I hear that many men are asking this question, so why not take a whack at it? Though I will confess to a little trepidation! I’ll be looking at this through the lens of Christian marriage, but much of what I’ll say will hold good for unchurched relationships as well, I hope.
Honestly, this is not as hard as it seems, though it is complex. I find it strange that there is even a mystery attached, because it’s not as though no woman has ever talked, done research, pleaded, cajoled, threatened or fought to reveal or attain what they want. Women have been telling men what they want for, like, ever. The problem isn’t that we can’t articulate what we want. The problem is that the things we want appear, as a collection, to be incompatible – and a lot of hard work, to boot.
Here’s what women want. Or at least, what this woman wants.
I want to be known, loved, and valued.
Nobody but God is ever going to know me thoroughly and fully – as my favourite author Lois McMaster Bujold puts it, “right down to the muck at the bottom of the soul’s well.” But I want to be known as fully as possible by my husband. While this will severely reduce my manipulative potential, it will also massively enhance my belief that I am accepted. For if he knows me pretty well and still sticks around, it not only says something about his character, but hopefully about mine. That I’m not all bad, for instance. When someone knows us, they can make assessment, yes. But they can also hold our hand and let us know that we’re not alone in the morass of things we struggle with. To be known is to not be alone. While our darkness becomes evident, so does the light of our best intentions and sincere efforts. The very shape and colour of our soul can be observed, admired, explored and cherished.
There’s a difference between being loved and being valued, as the same author once pointed out. You can be loved without being valued; this looks like patronism. “Let me pat you on the head, lovable idiot who contributes nothing.” Might as well be the cat. And you can be valued without being loved; but this is mercenary. “Keep proving yourself useful, because that’s the only reason I keep you around.” Might as well be the gardener.
To be known, loved and valued is to be celebrated. You can be quietly celebrated – as when you enter a room and get a warm smile in response. You can be loudly celebrated – with praise and professions of undying love. And you can be celebrated in absentia – when your partner brags about or sticks up for you.
The thing is, I want to be known, loved and valued in all three areas of my being: body, soul & spirit. And now we have a matrix of nine things, and men’s apparent confusion begins to make a glimmer of sense! Perhaps a table would be helpful. Keep in mind that these are not prerequisites, but long-term goals. That said, those who have several prerequisites under their belt going into the relationship, or the general seed or shape of them, or who show an openness to learn – these men have a much better chance of not being eliminated in the candidacy period! Also, keep in mind that this is one woman’s matrix. For example, I’ve listed “corrects me privately and gently”, because if I say something silly, I’d rather not say it again the next day; yet some people thrive on straight-up, loud confrontations which clear the air. I’m just not one of them. And there’ll be an equal amount of correction flowing back the other way, that I’ll try to give respectfully and kindly. So, don’t be daunted by the amount of information in the matrix. Just take it as a helpful guide, not as the Nine Commandments.
|he knows my health, physical needs, sexuality, capabilities, talents, limitations, preferences
||he knows my strengths, weaknesses, triggers, history, dreams, longings, detestations, anxieties, wellbeing needs
||he knows my spiritual gifts and goals, my calling, my priorities, pitfalls, attitudes & posture toward God
|he admires the things my body can do – for his, and for him, in my work, ministry, hobbies, our home, our family; he contributes at a similar level
||he understands or acknowledges what drives me, he’s committed to my personal growth and mental health, he respects me, my vibe is wanted around, my conversation is welcome and matters, I’m not a burden
||he takes me seriously as a Christian and workmate in the Gospel, he trusts me to hear from God accurately as an individual, he seeks my prayer support, he nurtures my spiritual life, we share insights and learn from each other
|whatever my shape or condition, he is fond of my body because it’s mine, he loves to make it feel good, he is undemanding, understanding of its cycle, he will go all out to protect and care for it and get it any help it needs; he ensures I do not burn out
||he finds beauty in the way my mind works, listens to me and hears me, makes reasonable adjustments when feasible, corrects me privately and gently, notices the way I treat others, appreciates my tastes and humour, enjoys my company
||he understands that Jesus must come first, he makes room for my relationship with God, my commitments, my development and my calling to flourish, he finds me beautiful when I worship, he finds a reflection of Christ in me
You can understand now why some wives are uninterested in opening up their legs on a given day, if they’ve not yet been able to open up what’s in their heart. This is not a condition imposed on coitus: “I won’t sleep with you if you don’t talk to me.” It is rather an optimal setting for coitus: “If you talk to me at some point today – ask me how I am, be interested in what’s on my mind – treating me as a whole person rather than just a warm body – I’ll feel much closer to you, and emotional intimacy makes physical intimacy far more appealing to me and far more likely for you.” Without making it an end to a means, it’s like car maintenance. Sure, the car can be run as soon as you turn the key; but it runs far better when you warm it up, keep it well-oiled, and put fuel in it. This works for an inanimate machine. Since a woman is more than an inanimate machine, using the warmth of patience, the oil of kindness and compliments, and the fuel of communication becomes the bare minimum.
