Friends (and Equals) Forever

by Nils Swanson | December 07, 2020

“Honey, would you come here please? And bring pen and paper with you.” It was 4:30 in the morning and my wife was about to dictate her last words to me.

At this point Sue and I had been married for thirty-six years and had a son and daughter. We had both made decisions to follow Jesus in high school and then met at university, where Sue studied education and I biological sciences. We dated briefly in college but went our own ways for four years before reconnecting. She was a teacher while I was involved in parachurch ministry. Before we were married, we didn’t think a lot about gender roles. Sue and I were friends, and that friendship has been the foundation of our marriage, even as we have grown and changed.

Waking Up to Gender Roles

Shortly after our wedding we relocated to the university town where we had met, returning to the church we had been involved with as students. It was patriarchal in its theology, barring women from leadership and teaching a “chain of submission” (children submitted to parents; wives submitted to husbands; husbands submitted to Christ). As young believers we accepted the teaching without question. But as we tried to apply this approach to marriage, it became clear that it didn’t work. Especially to Sue.      

For the first time in our marriage, we began having conversations about how we would hear one thing, and then live the other. For example, the teaching said that women are emotional while men are logical (Greek philosophy, not biblical truth), and therefore men are best suited to make decisions. In practice, we found this eroded trust in our relationship, whereas shared decision-making built trust. Sue also observed that it wasn’t just us feeling this tension; there were other couples whose marriages appeared to be good and said the “right things” but lived otherwise. The inconsistency became glaring.

We had become friends with another couple who also saw this discrepancy and questioned the theological position and teaching of our church community. The wife recommended Sue read Kari Torjesen Malcolm’s Women at the Crossroads. It wasn’t long before she discovered Gretchen Gaebelin Hull (Equal to Serve) and CBE. She continued to share with me what she was learning, encouraging me that this was a theology that made a strong and sensible argument for equality in marriage. In the meantime, I had become a pastor in a denomination that did not permit women to lead in the home or church. I was feeling the tension.                

After a couple of years of study and conversations, I too affirmed women’s leadership and became an egalitarian. This changed all aspects of our marriage, but these were the three biggest: decision-making, chores, and boundaries. These changes would also provide the foundation we needed to remain equal partners as we faced health challenges we never envisioned when we began.

Three Big Changes

1. Making Decisions Together

In our earlier patriarchal community, decision‑making was the primary responsibility of the husband. It was good to get input from the wife, but the decision was his to make. If the wife felt it was not the Lord’s will, her responsibility was to submit. If she did not do so she was in sin, even if it became clear that she was right. If they disagreed, then the husband had the final say as the “head of the family.”          

For Sue and me, the fundamental disagreement we had with that position was our understanding that Jesus was the head of our relationship, not me. As such, our primary posture of submission was to Jesus. Both of us. This meant that we needed to trust each other’s walk with Jesus, and that we had equal say in decision- making. When one felt more strongly than the other, we usually deferred to that person. If one was more knowledgeable or experienced, then that position held additional weight.

When we disagreed, we saw it as a check from God that either the timing wasn’t good or that one of ussimply was not hearing God. We would then step back from the decision and spend time evaluating our hearts and desires before the Lord. If we still disagreed, then we put the decision on hold. People ask us, “But what if it’s time sensitive and you have to make a decision?” We would respond that if it is time sensitive and of the Lord, he will give you agreement. If you don’t have agreement, then it’s not of the Lord (at least at that moment). We believe the pressures of deadlines often drive people, whereas the Lord leads people—and there is a big difference. The concern here is that if a couple disagrees and one of them forces the decision, even if it works out okay, it causes damage to the relationship.

