We are stressed.
Being a priest is stressful. Time and money are in short supply, reasons to grieve are everywhere, and parishes can be difficult and demanding at the best of times. It’s hard to witness to the peace and joy that are our rightful inheritance as sons of God with so many worldly problems stacked against us. Unfortunately, we make things worse with how we respond to our stress. We should practice re-creation and self-care, making a sustainable balance of our lives and establishing a healthy environment for our spiritual lives to flourish. Instead, we self-medicate in ways that will eventually ruin our lives and our ministry.
Our marriages are suffering.
One of the ways this plays out for “white” clergy is through our marriages. Even if your own marriage is sound, look around: how many of our clergy families are just going through the motions, putting a good face on things in public but just one wrong word away from breakdown? Even worse, we have also seen the pain and public scandal caused when our marriages break down.
We have to do better.
We’ve all preached it: the marriage is an icon of the Church, meant to witness to the unity, love, and joyful contentment that is found in Christ. How can we proclaim the Mysteries of the Church when our own efforts to build up the Kingdom within our homes are so pitiful (1 Timothy 3:5)? Apathy, resentment, distance, lack of commitment, lack of joyful sacrifice… we decry these vices within our parishes but often foster them within our own families. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and fix this.
Let’s court our khouria’s!
Let’s court our khouria’s and bring the joy, romance, and intimacy (yes, romance and intimacy!) back into our marriages! This may seem like yet another thing “to do” on an already over-crowded calendar, but your parish needs a joyful priest, your children need a joyful father, and your presvytera needs a confident and joyful husband. Remember, “no one is happy unless matushka is happy!” We are going to find ways to make matushka happy!
Already tried that with mixed results? Tired of being unable to live up to her often unrealistic expectations? That is a problem, but ignoring the issues, closing her off, spending more time away and on work, and practicing other forms of self-medication just make the problem worse. This is important, so please consider giving it another shot. “Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results each time,” so let’s be intentional and begin by properly diagnosing the problem.
Why are our wives often so difficult [sic as if!]? Odds are that they are stressed and we’ve been taking them for granted. We think our ministries and lives are difficult? Theirs are almost always harder. As with us, many of the ways women self-medicate make it harder to live with them; yes, the responses are different (e.g. the stereotype is that we go into silent avoidance and they go into chronic complaining), but they are no less problematic.
Good News: it’s not us or our marriages – it’s our poor responses to stress!
This should reassure us: there is no built-in problem with us, our wives, our marriages, or our ministries except our fallen psychology and our poor responses to stress [obviously there are exceptions].
Better News: there are things we can do to fight and destroy the stress that is attacking our dobrodika’s!
We are going to (quietly and subversively) help our pani matka’s with their stress (as my pani matka points out, this will mostly involve recognizing the things we do to stress them out and stopping them). As men, we love projects. Our project is to see how stress-free we can make our homes. This will also do a number on our own stress. For instance, unlike men, women are not interested in romance when they are stressed. Courting begins with figuring out how to reduce her stress. And increased intimacy is just one of the many “positive externalities” of a healthy marriage!
Some Warnings and Challenges:
Women are wired differently than us. We must realize that women are affected by and cope with stress differently than us. Many of these differences are not learned, they are built-in. These differences form the parameters of our service to our wives – they are not the things we should try to change. Our attempts to change our wives (and vice-versa) are often the biggest problems in our relationships.
This project requires kenotic ministry. This project isn’t about us, and we can’t focus on our unmet expectations; we need to focus on serving our preoteasa’s best. Moreover, even when we get over ourselves and focus on the needs of our popadia’s, our male “can-do” instincts tend to get in the way. For example, when our deaconesses raise problems – it’s a trap! They are not really looking for solutions (our automatic response); they are looking to make and reaffirm personal connections and feel our compassion. If they complain about traffic making them late, for example, don’t talk about an app you found that syncs traffic updates to their car’s GPS; instead, just nod, touch her arm, and say, “wow, honey, traffic bites. I’m sorry.” Don’t try to fix their problems, not immediately, at least. Just listening, repeating their words back to them, and giving a few sympathetic words and touches to encourage them on will go a long way.
But becoming a “Greek to the Greeks” does NOT mean emasculization! Becoming more effeminate, childlike, or needy will make things worse. Our wives do not need more children, they need husbands (manly men… with beards! Manly men, with beards… who wear cassocks!) who will listen to them. Neediness brings out maternal instincts… strength, self-confidence, and supportiveness solicit romantic instincts (and lower stress).
