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What if our underlying understanding of gender roles makes marriage harder than it needs to be?

We’re talking about doing marriage on hard mode in the month of September–how so often we can make our lives harder, and thus make marriage harder, than it needs to be. And we’re urging everyone to go back to basics and strip away the stuff that isn’t necessary and try to do marriage on as easy a mode as possible!

Today, let me ask you: What is your fundamental understanding of the dynamics of the relationship between a husband and a wife?

There are two main of viewing marriage in the Christian tradition: Marriage as a hierarchy, and marriage as teamwork.

Marriage as a Hierarchy

The husband and wife are made with different roles, and the husband’s role is to lead, while the wife follows her husband. When they can’t decide something, the husband is responsible for making the final decision, and will be held accountable by God for it.

Marriage as Teamwork

The husband and wife, in unity, follow Jesus together. The goal is mutuality and unity, and if they don’t agree, then they’ll pray and seek God’s voice. They are both created to obey God and serve each other. 

Both views use the same Scripture, but interpret it differently.

Now, let me ask you: Based on those two views, what is the expectation of how the genders will tend to relate?

In marriage as hierarchy, the underlying assumption is that there will be disagreement, and the husband will make the final decision.

In marriage as teamwork, the underlying assumption is that, with prayer, you can be unified and work it out together.

One view sees marriage as a battle of wills where the husband’s opinion triumphs; the other sees marriage as mutuality where you seek God’s will together. (I know that’s a simplification, but that seems to be the end result of these teachings).

Okay, now let’s imagine how this plays out with a couple who gets married.

They go through the normal ups and downs of adjusting to marriage. She feels like he paid more attention to her before they were married; he feels like she is more critical since they got married.

She feels like he is hanging out with the boys too much, going out to hang out with his friends on Fridays and Saturdays, and not spending time with her. She brings this up, but he says he’s tired after the work week and he needs this to wind down.

What might a woman in a “marriage as hierarchy” mentality think?

I guess this is an opportunity for me to submit to my husband and love him, because he says this is what he needs, and my role is to support him. So she may say nothing and go on being lonely.

What might a woman in a “marriage as teamwork” mentality think?

Well, this isn’t good! We’re growing apart from each other and I’m lonely. We need to work this out and figure out good guidelines of when we’ll have “me” time and when we’ll have “us” time so that our relationship is the priority. 

You see, in one scenario you feel as if you’re supporting the marriage by giving in to what he wants; in the other you feel as if you’re supporting the marriage by figuring out what will build intimacy and make you feel close. The aim in the marriage as hierarchy relationship is to follow the husband; the aim in the marriage as teamwork is to build intimacy.

This is one of the reasons that, in our survey of 20,000 women for The Great Sex Rescue we found that in marriages where he makes the final decision, even if he consults with her first, the divorce rate increases for 7.4 times, and wives are far less likely to feel heard or as if their opinion matters in marriage.

I realize this is an oversimplification, and things may be different for individual couples. But the simple fact is that the emphasis in both marriages is very different. One aims for intimacy by considering both people’s needs; one aims for unity by the wife deferring to the husband. But as we found in our survey, when women feel as if their opinions don’t matter as much as their husbands’ opinions do, bad things happen. But when women feel as if their opinions matter as much, things turn around! Here’s a chart of some of our findings that appears in chapter 2 of The Great Sex Rescue:

GSR Fig 21 Voice Matters Better Sex - MARRIAGE ON HARD MODE: How Gender Role Ideas Can Backfire

When we think of marriage as hierarchy, we often assume that marriage is full of disagreements.

After all, if the definition of submission is letting him make the decision when we disagree, then it’s assumed you’re going to disagree a lot. As one woman told me on Twitter last week: “My pastor told me that submission only counts when I disagree with my husband’s decision.”

So unless they’re in disagreement, she can’t submit.

