I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how people treat each other. Generally, my philosophy is to be kind, but that only works up to a certain point. Kind does not equal punching bag.
Marriage is a difficult prospect. When asked in the past by friends and family what I felt was the hallmark of a successful marriage, my reply was “submission”. That’s a bit ironic isn’t it? But its true. Up to a point.
How Submission is Required for Marriage
I think of submission as being like a long strand of kelp stretching up from the seafloor to the ocean’s surface. One bends with the ebb and flow of the current, sometimes stormy, mostly calm, a gentle swell. Submission is an attitude of going with it. It is not a seeking feeling. To seek is to change, and to induce change is to not be true to submission.
Some people take this to an extreme. There are those who believe that taking a photograph of someone is to take something from them. And surely this is true when done without consent. In some cases, where there is no intent—let’s say you are taking a picture of a crowd, then you are not really taking something from anyone in that crowd, in part, because there is intent. But if there someone standing on the edge of that crowd, someone who catches your eye, and whose pose and energy you wish to capture, you “take” a photograph. Whether you believe you have taken something or not, the intent is not clean.
In this sense, submission in marriage or in any other way, is about responding without imposing. Silly people conflate submission with weakness. Self-righteous people perhaps with strength. I think both lines are misguided. The issue isn’t with submission, it is with what people associate it with: being spineless, possibly being passive-aggressive, being childish rather than childlike. But you can agree to going to eat Indian because she wants to even though you might have wanted a pizza, and so goes most things. Other days she will want pizza and you will want Indian. Asserting your need is not the same as communicating it. Going with the flow is a lot more than the art of compromise. It is about being in tune with someone.
If she says, “I wish you would assert yourself more,” then perhaps the relationship is doomed! But if instead you are unable to agree on the movie you both want to watch, but you still watch her movie, not because “next time we’ll watch mine,” but rather because you wish to understand her better, or you want to try to sync up emotional states, then you begin to understand.
I like the metaphor of a balloon on a string. I used to love the idea of being a balloon on a string—free, bouncing, ready to fly, but still held by a cherished hand. I realise though, that the act of holding the string is not one of submission. And that we need to let go. In marriage, that means that we need to encourage the other person wherever they want to go. Be supportive. Recognise that we chose one another to be partners, and that is what a partnership is, mutual support.
We vest the particular partnership of marriage with all kinds of extra things, and it is usually those things which lead a relationship to come unstuck. She leaves her clothes on the floor, or he can’t clean up after himself, or he snores, or she picks her nose, or whatever. Some relationships come unstuck over the way one person clinks their teaspoon in the teacup as they stir their tea.
There is another issue, but this is just a symbol, though we often don’t realise it. I walked into my local M&S Food Hall this evening just behind a man who was walking with a leisurely pace. He met a woman who was presumably his wife who had been waiting for him. There was no ‘hello’ there was only diatribe. He was apparently late. But she laid into him for a whole series of things, and his non-response said to me, this has happened before, and he has gotten to the point where he doesn’t care. He might have even been purposefully late. He had that air about him. Passive-aggressive. Neither party is submitting to the other.
Submission, therefore, is sublimating your own earthly desire to enable you to fulfil the desires of your partner.
When You Cannot Submit Your Way to Success
Submission, on the other hand, is not letting go of the self. Submission is not about being something that you are not, of having to be untrue to yourself. If you are allergic to pizza, agreeing to eating it anyway is not submissive, it is foolhardy.
Sometimes people will take the religion of their spouse as a condition of marriage. This happens often when muslims marry outside of their faith and require the spouse to convert. Other religions have this form of individual chauvinism appear—the particular rules of birth in Judaism militate to a Jewish father asking of a non-Jewish mother to convert so as to ensure Jewish children. This is not the kind of submission I am referring to. This is a negation of the self. I am sure that some of those who do convert are not all that religious, or perhaps not even at all, but this is a fancy way of skirting the issue. Faith is fundamental to the self, even in its absence. Asking someone to change the ritual of their faith, even without changing the consequence, is against this first principle.
