Frequently Asked Questions
9. What does my wife / my husband really want?
Dr. Deborah Tannen, in her brilliant little book You Just Don't Understand, has beautifully summarized the essential difference between men and women. These differences are based on primitive attributes of both sexes that allowed survival in the jungle. According to Tannen, women need connection and intimacy; men need status and recognition. To quote her description of a conversation she had with her own husband:
"Having done the research that led to this book, I now see that my husband was simply engaging the world in a way that many men do: as an individual in a hierarchical social order in which he was either one-up or one-down. In this world, conversations are negotiations in which people try to achieve and maintain the upper hand if they can, and protect themselves from the others' attempts to put them down and push them around. Life, then, is a contest, a struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure."
Men, in other words, are still battling the contests of the jungle in trying to maintain their status with a woman.
Tannen continues her description:
"I, on the other hand, was approaching the world as many women do: as an individual in a network of connections. In this world, conversations are negotiations for closeness in which people try to seek and give confirmation and support, and to reach consensus. They try to protect themselves from others' attempts to push them away. Life, then, is a community, a struggle to preserve intimacy and avoid isolation."
Women, in other words, are still trying to maintain the connections they needed in the jungle for the survival of themselves and their young.
Men, as a general rule, have a need for status and recognition. Women, as a general rule, have a need for connection and intimacy. When each spouse appreciates these primal needs in the other, the couple can build a much stronger marriage. Giving one's self to meet these needs of the other is where love plays an essential role in the marital relationship. To define this in one succinct aphorism - wives need appreciation and husbands need admiration.
The medieval philosopher and rabbi Maimonides restated a Talmudic teaching in his monumental code of Jewish law:
"The sages commanded that a man must honor his wife more than his own self and love her as himself. If he is wealthy, he should provide her with the best in accordance with his wealth. He should not cause her to fear him, but speak with her gently, not with sadness nor anger.
It is interesting that Christian tradition also sees "honoring one's wife" as the priority for a husband. The New Testament teaches "Grant her honor." (1 Peter 3:7) Christian scholar and lecturer Gary Smalley writes, "Honor basically means to attach high value, worth, or importance to a person or thing."
What does it mean to honor her more than himself? It means a husband must make his wife the number one priority in his life. It says that her value exceeds anything else - his parents, his children, his business, even his very being. If it is a choice between a man's wife and his parents, his wife takes priority. For the Torah teaches "a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave onto his wife." (Genesis 2:24) Similarly, if it is a choice between a man's wife and his children, his wife takes priority - for his children will grow up, leave, and cleave onto their own spouses. Amongst all our obligations to our various family members, the primary responsibility is to our spouse.
The choice between a man's business and his wife is more difficult for many men. Males often tend to establish their identity by their profession and earning power. Perhaps that is the reason King Solomon, in his search for the ultimate purpose of life, concluded:
"Enjoy happiness with a woman you love all the fleeting days of life that have been granted to you under the sun - all your fleeting days." (Ecclesiastes 9:9)
"Similarly, they commanded a woman to honor her husband exceedingly, be in awe of him, and obey his wishes. He should be in her eyes as a prince or king, following his wishes and avoiding what he hates. This is the way of the daughters of Israel and sons of Israel, who form holy and pure couples. In these ways will their dwellings be peaceful and praiseworthy."
A man's wife is to be more important than even his business.
Honoring her more than one self means that marriage ought to be the ultimate in selflessness. It requires a deep sensitivity to her needs and an attempt to fulfill those needs, even if it means compromise one's own desires.
A man is required by Jewish law to honor her more than oneself. This involves empathy, service, and even sacrifice for her needs. When a man makes his wife the number one priority in his life, she will respond in kind. If he opens up to her, she will open up to him. A man must express his appreciation to his wife by paying attention to her needs, listening to her cries, and showing her affection. A woman has an insatiable need for intimacy and connection, and it is her husband's responsibility to provide for that need.
A man has different needs in a marriage relationship - he sees the world not in terms of intimacy and connection, but rather status and hierarchy. The husband's status must be affirmed by his wife - she must show pride in his accomplishments. In other words, a man desires the admiration of his spouse.
Numerous Jewish and Christian sources reflect the need of a woman to affirm her husband's status in the relationship. Admittedly, much of the language is archaic and somewhat jarring to the modern ear. Maimonides wrote, in the passage quoted above, that "He should be in her eyes as a prince or king, following his wishes and avoiding what he hates." Maimonides appears to make the husband a kind of benevolent dictator, a king or a prince ruling in his own household.
A similar rabbinic statement teaches that even if the husband is no more than an ant, his wife ought to feel that she can place her chair among the great. She ought to sit proudly next to him.
In the same way, the Christian New Testament writes, "You wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they be won without a word by the behavior of their wives." (1 Peter 3:1) In a similar passage, Paul wrote "Wives, be subject to your husband as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands." (Ephesians 5:22-24) With passages such as these, it is small wonder that many feminists have dismissed the traditional marriage as a hopelessly sexist institution.
Nonetheless, there is a fundamental value to be learned from all of these passages. A man is concerned with issues of status, particularly as bread winner of a household. He needs to know that he has the admiration and respect of his wife. Even if she is the major wage earner, she needs to make him feel like a king or a prince in his own household. He needs her admiration as much as she needs his appreciation. He needs to hear the words "I'm proud of you" as much as she needs to hear the words "I love you."
When I consider the majority of marriages I have seen break up through the years, the main cause was neither adultery nor alcohol abuse - it was women who lost respect for their husbands. Or it was men who lost their own self-respect because of unemployment or professional failure. I am convinced that part of the problem of the urban underclass in our country is not simply irresponsible sexual behavior by men. It is the inability of poor men to find decent employment, earn a respectable living, and win the admiration of the women who raise their children. Without this admiration, men easily fall back on the old animal behavior of predatory sex and abandonment of women and children.
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