January 15, 2014

Submissiveness and Leadershipin the Modern Marriage

Female Submissiveness in Marriage

Recently some high profile personalities (first Gabrielle Reece and now Candice Cameron Bure and) have written books suggesting that the key to a happy marriage is wifely submissiveness. Feminists have objected saying that notions such as equal partnership and compromise are more important to sustaining healthy relationships. This debate has stirred up an old controversy about the role of women in marriage.  Today we’ll take a look at the historical background concerning the origins of female submissiveness, explain why the ancient notion is outdated in today’s modern world and, finally, ask if there is a place for  submissiveness in a healthy marriage.

What is Submissiveness and Where did the Notion of Female Submission come from?

First of all, even though it comes up when you google the word, we are not talking about submissiveness in the context  of Fifty Shades of Grey or in any sexual sense.                                                                                                                         

In every day terms the kind of submissiveness we are referring to today simply means that when push comes to shove a woman must give in to her husband. He has the final say. This subjugation of women in an outgrowth of the ancient and primitive belief that since men are usually physically stronger, that they also possess the authority and entitlement of leadership. In Christianity, submissiveness have been understood as the way a wife loved and honored her husband but, it was seen as part of a mutual trade off: in order to be taken care of and cherished the wife agreed to cede power to her husband

Why is Female Submissiveness so Problematic and Controversial ?   

Changed Worldviews - Submissiveness doesn’t fit with our contemporary belief of the equality of the sexes.  It also flies in the face of the arc of history which has discarded most of the class distinctions which have served to separated  people.  We no longer divide folks up between royalty and commoners, free from slaves or believe in 2nd class citizenship for people of color, women or gays.

Changed Social Realities - Women now excel in most of the typically males endeavors.  No longer are women excluded from the top professions in business nor should they be put in a subordinate position at home. 

Advances in Medical and Social Sciences –                                                                                                                                                                                              Similar Brains - Although traditionally, women have been regarded as inferior, research has shown that are brains are basically all the same.                                                                PsychologyWhen solutions are imposed rather than freely chosen, there is no resolution. Agreements reached from fear or a sense of obligation often result is anger and resentment.  In marriage these bitter feelings can fester only to crop up at a later time and with increased intensity.                                                                                                            Conflict ResolutionSubmissiveness is out of step with the dramatic change in the way we understand conflict resolution.  Traditional ways of resolving differences either directly employed or at least threatened the use of force to gain agreement and were often understood in terms of winning and losing.  Modern methods emphasize collaboration and compromise which strive for mutually beneficial results, i.e. win/win.                    Rigidity of Traditional Roles Hurts Both Men and WomenFemale submissiveness completely misses the fact that men need to be submissive, too and that women need to be in control. 

Is There a Place for Submissiveness in a Healthy  Marriage ?                                                                                            

There is a myth that to reject submissiveness is to force women into responsibilities that they don’t want. To say that submissiveness is out of place in a healthy marriage doesn’t mean that a deferential attitude couldn’t be freely chosen. The key notion is free choice rather than obligation free mutual consideration isn’t important.  Deferring a partner’s wishes or preferences or trying to please one’s partner is fine so long as it applies to both partners and is not the sole obligation of the wife.

When there are times when it makes sense to defer to one partner’s judgment, the decision needs to be based on knowledge or ability, rather than gender. Likewise with leadership, one partner may be a better leader in one area, but not in another. 

Perhaps it’s time to retire the word submissiveness altogether and toss it on the pile with other sexist and other prejudicial terms.  Phrases like “showing a willingness to go along” or “not having to get one’s one way ever time” convey the same kind of respect but can be applied mutually while respecting the integrity and equality of each member of the partnership.                                                                                                   

The Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC prepared these remarks for Bridge Street  1 15 2014

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