Have you seen this blog post, An Open Letter to My Future Wife? We’re going to tackle it today and talk about reality vs. fantasy in marriage.
Remember how I complained a while ago about how it seems like there are all these baby-Christians out there who’ve just gotten married and now think they are total experts in how to be married? This guy’s not even married yet. Hell, he’s not even in a committed relationship yet! But he’s already writing this letter to his future wife as if it’s going to bear the slightest resemblance to anything a good marriage experiences.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with dreaming, but this is just delusional magical thinking that is only going to get everybody hurt in the end. The guy who wrote this thing is clearly an adult, so obviously his delusions and dreams are his business and ultimately his problem, not anybody else’s. But he put this delusion onto the internet in a public place with the clear expectation that he’d get cookies for it, so I get to talk about my own response to it because let me make this clear: I don’t think he deserves cookies for what he’s written. He thinks this letter he wrote is romantic, but it is not.
I’ve seen lots of chatter about the letter, both on its original site, which claims to speak for “Generation Y,” and on social media, all acting like it’s the most wonderful thing ever written. Women who doubtless adored Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight are swooning over this guy, openly wishing that someone would write them letters just like it and saying they’re “hinting” at their partners to act more like the writer of the letter. “Who Says Romance Is Dead?” asks one site, and that’s hardly even the most effusive praise it’s gotten. So in terms of potential damage an empty gesture could do to total strangers, this letter reaches right up there with the worst examples of the genre.
I’m putting this post into my Unequally Yoked series because while the writer of the original piece does not explicitly state his religious beliefs, this is the kind of sentimentality and sheerest-stuff-of-fantasy that I ran across constantly (and still do for that matter) as a Christian. This is the kind of paradigm I operated under once, and I suspect a great many Christians do too. Belief in this paradigm was a big part of why I got married to the person I married, and why that marriage failed. And when it failed, my then-husband did not even question the paradigm, as most Christians do not when their marriages dissolve.
Disclaimer: I’m not going to present myself as an expert on marriage; like most longer-married folks, I’m aware that what works for my marriage might not work for every other couple out there. But I do know what generally doesn’t work, both thanks to the School of Hard Knocks and because I am a three-dimensional human being who values three-dimensionality in other human beings, which are both methods of learning that seem to have entirely escaped this Open Letter’s writer.
So without further ado, let’s get to it.
To all the fans of this Open Letter,
Look, I get it. The world is a really scary place and sometimes we feel very alone in it. Sometimes we go through a lot of frogs to get to our princes and princesses, and the process can feel scarily rationality-defying. Sometimes there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of rhyme or reason to why two people click. When the faintest bit of hope of controlling this process comes along we grab for it like Dumbo grabbing for his lucky black feather and we ride that hope all the way out.
Because of our desperation we end up in the land of Magical Thinking. We start thinking that if we do X, we’ll get Y from our chosen target person. That’s how odious books like The Rules and all those “Men are From Mars” BS manuals stay in print, and why an entire industry revolves around damaged nerds teaching other damaged nerds how to treat women like crap in the hopes that some damaged woman will respond to it and make with the sex. That’s how we’ve ended up with so many Nice Guys™, too–people who think that if they put enough Niceness Tokens into a particular woman, she is then obligated to dispense Sex back to them in payment, and that if they push all the right buttons in just the right order, the woman they’ve fixated on will fall madly in love with them. Unfortunately, the only people who reap the benefits of these peddled wares are their vendors. Do the right ritual, make the right prayer, act the right way, these shameless shamans tell us, and that’s it! Now buy this book!
And thanks to a few decades’ worth of movies, music, TV shows, and other media teaching us all some really screwed-up ideas about love and sex, it’s surprising that any of us has the faintest idea how to function. We’re taught that there is one special person out there for every one of us, and even if that person doesn’t seem to return our affection, if we just hang in there and are Nice enough and refuse to give up and find just the right overwhelming gesture to convince our One True Love of our affection, then we’ll win their heart.
Once we win our One True Love, though, then what? It reminds me of a dog who chases cars and has no idea what it’s going to do if it ever catches one.
Enter the Open Letter written by Zareh Zurabyan to the person he describes as his “future wife.” He writes about how this letter is his plan “to make you happy every day of your life.” You are all very excited by this Open Letter, I know. That’s why we’re here.
