Someone is on her way to visit me as I write this. She has not been married very long and is on her way to seek marital advice from – of all people – me. She has plenty of married, Christian people to choose from, so I should probably be flattered that she has chosen me – a once-married-but-now-divorced woman. On one hand, I’m trying to get myself into the right frame of mind so I’ll be prepared for her when she arrives. On the other hand, I’m not sure I want to be drawn into marital conversations. I’m telling myself that hardly anyone can get away with giving marital advice. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fellow married woman, a never-married woman, or a man, for that matter. No one wants to be the target of blame if things backfire. But when you’re divorced, being in this situation is particularly delicate.
What am I afraid of? I’ve asked myself.
I’m afraid of many things. I’m afraid that she’s at her breaking point and she’s looking for someone to give her permission to stop trying … and that she’s desperately hoping that ‘someone’ will be me. I’m afraid of not doing justice to the situation – of being just like everyone else she has probably approached before me; of addressing the surface symptoms of this troubled union and not getting down to the root problem – not because I don’t know what the problem is, but because digging up the truth might prove to be too costly. I’m afraid of getting my hands dirty; of ‘taking Panadol’ for someone else’s headache; of ending up caring too much; of doing a thankless job.
Ultimately, I’m afraid that I will look into her eyes … and see me from just a few years ago … and end up talking not to her as she is now, but talking to me as I was then.
To be on the safe side, I might as well let it all out now. Address this ghost so it can get out of the way and I can see this young woman clearly; see her for herself and honour her and her situation in their own right. Honour her in a way that I did not honour myself.
To myself in my mid-twenties (when I got married) through to my late thirties (when I got divorced), I say: Restrain yourself. Go easy on the ‘over-niceness.’
Let me explain: For most of my life, I was a mindlessly ‘nice’ and helpful person. This trait carried over into my marriage. I spent years bending over backwards to ‘help.’ I ‘helped’ because I was asked for ‘help’ directly and indirectly. I was asked time and again. I ‘helped’ because I was programmed to ‘help.’ I ‘helped’ because, when life was going awry, I couldn’t just sit around and watch everything fall apart…
Or couldn’t I have?
What would have happened, I sometimes wonder, if I had just let the chips fall where they may sometimes? If I had just decided that salvaging situations and figuring things out wasn’t my job? If I had just been a tad less… capable? What if I had been as mindful as I had been ‘nice’?
I can’t pretend to know the definite answer to these questions, even now. To myself in my younger years, I will say this, though: If ‘niceness’ and trying to be a flawless help-meet leads you to become less ‘like a woman’ and more ‘like a man,’ then, I daresay … don’t be ‘nice.’ It just might save your marriage. It’s odd, but there is something about taking on what you originally understood to be your husband’s role, that gradually makes him less than a man. Well-intentioned as your actions may be, they have a castrating effect that may well be irreversible – at least where you are concerned as a wife. I’m convinced that even if a man apparently enjoys the convenience of having his woman pick up some of his slack, there’s something within him that will simultaneously (and paradoxically) rebel, and cause him to try and assert his manhood in other ways. Negative ways, more often than not. A man needs to be ‘a man’ with someone, even if he acts like he doesn’t want to be one with you.
Now that it’s (somewhat) out of my system, what am I going to say to this young lady today? I still have no idea.
Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips (Psalm 141:3, NIV).
Nena Ndioma is a mother of two who blogs (occasionally) about being African, Christian, and recently divorced at remembering-my-journey.blogspot.com.