By definition, a phantom is an illusion—an apparition, or a resemblance of reality. Normally we associate phantoms with Halloween, but did you know that each of us carries a “phantom” within us?

Within your mind you have a picture of how you should act as a husband or wife, father or mother. And, chances are, this image is so perfect, so idyllic, that it is completely unattainable. Yet, every day you judge your performance by this phantom! And since you cannot match those standards, your self-image suffers.

The perfect wife and mother

Years ago, when we still had six children at home, Barbara sat down one day and described her phantom in writing. Here are the characteristics of this perfect wife and mother:

  • She is always loving, patient, and understanding.
  • She is well-organized, maintaining a perfect balance between discipline and flexibility.
  • Her house is always neat and well-decorated, so she is never embarrassed if friends drop by unexpectedly.
  • Her children drop whatever they are doing and obey her every command.
  • She never gets angry with her children, even when they forget to do their chores.
  • She is serious yet lighthearted, submissive but not passive.
  • She is energetic and never tired, even after getting up five times during the night to tend to her children.
  • She reaches out to her neighbors and takes meals to the sick and needy.
  • She looks fresh and attractive at all times, whether in jeans and a sweater, while digging in the garden, or in a silk dress going out to dinner.
  • Her hair always does what she wants it to do, and it’s never flat.
  • Her fingernails are never broken.
  • She always plans healthy, balanced meals for her family and bakes everything from scratch. She would never dream of feeding her family prepared foods such as canned ravioli, frozen pizza, or cheap hot dogs.
  • She never gets sick, lonely, or discouraged.
  • She walks faithfully with God every day, and studies and memorizes Scripture.
  • She prays “without ceasing.” She prays over flat tires, lost keys, lost teddy bears, and lost blankets. She gives thanks for a husband who is late for dinner and for her son’s tennis shoes which the neighbor’s dog just chewed up.
  • She is never fearful or inhibited about telling others about Christ and speaking the truth to someone who may be in error.

Quite an impressive list, isn’t it? With a phantom like that, is it any wonder that it’s easy for Barbara to feel like a failure as a wife and mom?

The perfect husband and father

Now look at the list Dennis compiled of the phantom husband and father:

  • He rises early, reads the Bible and prays, then jogs several miles.
  • After breakfast, he presents a flawless 15-minute devotional to his attentive, adoring wife and children.
  • Never forgetting to hug and kiss his wife good-bye, he arrives at work 10 minutes early.
  • He is consistently patient with his co-workers, always content with his job, and devises creative solutions to problems. He works hard, and never wastes time. His desk is never cluttered, and he is confidently in control at all times.
  • He is well-read in world events, politics, and important social issues.
  • He is a handyman around the house and loves to build things for his family.
  • He arrives home from work on time every day and never turns down a request to play catch with his boys.
  • He obeys all traffic laws and never speeds, even if he’s late for a meeting.
  • He is popular with everyone he meets and never tires of people or of helping them in time of need.
  • He can quote large sections of Scripture in a single bound, has faith more powerful than a locomotive, and is faster than a speeding bullet when solving family conflicts.
  • He never gets discouraged, never wants to quit, and always has the right words for any circumstance.
  • His closets are never cluttered.
  • He always keeps his garage neat. He never loses things, always flosses his teeth, and has no trouble with his weight.
  • And he has time to fish.

The crazy thing about a phantom is that, even though we know we can never live up to this perfect image, we still tear ourselves down when we fail!

The origin of phantoms

Where do phantoms come from? Each slowly grows from the seeds of our individual experience.

Our phantoms come from expectations placed on us by parents, peers, employers, coaches, and teachers in school and Sunday school. They also develop through comparisons. Have you, for example, ever compared your marriage with someone else’s? Have you ever compared your spouse to someone else’s spouse? Have you ever compared yourself with someone else?

All of us probably have made such comparisons, but when we compare ourselves or our mates to others, we develop unrealistic expectations that we can’t attain. These faulty comparisons can be fueled by friends, employers, ourselves, or our mates.

When we make comparisons, we are a bit like Lucy, who one day said to her famous cartoon buddy, “You are a foul ball in the line drive of life, Charlie Brown!” Making comparisons with what we feel is normal and acceptable only makes the unattainable phantom more intimidating. Because he doesn’t always compare favorably, your mate concludes that he is a foul ball.

Phantoms come from many other sources as well, including advertisements. Some of you may remember the jingle that went with the ad for a perfume called “Enjolie.” It showed a professional young woman at home who was singing these words: “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, never let you forget you’re a man.”

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Phantoms like that have colored the thinking of many women today. They hear similar advertisements and messages and think, Well, I can do it all! I can do all of those things. That’s what I should be doing.

Phantoms can crush your relationship. Since your spouse’s phantom—the result of his comparisons and others’ expectations—is unreachable, he experiences failure. These failures stand tall in the corridors of his mind, continually reminding him of his deficiencies.

Slaying the phantom

Your spouse may have lived for years under the looming shadow of the phantom. Possibly both of you have begun to perceive how the imposter has masqueraded as a reality in your lives, intimidating you almost daily.

Your spouse needs your objective eye and listening ear to help affirm him when he is okay and to correct him when he is in error. Some of the ideals your spouse has lumped together in the phantom may not be bad standards. Your mate may merely need your help in balancing the demands of life with those ideals.

Here are some suggestions on how to slay the phantom in your life:

1. Sit down with your spouse and describe your own phantom wife and phantom husband. Ask yourself which characteristics are appropriate and worth working to achieve, and which are unrealistic.

2. Ask your spouse to describe what he thinks and how he feels about himself. Record the words he uses. Any clues here to the impact of his phantom on his self-image?

3. Ask your spouse to give you one way you can be a completer, not a crippler, of his self-esteem. What does he need you to do today?

Adapted by permission from Building Your Mate’s Self-Esteem, by Dennis and Barbara Rainey, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.