Wait! Did that tag line say Sheila’s HUSBAND is writing this post about making decisions in marriage?!?

Yes, everyone, this is Keith writing my debut blog post for the website.

Some of you may already know me from a few of the podcasts I have been in, but aside from occasional notes in the Comments sections, I have never actually written for the blog before. However, Sheila recently floated the idea of me writing a post once in a while for a “Men’s Corner”, I thought, “Sure! Why not?”. And then she asked me to give my perspective on the series she’s writing this month about how marriage is supposed to make us better people, and iron should sharpen iron.  So here we go….

Sheila Keith Fall - Let's Look at the Evidence: Do Marriages Work Best if Men Make the Decisions?

Sheila and I have been doing marriage ministry together for over a decade, but in my day job I am a pediatrician, so I hang around with a lot of doctors. Whenever they find out that I do marriage teaching, the first question they always ask me is, “What’s the evidence behind what you are saying?” Evidence of effectiveness is really important among doctors. We take very little at face value, wanting to see the proof before we change the way we do things. Obviously that’s a good thing for patients – everybody hopes their doctor recommends treatment that has proof that it is effective!

And of course I completely agree with my colleagues that anything I believe and teach to others should be based on good evidence. So one of the people I really like to read on my own and to point other people toward is Dr. John Gottman. The Gottman Institute which he and his wife (also a doctor) direct does TONS of marriage research and looks at which practices are most likely to see your marriage thrive and which are likely to see it come crashing down. Some of this great research was the basis for his book, “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work”.

7 Principles for Making Marriage Work

One of the things Dr. Gottman talks about in his book as a key to having a successful marriage is the concept of allowing your spouse to influence you, which he also refers to as “sharing power” with your spouse.

His research indicates that marriages where both husband and wife are willing to allow the other to influence their decisions do better than those where one spouse is not willing to allow the other to influence them or to share power with them. He further goes on to say that men tend to have more of a problem with this than women. His research shows that even in unstable marriages, women (despite whatever other issues they may have) still tend to take their husband’s opinions and feelings into consideration, but in his words: “too often, men do not return the favor.” Note that Gottman is not saying (as some misrepresent him as saying) that the wife make the decisions instead of the husband, just that men need to allow their wives to influence them.

In his study, the benefits of allowing your wife to influence you and the dangers of not doing so were fairly stark. In their long-term study of 130 newlywed couples, they found that “men who allowed their wives to influence them had happier relationships and were less likely to divorce”, but that “when a man is not willing to share power with his partner there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct.”

To me, all of this makes perfect sense. Living with the same person day in and day out for the rest of your life clearly brings its challenges. Who in their right mind would want to spend their entire life with someone who is inflexible and doesn’t listen to or care about their perspectives? That seems pretty straight forward.

But more than that, we all know that life is full of twists and turns in the road. As we go through each challenge that life throws at us, knowing that my spouse cares about my perspective and my way of looking at the issue just makes things so much easier to deal with.

On the other hand, not having the assurance that what matters to me matters to my spouse makes everything so much more difficult and drives us further away from each other.

Let’s face reality – as life’s trials, tribulations and even just the daily grind work away at us, we become different people. None of us sees the world the same today as the day we married our spouse (except maybe you newlyweds in the crowd) and there is a tendency for us to drift from each other.

Being open to letting your spouse influence your decisions is essential to staying connected and working as a team through whatever challenges you face and allows you to stick together in every seasons of life.

Sheila and I have always had the attitude that we work things out together and that when we disagree, we give the matter the time and care it takes to come to agreement.

Anniversary Trip to Ireland

Marriage is about unity–and it’s not hard to decide things together when you prioritize serving each other.

Sometimes that takes a lot of time and a lot of care.  I specifically remember when we were looking at buying our first home.  Sheila was captivated by one property and I was not.  The idea that I would say, “I am the husband and we are not buying this property” was never in my mind.  Frankly, if it had been I think today I would still be worried about whether Sheila was secretly disappointed that she never got her dream home!  Instead, we had several long discussions about what was important to us in a home, what our priorities were and why those things mattered to us.  As a result, not only did we eventually find a home we both loved, we also learned a tremendous amount about each other and grew closer along the way.

In my mind this is entirely consistent with a Christian approach to marriage. Many verses point to this concept such as:

  • “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10a),
  • “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15).

In my mind, even the golden rule would apply here, “Do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12) since we all want to be listened to and treated with respect.

In many parts of the Christian church, however, there is this very unhealthy philosophy that the man needs to make ALL the decisions and that the wife’s entire role is just to go along with it.

To hear them talk they make it sound like a husband making a unilateral decision which the wife instantly submits to unconditionally is a more godly approach than having a mutually respectful discussion about the issue.

(Sheila interjecting here: After all, if you talk about it and agree, then she’d have no opportunity to submit! But that just shows that they need to see submission in a different way).

And along with this teaching comes the concept that the wife has no right to question the husband’s decision or to confront him if he is taking the family in a dangerous or unhealthy direction! I have actually heard teaching that if a woman were to confront her husband about a sin issue in his life, she would be herself sinning by treating him disrespectfully, so she dare not do so.

This breaks my heart.

Are you PeaceKEEPING or PeaceMAKING?

9 Thoughts 3D image Small - Let's Look at the Evidence: Do Marriages Work Best if Men Make the Decisions?

There’s a huge difference between the two. And if you don’t get it right–you’ll never be able to feel truly intimate in your marriage.

There’s a better way!

How can we have a healthy marriage if half the married couple is not allowed to bring up issues in their relationship?

