Dominance and Submission or a Cooperative Partnership?

Supporters of patriarchal gender roles and hierarchical marriage relationships often argue that feminists want to pit men and women against each other, but what they don’t realize is that by turning marriage into a relationship based on dominance and submission, they are the ones pitting men and women against each other. In seeking equality, feminism envisions relationships built not on dominance and submission but rather on communication and cooperation, companionship founded on mutual respect, partnership as diverse as the individuals who form it.

This thought came to me during a facebook chat discussion with blogger Sarah Moon. We were discussing this rather terrible article, which rebuked feminism with talk of servanthood. Our conversation centered on a short section of the article:

My dad was a pastor but when I was a little girl, the church was the only place he was a leader. At home, my mum made the rules. She told my dad when to punish us; my dad would always tell us to go to our mum when we asked for permission, and she ultimately made any decisions affecting the family.

And my dad let her. So I not only didn’t fully respect my dad growing upbecause he didn’t stand up to my mum, but I didn’t really trust him to protect me. To come to my rescue if I needed him to. And when I first got married I treated my husband the same way; I bossed him around and got annoyed when he wouldn’t listen to me.

My mum’s mum was that way too. My Nanny and her husband divorced, because he couldn’t please her, and in the end, she committed suicide, because she wasn’t able to get her way and so I come from a long line of willful women.

There is a lot that could be said about this passage, obviously, and Sarah and I only scratched the surface. Still, I thought our conversation brought up interesting points, some of which I need to reflect on further. Here is our conversation, followed by a summary of the thoughts I had as a result of it.


Sarah: The line about her grandmother committing suicide because she couldn’t get her way? WHAT.

Libby Anne: Ugh, I know. But I do think it’s important to remember that relationships like the one described do exist—where the woman runs the show. I don’t know if you keep up with my CTBHHM series, but I think women have the types Debi describes too—Command Man, Visionary, Steady. I don’t think her three types are perfect or all inclusive, but I find that they work surprisingly well. Anyway, I think some women are the Command Man type—and remember that while the extreme Command Man Debi describes is clearly abusive, in the real world there is room for balance within that type. But when you couple a Command Woman with a Visionary Man or a Steady Man, you are going to get a situation where the woman ends up running the show.

Sarah: Right.

Libby Anne: And you know what? That’s fine, IF there is communication and cooperation and collaboration and compromise going on. All those C words. It’s fine for a couple to use their strengths in how they run their relationships. But it’s not fine from the evangelical perspective. And in the sort of case that blog post described, it often seems like you don’t have a lot of communication about it. Of course, a Command Woman absolutely can be abusive, much like Debi describes the Command Man. In many ways I fit Debi’s Command type, and I also didn’t have healthy relationship models growing up. So I understand the temptation to be abusive, and I know how easy it would be to just bulldoze. But I very intentionally don’t. I think every person’s strengths can be used for good or for ill—and that’s true of each of Debi’s types.

Sarah: I think I was a Command Woman in my last relationship and was really hurtful because of it. But feminism actually taught me to have a more healthy relationship and communicate with and respect my current partner more. So the idea that all feminists are just controlling of men is frustrating. I agree—any relationship with different personalities can be worked out as long as two people respect each other.

Libby Anne: Right! I feel the same way, actually. I think that the blog author’s mother would have actually benefited from feminism, and I’m also going to go out on a limb and guess that she probably had a love/hate relationship with her own dominant role, because of her belief that she was supposed to be submissive. At least, I saw that pattern growing up. Also, feminism teaches to see relationships not as competitions, but as collaborative partnerships. That’s HUGE.

Sarah: Exactly! Just viewing a relationship not as a competition or an exchange of goods but as a partnership changed my life.

Libby Anne: Also, when you grow up with the belief that women are supposed to be dominated by men, you’re going to be freaked out that if you give up the reins and stop being dominant yourself, you’re going to get screwed over.

Sarah: Yup. That was my last relationship, even though he was a nice guy. And sadly that fear is justified too often because so many men want to dominate.


Let me finish with a few additional thoughts.

While Debi’s Command type seems more prone to what we readily identify as abuse, each of Debi’s types have their own strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Command type can be a good leader and decision maker or can be an abusive tyrant. If women have these same types—something Debi would very much deny—they also have these same potential strengths and weaknesses. So it’s absolutely true that a woman can absolutely embody the extreme abusive Command type outlined by Debi—and this seems to be the sort of situation the blogger quoted above is referencing.

There’s something else to bear in mind, though. Every partnership between two individuals looks different, as it should—and partners generally split up the duties and decision making. Thus in a partnership between, say, a Command Woman and a Visionary Man, it would only make sense for the two to focus on their strengths, and thus for the woman to do more of the day to day decision making. So long as this is mutually agreed upon and not abusive, it’s only natural and fine—but it’s something that doesn’t fit the patriarchal playbook, which prescribes that men are to make the decisions and women are to take the back seat. And I think the blog author quoted above was influenced by this mindset when she watched her parents’ relationship.

