Recently, my church group of married couples in our thirties discussed gender roles in marriage and the church. Not surprisingly, all the other couples voiced a belief in male headship, female submission, and complementarian gender roles. For those unfamiliar with the term, complementarians assert that God designed men to serve as leaders in their families/churches, and women’s role is to support men. My husband and I were the lone couple to hold different beliefs in mutual submission, equal leadership, and an egalitarian understanding of marriage.
I’m struck lately by how many young Christian couples claim to be complementarian but their day-to-day marriage routine looks similar to mine. This is especially surprising because I live in the South, where you might expect couples to follow traditional gender roles. In these so-called complementarian marriages, both the husbands and wives often work outside the home. Both the husbands and wives take care of the children. Both lead discussions and prayer in our church group, and both contribute ideas and thoughts during our studies. This mysterious concept of “male headship” isn’t usually glaringly apparent. So, how are their marriages different from an egalitarian relationship ethic?
Over and over again, I’ve heard complementarian couples express a need for a “trump card.” When there’s disagreement over a significant decision or topic in their marriage and “push comes to shove,” the husband’s opinion trumps the wife’s. When the couple can’t come to an agreement, the wife is expected to submit to her husband’s point of view. But for me, the phrase “push comes to shove,” provokes images of domestic violence, coercion, and manipulation. I picture two adversaries—hardly the mutual teamwork I believe God calls us to in marriage.
I can think of very few times in my marriage when my husband and I have strongly disagreed over something and haven’t been able to come to a resolution. Admittedly, we’ve been married just three years, and our first child is less than a year old, so I know there will be plenty of opportunity for disagreement in years to come. However, through discussion, asking questions, seeking to understand each other’s points of view, and mutual respect for each other’s knowledge and positions, we’ve almost always been able to come to an agreement. Push has never come to shove and neither of us has ever needed a “trump card.”
Complementarians say this isn’t practical or even possible. They argue that someone must be the leader in the marriage to break a decision deadlock. This idea comes from a narrow interpretation and application of Ephesians 5’s command for the husband to love his wife as Christ loved the church. Instead of seeing this verse as an instruction to husbands to yield their own opinions and preferences to serve their spouses, it’s used to prop up the “husband trump card.”
So, what does mutual submission and equal decision-making look like in an egalitarian marriage? In my marriage, we typically discuss an issue, brainstorm solutions to the problem, weigh pros and cons of each option, and listen to what the other considers the best course of action to take. If there are areas of disagreement, we ask questions, seek more information, identify each other’s underlying motives, and then pray together about the best option.
Our earliest unresolvable issue came during wedding planning. We couldn’t agree on how to pay for our wedding. The more we discussed, the more we disagreed about what approach we should take. I grew frustrated and questioned what I should do: keep trying to convince my husband of my opinion? Give up and give in? Manipulate or threaten him until he changed his mind? None of these aligned with my beliefs—either about Christian love and sacrifice or egalitarian conflict resolution.
I prayed about it and ultimately decided to submit to his preference. As a strong woman, it was difficult for me to swallow that I was “submitting” to what my husband thought and letting go of what I thought was best. But instead of looking at it as submitting “because my husband was a man” and because “that was what Christian wives did,” I reframed it. In that situation, I chose to sacrifice my point of view for the betterment of our relationship. Likewise, my husband takes the same posture when he submits to my leadership, sacrificing his preferences for the good of our family.
God commands us all—women and men—to practice the Christian virtue of sacrifice. And, psychological research has found many positive benefits to sacrifice in marriage. Sacrifice can lead to greater trust, more mutual sacrifice, and enhanced relationship satisfaction. Instead of feeling resentful for “giving up,” the partner who’s sacrificing in that instance can think of the sacrifice as a benefit to his/her spouse and the marriage. Ultimately, sacrifice even benefits the person who allows himself or herself to be moved, if he or she makes a sacrifice willingly for the good of the marriage and doesn’t look back.
Since our disagreement about wedding finances, my husband and I have navigated big decisions together more effectively, such as choosing what kind of house to buy and making childcare arrangements for our baby. When we disagree, we’ve learned to each sacrifice a little bit of what we want to find a mutual solution we’re both comfortable with. Our decision-making process is a success when each of us is happy about the choice we made together and can thank the other for helping us compromise.
A “husband trump card” can be an excuse to avoid the important relational work of communicating with each other, compromising, and resolving conflict together. It can also foster a dangerous power imbalance in marriages, making husbands and wives opponents instead of partners. But for egalitarian couples, the most important thing isn’t who leads and who submits, it’s that we make decisions together and those decisions benefit both partners and thus the relationship.