Personally, I have always valued the fact that Sheila has a different perspective than me and is comfortable talking to me about these things. I loved the fact that when our kids were small, we could discuss together the best way to handle situations. Sometimes I was too harsh. Sometimes she was too soft. She had to talk to me, when Rebecca was about 12, about how I was too harsh with her. But I had to talk to her about how she was letting Katie get away with too much around the same time. Together I think we did a much better job than either of us could have done alone.

And to teach that even for sin issues, you can’t confront your husband?!? I just don’t know what to say.

Forbid it, Lord, that in my marriage my wife would ever be afraid to talk to me about ways that I might be going astray.

Proverbs 15:31 says “Whoever heeds life-giving correction will be at home among the wise.

Why should any husband ever be opposed to hearing life-giving words of correction from someone who loves him and wants his best?

Clearly these people are espousing a radically different approach than Gottman. Unfortunately, however, I think this mindset has taken root in the church enough that many people assume that it is THE Christian viewpoint. And here’s a great example. This husband left a comment  after Sheila and I talked about the dangers with some of the teachings of Emmerson Eggerichs’s book “Love & Respect”.

“Until I started listening to your podcast episodes on “Love & Respect” I had completely forgotten I actually read it early in my marriage.

I was very young in faith having only come to Christ a year or so before and wanted to be a good, strong, Christian husband. This book had very strong reviews and I was dead center of the target demographic so I bought it.

I did not have the maturity or emotional vocabulary to fully understand what it was that he says. But I very much knew that it was NOT how my marriage was going to be. As much as it may be every newly married man’s dream to have his wife be told that she must grant him release for the marriage to be successful, I could not follow the book’s advice. It was horrifying to me as a young husband.

What may well have been worse for me though was the guilt. Here was this book that is highly recommended as a model for Christian men and I wasn’t following it. I felt guilty because I wasn’t doing everything that I needed to so that I could be a strong, Christian husband. I could toss the book into the trash and walk away from doing it, but not without feeling that I was destined for failure.

I got over it and even forgot about it until listening to your podcast. Fortunately no guilt remains and, in fact, I am thankful that even without the maturity or vocabulary to describe what was wrong, I knew it was.”

This man sounds eminently reasonable to me and from all he says I expect he is a loving, caring and Christ-like husband. Yet clearly at one point in his life he believed this unhealthy message that a 100-percent husband-controlled marriage was God’s plan. How else do you explain the fact that he felt he was “destined to failure” and wracked with guilt for not following what he clearly already realized was faulty teaching? And more importantly, how did we get to the point in the church where this kind of toxic teaching was seen as God’s best for marriage?

Part of the reason is because the proponents equate their own teaching with the teaching of God. Sheila and I discussed one particularly flagrant example of this recently in this podcast on how Eggerichs was gaslighting women. The idea they put forward is that their position is “the Biblical position” and everyone else is a compromiser following the “way of the world” or “man’s teaching rather than God’s.” This is a complete misrepresentation of the facts. What they are espousing is an interpretation of God’s word, not God’s word itself, but they phrase their arguments to suggest that if you disagree with them you are disagreeing with God.

Being open to letting your spouse influence your decisions is essential to staying connected and working as a team through whatever challenges you face and allows you to stick together in every seasons of life.

Unfortunately, the church has quite a bit of history with confusing interpretation of God’s word with God’s word itself and then using that to destroy people.

The clearest example that comes to mind is the story of the famous Italian astronomer, Galileo Galilei. Most of you know his story. In 1609, he conclusively saw things in his telescope which convinced him that the idea that the sun, moon & stars moved around the earth was false and that in fact the earth was moving around the sun. What happened next is infamously reported in every history text book. To the church’s great and eternal shame, Galileo was told that the Bible clearly taught that the sun went around the earth and he was made to renounce his teachings. And he was persecuted and punished for teaching otherwise.

Today, no one would interpret verses such as “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved” (1 Chron 16:30) and “The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.” (Eccles. 1:5) the way they did in 1609. In fact, we take for granted now that the 1609 interpretation was only one interpretation of those verses – – and an unnecessarily extremely literal one at that. But sometimes I think we have forgotten the wisdom that Galileo brought to the debate in the first place when he said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

God’s word is eternally true, but if our interpretation of His word is in direct contradiction with the evidence of our own eyes, it is time for us to take a sober second look at our interpretation.

The evidence that Gottman brings forward here is an example of that. The evidence is in.

Allowing your spouse to influence you and sharing power with your wife clearly leads to healthy marriages, but a marriage based around a husband making all the decisions without allowing his wife to influence him has an 81% failure rate.

For most of us, this will make obvious sense and we can go forward with trying to put it into practice – – hopefully without feeling guilty like the commenter above initially felt! But for those who think this is opposed to Biblical teaching and preach a 100-percent husband controlled marriage, I would have to ask – would God really design something with an 81% failure rate? And how does that fit with the idea of the “abundant life” we (husband AND wife) are supposed to have in Jesus? Maybe some of us need to be interpreting Scripture a bit differently than we have in the past.

God has given husband and wife to each other for mutual growth and edification. We are cutting ourselves off from God’s plan for our life when we don’t open ourselves up and allow our spouses to influence and shape us.

Just imagine how great our marriages could be if we stopped debating about who was in charge and simply started trying to act more Christ-like toward each other.

I still have hope that we in the church will get there some day.

Marriage Works Better when We Make Decisions Together

What do you think? Did you grow up hearing things like, “the husband has to make the final decision?” How does this work in your marriage? Let’s talk in the comments!

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