“Marriage is an adventure, like going to war.”
Earlier this week, Darwin asked for some bloggers to explain, from a woman’s perspective, what it means to be submissive to their husbands. I was not tagged in this invitation (mostly, I think, because writing about poop generally doesn’t earn one the title of “thoughtful”); nevertheless, it prompted such a great conversation between the Ogre and myself that I wanted to do a little post of my own on it. (My apologies to Darwin for butting in.)
I’ve been really struck by the responses I’ve read. Bearing and Betty both feel that talking about that particular dynamic in their relationship leaves them feeling “unacceptably laid-bare”. Dorian Speed had a great response (“People are different…do things seem to be working okay?…Then just don’t worry about it.”) But even she claims to hate the topic because it triggers her “doubt-o-meter and provokes despair.” And Mrs. Darwin gave us an exquisitely personal story about the kind of interior melodrama we women are so prone to, and how simply being honest instead of living out the soap opera in her head is an example of a type of submission. (Please, please, go and read these posts. My little snippets are taken from their posts in order to illustrate a point, and not to substitute for the truly wonderful things they have to say.)
I was honestly shocked that all these women would feel that the issue of submission was so personal. I don’t find anything personal about it; in fact, I have not a single qualm about sharing my experience. Is this because I’m an over-sharer? There’s probably a bit of that. Is it because I’m still young and my marriage is untested by time? Well, I don’t think so, but I’m humble enough to admit I could be wrong.
If our marriage is untested by time, I can assure you that in our five years of marriage and one year of dating we have been through more than our share of trials. I intend to do a whole post about that later in the holiday season; for now, let me just say that our marriage has been defined by trial. Not peace, overwhelming love, or idealistic romance, but shouting matches and the occasional flinging of wine glasses (by me). And the issue of submission has been the issue of our marriage. We’ve talked it over time and again, with priests, with family, with each other. Our marriage was not built in a void, a private space between the two of us; rather, it was built on the foundation of advice and constant correction by two sets of loving parents. Two sets of parents whose own marriages could not be more radically different.
My family is a sort of matriarchy. My dad usually holds the final say in important decisions, but he travels a lot for work, and my mom holds the power in the day-to-day. However, there has never been a better example of a man loving his wife the way that Christ loves the Church than the way my father loves my mother. He thinks of her first always; he leaves her notes on the bathroom mirror in the morning telling her how much he loves her; he worked two and sometimes three jobs when we were little so she could stay at home with us.
The Ogre’s family is a little different. It is, in the very best sense of the word, a solid patriarchy. His father rules the family with an iron fist, and yet all his concerns and requests are always dictated by the knowledge that the moral responsibility for his family rests on his shoulders. He believes that a man should be the head of the family in every sense of the word, including the taking on of ultimate responsibility. And never have I seen a better example of a woman being submissive to her husband than I have seen in my mother-in-law. Whether it’s a request to have dinner served exactly at 4:15 or a desire for fish for dinner when she’s already started cooking chicken, she acquiesces with grace and love.
But it hasn’t always seemed so to me. For me, influenced too much by modern feminism and raised in a family where my parents were pretty equal and, if anything, my father seemed to serve my mother in his constant desire to love her well, my husband’s family seemed like a horror at first. I couldn’t believe the level of control his father had and what, I’m ashamed to admit now, I perceived as weakness in his mother. And so I reacted, violently, against the dichotomy his parents presented to me.
The Ogre couldn’t make a single, simple request of me without me lashing out. I refused to get him water, I refused to hang up his laundry. Unless it was my idea to do something nice for him, nothing got done for him at all. In my mind, he was trying to suppress me when he asked if I could hand him that shoe. And he responded by being more forceful and getting more demanding. I can’t tell you the number of times I took my wedding ring off, set it on the mantle and walked out, only to sit in the car and realize I had nowhere to go. You see, my wise and wonderful mother refused to take me back. The first night I called to tell her I was coming home she said, “I don’t think so. You’re married now. You stay there and work it out.”
And so I was stuck. And so was the Ogre. And we fought it out, like cats and dogs, until I came to the simple and life-altering realization that being lower in the hierarchy does not mean being less than.
In the sense of my worth and value as a person, the Ogre and I are equal. We just have different work to do. He’s the head of the household for a number of reasons, the primary one being that someone has to lead. There’s a reason there is only one steering wheel in a car; if two people were driving, they’d never get anywhere (or they’d continually crash the car). Someone has to make the tough decisions, and that someone also has to take on the consequences if those decisions are bad ones. Most things we agree on; others, I make sure (sometimes too sure) that he understands my concerns, and then I back down and let him decide. We’ve forged our own path, somewhere in the middle of the different roads our parents walk, and we’re happy here. It works for us.
For a concrete example, I recently got to practice the virtue of submission when we were deciding whether or not to circumcise Liam. I’m against it; I think it’s a pointless surgery. But the Ogre had personal reasons to want his son circumcised. I’ll admit my submission wasn’t the greatest example; I left articles up on the computer on the dangers of circumcision, I constantly reminded him that I disagreed with him, I sought to enlist the help of others. But the Ogre finally said, “you’re not letting me make the decision if you keep telling me it’s a bad one.” So I backed down and made the appointment, and since then my fears about the surgery have diminished. I trust that my husband’s reasons are good, that he cares for our son as much as I do, and that as the head of the house, he has special graces from God to make tough choices.
The Ogre gave me a wonderful quote to explain the dynamics of a marriage. (I think it’s from Chesterton, but I can’t find the reference.)
A woman stands with her back to the world, facing her family. A man stands with his back to his family, facing the world.
I think this is a fantastic way to look at the idea of wifely submission. It isn’t that her ideas, thoughts, and opinions are worth less. As women, we are simply consumed with the work of the house. We often get caught up in the day-today, the spilled milk, dirty diapers, homeschooling, baking, moral teaching, spiritual instruction. It’s so hard for us to back up, to get an objective view of our family and its place in the world. And, lucky for us, we don’t have to! That’s our husband’s job; we keep order and peace in our family while our husbands make sure that our family is ready to meet the world. He makes a place in the world for us and prepares us all to take that place, while protecting us from the world when we need protection. We women are often so consumed with the world of our family that we don’t see the greater dangers that lay beyond it. That’s our husband’s job, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important for us to submit. His vision is clearer.
The thing is, though, that all these minutae are fairly unnecessary. I’ve found that the simplicity with which Paul states his command is really all that’s needed. When our husbands love us well, with the love that Christ shows the Church, submission is easy and very often doesn’t feel like submission at all. Likewise, when we are willing to let our husbands take on the role that God has laid before them instead of grappling for power, their gratitude and relief often shines through with a renewed love and renewed desire to serve us as Christ serves the Church. My own marriage has been more peaceful and filled with such greater love since both the Ogre and I took these words to heart. At times it is very hard for both of us to accomplish, but the memory of the hell our marriage was before I began to submit, willingly, and before the Ogre began to love like Christ is proof enough for us, and more than enough evidence that regardless of the reason Paul had to write what he did, he was right. Ephesians 5 quite literally saved our marriage.