2. Caring for the House Together

The second area influenced was how we worked on household chores. Although there was not a major shift for us in what we were doing, the attitude shift was significant for me. I remember attending men’s retreats and hearing about loving your wife sacrificially, to the point of being willing to die for her (Eph. 5:25). Yet there was “women’s work and men’s work,” which translated to saying, “I will die for you, but don’t ask me to clean the toilet.” For us, we each gravitated to some chores more than others. But we did not distinguish between “women’s chores and men’s.” Chores were chores and needed to be done. I must confess to taking pride in cleaning the bathrooms for several years until the kids got to take over for me. Not quite the humble attitude of Jesus there!

3. Creating Boundaries Together

The third area that began to change for us was more subtle and is still a work in progress: setting and respecting boundaries in our marriage. Because we are truly equals, we need to hear and respect the other’s desires and wishes. We need to grant them the dignity to say yes or no of their own accord, just as the Lord has granted that to us. I grew up in a family without boundaries, while Sue’s family did better in this regard. The most obvious arena where we struggled was budgeting finances, a tremendous source of tension that became a wonderful place of growth. We came to the place of having weekly “budget summits” that over time facilitated all kinds of significant conversations. A couple of other important areas for boundaries is sex and child-rearing. Money, sex, and child-rearing all require learning to hear and respect each other’s boundaries in an egalitarian marriage.

We had been living this way up to the morning when she dictated her last words to me, although they weren’t.

More Changes Ahead

In 2006 I began to notice some changes in Sue, particularly in her physical movements. Although she had just begun her fifties, she moved as if she were in her eighties: slow, stiff,  and with some tremors. Friends asked me whether she had experienced a stroke because her normally animated face was no longer expressive. Sue dismissed these concerns until finally in December 2007 we went to a neurologist who diagnosed her with Parkinson’s disease. It wasn’t a terminal diagnosis, but it did bring a new level of turmoil into our lives as we tried to understand what this would mean for us.

Twice in the first year I performed the Heimlich maneuver on her because she was choking, unable to swallow her food (she argues I only needed to do so once; I think she has forgiven me for the second time!). She began taking medications that helped to manage her symptoms, adjusting her diet and exercise as well. She did well for about ten years. When she underwent Deep Brain Stimulation surgery it gave us hope that she would continue doing well for years to come, and she did do well for three years. But in January of 2019 she found herself on a slippery slope of mental health problems. Being partners meant I was on that slope with her.

Sleep problems, anxiety, hallucinations, and delusions became our battleground. Over the next several months the doctors tried to figure out what was going on. But each time it seemed we had a breakthrough, she actually grew worse. Finally she began thinking that her life was nearing its end and expressing her concern that I be able to move on with my life after her passing.                

When she called me in to record her last words, she thought she would die that day. She wanted it to be as easy as possible for me, so she had decided she would call 9-1-1 and get a ride to the hospital where she would die instead of at home. Except it ended up that she underwent a psychological evaluation instead and spent two nights in the psychiatric ward. A terrible experience for both of us, albeit for different reasons.      

It had become apparent that I could no longer care for Sue in our home and she moved into an adult family home. It was a painful decision. I told our children that I had made a promise to be there for their mother for life, and now “being there” meant stepping aside. Someone else needed to be there for her. It tore me up. 

Equal Partners in New Circumstances

It has been over a year since Sue moved into the adult family home, and she is much improved. We visit frequently and are continuing to figure out what it means to be partners in these circumstances, ones which we never envisioned for ourselves. For me, it has meant endeavoring to listen well and to support her as much as possible, reassuring her that I am still her partner.

In reflection, over the years of coming home to living as equal partners in our marriage, I have learned that though this position necessarily challenges structures and forms, it ultimately changes the heart. It has challenged my sense of identity and security. It has challenged my motivations. It has challenged my selfishness. It has challenged me to see people like Jesus sees them.          

The verse we chose for our wedding day was from John 15, “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down their life for their friends.” At the time it was an aspirational choice to have that verse spoken over our wedding, and yet it has been woven throughout our marriage in ways I never imagined. She remains my equal regardless of her issues, and I remain her equal regardless of mine. Friends are equals, and to lay down my life for my wife I also need to see her as my friend, as my equal, including in our circumstances today.