A Christian woman on making peace with the Bible's command that "the wife shall respect her husband"
10:20 pm. I emerged from the garage entrance to the house, setting down my computer bag and purse, and walked into the kitchen. Six hours earlier, the crock pot worked preparing a meal for the family while I left to teach my business communications training class downtown. Now it sat in the sink, filled with soapy water, soaking. Dirty dinner dishes lay on the counter. The pan with the cornbread sat uncovered on top of the stove. I heard snoring. I gazed across to the living room, where my husband lay on the couch, television playing in the background. Tears of exhaustion, anger, and hurt welled in my eyes.
I took off my jacket, rolled up my sleeves and went to work cleaning up. With each dish, I grew more resentful. "How could he not see these?" I stewed. "I work all day, I prepare a home-made dinner for him and the kids before I go teach a class, and he can't even make sure the mess gets cleaned up," I fumed. The slamming of the dishwasher roused the sleeping husband. "I was going to get those before I went to bed," he mumbled, sensing my irritation. "Well, you already went to bed, didn't you?" I responded, wondering how long he'd been blessed with sleep, when both of us had been up since 5:00 am. "Here, let me help," he offered. "I'm nearly done now. I don't want your help," I lied. His brow furrowed. "Fine. Suit yourself. I'm going upstairs," he said.
I had no idea he really did plan on doing the dishes, but accidentally fell asleep on the couch because he, too, was exhausted. I didn't know that he had lovingly spent time with each of our kids, reading them stories before tucking them in and praying with them before bed. He went to bed that night feeling disrespected. I went to bed feeling unloved. Small interactions like this occurred often enough to create a growing chasm between us. These little conflicts went unresolved or were dealt with in unhealthy ways and resulted in a barren relationship on the road to destruction.
I grew up as a product of second-wave feminism, having learned from the media that men were oppressive, foolish, and incompetent. Perhaps as a result, I spent nearly the first decade of my own marriage "fighting for my rights" with my husband. I criticized him and bossed him around. It wasn't that he was such a bad guy, but rather I was trained to spot potential oppression and domination by the male gender. I took personally his lack of attention to detail around the home or with the baby. I made a practice of letting him know his failings on a regular basis, expecting his behavior to change.
My methods made him feel defensive, and damaged our relationship. I soon found myself in a marriage with a man who stopped sharing his thoughts and feelings with me.
Being a practicing Christian, I eventually ran across a Bible verse that at first angered me: Ephesians 5:33, "and the wife shall respect her husband." Another verse suggested I "submit" to my husband, and I had the same reaction. I couldn't believe God expected me to pay homage to a man who was, in my eyes, uninterested in working on our relationship.
A decade later, I can say that those two concepts--"respect" and "submission"--saved my marriage. And it wasn't because I became a doormat or no longer communicated my feelings. I learned that Biblical submission, boiled down, is basically "don't be a contentious competitor to him." After learning that, I argued with him less. I stopped rolling my eyes with disgust when he had something to say - even if I thought it was not such a great idea at the time. I started practicing the Bible verse which reads, "Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and even slower to become angry."
I started asking him questions about his life. I started being interested in him again as a person. I decided he was more important to me than whether or not a dish made it into the dishwasher or his socks were left on the floor. There were even a few things he did that could be considered big mistakes that just didn't seem to matter as much when I viewed him as a person of worth. I could forgive him - and I saw my own flawed nature clearly.
And I decided I was doing all of these things for God, not for my husband's response. It took my husband a few years to notice the changes in my behavior, but by then, it didn't matter. I had grown my relationship with God in the meantime, and I no longer had as great a need for my husband's affections. God filled the hole in my heart that I'd been trying to stuff my husband into for years.
And soon, my husband's behavior began to change as well. He started taking me out more often. He started doing more odd jobs around the house. He even hijacked one of my classes one night, and in one of the most romantic gestures I've ever heard of, gave a ten minute presentation to a group of nearly a hundred people about what a great friend and wife I was. He presented me with a beautiful bracelet filled with charms, and talked about what each one represented. There wasn't a dry eye in the place.
At the risk of sounding anachronistic, subservient, and a traitor to my gender, I actually suggest to wives that they respect their husbands to improve their marriages. Our non-profit, Greater Impact Ministries, teaches a course to married women and I've written a book, The Respect Dare, that teaches women how to connect with God and their husbands on a deeper level, by learning to communicate respect. Many of the suggestions are fairly simple. We suggest women not criticize their husbands, but rather show appreciation on a daily basis, and pay attention to the things he does well. We teach them how to disagree without being competitive or arousing defensiveness. We encourage them to engage in life balance to reduce their own levels of stress, which in turn impacts all of their relationships. We encourage them to invest in themselves and friendships, also. We encourage them to be bold, brave, and find God's purposes for their lives - and pursue them. In doing these things, they find all of their relationships improving--not just their relationships with their husbands.
Many of them, like me, now have marriages where they and their husbands both seek each other's advice, make decisions together, and are happier. Neither is perfect, but marriage is better because of the continued effort on both parts.
I chose to give respect a chance because I am a Christian and try (emphasis on try) to follow the Bible's teachings on how to live. But even if I did not trust the Bible as much as I do, learning how to effectively communicate respect and love deeply impacts marriages.
We see these Biblical principles show up in marital success, as a recent (2005) study funded by a grant from the US Department of Justice demonstrates. The research shows "a substantially higher degree of marital success for respondents who are very religious than for even the fairly religious ones. It has long been known that highly religious persons are less likely to divorce than other persons... Belief in such an effect is buttressed by the fact that the values espoused by most religions should promote good marriages and good family relations in general."
Regardless of religion, however, to improve marriage, my belief is that a husband should avoid defensiveness and work on showing his wife love and respect to his wife. A wife should learn how to speak the language of respect to be perceived as a team player instead of a threat. I encourage all women to be the change they are looking for in their marriages. If we do, we can turn our marriages around, creating a place where our husbands are delighted to give us what we want or need to feel loved.