The problems can also arise because there are, indeed, conflicts within each woman. Some days she wants to talk; some days she needs more Cave Time than you do. Some days she wants desperately to be touched; other days the slightest touch makes her want to scream. There is no remedy for this other than understanding. You can’t predict the Touch-O-Meter reading unless you track her cycle (while not tying the entirety of what she feels to it), read her body language, or keep a close eye on the stressors in her life. Knowing her well is obviously key.
There are other conflicts, too – internal ones, strange oxymorons in how a woman feels about herself. Take myself for instance. I am Generation X, but brought up even more old-fashioned, as the Church was still rather enamoured of the ’50s way of life, even in the ’80s. I grew up on a steady societal diet of “be beautiful (and well-mannered and snappily dressed) at all times. And you’ll get the boyfriend/social life/opportunity/ promotion/husband worthy of you.” I wanted to be beautiful, and sexy, and desirable, sought-after. Since I simultaneously wanted to keep my self-respect and virginity, this was mostly manifested in clothing, hair and makeup. And there’s a certain amount of “keeping up with the Joneses” in there as well, of course. Incidentally, this did not contribute to my self-respect. Every bad hair day made me cross with myself and feel like a failure.
Beside this out-of-proportion, media-fuelled thirst to attain to a physical pedestal, was a sense of annoyance. I did not like that I Iived in “a man’s world”. But it was the world I had to deal with; so I would use any advantage available to me that didn’t compromise my integrity. At the time, I mistakenly believed that beauty and sexuality were the only tools women had (and I wasn’t at all sure I possessed either). Too much intelligence would get you blacklisted by dumb men in authority who felt threatened by you. Too much wit would disgust dignified patriarchs who were accustomed to being planted like implacable oaks in an ancient grove. I was not a game changer. It was simplest to fly demurely under the radar and take whatever you could get, hoping things would improve for women as time went by.
Today there is still a tendency within me – even at this late date, with 23 years of marriage under my belt – to wake up in the morning and quickly arrange myself on the pillow as artistically as I can. I’m … somewhat posed. I call it poise, but that’s what it is: posing. Deep down I still believe that moments of ugliness are dangerous and anathema for women, though I surely have them. Now that I’m 47 and no Barbie doll, well … it’s hard to reassess my wifely value when I have placed my value in such a dubious box. I know the beauty box is a lie. So does my husband. We are both baffled by how important it remains to me to be as beautiful as I can. I am ashamed of how shallow this is – as if to say that only the Beautiful People deserve good things! Or that his love is attached only to my person! I am also ashamed that my hope for a better future for my daughter relied on the hard work, sacrifice and courage of other women, pioneers such as I never thought I could be, blazing a trail I could barely envisage. My big dream was up to God; but my paltry dream at the time was to be the best Little Woman I could be, while I waited for fame & fortune to descend from on high.
I was taught to believe that men (all men without exception) are rabidly lustful creatures with hooting eyeballs, who are only too keen to make the most of any and every opportunity offered them. So imagine my surprise to find that my husband doesn’t want to be sexually “on call” any more than I do. That he has other interests that sex does not necessarily trump. I didn’t marry a drive: I married a person! And alongside my insane need to be treasured as beautiful, was an equally insane corollary that said, “So if he’s not falling over himself to get you into bed all the time, you must be very ugly and unacceptable indeed. Because if, after all, any consenting adult vagina is a good one – and yours is being turned down – then yours must be the only vagina in the universe that isn’t a good one. Which makes you less than nothing.”