The Open Letter is written by a man who is clearly suffering from what Doctor NerdLove calls Oneitis; as he put it so eloquently, “Sufferers from oneitis become fixated on one person and believe that nobody else in the world could possibly measure up to how perfect they are. In it’s (sic) earliest stages, oneitis feels almost exactly like the honeymoon period of a new relationship.” Does that sound familiar after you read this letter? He writes to this hapless woman,
The reason I am writing this today is because I can’t stop thinking about you, and I can’t stop myself from imagining how happy we will be. Let this letter be a promise to you that I will do my best to be the man I want to be for you.
Let’s remember, please, that he hasn’t even met this woman yet. He is positive that this future wife of his not only exists in that exact form he imagines but will also appreciate the plan he’s making–and moreover that she will conform to it. That sounds like a downright emotionally-dangerous number of assumptions to be making without even having met her. But he says he “can’t stop thinking about” this phantom-woman, and he can’t stop obsessing about “how happy we will be.” He’s not living in the now, but in the future, and that’s not the best place to hang out if you want a relationship in the now. And yes, I’m saying he’s treating this mystery woman like Wayne treats that fancy guitar.
He also declares that he’s not the man he thinks this woman deserves here, did you notice? He’ll “do his best”–which is a setup for failure. As Yoda said long ago, there is no try–there is only do or do not. He’s got this idea of the man he wants to be, which implies strongly that he is not that man. Good aspirations are nice to have, but maybe he needs to make himself into the right kind of man before promising to be that kind of man. Then he won’t have to promise to “try” to be that man; he will actually be that man.
This mixup of operational order reminds me of co-workers I’ve had who insisted loudly that they’d be great managers if only someone would promote them; they never did figure out that people don’t get promoted and then develop the skills needed to be a good manager, but that they display the right skills and aptitudes first and then get promoted. But these co-workers were convinced it was the other way around, and they were always very peeved when in-house promotions passed them by one after another. Were they peeved enough to start showing up at work regularly and on time and to do a great job rather than a lackluster one? No, they sometimes said out loud, but they’d start doing all of that once they were given a reason to do so, which meant not until they’d gotten promoted. Meanwhile, all the people who were actually going out and doing all that were winning the promotions.
It also bothers me that he’s swearing up and down to “make” his future wife happy. That’s a recipe for failure and backfiring. Nobody can live 100% for another person, not even a mythological divine person, but for some reason Christians promise to do this all the time both for Jesus and for their future spouses. It’s not healthy to devote your entire life to making another human being happy, even if it were possible. If you’re not happy, it’s not fair to even want someone else to “make” you happy again. I’ve been on the other end of that, as the person expected to “make” my partner happy, and it’s just exhausting! That’s one of the signal failures of the modern conceptualization of romance, this idea that a partner “makes” you happy and that you should be “making” your partner happy.
Some of the stuff he’s talking about in this “Open Letter” are perfectly normal things that just about everybody does, but he wants a cookie for them, which just shows how little he understands relationships. He slobbers over the idea of holding his wife’s hand? Why are you impressed? He’s promising to do the stuff that pretty much everybody should be doing anyway. That he thinks it’s worthy of including in a letter like this is just shocking to me. For example, “I promise to play the games you like to play” sounds weird when one considers that enjoying playing together is something most couples do anyway and should be a given. It’s like those guys who promise not to mind if their partners work outside the home or to give as well as receive oral sex. Sorry, but to paraphrase Chris Rock, almost everything this writer promises to do really should be standard equipment for all models of man in 2014, and if a woman gets one that accidentally doesn’t include these features, then she needs to return her man to the shop for an exchange for one that is not defective. It should ping your radar when you hear promises like that. It strongly suggests that the writer thinks that normally these things wouldn’t be done without a promise.
But it gets worse:
I vow to challenge you to challenge yourself for the better; to make you think differently. I promise to try to feed off of your illuminating energy that will inspire me to do the same with myself. I will do my best to ensure that being bored never crosses your mind.