This is a misunderstanding of submission. In Ephesians 5:21, all believers are told to submit to one another. Submission is not about decision-making but about serving (as Jesus clearly laid out in Matthew 20:25-28). Then in verse 22, when women are told to submit, the verb “submit” isn’t even there. It’s inferred from verse 21, meaning that it takes on the same connotation in verse 22 directed to wives as it does in verse 21. It can’t mean one thing in verse 21–serve one another–and something else in verse 22–let him decide–especially if the verb only appears in verse 21.

Submission is about serving, not allowing someone to lead, or else verse 21 would make no sense. I encourage you to read my whole submission series for more on this.

When we assume, though, that marriage is full of disagreements, then when we’re upsest at our spouse, or we feel hurt, or we’re just not happy, we may assume that this is just normal marriage. This is what we have to learn to adjust to. And so we take things that are highly solvable, like normal communication problems, and elevate them to a moral issue of her deferring and submitting to him. Instead of working it out and building unity, her needs are suppressed and it’s assumed that the couple is just having normal disagreements.

If, on the other hand, you assume that marriage is about feeling close and having unity, then when these things come up, you think, “well, that’s odd! We better get to the bottom of this and fix it!” And you’re more likely to attack it head on.

Often when I talk about this, people will say, “Oh, but you need someone to make the final decision!”, as if they’ve just played the trump card.

How can I argue with that, after all?

But I just say, “Well, I’ve been married 30 years, and we’ve always just worked it out. We pray more, we talk more, we don’t do anything until we’re in agreement, we seek other advice.” And we figure it out. If you let him make the decision, then how often are you taking a short-cut? How often could you have worked that out if you just prayed longer or talked longer?

Here’s how I introduced the chapter on this in my book 9 Thoughts that Can Change Your Marriage:

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From 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage

Unfortunately, instead of understanding this teamwork dynamic, we often see submission in terms of obedience. I was discussing this idea recently with my friend and fellow marriage conference speaker Sharol. Using the “obey your husband” definition of submission, she realized that in her whole four-decade-long marriage, she had submitted only once. On that occasion, her husband felt called to a particular ministry that required relocating to another city. She didn’t feel that calling, but she knew it was important to him, so she decided to go. Within a few months she felt the calling too…

Usually in the marriage, though, when Sharol and her husband don’t agree, they work through it until they do. And they’ve tackled big issues: whether she would quit her full-time job; who should be the stay-at-home parent; whether to pursue a pastoring opportunity. They wanted to agree, so they wrestled together until they did.

I don’t understand why some women take pride in saying, “I let him make all the decisions, even if I think he’s wrong.” If you think your husband is wrong, you have an issue in your relationship. A disagreement by definition means that one of you—or both of you—is not listening to God. Wouldn’t it be better, and more in line with Scripture, to do as Sharol and her husband, Neil, do: wrestle it through together, pray fervently together and individually, and seek counsel until you’re on the same page? If you’re always deferring to your husband without wrestling and talking things through, then you could easily prevent oneness, not enhance it.

If you want a healthier way to build unity, please see 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage instead. 

Do you see how our underlying beliefs about marriage can influence our ability to grow oneness?

Assume conflict is normal and is resolved by her deferring to him, and you may not tackle things that come up in marriage that build distance. Assume that unity is normal and is resolved by talking and praying together and wrestling through together, and you’re more likely to tackle anything that hinders unity. 

So let me ask: Could your fundamental beliefs about marriage mean that you’re doing marriage on hard mode? And how could seeing marriage as teamwork change that? 

Are you PeaceKEEPING or PeaceMAKING?

9 Thoughts 3D image Small - MARRIAGE ON HARD MODE: How Gender Role Ideas Can Backfire

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!

Gender Roles Can Backfire - MARRIAGE ON HARD MODE: How Gender Role Ideas Can Backfire

What do you think? Can gender roles backfire? Or do you think they’re necessary? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila has been married to Keith for 28 years, and happily married for 25! (It took a while to adjust). She’s also an award-winning author of 8 books, including The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila is passionate about changing the evangelical conversation about sex and marriage to line up with kingdom principles. ENTJ, straight 8

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