Finally, I want to get back to what I started with: Supporters of patriarchal gender roles and hierarchical marriage relationships often argue that feminists want to pit men and women against each other, but what they don’t realize is that by turning marriage into a relationship based on dominance and submission, they are the ones pitting men and women against each other. In seeking equality, feminism envisions relationships built not on dominance and submission but rather on communication and cooperation, companionship founded on mutual respect, partnership as diverse as the individuals who form it. Feminism eschews both patriarchal proscriptions for how relationships should look and abusive tactics and ploys within relationships. And somehow I don’t think the author of the blog post that started this entire line of thought is aware of that.

What would you add to all this?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Alison Cummins

    Don’t most cooperative partnerships divide up domains of decision-making? You look after money, I look after health. I decide where we go on vacation, you work out how we get there. For me, not having to be responsible for everything is one of the great advantages of coupledom.

  • AnonaMiss

    It’s odd to me that Debi’s types describe so many of the people you know, because I don’t know any Visionaries (though I hear my late grandpa was one), I only know a couple of Commands, and while I could label some people as Steadies, that says more about the catch-all, Hufflepuff-esque status of the Steady archetype than it does about those people. (Basically anyone who is responsible and not impulsive can be said to be Steady, even if these traits aren’t a major part of their character!)

    I wonder if extreme patriarchy steers men into these archetypes. I grew up in a mainstreamier environment, and most of the men I know well enough to label I’d consider Supporters (people who seek fulfillment by making the people they love happy) or Elitists (people who seek fulfillment by being Better Than other people, usually by bettering themselves but occasionally just by believing themselves Inherently Better). I can definitely imagine patriarchy discouraging both of these archetypes in men, especially the first since caring too much is often considered effeminate.

  • Ann

    I think Debi’s “types” might line up fairly well in some ways with the DISC personality profile – Command = D, Visionary = I, Steady – S, and of course both men and women can be any combination on DISC.

  • Conuly

    No matter how you divide people into groups by personality, you’ll find it generally works. There’s nothing special about this particular framework.

    • Alison Cummins

      Horoscopes work too. I mostly match my horoscope personality profile, but I probably mostly match all the other horoscope personality profiles too.

      Libby Anne, have you and Sean tried the Meyers-Briggs personality test? My understanding is that it’s about as well-validated as Debi’s three archetypes or balances of the four humours (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic), but many people find it really helps their appreciation of people’s strengths and weaknesses — their own and others’. To the point where at some gatherings people will say “Hi, I’m Penelope and I’m an INTJ” when introducing themselves.

    • Eamon Knight

      Well, if we’re going to classify people into types, let’s stick to the classics: the four humours ;-). I understand Tim LaHaye is pushing that schtick.

  • Rosie

    Um, can I point out that people don’t commit suicide because “they don’t get their way”? It generally requires a bit of planning, especially if one wants to be sure and succeed in the endeavor. People commit suicide out of despair and hopelessness and the inability to see any viable alternatives. And while it’s true that undepressed people can often see alternatives in the situation that the depressed person can’t see, to brush it off as simply a response to “not getting her way”…really erases the experience of anyone who has ever experienced that kind of depression.

    • Jayn

      Yeah, I read that part as Nanny having unrecognised mental health issues (which may have played a part in how her relationship played out). Even in secular society mental illness is too often regarded as ‘not real’ and ‘all in your head’, which makes it harder for people who need help to seek or find it.

    • ako

      Yeah. I’ve known some people with mental illnesses (depression, BPD, anxiety disorders, etc.) who might seem impossible to please because at the time they’re psychologically unable to feel good about things, or who might act rigid and demanding because they’re terrified of what might happen if things don’t work out right. I can see how a superficial interpretation of behavior, in a culture that was all “Anything other than submission and obedience is sinful and unwomaly!”, could lead someone to attribute suicide to pure willfulness, but there would have to be a lot more going on.

  • Red

    I can really see how that post assumed that a marriage has to be a battle, spouse vs. spouse. The implication is that someone must be in control, and if the man isn’t actively in control, that control vacuum will be filled by the woman taking over…the implied solution is for the man to flip things around so he is in control again. Nowhere in that discussion does there seem to be room for the idea that the parents might be working together with equity.

    The funny thing is, people who believe in gender roles will generally deny that they support an adversarial relationship between the spouses. In fact, they will often try to argue that staying within one’s gender role is the PATH to two people working together lovingly (and supposedly anyone who steps off that God-designed path will be punished by having an unnatural power struggle). This argument has always seemed bizarre to me, because it’s not at all hard to find couples who don’t fit a hierarchy but also work together and don’t have an adversarial relationship. Likewise, all those Bible studies and speakers that are “by women for women” that have to encourage and exhort and extoll women not to be short with or resent or gossip about their husbands…I’m thinking that’s pretty good evidence that women in hierarchical relationships really struggle with feeling like they’re in a battle with their spouse, as opposed to a harmonious relationship.

