Out of all the patriarchal and complementarian wife material I read, I don’t remember reading much about any of the actual challenges I face or the most helpful solutions I use in my marriage today.
I read little about good communication, lots about keeping a happy smile on your face when hubby comes home. I didn’t hear about conflict resolution that much, aside from learning to swallow your pride when hubby makes a stupid decision. I didn’t know about the dynamics of individual personality, just the dynamics of stereotyped gender roles. I never heard the words “consent” or “mutual” until recently.
I don’t think that’s accidental.
When you’re busy trying to impose an artificial structure on something organic, when you focus on something tangential or even harmful to real marriage, you gloss over all the real problems and solutions.
I mean, of course, the patriarchal and complementarian obsession with male headship as a formula for marital success.
Let me point out that many complementarians focus on the main directive of Ephesians 5: loving, laying down one’s life, and seeking unity above all. Even if they accept an idea of male headship, they encourage men to love as the primary objective of that headship. Those complementarians understand marriage and basic exegesis. Good on them.
But the vast majority of complementarians, for better or worse, focus on a descriptive clause (“the husband is the head of the wife”) and make it the main action verb, the takeaway, the “go and do this” for husbands. They stress that this descriptive clause makes or breaks a marriage, that male headship is essential to a happy marriage, that it, combined with the wife’s unconditional submission, solves or prevents most of today’s marriage problems.
This leads to abuse, at worst, and at best, complicates marriage.
Male headship is entirely unnecessary to a happy marriage. Any sort of hierarchy in an intimate relationship is entirely unnecessary. The only vaguely convincing reason complementarians give for the necessity of headship is when husband and wife can’t come to an agreement and somebody needs to be the tiebreaker.
When somebody argues this, I want to peer at them and say, Have you never tried picking out a movie with siblings? Did you not grow up debating the merits of every movie in your movie cabinet, parsing the moods and opinions of eight other immature, selfish people, and keeping in mind that three-year-olds can’t watch most of the movies your heart desires?
In every case, with more people, more subjectivity, and more nuance, we all came to a compromise.
I imagine the ludicrousness of my brother standing up and saying, “Well, I, as male, have heard all of your opinions, which I value, but we’re going to go with mine, because I decided it was the best.” Everyone would have called that out for what it is — presumption, pride, stupidity — even if it was our oldest brother trying to call the shots.
I can only imagine this, because never, in my life of big or little decision-making, did anyone consider this a good idea, much less a necessity, for problem solving or the relationship itself.
In my egalitarian marriage, Erich and I make all sorts of mutual decisions that initially started as our biggest spats, problems we thought would break us, problems with no immediate compromise. Making those tough decisions together, without giving either of us the final say, forced us to mature and love in unforeseen ways — you know, the point of marriage.
Intimate relationships don’t need hierarchy. They need understanding, patience, and lots of time and energy to come to an acceptable compromise.
Many women in complementarian marriages, even those who voluntarily grant their husbands the right to exercise veto power in decision-making, instinctively feel the unfairness and betrayal of intimacy when their marriage becomes more about the husband’s headship and less about love, trust, and good communication.
“Whenever he made a final decision that disagreed with my opinion, I cried,” women tell me. “I know he’s doing it for our good, but I feel like I’m making all the sacrifices in the relationship and I have no control over my future.”
“I cried all the time when I first learned to submit,” one complementarian said in the course of trying to convince me of “Biblical headship.”
I am appalled at the number of crying complementarian wives and the inefficacy of their tears to signal even to themselves that something’s badly off about this “Biblical marriage advice.”
These are not women in abusive or even dysfunctional relationships — just normal complementarian women with normal complementarian husbands who aren’t purposefully going out of their way to hurt their wives.
This pain and sorrow stem from relying on male headship and female submission to arbitrate the relationship.
A complementarian gloss on these women’s pain is, “Well, she needs to submit more.” Any competent marriage counselor will tell you, “No, they need to go back to the drawing board and come up with a better solution.”
I fear many complementarians miss everyday moments to grow in basic relationship skills because they are forever talking about this binary of submit more and lead more, be more masculine, more feminine, be more entrenched in distinct roles, and then your complicated relationships will work.
In reality, the couples need to take a Gottman class. They need to read some books on good communication. They need to get marriage counseling. They need to get real, tangible help and real, practical solutions beyond the shaming advice to be more of a leader and more of a follower.
This is a marriage, allegedly the most intimate relationship on earth, not a government system.
Good communication skills will solve problems — not the male veto. Speaking exactly what’s on one’s mind will result in greater intimacy — not tiptoeing around the male ego. Pushing back against a husband’s normal selfishness and pride will result in sanctification — not giving him the final say over everything. Reaching a compromise acceptable to both parties will strengthen the marital bond — not stopping the conversation short and making a decision, anyway.
When men are told to love and sacrifice for their wives but also be the man, the leader, and the dude with the power over his wife, that complicates marriage.
When women are told to be free, open, and intimate with their husbands but also shut up and put up once he gives the final word, that complicates marriage.
When spouses must worry about maintaining their “masculinity” and “femininity,” their roles and duties, in addition to addressing their individual and collective sins and hurts, that complicates marriage.
When spouses must worry about maintaining a structure easily tilted towards selfishness or abuse, that complicates marriage.
Marriage, as I’ve found, is hard enough without unnecessary, harmful structures, expectations, and roles. Whatever is meant by headship in Scripture, I think it’s prudent to err on the side of loving, loving, loving unconditionally, mutually submitting to one another out of love for Christ.