Why I Submit to My Husband (And He Submits to Me)

This post is by Danielle L. Vermeer. I don’t know how she got to know all the stuff she knows, as young as she is. But if you don’t already follow her blog, from two to one, check it out. She is fearless and articulate. (And she is good at research, which you know can be rare in the blog world.) Here’s what she has to say about the “S” word.

My husband and I practice mutual submission in our marriage.

I am not about to dive into the complex, ongoing theological debate surrounding such hotly-contested hermeneutical gymnastics about what “head” means (source? provider? protector? boss?) or even about whether Ephesians 5:21 is a segue for a related, but highly differentiated set of guidelines for husbands and wives, or whether it’s establishing a context for the mysterious verses that follow. My husband and I have looked deeply into the two camps — popularly delineated as complementarianism and egalitarianism — during our dating relationship, engagement, and continually throughout our two-years-and-counting marriage.

In raw honesty, we do not feel comfortable in either camp.  It’s a similar feeling as being the most conservative people in liberal circles and the most liberal in conservative circles. And it’s simply a lose-lose situation when discussing it as strict either/or.  It typically goes something like this: Either you are a good feminist and don’t submit to your husband or you are a bad Christian wife and disrespect your beloved.  Either you are a good Christian and submit dutifully to your spouse or you are a bad feminist for even uttering the dirty s-word.  

So let me just say it.

I submit to my husband.  My husband submits to me.  We mutually submit to one another.  For those who will pray for our souls given our “radical feminist interpretation” of these difficult verses to swallow, so be it.  We do not see this as a salvation issue, and we do consider this to be an incredibly complicated, personal matter for husbands and wives to respectfully decide together.  And yet, we find comfort in knowing that Paul even realizes that this is a profound mystery.

“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32 NIV)

Sometimes I submit first.  Sometimes my husband submits first.  But the goal is not to keep tabs or follow some preset decision-making protocol such as the husband being the tie-breaker and Final Decision Maker, but to love one another and grow more into the woman and man God calls us to be.  At this juncture, I usually hear people respond with something like, “Then why did Paul give separate instructions to wives and husbands?  It only says for the wives to submit to their husbands.” Yes, and it admonishes husbands to “love their wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…and to love their wives as their own bodies.” (Ephesians 5:25, 28 NIV).  For Paul to instruct wives to submit to their husbands in the first century AD was not a revolutionary idea; women had no legal, social, or political status.  But telling husbands that they were to basically die to self, sacrifice themselves for the good of their wives, and not treat them as property (which women have been considered for almost all of history)?  Now that is rocking the boat.

We feel like we are traveling on uncharted territory as we journey from two to one. During the first few months of marriage, we experienced quite a few growing pains in our adjustment to living together for the first time, let alone living in the same city for more than a month at a time since we were long-distance most of our relationship..  As husband and wife, we also got to experience a lot of newness, from the day-to-day to the sacred to the sexy.  We struggled to understand how to be married.  For those who aspire and adhere to traditional gender roles, the “stuff” of marriage – the decision-making, domestic division of labor, work priorities, and hobbies – is seemingly easier to manage because there is a set path laid out before you.  But as we’ve demonstrated previously, we both, as our parents frequently say, “think too much.”  We seek to test everything and understand a why for each what.

The result of this “thinking too much” is that we reject patriarchy and its seemingly all-encompassing hold on faith, justice, women, and marriage—precisely the topics I write about on my blog.  As someone who grew up in the Catholic Church and still holds steadfast to the faith despite some of its outrageous bureaucratic shenanigans, it literally took years for me to realize that I am a product of patriarchy and its subsequent structures and norms.  Every day, I am uncovering new patriarchal bargains, or as blogger extraordinaire Michelle at Balancing Jane explains, “Trying to untangle the mess of recognizing the patriarchal system while still being a part of it—a balance that I think we all have to do at some point (if we ever even get to the point of recognition to begin with), and a balance I empathize with as I’m going through it myself in some ways.”

And as someone with quite a lot of privilege in our country (even if not as privileged as my husband), I am responsible for how I balance my feminism and faith in a world that is often times quite hostile to both. In fact,as part of our faith and our feminism, my husband and I are committed to understanding (note: not ignoring or denying or feeling guilty about) our privilege in order to better understand how we can be the change we want to see in the world.

Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women. (Ashley Judd’s awesome smackdown via The Daily Beast)

Yet we conform to traditional gender norms in many ways.  The other day, I screeched and squirmed as I batted the window and pleaded with M to get the moth out of our car.  “Babe, you scared me!  I thought something was seriously wrong!”  Something was seriously wrong.  I needed that bug out of my space and I needed it out now.  My husband was the guy to do the job.  Not necessarily because he was the only man around, but because I’ve seen him catch a fly with his bare fingers to the dismay and utter shock of my family —even my adult brothers.  A while ago, I wrote a guest post at ForbesWoman about how I wanted to learn how to sew and how Pinterest and mommy blogs are influencing twenty- and thirty-something women in rebirthing domestic arts and duties.  And daily, I even wear dresses or skirts (especially vintage) because I like the feminine feel and basically because I am more comfortable in them over pants.

