Are the men who “wear the pants in the family” really just wearing the emperor’s new clothes?
I was seven years old the first time that a man confessed to me that he was not being a good spiritual leader in his marriage. His wife was “getting out of hand” in church, and it was his job to bring her to heel.
I was stunned to hear that he was the one being blamed. Of the two, he was undoubtedly the better person. He was my godfather. He was kind, and most importantly, he was the only adult in my life that didn’t hit me. By contrast, his wife was a stern and proud person who often slapped me, and who mocked him in front of others.
My seven year old mind could not figure out how he was going to take leadership over her. Short of hitting her, how was he going to get her to submit?
I was never able to answer that question. How does a husband get his wife to submit without demeaning or harming her? It was such a puzzler that, years later, it was the question that propelled me along two-years of research and exploration.
I started by reading dozens of books from the Evangelical media industry directing men on how to be good husbands and leaders. I read everything from the old classics by James Dobson to the books for men from the “Fire Proof” series launched by a Kirk Cameron movie. I read the work of men who seemed to have a general contempt for women, and the writings of those who seemed to have put women on an impossibly high pedestal. I read those who thought that women’s submission should be so complete that she should have every part of her daily schedule approved by her husband to those who thought that the submission was simply symbolic, more an attitude of respect, and everything in between.
There was no shortage of material. As a trip to a Christian bookstore or an Amazon search makes very clear, there is an entire media industry dedicated to selling the Christian Right’s model of family. While the majority of the media is created for women, a significant portion of it is dedicated to helping men become good leaders of their families. This is supported by a growing number of men’s groups which use these materials to teach husbands how to lead their wives and families.
My expectation when I began the reading was that I would find countless pieces of advice for what to do when you wife refuses to submit, or to even pay lip service to him as her leader. Shockingly, not a single book had even one word to say on the subject. I was stunned.
I went back through the books and began reading for advice that was perhaps put in coded language. What I discovered was that there was a catch-all category in which failure to submit was included: problems in the marriage. And the responsibility for solving problems in a marriage was, without fail, the man’s responsibility.
The message that the men were receiving was startlingly different from the one being taught to women about their obligation to submit. While the women were being told that submission with a sweet attitude was the only way to be in fellowship with God, the men were being told that their happiness was of no concern, only their wives’ welfare.
What I found especially concerning is that these men were being told that their ability to make their wives happy and willing to follow them was the key indicator of their worth as a person. One quote that came up over and over was that “you can tell a man’s character by his wife’s countenance.” Husbands aren’t just responsible for making their wives happy, but for making sure that they look happy as well.
Some of the things that men were told to do I found quite shocking. I am a liberal feminist, and even on my bitchiest day I would never expect a man to abandon all sense of self and become wholly dedicated to anticipating and filling a woman’s needs, which was what these books suggested. And the criticism of men and their nature was beyond anything I have read on Jezebel. According to these books, men were unfeeling horndogs who should be thankful that their wives civilize them. They should seek the help of other men to keep them from humping everything up to and possibly including the family dog.
There were a few manipulative ideas suggested. Most were positive manipulations like doing extra household work or learning her deepest fears and then helping her overcome them. Others were straight up guilt trips, like planting yourself somewhere where your wife cannot help but see and then pray emotionally and for long periods. I imagine it would be hard for me to stay unsubmissive if my husband were pleading with God about me on his knees for an hour every night. In extreme situations, men were sometimes advised to bring church leaders in to counsel the couple, in other words to remind the wife of her obligation to submit.
But all of the recommendations reeked of impotence. Men were literally powerless unless their wives were willing to give them power, and that required either positive or negative manipulation.
As I waded through books, trying to find those most influential, I talked to men who were using them, mostly in the setting of men’s’ groups. What I heard was a well-spring of feelings of inadequacy and guilt. I expected them to be like the Evangelical men that I had grown up around, disdainful and oppressive of women and accomplished in ordering around their wives. Instead, I found that these men believed that they had to earn their wives’ submission by being extraordinary husbands.
Instead of demanding submission, they believed that if they were good enough husbands, their wives would want to submit to them. I was amazed by the extraordinary emotional back-flips that these men were doing to suppress their own feelings in order to produce feelings in their wives that would make them likely to submit. Men spoke to me of their daily struggle to control their thoughts and their emotions in ways that would make them worthy to be leaders.
Their only real intimacy was with other men, usually in small accountability groups where the men confessed their real feelings: those moments when they slipped up and become a real people with real desires, emotions, and hopes. They received acknowledgment from their brothers in the group that theirs was a difficult struggle. Of course , this reminded them of their basically barbaric nature, but it also offered the hope that they could finally get it right. Despite their hope, or perhaps because of a non-productive form of humility, no man I spoke with felt that he was living up to expectations for a good husband. More tellingly, they could not point to a single man who they knew who was meeting those expectations.
I ended my exploration by looking at divorced men who had been in marriages where they were the leader. I wanted to know if they blamed the failure of their marriages on their wives for not submitting.
With a few, it was quite obvious why they were once again single. One guy memorably said that he found it fundamentally unjust that he had bought the cow, but now needed to bring her flowers every time that he wanted a little milk.
Guys like the milk-man were a rarity. Most men told me that they were the cause of their marriage’s failure. Actually, since they had been told that their ability to be a good husband was the key indicator of their worth as a person, they told me that they were failures.
The saddest thing for me is that these marriages do not work any better than marriages where parties are equal. In fact, even proponents of marriages of inequality admit that these marriages are more likely to fail or to become abusive unless the husband has the constant monitoring of a religious group to remind him of his duty.
I began my fact-finding mission with the firm belief, based on personal experience and my ethical beliefs, that being in a relationship of submission is harmful to women. And nothing about my research changed my mind on that. It infantilizes them, makes them vulnerable to abuse and denies them the opportunity to find true intimacy.
But what I discovered that was absolutely shocking was that these relationships are not good for men either. They leave them in charge of someone rather than in partnership with her. They put them in the position of constantly campaigning because every day their wife has to elect them leader again. They deprive them of intimacy. Their obligations to care for their wives make them vulnerable to abuse in the workplace, and their ideas about authority make them vulnerable to abuse in their relationships with their wives and the men in the accountability groups.
This article is the first in a series by Lynn Beisner about the effects of “complementarian” marriages, those marriages with a religiously motivated power inequality. Future installments will explore the effects of this model of marriage on women and the social and historical roots of this model.
Image: El Bibliomata/Flickr