    I grew up in a Christian home that pretty much ignored all the gender teachings, and my parents actually got along better than many other couples. I remember being floored when I got older and found that people believe gender roles are essential for functioning marriages.

  • Dean

    I look at it as undiagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder, you can never do anything right for someone with that. Stop Walking on Eggshells is a good resource if you want to try.

    • Lucreza Borgia

      SWOE is a horrible resource for BPD and isn’t supported by the clinical community at all. A much better book is “When Home is Not Enough” by Bon Dobbs. It’s based off of DBT-FST which is a therapy specifically for families of borderlines.

  • Katherine A.

    I can’t help but notice that supporters of “traditional” gender roles always picture one person in charge in the relationship. They can’t seem to picture more equal relationships. In their view, someone is always the boss. They never work together or (gasp) switch roles.

  • smrnda

    Once you believe in hierarchical gender roles (however you want to pretend they’re different but equal) it shapes how you view every action in a relationship.

    On the ‘ask your Mum’ – I think that in a traditional (if we want to call it that) relationship, fathers aren’t doing that much hands-on work with kids, so when a kid asks about something they may just not know what’s a good response. If Dad is at work all day and his kid asks if they can go to the park (a short distance away) the father might not have a clear idea if this is okay, something that’s been done before, or some totally unprecedented activity that isn’t really age appropriate. BUT, if you view things from the ‘man must always be in charge’ perspective, now it’s this huge problem. (Note – I’d say having an uninvolved father who just works and has little hands-on experience with a kids is a problem of its own too.)

    I think the ‘mandatory gender roles’ is all about screwing up relationships. It creates the need for an institution to mediate between a couple rather than letting them decide and settle things on their own.

  • Lucreza Borgia

    My husband feels the same about his father doing whatever mommy dearest wanted. Then again, she was an abusive, controlling, psychotic twat-waffle, so I think he was justified about that.

  • Alice

    I agree it is difficult for conservatives to picture an equal relationship because they are so stuck in the unequal model. I admit as a single woman who grew up this way, it’s really hard for me to imagine what equality looks like even though I know it is possible and know that is definitely what I want.

    Does anyone know any good books about egalitarian marriage? I am trying to replace the years of negative messages with positive messages.

  • kisarita

    The writer’s mother seems to have been abusive. She writes about how her dad failed to protect her from her mother.
    Otherwise most people do not describe their relationships with their parents as one requiring protection.
    Her main example on how her dad was submissive to her mother centers around punishment.
    Having come from an abusive household it’s no surprise that she didn’t learn about healthy relationships, but can she really believe that the situation would be AOK if it was her father directing the abuse and her mother assisting/ enabling?

    • Libby Anne

      Oh, this is interesting! You don’t have the background to understand some of how things go on in typical evangelical and fundamentalist homes, including the lingo. Let me clear a few things up.

      my mum made the rules. She told my dad when to punish us;

      In my family growing up, it was similar when it came to the children. Mom was the one home with us kids while dad put in hard hours at work, and within fundigelical families the mother is seen as the one who runs the home, so it’s not unusual for the mother to be setting the ground rules for the children at home, though the father is generally involved in this in at least some capacity. Then, when we would do somethingreally bad, my mom would tell us we had to wait until dad got home and he would punish us. The idea was that we’d see a punishment at the hands of our father as more serious than a punishment at the hands of our mother. So in other words, this bit of the blogger’s post didn’t strike me as odd at all.

      So I not only didn’t fully respect my dad growing up, because he didn’t stand up to my mum, but I didn’t really trust him to protect me. To come to my rescue if I needed him to.

      In the subculture in which both I and the post’s author were raised, there’s this idea that a girl’s father is supposed to protect her from the outside world. In other words, I didn’t read this as her not trusting her father to protect her from her mother, but rather as her not trusting her father to protect her from the world outside.

      This isn’t to say that the blog author’s mother wasn’t abusive. But I didn’t realize that these lines would be read differently by someone outside of the subculture.

      • Cristi

        “So I not only didn’t fully respect my dad growing up, because he didn’t stand up to my mum, but I didn’t really trust him to protect me. To come to my rescue if I needed him to.”

        I read this the same way as kisarita. I grew up in this subculture and my dad was officially “in charge”, but one of the biggest things I had to forgive him for once I was out of the house was that he didn’t protect my sister and I. He never stood up for us when my mom would start making crazy rules or threatening to kick us out. And if you ask him, he was totally following the evangelical subculture that says parents are more important than kids and that a husband should love and support his wife. So for him, he thought their communication was pretty good. It just didn’t extend to him being a part of our lives in a way that showed the kids were important enough to protect from craziness. I had trouble respecting him as a parent and I didn’t trust that he cared enough about me to protect me. So I can totally see how this could happen even in a patriarchal household.

  • Monica

    I also come from a “long line of willful women,” and I say that with pride rather than shame.

  • Tyro

    Just remember that consensual D/s is a valid option within an egalitarian framework.