I have to ask: is he marrying an adult woman here or helicopter-parenting a toddler? Why does he make such a fuss over making sure his wife is never bored? Is she not capable of entertaining herself? Because let me inform you, being “on” 24/7 for another human being is not the most wonderful way to go through life. It’s tiring and emotionally draining, and I guarantee it is going to get old once he’s done it for a year or so. And what’s this thing with “challenging” her and “making” her “think differently”? This sounds like it could be abusive if done wrong. When someone talks about “challenging” someone like this, what you’re hearing is someone who sees himself as objectively superior to the person he’s “challenging.” It isn’t his job to make her change or to “challenge” her like that. And when he mansplains at her to inform her that “everything is relative” in hard times, that sounds a lot like he’s setting himself up to be her life guru and personal development coach too.
This supposed “true romantic” definitely subscribes to traditional male and female roles, as we can see at a glance at his Open Letter. He promises to stay pretty for his future wife, and he definitely expects her to do the same, conflating attractiveness with healthiness: “I promise to do my best to remain physically attractive for you . . . I promise to help you to be healthy, both physically and mentally.” It’s hard not to mentally translate this bit to: Don’t you dare get fat, l’il missy! And why is it his job to “help” his future wife be healthy in any way? Health is something we all take personal responsibility for; we can’t make anybody else healthy or unhealthy.
Then there’s this thing about his beloved kickboxing sport, which sprang out at me so hard it almost poked me in the eye: “I’ll train you, too; I want you to know how to fight and defend yourself, just don’t use it against me.” (Emphasis mine.) Oh really? Will she need to put that promise into writing? Why does he specifically need her to assure him that she’ll never use it in case she needs it to defend herself against him? Why is he setting up this condition now, before even meeting the woman he’s writing the letter to? If I wanted to learn a martial art from Mr. Captain, who is a lifelong practitioner of them, you can absolutely rest assured that he’d want me to use it in any and every situation I needed it, even if that meant using what I learned from him against him. That’s because Mr. Captain is not a terrified, insecure pile of quivering jelly who needs to feel superior to me. Rigid gender roles strike again here though, as the letter-writer shows us that he needs to feel like he’s got something over on his future wife; he wants to show off his knowledge and power to her, but only if she promises not to use them to dominate him. Are you starting to see why I’m not finding this letter romantic in any way?
He’s also making the mistake of reckoning without his host(ess) regarding children. In an age when a striking percentage of women don’t ever have children–either because they are quite happily childfree or because they are part of that rising number of women having heartbreaking trouble with fertility, he is almost charmingly naive as he blithely insists over and over and over again what his future wife’s role as a mother is going to look like. He totally takes for granted that of course they’ll be having children–and that those children will be having their own children so he’ll get to be that totally cool grandpa who teaches the kids martial arts. He’s forcing decisions and making assumptions about childbearing not only onto a woman he’s not even met yet, but upon children he hasn’t even been assured he’ll ever even have yet! Why do you people think this is romantic? What on Earth is wrong with you? Jeez Louise, he hasn’t even met anybody yet and he’s already mapped out their whole lives together down to the third generation!
And you can probably bet that his ideas about parenting are just more of the same old same old; while promising to “cook and clean for us” and to make his future wife super-healthy breakfasts (I suppose to maintain his brood-mare’s fine figure), he declares that “Being the man of the house is nothing without a woman.” Really? What do gay men do then? Or lesbian couples? Or non-gender-conforming couples of any other sort? A woman to him is the center of the household, a very old (and unfortunately hugely common) attitude. Christians especially fall into this kind of thinking. This model does work for some people, and if this Open Letter writer is one of those and his future wife is too, then good for them. But the model doesn’t fit everybody even if they want it to do so. This open letter’s writer thinks that he will be falling in love with a woman who wants and can have children–but that might not be what actually happens, and if it isn’t, then most of his gauzy imagined future together with that woman is going to need a rewrite. I hope he’s not so dedicated to his gauzy imagined future that he can’t adjust to reality if reality is messier than his imagination.
I don’t see a lot of stuff in this Open Letter about respect, daily routines, flexibility, courage, or two-way communication. I see its writer holding forth as a guru, a prophet of change, a challenger-of-unfortunately-erroneous-wives, a life coach, and a host of other roles, but I didn’t see a single thing in the letter about him being the one held forth at, the one changed, the one challenged, or the one coached. In every one of these fantasy vignettes and promises he spins, he is the superior, his future wife the inferior. He is the teacher, she is the student. He is the giver, she is the receiver–just like in my Christian marriage, just like in millions of other Christian marriages. Did you notice that about this letter?
