The Evolution of a Wife
October 17, 2022 - Marisa Guerin, PhD
It has only occurred to me recently – after 36 years of marriage – that I am actually gaining a clearer and unconflicted view of what it means for me to be a wife.
The word “wife” is fraught for a woman who came of age at the same time that feminism did. I suspect my complicated relationship with this notion is not unique for my generation. I really don’t know what it means to a modern young woman to become a wife. And I can only imagine the subtle, complex, uncharted territory that faces same-sex spouses, whether they are both wives or both husbands, as they figure out what it means to be loving spouses to one another. I have to believe that we all experience a profound evolution in our relational selves when we make life commitments.
When I was a young woman, I was clear that I wanted to be married. Sure, I had thought briefly about becoming a nun when I was about twelve – probably every girl in a Catholic school did so – but by the time I was out of the house and going to university, I was hoping to find my true love. That took quite a few years and almost as many heartaches. In a blogpost last year, I wrote about how becoming “single” in my heart turned out to be a necessary step in order for me to eventually become married. Once I made peace with the possibility of living my life as myself, with or without a partner, I became more able to engage in relationships with freedom, maturity and mutuality.
So yes, my relational trajectory has always been towards a primary, life-long commitment to one other person. But the idea of becoming a “wife” was not at all attractive to me. In the counterculture years of my youth, in the full bloom of women’s liberation, being a wife had a negative spin. It seemed by definition to be a dependent and derivative identity, a word originating in a patriarchal world. I was all for becoming a married person, as long as I was also going to be an empowered and autonomous person with her own life to live.
Do we notice any potential for grinding of gears in that picture? Indeed!
But, ah, the optimism of youth. The underlying incongruities in my picture of marriage didn’t stop my romantic and can-do self. I must have figured it would be new and different and fine, just like everything in my life was new and different and had to be navigated. I didn’t fully grasp the degree to which my idea of marriage was an untidy package of inherited assumptions, gauzy ideals, sacramental covenant, and brave new world freedom.
Lucky for me, I married a man who understood and supported my aspirations as a woman with a career, a man who had no problem with my keeping my own name when we married, a man who was even willing to move to my town and change jobs. This last step was not nearly so easy in practice as it may have seemed in concept after our long-distance courtship over seven years. When we married, we were each in our thirties, and change was hard. For the first time in the many years of our relationship, we suddenly lived in the same city, in the same apartment. Talk about transplant shock! That was especially true for Mike, who had to re-establish a professional and personal life space in a new geography. Anything I dealt with pales in comparison.
I remember that minor pinch points about how to be a wife showed up for me early. One evening not long after the wedding and honeymoon, we were at home in our new apartment after dinner. I was organizing the kitchen cabinets and he was watching television. As the reality of this scenario registered for me, I felt horrified: “Oh no, my worst fears are being realized! I am being a housewife and he is being a typical guy!!” But moments later, I had a flash of awareness and steadied myself. “Wait just a minute, Marisa. You are doing what you ENJOY. And he is doing what he ENJOYS. And no one is being ignored or dismissed. It is perfectly ok to like domesticity. Let it go, don’t panic.”
I calmed down. It helped me that I could claim domestic order and kitchen creativity as a personal preference, not an imposed, wifely obligation. It was true -- I take great pleasure in making our living space orderly and comfortable, and I very much like to cook and bake. That evening was a preview. There were lots of small moments like that, about things that mostly didn’t matter in the big picture.
For example, one month after I was married, I was in a work meeting with two of my (male) corporate colleagues about a project that would involve some upcoming travel. Suddenly uncertain, I hesitated. Was I supposed to confer first with my husband before agreeing to be in France for a meeting next month? My colleagues were amused at my perplexity.
And what if one of us fell ill as we traveled together abroad and what if the other were not allowed to make healthcare decisions because our last names were different? I took to keeping a copy of my marriage license in my passport.
Would we be OK in social gatherings with business colleagues if my being the boss muddled the mostly-unconscious hierarchy of the husband-and-wife dyad? Yes, we were OK. And on it went, me figuring it out on the fly.
Over the last three and half decades, life has been our teacher through the adventures of graduate studies, jobs and careers, domestic life, family needs, retirement and health crises. When I remember some of those passages, I feel sorrow. I can see that there were many times when I failed to give my husband the depth of understanding, the completeness of support that I intended with my wedding vows. “To love and honor you all the days of my life” is a beautiful and sincere promise; not so easy to fulfill.
On a little get-away vacation some weeks ago, Mike and I sat quietly together outside in the dark, looking at the starry sky and sipping some wine. Because I had been reflecting recently on these ideas, I found myself saying, “I wish I had been a better wife to you over the years.”
He seemed surprised, and objected to that idea right away. He declared pretty emphatically, “Of course you have been a good wife to me.”
Hmm. I didn’t expect that. I wasn’t fishing for affirmation.
After a few minutes of silence, I said, “Let me try a different way to say what I am thinking. It’s this: I am aware today that I didn’t understand as much about being a wife in our early years as I do now. I wish I had.”
This time, he heard what I was trying to say. Accepting my offering, he added, “And I didn’t understand as much about being a husband, either.” At that point, we were able to talk about it, and it felt like an important conversation.
We are happy. These days, we face serious health challenges, for sure, and our memories and cognitive functioning may not hold up for very long. But we also share deep friendship, affection, and care and humor. We enjoy each other’s company and we understand each other. Every day is an opportunity to try to be patient, to remember to be kind. Some days are harder than others, and when we mess up, we do our best to get back on track. It is my tremendous good fortune to have Mike as my loving husband; I hope I am given the grace to keep growing in my vocation to be his wife.