Sometimes the way we talk about marriage makes it sound like marriage is a big power struggle.
I don’t believe that this was ever what God intended, and I think there’s a much better way of looking at it.
I’ve been following Natalie Hoffman now for quite a few years, in her journey out of an abusive marriage and towards freedom. She’s become so wise (sometimes horrible life circumstances are the best teachers!) and she runs an awesome blog called Flying Free. She’s posted before for me about how to recognize emotional abuse. And I’ve asked her to join us today, just after her first book, Is It Me?, was released, to talk about how we shouldn’t see marriage as a power-over relationship, but instead as a mutual one.
You read Sheila’s blog because you are invested in your life, your marriage, and your family.
You give your relationships 150%, and you would eat candied scorpions (it’s a thing) if it meant the difference between a healthy relationship and an unhealthy one.
But there is a profoundly important truth we all need to understand: the bedrock of a truly Christ-centered marriage is mutuality. This means we acknowledge the fact that it takes TWO humble, Christ-oriented individuals who are BOTH actively pursuing to honor and love the other one with all their heart, soul, body, and strength.
Not just one.
You know how important this is? The very spread of the gospel of Jesus Christ is dependent on how well we live in mutuality.
“I gave them the glory You gave to me, that they may be one as we are one. With Me in them and You in Me, may they be so perfected in unity [mutuality!] that the world will recognize that it was You who sent Me and that You have loved them as You have loved Me.”
The opposite of mutuality is power-over. This is where one person in the relationship believes (for various reasons which may include religious reasons) they are entitled to be in a position of power over the other person. Power-over was one of the judgments God passed down to the human race as a result of sin (Genesis 3:16), and the Bible as well as all of history is full of stories that bear witness to the destructive force of people’s lust for power-over. Even, and especially, in the marriage relationship—a relationship that God designed to reflect the unity of Christ and the Church.
But let’s get practical. Here are ten reasons a mutuality model trumps a power-over model of human relationships.
1. Mutuality is an expression of the humility of Christ in laying down His life for the well-being of others.
Satan was the first one who attempted to take power-over, and he tempted Adam and Eve with this same ambition: to be like God, having the power of knowing good and evil. Every expression of human desire to power-over another is an expression of the enemy’s lust for power. Christ modeled something radically different for His followers.
“…of his own free will, he gave up all he had, and took the nature of a servant.”
Is Christ’s example only for certain categories of human beings? Is it only for one partner? Or is it for any and all who follow in His footsteps? Where you see both partners mutually looking for ways to lay down their rights in order to serve the other partner, you’ll see a healthy marriage. When only one person is doing this on a regular basis, you have a parasitical relationship in which one person is giving and the other is taking.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty pride, but in humility consider others more important than yourselves”
2. Mutuality is an expression of authentic love for one another.
All healthy relationships are governed by the law of love. The Bible says it best.
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
1 Corinthians 13:1-8
“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.”
(Does that sound like power-over to you? Also note that all Christians are called to both love and respect. Love and respect are not gender-distinctive requirements.)
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.”
Did you see anything in those verses (and there are many more) that indicates love is something only required on the part of one partner? I’ve actually heard that twisted reality taught from the pulpit. “Only one partner needs to be loving for the relationship to work.” This is half-truth/half-lie.
The true part: only one partner needs to be loving. It is true that there are gazillions of “Christian” marriages in which only one partner is loving.
The false part: for the relationship to work. That depends on how you define a “working relationship.” If it means “surviving with broken vows,” then okay. But if “working relationship” means “healthy, Christ-centered relationship,” then—no. THAT kind of relationship takes TWO partners living out those verses mutually.
Power-over is an expression of self-love and a grasping for power over another human soul. It is self-seeking, dishonoring, and evil, regardless of any flowery, spiritual words used to say otherwise. (Remember, the enemy’s most prolific tactic of deception is to present his lies in a lovely and spiritual light. Lies don’t look bad. They look amazeballs.)
3. Mutuality is an expression of noble honor toward another human being regardless of race, gender, or social status.
All throughout history mankind has marginalized and taken power over other people based on their race, gender, or social status. But Christ came to usher in the Kingdom of God in which “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.“ Galatians 3:28
The power-over model of hierarchy grasps to exclusively have the honor that belongs to all human beings made in God’s image. We’ve all heard the verses that tell women to honor their husbands, and there are folks who like to just stop there. God doesn’t.
“Honor one another above yourselves.”
“In the same way, you husbands must give honor to your wives.”
I Peter 3:7
“Love does not dishonor others.”
I Corinthians 13:4
“Treat everyone with high regard.”
I Peter 2:17
The Bible is crystal clear (for those who have ears to hear) about the fact that Christ-followers will both love and honor one another. Whether we are married or not. Mutual love and honor should be part of all relationships, and certainly a marriage relationship.
