year for the first time when Nat had broken up with me suddenly to date another guy. Just thinking about my ex-girlfriend soured my mood, and when I got home I immediately went to the two pictures of us that I'd kept. We were smiling and holding each other. I was a bit of a late bloomer, and at seventeen, Nat had been my first girlfriend. I was sure that we'd be together for a long time. I still didn't know what had happened. I looked at the sheet which I'd folded the pictures into, where I'd written my last good bye. I'm sure I will love again, but I will always miss you. I'd penned it in my scratching printing. I held the photos in my hand, feeling the catch in my throat, as my gaze drifted to the Richard Marx mixed tape I'd made for her sitting on my desk. I'd never had the chance to give it to her. Women? Who could understand women? They were so different, and, I thought, just a little bit cruel.

Spring, 1996

The email sat on the screen in front of me, and I stared at it uncomprehendingly. Normally I liked getting email, it was one of the coolest new things about the whole technology thing. No more stamps or long letters or waiting for a reply. You simply clicked SEND and it showed up in someone else's mail box. This email, however, made my throat clench and my eyes well up. It was my third year of Bible College, and I'd already started my ministry. I'd pastored for two years and was speaking to crowds and conventions around the province. I hadn't "made it" yet, but I was making progress. God had great plans for me. Well, for me and *Diane. At least, that's what I'd thought. I stared at the email. How could Diane be breaking up with me? We were supposed to be together forever. Isn't that what it meant when you told people that you loved one another? I could feel all the energy drain from my limbs, and I sat there for a long time before the sobs started coming, slowly at first, but faster until I was weeping into my pillow.

The next day I was distraught. I knew that we'd been having some issues, knew that I wasn't perfect, but there had to be something for me to do. I thought about all the movies I'd watched where the couple had broken up, only to be reunited in the end. Yes. That's what I would do. I would win her back, woo her and court her the way a man was supposed to love a woman. Clearly, I'd failed somewhere. Women were different than men, I needed to remember that. I skipped my morning class and headed to the campus bookstore, where I found a treasure. It was an older book, but I'd heard the authour's name before. Gary Smalley. If Only He Knew. As I read through the small, but dense, text, I realized just how little I knew about women. They weren't just different, they WERE another species. According to Smalley, they responded to things in a manner that was completely foreign to men. I took out my red pen and underlined all the things about women that I had never really known. (Which was a lot) Of course Diane had broken up with me, I thought! I gritted my teeth, and sent a long email back to her. I'd screwed up. I listed fifty two things from the book (that I needed to change) and waited anxiously to hear back. A week passed. Then another. Yet another, and still no word from the love of my life. I was a wreck, and I shuffled through my days, despondent and broken. I thought about my professors, who'd all agreed with Smalley, that men needed to be the spiritual leader in their relationships. All my professors but one. Ron, who was stout and balding, insisted that he and his wife were equal leaders, whatever that meant. We all kind of laughed at him, but he was a nice guy, and we didn't give him grief about his unbiblical view. No, the others were right. I had not been a strong spiritual leader in our relationship. And now, I was paying the freight.

Finally, after about a month, I received an email from my love. I could feel my heart thundering in my chest as I scanned it, and just as quickly, felt my stomach dive. It was polite and short. She asked how I was doing and about my family. There was nothing in her email about my revelations from Smalley's book. There was nothing about our future. There was, it seemed, no future at all for our relationship. The tears came quickly this time, but I didn't try to hold them back. I'd failed to be the man, according to Smalley and my professors, so how could I hope that she could feel right as my woman? If there was one thing I'd learned, it was that the differences between men and women were legion, but if a man did not take charge of his relationship, well, that was the greatest crime of them all. As the months passed I thought about the email, thought about how different women were from men, and wondered, mostly, how they could be so cruel.

Spring, 2010

They sit on my shelves still, and even here, in the quiet library I've started to call home, I can see them if I close my eyes. Battle of the Sexes. Strong Men, Weak Men. His Needs, Her Needs. Lovebusters. Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Men, Women, and Relationships. How to be a Real Man. Even the first relationship book I bought back when I was twenty two, If Only He Knew, as still there, marked with my scrabbly red pen. For nearly a decade I read every book I could get my hands on in trying to understand the opposite sex. I had good motivation. After my break up with Diane, I convinced another girl to marry me, only to watch that dissolve as well. Something was missing in my understanding of women, I knew that, I just didn't know what it was. And so I read, listened to sermons and talks on relationships. None of them helped very much. At least, not until after I was divorced. There had to be a secret, a key to relationships, something I could do to change things. I didn't like being single very much. It was okay, but I was never much of a 'player'. And I liked women well enough, I just didn't understand them. I was dogged though, because I knew that if I didn't figure them out, I was destined to be single (or in a bad relationship) for the rest of my life.

The library is quiet this morning. There is the quiet clicking from the front desk, and a murmured conversation in the corner. Mostly though, it is the hum of the air conditioner reverberating through the shelves and desks, along with the faint smell of books I love so much. The revelation about relationships did not come in a single moment for me, but it was processed over time. The reading helped, but not the way I imagine it would. The more I read, the more I realized that the books I was reading were inherently wrong. They all talked about the differences between men and women, as if these differences were cast in stone. Yes, men and women were physiologically different, that much I understood. But whether it was John Gray or Gary Smalley, there seemed to be a presumption of personality as well. Men were like this. Women were like that. Sometimes, when I'd read the sections about men, I wouldn't be able to identify with them at all. In fact, there were a number of ways in which I identified with the women, at least as they were described in the books. Some of the books did give some nuggets, such as the one that talked about our "emotional bank account", which has helped me enormously through the years.

But by and large the relational books all made the same mistake. They all held to the premise that men and women were different, and in so doing promulgated the greatest and most destructive myth of them all: That if you wanted your marriage to work, you needed to understand the opposite SEX before you could have a healthy relationship.

The widespread nature of this casually accepted myth was not only powerful, but held sway over the hearts and minds of a culture that should know better. The reasons for that however, were easily explained. Unfortunately, they were often disregarded, especially by those who had built their lives (and relationships) on a wrong ideal, and were loath to admit otherwise. To understand it better though, we needed to go back a ways, to previous civilizations.

-Steve (Go up to see Part II)