All of this, of course, would go away if (a) the vagina was not, after all, the sole call of a woman’s worth, and (b) I could only keep remembering that my vagina isn’t about anyone else. And, for that matter, neither is my soul – though what comes forth from it is. But I see clearly in the above paragraph that I have done the very thing I resent, and I have done it to both of us. I have reduced two human beings to the sum of their parts. The husband’s body might belong to the wife, and the wife’s to the husband, but both of them have to deal responsibly with the soul that comes with the body, as St Paul goes on to elucidate. Hence his insistence on love, respect and mutual back-having in marriage.
Let us suppose for a second that my husband was concerned – solely concerned – with bedding me. That he had no thought in his head about what sort of person I was, how I made him feel in my company, that I am a child of God, what my talents or capabilities or potential were. Might as well be a prostitute. Or a blow-up doll, for that matter. I don’t want to just be valued for my beauty & booty. I am so much more than that. And, thankfully, my husband agrees; but I remain subconsciously convinced that the physical is paramount. No amount of logic has been able to fully shift this silly belief. And because I am getting older and the physical is slowly but surely declining, I feel panicked and vaguely resentful. This is patently unfair to both of us. It needs to change. As I learn to rule over rejection (real and imagined) in my life, and shift my focus to cultivating inner beauty with the same ferocity with which I obsessed over outer beauty, I hope that it will.
The matrix, complex as it is, is important. But while it could conceivably be used as a how-to, every woman is subtly different. Her psychological traps (such as my beauty trap) will be different. There are probably women who believe intelligence is paramount, and despair because they cannot spell. Or that silent endurance is key, and drink because they are desperately trying to bury a fiery personality. Her needs will be different. Her love language will be different. (Me, I like all five love languages, and if one is not in evidence, I want to know why!) So take it with a grain of salt, but try to remember that the grain of salt is probably a dried tear. Don’t look at it with despair and believe it to be unachievable. Think of it like a Bingo card. If you’re kicking goals in several areas, you’re doing great. You’ve got the rest of your marriage to see, one by one, what may be done in the others.
No spouse is perfect overnight. And it’s not all on you, my dear male reader; both of you have agency to enact change. Women, however, speaking broadly, are natural renovators as well as connectors: we focus on building and maintaining and improving the marriage far more than our spouses do, I think. Perhaps it’s because we are less satisfied with the static, or perhaps it’s simply that men may prefer the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” route.
I’m generalising madly, aren’t I. I still don’t know the depths of my own sexism. For instance, I am perfectly capable of asking my husband for sex, help with the dishes, a date, a conversation; but there is still this idea deep in my scripting which says “let the man do the chasing, or you’ll get hurt”. So if he doesn’t chase, do I go without? I feel humiliated when I verbally ask for sex (as though I don’t have enough allure to be invited to it). I feel frustrated when I ask for practical help (as though the pile of dishes doesn’t speak for itself). I feel nervous when I ask for a date, and pathetic when I ask for conversation (as though the contents of my mind are not interesting enough to be sought out). I do initiate all these things from time to time, but again there is an element of resentment, because in my head they are as much “men’s work” as, well, things we traditionally regarded as “women’s work”. And that, my friends, is my great hypocrisy!
I just don’t know how to feel differently, though. Perhaps husbands are stuck in a similar rut. Maybe we all secretly want gender roles of some kind (though not necessarily those of the ’50s or ’80s!) just so we can know we’re on the same page, or whether we’re each holding up our end. But redefining these roles is not the same as living them. We’re always coming up against our upbringings and the unwritten rules and expectations in our souls, even when we know cognitively that they don’t make sense.
Pages could be (and have been) also written about what a MAN needs in a relationship; but since this is not my area of expertise, neither being a man nor intimately knowing more than one man and his needs, I leave this to those who know more. I can’t know more about what a man needs than the man himself, unless he’s seriously delusional, of course (as in the case of an alcoholic in need of intervention). So whatever you do, don’t ever let on that you think you know more about what a woman needs, than the woman in question who has just TOLD you what she needs. Take her at her word, give her the benefit of the doubt. In other words, believe in her. And never give up communicating.