Of course, love can do this. When we love someone, there is no telling what we will do for them. And sometimes these love acts, giving in this way, can be a betrayal of the self—meant at the time with all joy and beauty, but possibly later becoming a source of resentment. I had two conversations recently with a writer and a Sex Worker that illustrate this point rather graphically. Don’t read the rest of this paragraph if you are squeamish. The writer wrote about coprophagia, and how she was trying to understand it, even though it was not something she would ever contemplate participating in. She speculated that sometimes people get into states in love or in BDSM where they are in a trance and will do anything for their partner…and this act is the ultimate sacrifice. The SW, who had experience in this arena described a kind of machismo about it—that the submissive is trying to prove that they will do anything. In this context, although I have no intention or desire to explore this, it is one of my red lines, I can understand it.
These examples of self-sacrifice are to highlight where submission is not helpful in a relationship. I cannot countenance the idea that “I will do anything” is really all that attractive. Instead, it simply serves to show that the person saying it has no self-love, no boundaries. I think that these are both instances where psychotherapy and BDSM are very helpful tools. I am reminded of a dinner conversation with a dominatrix on her female clients, and how so many of them were re-enacting forms of violation—whether those were single traumatic events, or whether they were the cumulative stresses of everyday life. They were with her to let go of trauma. They were with her to reclaim agency.
Turning the other Cheek
I’ve been writing about this too, because it has been on my mind. I have sat patiently and watched my wife walk away from me emotionally. Watched as her shock at me telling her that I could not hide my female self any longer has gone from one of compassion to one of hate and anger. I have given her space, have let her process in silence, but now that I am home, I have to confront it—not because I want to, but because her anger drips from the walls and ceilings of every room in our house…because her demeanour is seething and quietly hostile.
We can spend days in the house together and almost never see one another. And a false cheer bonhomie, the motions of politesse, sit like a satin veil above shards of glass—you can still see it all underneath.
And of course, I have described how our marriage lies in waste at our feet. I did submit to our marriage and to her for many years. Adapting myself, as did she, which is why on the surface so many thought we had a perfect marriage. Only it turns out that she wasn’t married to me. She was married to surface me. And while she knew of hidden me, out of sight meant out of mind. Isn’t it true that we always see what we wish to see, whether good or bad.
And everything would have been fine, if I could have just gone on living as a half a person. That’s what she wanted. She might not put it that way, but its as plain as day. Insulting me by saying, “if I were a lesbian I wouldn’t choose you,” or, “who do you think you look good to?” are just ways of lashing out. Passive-aggressive, childish, selfish.
Counting on Friendship
I did count on her as a friend. I did imagine that we would grow old together. I made a life commitment. I intended to honour it. But now I have been released from that bond. Part of that is liberating, and part of that is very disorienting.
And I am stuck in limbo. I want to tear the bandage off, but I also know that I can’t because she doesn’t want our children to know. I don’t think they will be bothered by it at all; I think on many levels they already know. What will bother them is that this (whatever this is) has broken their parents’ relationship. And what is this? That she knew all along and was okay to be with me as long as I pretended it wasn’t so. What does that say about the love of a partner who would do that? For shame.
The Anger Part
I’ve tried to give space. I’ve tried to understand. And I’ve listened to some pretty hateful things. My “favourite” is her statement, “you just used me like a test tube to have children.” What an awful thing to say. Our children stand as a monument of beauty to all that is good in us. If I used you in this regard, you most certainly did the same to me.
So, I’m saying “enough!” I don’t want to listen to this anymore.
So, here’s the rub. Submission is absolutely my guiding light…and the more I think about it, the more I believe it has to teach me. But I also know that submission has nothing to do with the loss of agency, or loss of self-respect, self-love, or identity. Indeed, the first time I played with a dominatrix I cried to her that if we were going to play together, that I hoped she would never push me to be less, but always more…that my submission to her was founded on this principle. And if and when I no longer felt it, I would walk.
I ask anyone reading this, does your partner help you grow without agenda? If yes, they’re a keeper. If not, it’s time to let go. I am no longer a partner in a failing marriage; it is now a failed marriage.
[The good bits are still there–even if in the past].