Should Wives Submit To Their Husbands?

Posted at 20:30pm on 16th February 2010

Dear Mel,

I’m a bit nervous about writing to you in case my partner finds out. We’re not exactly religious but he expects me to be exactly like that Vicar described – submitting to him in every way. When we’re out with friends he likes to take over and it’s true he’s very entertaining. People like him because he makes them laugh. But when we get home he gets really annoyed with me if someone has talked to me separately during the evening, or if he thinks I haven’t listened attentively to everything he’s said. It’s no good arguing with him, but if I say nothing he accuses me of sulking.

I suppose I’m naturally a bit quiet, but when I was at college I really enjoyed discussing things with a group of friends. Now I never get the chance. He doesn’t like me to go out on my own – says he worries about me. And if I do say anything when we’re out together he sort of puts me down but in a way you wouldn’t see as a put down as an outsider.

I do love him and I want to please him but I’m feeling stifled. We’ve been together for five years now. Sometimes I think things might be better if we started a family. Then I think that might make it even worse. I just can’t think of a solution. Hope you can help.

Babs (not my real name)

Mel's Comment:

Dear Babs,

People who write to agony aunts and life coaches are often afraid of being found out, so you are not alone in your fear.

WOMEN’S RELATIONSHIPS WITH EACH OTHER: MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL

Women have always needed the company of other women so that they can share stories of their day to day lives, support each other in practical and emotional terms, and benefit from one another’s experiences. In some parts of the world this probably still occurs when collecting water from the well or washing the family clothes at the river side.

In the days when I married, most women had a family pretty quickly, and few went out to work. The doctor’s surgery, where we attended a weekly clinic to have our babies weighed, provided us with an opportunity to meet other young mothers, and to network together to support one another. We’d meet for coffee in one another’s homes, and indulge in a mild and (usually) affectionate moan about our husbands, and generally set the world to rights. Letting off emotional steam in this way equipped us to cope with things at home which might, otherwise, have caused tension in our marriage. I suppose that we did submit to our husbands to some extent, in the big decisions, but there was nothing like you describe.

A CONTROLLING RELATIONSHIP

You are in a relationship which, from what you’ve said, doesn’t appear to be giving you much in the way of happiness or satisfaction. You say that your partner expects you to be the submissive woman and flies into a temper if you’re not. This is a model that many men appear to think they would like - but with which, in fact, they often quickly become bored!

Your partner sounds quite controlling to me. However, without meeting him, it’s hard to tell whether this play for power is because he has a low opinion of women, or whether it is because of his own insecurity which he tries to boost by an illusion of power. Take a look at my series on the Drama Triangle and Conflict Resolution, and you may be surprised at what you find.

VICAR TELLS WOMEN TO SUBMIT TO HUSBANDS

The Vicar you refer to is the Reverend Angus MacLeay, Rector of St Nicholas Church in Sevenoaks, Kent. He is reported as having preached on the merit of submission and silence to married women and, in doing so, has caused outrage among his congregation in particular, and women in general. Knowing that the maxim ‘never let the truth stand in the way of a good story’ may be applied, I wonder if this is a true representation of Revd. McLeay’s intentions?

I’m no theologian, but my own view is that this is only one side (and in my opinion the weaker side) of the debate. The Bible verses quoted (from Ephesians 5:22-24) do tell women to “submit to your husbands” because their husbands are head of the marriage as Christ is head of the church. What the Revd. MacLeay appears to have failed to mention is that:

  • The Ephesian verses continue: “Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her.”
  • The question then is: How, precisely, did Christ love the church and give himself up for her?
  • In John 13:5-17 it says that Christ, in an act of abject submission, washed the feet of his disciples.
  • He did so as an example of what it is to be a servant, which he urged his followers to emulate.
  • Elsewhere he said: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” Matthew 23: 11-12
  • And in Philippians 2:6-11, we read that Christ “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant . . . humbled himself and became obedient to death.”

It seems pretty obvious to me, therefore, that these verses show Christ’s side of the relationship to be far harder and more sacrificial than ours. It follows, therefore, that in any relationship, more is asked of men than of women. But the fact is that we are to be mutually submissive.

MUTUAL SUBMISSION

I remember, many years ago, hearing the wife of Roy Castle speak about what this means in practice. Roy, a multi-talented entertainer, who was awarded an OBE, enjoyed a highly successful career. A much loved TV star, he had his own show on the BBC for many years, but also appeared in numerous comedy films and shows. His wife, Fiona, was a dancer – an equally talented performer. However, in order that Roy might advance his career, she sacrificed hers. But the point is that she chose to do so! It was not forced upon her by her husband; nor by any misinterpretation of Bible verses.

Following her example, when my husband’s business was badly hit by the recession of the eighties/nineties, I willingly gave up writing at a point when my career was at its zenith. I took on an administrative job (not my forte) to tide us over until he had weathered the economic storm. Ten years later, with his business stable once more, he sold it and, for some years now, has job shared with me, working from home as Copyright Manager for a London-based music publishing company.

He discovered that he enjoys cooking, and is delighted to have released me from the task so that I might resume my career in writing and speaking. There’s no ‘tit-for’tat’ in this arrangement, but we both know that because of our mutual submission, our love and respect for one another has grown.

ENRICH YOUR RELATIONSHIP

None of this helps you, Babs. But I would urge you try to help your partner to see how enriching a mutually supportive relationship would be to both you and him. From what you’ve told me about your college days and your job (which you’ve asked me not to reveal in case it identifies you) you are clearly an intelligent woman. What your partner is doing is demeaning you. And I’m afraid that wanting to please him but feeling stifled will, ultimately, leave you feeling used and belittled, if not embittered.

You ask for a solution, and I’m going to suggest that you need to begin with you before you can think of making suggestions to your partner. Take a look at some of the articles I’ve written on relationships and personal growth: people pleasers; assertiveness training; and whether partners have different expectations of one another. Then make up your mind to do something – anything – that will give you some Me time, with friends of your choosing. It may be playing skittles once a week, or forming a team for the local pub quiz, or joining the rambling club.

Once you’ve decided what it is you want to do, tell your partner, in a matter-of-fact way, that you feel it would be beneficial to your relationship if each of you had some individual pursuits. Don’t plead. Don’t threaten. Simply tell him what you will be doing. Help him, if necessary, to think about what he would like to do. Tell him that this is going to enrich your relationship.

When you’ve re-established your own identity – instead of living entirely through your partner – take a look at your relationship together. There are many marriage courses around the country – suitable for the married or cohabiting - which are not designed to help ailing relationships, but aim to help a couple to maximise the benefits of their partnership. There is, therefore, no stigma attached, and your partner shouldn’t find this threatening. You obviously have access to a computer – see what courses are available near you and try to encourage him to go with you. Failing that, there are books on the subject.

FAMILIES THRIVE ONLY WITH STRONG PARENTING RELATIONSHIPS

I certainly wouldn’t advocate starting a family simply to provide you with company. Looking after a child is no substitute for having a good relationship with your partner. Neither is it a good reason for bringing a child into the world. Besides which, as this transcript of an interview on the subject shows, the most successful parenting requires an equal partnership. In the Psychology book "Families And How To Survive them" by Robin Skynner and John Cleese it says: "In the healthiest families, the power is shared by agreement.”

This is what you should be aiming for in your own relationship, before it will be sufficiently stable for you to begin a family. Don’t aim for equality, but for mutual submission. If your partner is unable, or unwilling, to achieve this level of commitment, then the only solution left for you may be to call it a day.

All the best, Mel

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