Before we got married, Ray and I received very similar warnings:
“Be careful of American women. They’re very controlling.”
“Be careful of African men. They’re very controlling.”
To say the least, these well meant presages have created some very interesting dynamics within our relationship.
Revisiting the power of words (S’ambrosia)
I’ve written about the power of words before in the “Oh Be Careful, Little Mouth” post that went semi-viral (1,000 views within a few days is pretty exciting for a fledgling writer like myself), but I didn’t realize until recently just how much those “beware, take care” conversations had affected our relationship well before we were married. When you have statements like that repeated to you frequently, and by people you love and respect, it becomes very easy to slip into misinterpreting or even demonizing the actions of your spouse.
During my time in Kenya prior to our engagement, I came to know Ray as a big ole’ squishy teddy bear. He was the most amiable guy I’d ever met with a mammoth sized heart of compassion that was bent on serving others before himself (even to the point of being taken advantage of). It wasn’t until I came back home and announced my engagement, that I began to see him in a different light, as various people emerged out of the woodwork to warn me about how mean African men are to women. For the longest time I tried to defend Ray and explain to people that when they met him they would see for themselves that he wasn’t at all like what they described, but my attempts were to no avail. They would give me those “knowing” nods and tell me that they’d pray for me, and I would leave the conversation slightly frustrated, but impacted all the same.
I never knew how bad the impact was until Ray and I would talk on the phone or Skype.
All of a sudden, everything he said was offensive to me, and every single word had a subversive meaning behind it. I became paranoid about whether or not he had ulterior motives for marrying me, and I frequently voiced the concern (not really my concern, but the concern other people had drilled into my head) that he would change after we married.
At the same time, Ray was voicing concerns of his own…
What’s going on in the kitchen? (Ray)
Knowing the culture I was marrying into, I was scared at first because of what everybody around me was saying. I heard things like: your wife won’t let you see your family and friends or your wife will make you wash her panties. The list was endless. I remember my friend from the States, after I told him I was marrying an American, told me that one thing I should keep in mind is that they should always have their way. Discouraging, right? I tried to safeguard myself from statements like this, but they were confirmed one day by a personality inventory we took from a pre-martial counseling packet. One of my highest traits was the lion, a decision maker who is determined, confident, and likes to take charge. Guess what my wife was. She was a lion too. Needless to say, I was a little bit discouraged.
In our culture a wife is responsible for all the household chores, while the husband is in charge of decision making, manual labor or technical work, and of course providing the daily bread. There was a time that African men never went into the kitchen. If a man was ever spotted in the kitchen, he would be the talk of the village; some would even say that his wife is a “control freak” or that ” that man is the woman in that family”, to list but a few. Even if the wife was the breadwinner, we do have some cases of that here, and the husband stayed home, he would hire a house girl to go in the kitchen. With that kind of background, you can imagine how worried I was about what life would look like for me and my American lioness here in Kenya, but I was relieved when my wife told me that she believes that she is the one to take care of the house (even though washing utensils and laundry is not her thing, lol) and merely requested that I would be helping whenever I could. That was one less fight for us to have.
More than a stereotype (S’ambrosia)
As Ray shared, we eventually discovered that control actually would be an issue for us, not because he’s African and I’m American, but because it’s simply the nature of who we are as individuals. We don’t doubt that our cultures have influenced our personalities to some extent, but at least now we can speak about our control issues on a level that goes beyond the cultural stereotypes. Unfortunately, we still hear comments from people who only see me as a typical American stereotype, but once again we have advice from one of our mentors to fall back on. He encouraged us to be each other’s champion. When people from Ray’s culture harp on me for being too “American”, it’s his job to defend me, not mine. The same applies for him. The logic behind that is that when you’re dealing with people of your own culture, it’s easier for them to dismiss an issue when you address it as opposed to when your spouse does. They’ll forgive you quicker than they will him. This has been another great piece of advice that has really helped us stay afloat in either country. It’s also pretty neat to see my husband stand up for me amongst his peers. It really does wonders for my love tank.
Working out the kinks (Ray)
Through the help of our mentors, we also discovered that for an intercultural marriage like ours to work, though I believe the same applies to any marriage, there was a need to create our own culture as a couple. This means we had to come up with our own set of rules to govern our marriage. Some rules favored my wife, and some favored me, but above all we had to be accommodating. Even though my wife has agreed to the duty of being a home maker, I have personally made it a rule over the weekends to give her a break from all the duties in the house. It’s still easy for me to do this because we are just the two of us, so I am not afraid of people laughing at me (Sam: this is a legit fear that he has), but what is more important is the fact that we agree on something beforehand, and we do our level best to ensure that we honor our promises. As far as decision making is concerned, yes I know am the head of the house, but we both have a right to give input, so long as in the end we have each others blessing, even though some decisions may be hard to bear for the moment.
(S’ambrosia) Although part of the Wasike culture involves shared decision making, a very real and current struggle we have with overcoming some of the things people have said/say to us has been Ray’s fear of exerting any control over me in certain situations. Before we were married, some people told him that if he did something I didn’t like, I would get on a plane, go back home, and leave him. No matter how much I tell him I’ll never do that, he can’t shake the doubt. So there are times we will discuss issues and I’ll argue my point, and to keep from having to deal with me getting too upset about how controlling he is, he’ll just say, “Okay, do whatever you want,” and drop the conversation completely. In his mind he’s keeping the peace and appeasing his cray cray wife, but in my mind he’s giving up the right to use his God-given authority as the head of our house. Truth be told, I actually want my husband to boss me around. I don’t mean that in the sense that I want him to be domineering or controlling (you can unfurrow your brows, ladies), but I want to be able to look up to see my husband at the helm of this marriage with one hand in God’s and other in mine and feel nothing but trust in his leadership capabilities. It’s hard to trust your husband’s leadership when he’s always putting you in that role to keep you from bursting into angry dances all over the house.
I have since given Ray total permission to exercise his authority over me without fear, even if it means I have to perform an angry dance or two. I may be throwing a fit, but secretly I’m admiring his ability to lead me in the best way he sees fit. Of course it’s incredibly baffling to him to hear me say something like that when he knows that me giving him authority doesn’t mean that I won’t argue my case until I need to pause for a water break, but he’s coming to understand that just because I want to make sure that I make my points known doesn’t mean that I won’t adhere to his plan. It’s just nice to know that he values my input.
We’re definitely still working this out; my husband is only on book 7 of “How to understand the convolutedness of your wife”, but God is faithful and He really has been teaching us both so much about submitting to one another in love. In turn we’ve agreed to just ditch the pants and clothe ourselves in garments of humility and servitude instead.