The Harm of Wifely Submission in Marriage

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Alexis Record

Feminist, humanist, friendly advocate.

I married my high school sweetheart inside a conservative evangelical culture. (I write about this culture here, and to some extent here.) This coterie of devout Christians created an isolating world of abstinence-only education and the use of Bible studies to resolve relational issues. My primary responsibilities as a young girl in this community were to practice Christianity, obey authority, dress modestly, and keep my virginity for my future husband. All of that made for an interesting wedding night as the messages I received went from “girls who have sex are bad” to “you have a license for that now.” The concept of consent was also virtually absent, while the concept of wifely submission was hard as concrete.

For many the idea of patriarchy is some nebulous system that has a cumulative effect of suppressing women. But for me, patriarchy was stone cold life. Instead of heavily influencing the system, it literally was the system. It was called “biblical” patriarchy or complementarianism. This system held that men and women have different roles in the family hierarchy: the husband is the leader and the wife is secondary to the husband. In this system being born with a vagina is the equivalent of being given the “janitor” card during preschool career day. (And being born gay or intersex is like getting the card slapped out of your hand altogether.) While I found the system unfair, I lacked the temerity to question it. Every pastor I knew told me that God Himself set up marriage this way, and most of the congregants of our evangelical church were well inured to male dominance. I was taught by my church, my Christian school, and my insular community that the essence of masculinity was authority and the essence of femininity was submission. And this was never more enforced than in our marriages.

The idea of a God-ordained hierarchy or “husband rule” in marriage is still around today. We see it in TLC’s popular 19 Kids and Counting. Although Michelle Duggar and the kids present a smiling face to the world, I know many women who have been abused by hierarchy in marriage. And many who are abused in this system do not even recognize the signs of abuse until they come out of the system.

A blogger and friend of mine, Bethany Bassett, comes from a similar background as myself and explains: “Maybe those of you who came from Quiverfull-style backgrounds can relate to my own upbringing in which the guiding principle was submission rather than consent. Children and women were taught that our bodies were not our own and that struggling against a physical aggressor in a position of authority over us was grounds for harsher treatment. Intimacy was something to be claimed by those in power. I can hardly think of a more dangerous mindset for sheltered children to grow up believing.”

When a college friend of mine looked at her own vagina with a handheld mirror she thought she had sinned. We internalized that message that our bodies were not our own, but belonged to “God” a.k.a. our fathers and then our husbands.

The micromanaging that a good husband in our community was required to do was mind-boggling. I was told that my husband was not only the leader in the home, making the big decisions, but that he was my spiritual leader as well. It was ultimately his duty to make sure I was praying and reading the Bible. He held all the cards. Things like what clothes I wore, how many children we had, how we decorated, or where we lived were issues to be divided up, with him holding the proverbial dynamite to blow up any decision he didn’t like. Even in areas where I should have had total control, he had the final say. (Spoiler alert: Anyone who has the “final say” has 100% control.)

This hierarchical thinking affected me in big ways. I truly believed I was inferior to men. I questioned whether God cared about women, whether I had worth of my own, or whether I was even included in ideas like “brotherly love” or “mankind.” Many religious women I know have gone through this stage of questioning, and many older women have shrugged this off as a normal rite of passage for girls of faith.

Actual picture from my school workbook
Actual picture from my school workbook

This also affected me in little ways. My actions were childlike when dealing with my husband. Our modus operandi consisted of me pleading for things I wanted while my husband considered them. Getting my way came with being grateful to my husband, who was an authority figure to be manipulated. And I have quite a few stories of church ladies giving me advice on how exactly to get my way in marriage without my husband being the wiser or inciting his anger.

We were also taught that I, the wife, had no real agency. If my husband made a bad decision it was still my duty to obey it as long as it wasn’t an obvious sin. Only my husband would be held accountable for the outcome. An older lady in my church encapsulated this thinking with the sage advice, “When the fireball from Heaven comes for your husband, duck!”

Let me remind you that I’m describing the marriage of a couple in their EARLY TWENTIES. It was over a decade ago and my “husband ruler,” who was younger than me, was barely able to legally drink the wedding toast!

It’s no surprise that a marriage set up with that kind of power dynamic is unhealthy. Dr. David H. Olson collected data from 21,501 married couples, in the biggest survey of its kind, and concluded that 81% of egalitarian (no hierarchy, equal partners) marriages were happy, whereas only 18% of complementarian marriages where the husband ruled were happy.

 

Dr. Diana Garland of Baylor University in her book “Family Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide” compiled statistics of domestic violence in complementarian marriages from several studies and found that:

Wives, in traditional marriages, suffered significantly more depression and other mental disorders than men, working married women and unmarried women (Bernard 1982).