It may take a while to gain traction; in the short term it may hurt. Ideally, our dobrodika’s will respond to our (quiet!) efforts by helping us feel successful (which would lower our stress) and start communicating in a healthy manner…but may well fall into habits that tend to just push us away. Unfortunately, men tend to lose interest when we sense that we cannot meet our wives’ needs and (sometimes unrealistic) expectations. We can’t give up!
Getting It Done!
John Gray (the “Men are from Mars” guy) uses the hormone oxytocin to explain the stress-levels and romantic feelings of women and how we affect them. Whether it works as science or just as a metaphor, the basic idea is that high oxytocin=good (“romance”) and low oxytocin=bad (“stress”). So here’s the payoff:
- Oxytocin decreases when women feel alone, ignored, unsupported, or irrelevant. THESE ARE THE THINGS TO AVOID HAVING ANY PART OF! FWIW, one mistake that I made for years was being on the road all the time; that kind of assignment pushes all the wrong buttons and take a lot of effort to make up for.
- Oxytocin increases when women feel connected, paid attention to, supported, and involved. THESE ARE THE THINGS TO DO! Time spent listening and sharing, date nights, little gifts, helping out, offering compliments, and generally being less distant and more involved around the house will go a long ways. Find small, doable, tasks around the house and do them without being asked.[i]
- Communicating (mostly listening and rewording what she is saying back to her), compliments, affection, supportive noises and actions, and doing lots of little things, will win big points (note that little victories count as much as big ones in this and adjust fire accordingly).
- But we cannot do it alone. Help her (gently, quietly, and subversively) get into habits that build up healthy connections, nurturing, etc.. These include time with friends (it’s hard for pani matkas to meet and make friends!), self-care like mani/pedi’s (with a friend for a bonus!), building things, taking lessons at the range, making gifts for people, doing projects around the house, and giving to charity. Women have different interests, so its our job to figure out which activities recharge and de-stress our preoteasa’s.
Once we get into the habit of doing these things, the effects will snowball and we’ll find ourselves in a utopia where our homes are loving, warm, and safe; places that we want to be at more and more. The opposite is also true; when we do not do the “little things,” our matushkas will feel resentment, our homes will become unsettled, and we will instinctively find things to keep us away (more work is a terrible “self-medication trap), and the amount of misery on this suffering world will have increased.
One Last Thing on Communication
We can get defensive when our presvytera’s talk about their feelings, but we need to communicate that we understand their perspective. When we do it well, everyone wins. When discussions turn into competitions, one person we may seem to win (and it may be us, after all, we’re bigger and louder), but the relationship will suffer. We have to remember that it’s not about being right. By definition, it is the LOVE and MARRIAGE that are right. That (not our opinions or egos) is what we are working and sacrificing and fighting for.
Here are some mistakes we often make when we get into arguments:
- Raising our voices or becoming cold, sarcastic, or distant in tone.
- Being condescending/cutting down her points or approach
- Interrupting her to correct her or invalidate her opinions
- Offering solutions instead of drawing her out with questions
- Cutting off the discussion without listening to and affirming her concerns
If an argument is not going anywhere, put it on hold in a positive way, e.g. “I hear you. What you say is important to me and you have a right to be upset. Let me think about this some and then let’s talk more about it.” Try to resolve things before you go to sleep, and remember that whatever you’re arguing about pales in comparison to the love between you, your spouse, and God. Keep perspective on the important things, and listen when your love is upset.
We read so much about theology and serving parishes. How about reading things that will help us serve our wives? Here are two secular works that have helped me (Please add yours in the comment section below!).
Of course the theology of marriage matters… but I’m assuming all of us have plenty of books like these on our shelves:
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[i] In our house, this is often done with reference to Jeff Foxworthy. He hit the nail on the head in his “You might be a redneck” shtick; “Whatever cleaning goes on the planet, women do 99% of it. But see, women are not as proud of their 99% as men are of our one! We clean something up, we’re gonna talk about it all year long. It might be on the news, you don’t know. A woman could be out re-paving the driveway. Men actually have enough gall to run out on the porch and go “Hey baby? Man, it’s hot as hell out here, ain’t it! Look, don’t worry about emptyin’ that ashtray in the den, I done got it, all right? Did it for you, sweet pea. I’m gonna go take a nap now, all right?”