I’m left with the impression that he’s not looking for a real woman. He’s looking for a fantasy to glom onto with all his frustrated romanticism and naivete. Real women aren’t like this. Real relationships aren’t like this. He’s putting this fantasy of his up on a pedestal, and you know what happens when you do that? The person on the pedestal slips and falls eventually and gets hurt. Even if he did manage to find a woman who’d stand still long enough to get wheatpasted over with his needs and fantasies, eventually she’d want to be seen for her own self and have a real relationship. As it is now though, the more he fixates on and obsesses about this fantasy-woman, the harder it will be for him to find a great partner who maybe doesn’t conform to (or remotely appreciate) the fantasies he’s spun in his head.
I guess in the end, the best thing I can say about this Open Letter is that it’s very unlikely he’ll find a woman who’ll put up with this garden-variety paternalism. It’s quite kind of him to broadcast his attitudes like this; most of the time you have to actually get to know a man to realize he suffers from this kind of delusional thinking. This last bit from the piece is probably one of the most delusional and creepy out of all the bits given everything else he’s “promising” to do for and to his future wife:
I promise to do everything that I can for you without taking away from your independence physically, intellectually or emotionally.
Too late. That ship sailed quite a few paragraphs ago.
On the plus side, he sounds very young, so I suspect he’s got a little time to grow up and learn. I hope that he does. He does sound very sweet, and he very likely doesn’t realize that what he’s written is a recipe for failure in marriage (any more than do the people gushing about how wonderful the letter is). Is it possible that this letter-writer wasn’t really trying to say the stuff I’m talking about here? Is it possible he’s not really a weirdly-paternalistic, misogynistic twit who is looking for a fantasy woman? Sure, I guess so. In that case, it shouldn’t be hard to redo this letter to sound less gratingly sexist and unrealistic.
So please, fans of the Open Letter, think very carefully about just what it is about this letter you like and why you like it. Don’t just slobber over its knob because it sounds like a Harlequin romance novel. This letter is not a workable model of marriage for most people. It was not written by someone who has any idea what a real, committed, working relationship even looks like yet. It is the wishful fantasy of a young man who doesn’t have a lot of experience with long-term relationships at all. That doesn’t invalidate it entirely, no, but you need to consider the source before offering your bodies to him and hinting that you’re available for his consideration as a partner (as one commenter did). It’s downright jarring and disturbing to see these totally inexperienced people writing marriage and romance manuals and everybody just forgetting that real life doesn’t work that way. “Look!” you can all but hear them shout. “We found another person saying this stuff! It must be so!” A second person saying something foolish doesn’t magically make that thing wise.
As one of the lone voices of reason on that original letter’s site wrote in a comment, maybe he should try being actually married for a while and then coming back to write this letter. I think that would be simply fascinating to read–we should make such Part IIs a mandatory requirement for all people who write stuff like this. As with so many other things in our culture, especially things that pay homage to that gauzy 1950s Mayberry fantasy ideal that so many people carry around in their heads, we get Part I but never see how it played in reality. It’s frozen in time, presented as gospel truth while the real world rolled on past, and never critically analyzed to see how it actually worked.
And you women snarkily criticizing your existing partners for not writing similar things about you, please stop that. There is a reason they don’t, and chances are it’s a very similar reason to why you do not look like and dress up as Victoria’s Secret models for them and act like the women in porn do. Please don’t be upset with them because they’re not living up to a fantasy projected by a man who’s never even had a serious committed relationship. That doesn’t mean you should just never wear lingerie or write romantic things to each other, but be fair. Reality is better. Truth is better. Love is both real and true. It’s worth the effort, Fans of the Open Letter.
Yours very sincerely and without even a single bit of wax,
We’re going to talk next time about happiness. Today’s open letter makes a big deal out of happiness and a lot of mistakes about how happiness happens in a relationship, and it’s the same mistake that modern Christians tend to make when talking about social justice, women’s rights, racism, and a host of other topics: that they know better than anybody else what makes someone happy. One of the ways they can get away with thinking that way is that they have confused silence with happiness and consent. We’re going to talk about why that is in our next foray into the wild, and you are as always welcome to join me.