In traditional marriages, wives had been beaten at “a rate of more than 300 percent higher than for egalitarian marriages (Straus, Gelles and Steinmetz 1980).”

Violence is more likely to occur in homes where the husband has all the power and makes all the decisions than in home where spouses share decision making (L.  Walker 1979).

 

Dr. Booth and Dr. Amato did a longitudinal study spanning over 20 years and following the lives of 2,000 men and women between 1980 and 2000. It was found that complementarian marriage was very hard on both husbands and wives. Dr. Amato concluded, “If the wife goes from a patriarchal marriage to an egalitarian one, she’ll be much happier, much less likely to look for a way out.  And in the long run, the husbands are happier too.”

Dennis J. Preato collected these studies and more to conclude that because of hierarchy in marriage “so many Christian marriages end in divorce and many who remain together live in unhappy marriages.”

 

It’s not that I was unaware of the fact that I was unhappy within this system. It’s just that I cared more about pleasing God and entering Heaven than about being happy. I was exceptionally good at covering my doubts with a religious high that came through prayer. And I wholeheartedly swallowed the lie that any unhappiness was the result of personal sin, not the system itself. I really thought that God would only be pleased if I was the obsequious, submissive wife.

Like many evangelicals raised in biblical patriarchy, longitudinal studies and common sense were not enough; it took nothing less than study of the Bible to convince me that egalitarianism is clearly valid for Christians. Each time I read about women in the Bible it was like tiny tectonic shifts to my belief system. Finding out that the biblical household codes were written in the context of ancient Greco-Roman patriarchy helped me break away from complementarianism completely. It’s funny that while my childhood church has hung onto those biblical directives to wives, making womanly submission their raison d’être, they have largely ignored the messages to slaves, considering them irrelevant. (At least modern Christians have.) Of course slaves and wives were lumped together in the household codes of scripture, just as they would be when written in a time of father rule where the oldest man ruled like a king over his wife or wives, grown sons and daughters, and household slaves. Pax Romana was even thought to rely on this household structure. America? Not so much. Modern Christianity? Not at all.

Once free to think for myself, it was seeing how gay and lesbian couples did marriage that undid a lot of my former thinking. Do you know why religious types ask lesbian couples who the “man” is in the relationship, or gay couples who the “woman” is? I would argue based on my own experience that “biblical” hierarchy in marriage has preoccupied so much of conservative thinking that the idea of a marriage of equals becomes so intensely terrifying (and exhilarating) they cannot handle it. Who gets their last name changed? Who wears the pants? Who puts their foot down? If we cannot base a power structure on genitalia, we’re lost! And the transgender community just totally baffles the patriarchy, leading to confusion on why transwomen would want to be downgraded to the submissive ones, and accusations that transmen just want to be upgraded to authority.

Can this explain Michelle Duggar’s transphobic phone message or Josh Duggar’s demonizing of gay and lesbian couples? Maybe. Maybe not entirely. But I bet the Duggars, like my church were, are just trying to please God. And that’s scary. Because I have to realize with some degree of abject horror that the Duggars could have easily been us. Been me.

Escaping toxic views of marriage and women was hardly a panacea for all the effects of sexism that had permeated my worldview. But it was a start. It was met with one male family member writing to tell me, “You want to be equal with your husband. Satan wanted to be equal with God. […] Are you glorifying your husband and God with your attitude?” (When my husband asked what I was reading I told him, “About how I’m Satan now.” He just said, “Cool.”)

But despite the backlash, my feminist husband and I got to discover what a marriage of equals produces. Our parenting improved. Sex improved. Our decision-making improved.

 

And just like the studies predicted, our happiness improved.

5 comments

  1. Just the one. Since 1999. I guess it would read like I remarried since we’re not the same awkward people we were 15 years ago. Now we’re cool awkward! It’s a thing.

  2. I left a complementarian church about a year ago, and I’ll never attend one again.
    I can’t understand why competent adult females have to be under the authority of a man.
    Some theologians claim that women can only flourish when a man rules. Then, how can
    they explain the statistics that you have cited in this article?
    This doctrine still haunts me, even though I left the church. I wonder if God loves women, I wonder if I will go to hell for abandoning the church, etc. I wonder why men are better and I am lesser. I hurt deeply. Thanks for this article

  3. Anna, you’re not alone. I know how hurtful that can be to your psyche. Let me share the experience of someone several years out. It gets better. Those big, haunting voices of red-faced male church leaders do fade to whispers with time. I’m sorry that their draconian view of women has made your religion unattainable to you. Shame on them. You are valuable and just as wonderful as any male on this planet.

  4. Alexis, how did the article you quoted from “Empirical Data in Support of Egalitarian Marriges, etc. influence your thinking and your marriage?

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