Pope St John Paul the Great addressed the topic of “tenderness” in his book Love and Responsibility.
St John Paul explained that the essence of tenderness is found “in the tendency to make one’s own the feelings and mental states of another person”. This is a common experience in romantic relationships, as men and women feel closely involved with the inner life of their beloved, entering into the other person’s feelings and state of mind.
Tenderness also seeks outward expression. It’s not enough to have an awareness of what is going on inside the other person. One also tends to seek to communicate that sense of closeness to his beloved. “I feel the need to let the other ‘I’ know that I take his feelings and his state of mind to heart, to make this other human being feel that I am sharing it all, that I am feeling what he feels.”
We thus express this tenderness through various outward actions: holding a person to one’s chest, putting one’s arms around the other, kissing the other person.
St John Paul explains the crucial role tenderness must play in a marriage. He discusses not just the outward manifestations of tenderness, but more fundamentally, tenderness itself. In marriage, tenderness should involve “the steady participation of emotion, of a durable commitment to love, for it is this that brings a man and a woman close together, creates an interior climate of ‘communicativeness’.”
He then says that “a great deal” of this kind of tenderness is needed in a marriage.
In this context, St John Paul offers a second, even fuller definition of tenderness, in light of how it applies to the spousal relationship: “Tenderness is the ability to feel with and for the whole person, to feel even the most deeply hidden spiritual tremors, and always to have in mind the true good of that person.” What a powerful description! To feel “the most deeply hidden spiritual tremors”. Do you feel what is going on most deeply in the soul of your spouse? Her hopes, her fears, her burdens, her wounds?
St John Paul challenges spouses to have hearts that are truly united, truly able to enter into the inner lives of one another. He writes: “Tenderness creates a feeling of not being alone, a feeling that her or his whole life is equally the content of another and very dear person’s life. This conviction very greatly facilitates and reinforces their sense of unity.”
Women not only expect this type of tenderness from their husbands, but they actually have a special right to it in marriage.
St John Paul gives three reasons why husbands need to enter deeply into the emotional lives of their wives.
First, at the most basic level, the woman’s emotional life is generally deeper than the man’s. Therefore, the woman has a greater need for tenderness, in a way that men may have a difficult time understanding since they don’t share that need as much.
Second, the woman gives herself to the man. When a woman gets married, she typically leaves her home and her mother and father in order to join herself to her husband.
Since women generally have a much richer emotional life, they may feel this breakaway from home more acutely than men, especially if they come from a close-knit family and a strong relationship with their parents. While most men look forward to leaving home and starting the new adventure of married life, some women, while experiencing this excitement, also experience a sense of loss as they leave the people they have been most emotionally invested in throughout their lives to join themselves to their husbands. Therefore, the woman has an even greater need for her husband to enter into her feelings and state of mind as she goes through this transition and surrenders herself in marriage.
Third, the woman goes through extremely important and difficult experiences in her life (e.g. pregnancy, childbirth, nursing, caring for a newborn, leaving a job, staying at home). Some women feel very alone in the midst of these new experiences. Therefore, they have a special need for tenderness from their husbands as they go through these transitions.
St John Paul challenges men to do much more than provide for their wives financially or take care of things around the house. He challenges husbands to enter deeply into their wives’ emotional lives — “to feel with and for the whole person”.
Men who get so caught up in work, sports, the nightly news, or projects at home while remaining emotionally distant from their own wives fail to provide the kind of tenderness St John Paul is describing — the kind of tenderness that women have a special right to in marriage.
This challenge to men is especially important when their wives become mothers, for that is perhaps when women need the tenderness of their husbands the most. Our culture does not fully recognise the dignity and value of motherhood. Men in the workplace constantly earn praise, respect, and recognition for their professional accomplishments, but mothers who choose to stay at home and dedicate their lives full-time to raising children rarely receive such affirmation from the world. In fact, many times they are looked down upon.
Our culture constantly affirms people for their productivity and accomplishments outside of the home, but looks puzzlingly down on a woman who would choose to stay at home to raise children.
It’s no wonder many mothers feel very alone and begin to second-guess their state in life as they transition from the workplace to motherhood.
Therefore, especially in a culture like ours, men, more than ever before, need to go out of their way to support their wives and enter into the many “spiritual tremors” they encounter through these important events in their lives.
Author’s note: Many of the ideas in this article are based on information from Dr Edward Sri’s book, Men, Women and the Mystery of Love.