But we analyze why we inhabit these roles given our feminist values.  We acknowledge and value the differences between men and women.  We accept that there are certain things that we both have been socialized toward based on our gender that we genuinely enjoy.  Yet, that doesn’t mean that we need to wholeheartedly reformulate our marriage based on these norms.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t challenge patriarchal notions of power and authority.  That doesn’t mean we can’t account for personality and practicality when deciding how to live our lives as husband and wife.

Too often in our culture, women and girls are pressured to submit to men, as a category. This is the reason so many women, even feminist women, are consumed with what men, in general, think of them. This is the reason a woman’s value in our society, too often, is defined in terms of sexual attractiveness and availability. Is it any wonder that so many of our girls and women are destroyed by a predatory patriarchy that demeans the dignity and glory of what it means to be a woman?

(Dr. Russel Moore, author and Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice-President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary via his blog.

I submit to my husband and he submits to me.  We do a delicate dance as we take small steps in unison, sometimes M taking the lead, sometimes me gently guiding, but we do so as a team, as lovers, and as devoted followers of Christ, who is the only true Leader in this relationship.

Danielle is a social impact consultant by day and blogger on the intersections of marriage, faith and feminism by night. She and her husband are on a journey of two becoming one and live in the Chicago suburbs with their adorable baby-dog. Connect with her at www.fromtwotoone.com or on Twitter, where she is just now transitioning to the handle @DLVermeer from her old one, @fromtwotoone.

 

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  • Rachel Heston-Davis

    Excellent post to kick off the series, Esther! I only have one question: I’m confused when you say that you don’t feel comfortable in either camp, complementarian or egalitarian….I’m confused because the attitudes and actions you’ve described in your marriage sound like egalitarianism to me. Everything that you’ve written sounds like the definition of what I thought egalitarianism was, and I”m struggling to see where you see the divide between yourself and that camp (is it just because you can’t say that you’ve fully settled your mind on what “head” means, or can’t answer exactly why those Ephesian verses seem to be separate instructions? These are things I struggle with as well, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that these questions exclude me from egalitarianism). Just wondering! :)

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. While my husband and I both are firmly feminist and egalitarian in our marriage, oftentimes these terms ensconce what the daily reality of our lives looks like. Just as our political ideologies can’t be nailed down to either “Democrat” or “Republican,” the way we love, submit to, and make decisions with one another is more complicated and evolving than just “egalitarian” or “complementarian.” Sometimes my husband leads, while sometimes I lead. Sometimes he submits first, whereas sometimes I do. We are egalitarian because we are firmly against hierarchy of any kind in marriage, but also affirm our differences, preferences, strengths, and weaknesses in our marriage.

  • Rachel Heston-Davis

    Oops, my bad, I meant to direct my comment at Danielle, the guest poster!

  • http://www.estheremery.com/ Esther Emery

    Danielle, I got this question via email, which I think is meant for you. “Saw your post today via RHE. I thought it was well-written and articulate. J Was wondering if you had a practice when you and your husband disagree?”

    • http://www.fromtwotoone.com/ Danielle | from two to one

      Good question! My husband and I are both are analytical, critical thinkers with strong personalities (he’s an INFJ, I’m an INTJ). When we disagree on something, which periodically happens, we ask two things: 1) Is this issue really all that important?, and 2) Who does this matter more to? Usually that whittles down the issue — not to one “side” — but to a consensus about what’s important (or not) and whether one person is more invested in that issue. On the other hand, if we can’t come to a consensus, then we pray, pray, pray about it and seek counsel and keep very open lines of communication. We don’t make any big decisions without each other’s full support, even if at times it comes with a leap of faith. In other words, there is no such thing as a “tie breaker” in our marriage. It’s not about winning. It’s about teamwork.

  • Deidre

    Good post! However, the quote at the end makes me uncomfortable. It smacks a little of blaming the victim. If I want to continue to serve in my church, it is really important what the men in “power” think of me. With no women on the elder board or in positions of spiritual authority (except children’s ministry). The male opinion on my spiritual maturity does essentially matter.

  • http://www.tanyamarlow.com/ Tanya Marlow

    Danielle – I love your intelligent analysis, as ever. I often feel conflicted because whereas the stuff on women in ministry puts me clearly in the egalitarian camp, the homogeneity of commands in Paul and Peter for wives to submit, husbands to love, gives me pause that maybe there are different ‘roles’, or maybe just that the writers and society recognised that the women needed to be told to submit and the men to love sacrificially. I am also always torn in interpreting ‘submit to one another’ in Eph 5:21 as being a control for the whole passage following it, or whether it is then defining what submission looks like by telling women and slaves to submit and children to obey.

    In any case, our marriage looks like yours! We submit to one another. When we disagree, we sit down and we chat and we work it out, and we compromise and we collaborate, until we agree. If there’s a really big issue that we can’t agree on, then – we sit down and chat etc until we agree. Jon is a strong leader – and so am I. We like pushing each other to be better people, and we like holding eachother when we fail. And you know what? I like our marriage. :-)

    Sometimes I think that healthy egalitarian marriages look just like healthy complementarian marriages – we love one another and sacrifice for one another, and submit to one another.

  • http://www.emergingmummy.com/ Sarah Bessey

    Love this, Danielle. So good. Esther, thank you for this entire series. I’ve loved every post so far.

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  • pastordt

    Absolutely beautiful, Danielle. And spot on, at every juncture. Thank you.

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