4. Mutuality expresses mature shouldering of personal responsibility on the part of both partners.
This is really about boundaries. Both partners own their own behavior and take wise stewardship of what belongs to them. You each take responsibility for your own words, actions, schedules, jobs, volunteer work, parenting, choices, and behaviors. You each wisely steward what belongs to you. This includes your mind, body, time, emotional health, spiritual health, opportunities, and finances.
“For each will have to bear his own load. One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
In a dysfunctional relationship, one or both partners are not taking personal responsibility. They are either putting the responsibility on the other person which looks like blame shifting, denying, minimizing, excusing, justifying, controlling, and accusing, or they are taking all the responsibility on themselves which looks like placating, appeasing, covering up, pretending, and overlooking.
In a healthy relationship both partners can safely and freely offer feedback to the other one, and that feedback is heard, respected, and responded to (Proverbs 15:31).
Personal responsibility is really just being an adult, and a healthy marriage requires two of those to work.
5. Mutuality is an expression of faith in God and trust that His ways are higher than man’s ways.
It is human nature to grasp for power. We want to control people and situations because it makes us feel secure. This is where both patriarchy and matriarchy come from. But this is putting our trust in ourselves and our own ideas of what works rather than God’s. Satan grabs for power and deceives people into believing this is God’s ideal way of reaching the world. Why does he do this? Because he hates God, and he hates people, and power-grabbing is the OPPOSITE WAY of reaching the world.
Jesus modeled God’s way by using His power to empower others, not to power-over them.
“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Letting go of our desire to control others requires maturity and trust in God and in the other person. When both partners are mutually pursuing God’s ways, you’ll have a healthy relationship.
6. Mutuality engenders confident trust in both partners toward one another.
The pathway to confident trust in any relationship is a history of mutual honesty and integrity. If one partner is committed to honesty while the other one withholds information, twists the truth, or causes confusion and anxiety in the relationship, it will be a broken and dysfunctional relationship no matter how hard the honest partner tries. It takes two to create healthy trust.
7. Mutuality reflects God’s heart for humanity throughout Scripture.
God created all humans in His image, and Jesus Christ died to give all humans an opportunity to be made right with God. The heart of God for all of us, regardless of our gender, is that we would be free to reflect His image in our own uniquely created way. His “foolish” plan (I Cor. 1:25) is that humans, in all our frailty and weakness, would spread the gospel and show the world Who God is by our selfless love for one another.
When it comes to mutuality vs. power-over, the gospel is literally at stake!
We see over and over in Scripture that God cares more about human lives (relationship!) than He does about keeping the letter of the law and making sacrifices. He looks at the heart of a matter. Jesus broke religious laws that oppressed people in order to set men and women free (Mark 3:1-6), and this is the wisdom of God that the Holy Spirit gives freely to all who belong to Him.
This means we can either fight to make a case for power-over in the Bible because it suits our human, power-hungry agenda, or we can embrace the heart of God and stand ready to lay down our power in order to spread the gospel and empower others. If we are unable to do this in our most intimate of human relationships—marriage—how can we expect to spread this kind of message anywhere else?
8. Mutuality is an expression of selflessness and does not value one person’s needs, skills, gifts, or talents over another.
When both partners humbly recognize this and encourage and build one another up, they exponentially create forward momentum for the gospel.
On the other hand, when one partner is criticizing or hindering or discouraging the other one from being who God created them to be, they hinder the gospel on many levels. We were all created to fulfill a purpose in life. To experience meaning in who God made us to be. A healthy relationship will foster an environment that causes both partners to flourish.
9. Mutuality is an expression of vulnerability and intimacy
When only one partner is willing to show up and be seen while the other one is exploiting that vulnerability, you’ve got a war zone, not a marriage. A healthy relationship is a SAFE relationship. Both partners trust that as they open up and share their intimate selves, the other one will safely care for them and not expose them to shame. This mutual vulnerability opens the door to deep intimacy in a relationship.
10. Mutuality can only be a reality when both partners submit to one another in love.
Christ’s sacrifice has provided the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives to overcome the judgment of power-over in relationships and usher in unity and oneness in Christ. No more hierarchy. No more patriarchy. No more matriarchy. We now rule as heir together.
“Husbands, likewise, submit by living with your wife in ways that honor her, knowing that she is the weaker partner. Honor her all the more, as she is also a coheir of the gracious care of life. Do this so that your prayers won’t be hindered.”
I Peter 3:7
“…and submit to each other out of respect for Christ.”
If you think your marriage may be unhealthy or even destructive, I encourage you to check out my new book, Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage: The Christian Woman’s Guide to Emotional and Spiritual Abuse. Want the first three chapters free? I will send them to you when you sign up to be on my mailing list HERE.
What do you think? Does Natalie make a good case for marriage being about mutual love, mutual responsibility, mutual serving? Is this what you generally are taught? Why or why not? Let’s talk in the comments!
Natalie Hoffman works with women of faith in emotionally and spiritually abusive relationships. She is the author of Is it Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage, and she offers monthly articles and weekly podcast episodes on her website as well as educational courses and mentoring through her private support membership community, Flying Free.