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Gender Roles In Marriage Essay Sample

Most married couples develop a shared understanding of who does what in their relationship. It is a sometimes unspoken recognition of an inevitable division of labor and responsibilities. The current, commonly agreed, “politically correct” plan for marriage is an equal sharing of chores and other duties; but this plan is not followed now any more than it has been throughout history. In fact, in much of the animal kingdom there is a division of labor which grows inescapably out of different biological imperatives—although here and there in the animal kingdom there are surprising instances of role reversal. Sometimes the male is charged with taking care of the eggs, for instance.

Although there is a division of labor in human affairs between the sexes, there are changing social expectations, which are reflected in somewhat different gender roles at different times. When I grew up, fathers were employed out of the home, and mothers tended to the household. That meant not only housekeeping but taking primary responsibility for child upbringing. Now things are different. Most mothers work. Household responsibilities must be shared. But they are not shared equally. My reading of current expectations in marriage is that men still fix things and take care of the automobiles. Women still have primary responsibility for the proper maintenance of the home and the welfare of the children. If both parents work, for instance, it is more often the mother who takes off time to bring a sick child to the doctor—unless the father’s schedule is much more flexible. Most women—although not all—do the cooking and cleaning. Most men—but not all—do the repairs. Men are likely to assemble the furniture, women are likely to find themselves with the task of cleaning it.

 I know that some people, particularly women, are likely to object to these seemingly glib caricatures of the various roles women and men play in marriage –and I am not saying that I think this state of affairs is necessarily the way things should be-- but I think these generalizations are still a description of how things actually are. With exceptions, of course. None of these general rules applies to every marriage. The following observations are mine alone and may reflect idiosyncrasies of where I live and work. Currently, it seems to me:

The generalizations I made above are more or less true: men take care of mechanical devices: cars, hi-fi systems, appliances and so on. Women tend to be in charge of decorating the house and making other purchases for the home: choosing drapes and carpets, and, of course, making sure they are clean and cared for properly.

Where a couple lives is still more likely to depend on where the husband works, rather than where the woman works. The man is likely to be better paid.

If someone tosses a ball around with the kids, it is likely to be their father. If the kids need to be driven to activities, it is usually the mother who does the driving. She is also likely to be the one buying clothes for them.

Social arrangements, such as dinner with friends, are likely to be managed by the wife. Wives are more likely to initiate discussions about planned vacations.

All sorts of little tasks fall to one or another of a couple almost by chance and habit. The husband might take out the garbage, do the barbecue and carry packages into the house. The wife might dress the children, make arrangements with the handyman, and call family members.

However, there are other tasks which seem to be up for grabs.

Financial matters:  Not long ago, it seemed that husbands were more likely to be in charge of the family finances.  Now, I think that either spouse may end up managing the bank account, paying the mortgage and, in general, dealing with a budget—although, often enough, no one is dealing with the budget. It is common now for husbands and wives to have separate checking accounts. Somewhat less common is the practice of some couples of keeping their funds separate. This is especially true if couples are living together, but not yet married.

I am somewhat uncomfortable hearing about such an arrangement. Often I learn about it only when an accusation has been made that someone violated the terms of the agreement. e.g., “I paid the phone bill last month when it was your turn, and I also paid for the hotel rooms, so you should pay a little more of the food bill this month and the dog food.” Some of these financial arrangements are very detailed, and it is easy to feel taken advantage of or cheated. The money belongs to both of them in a way, but not in another way. I think there is implicit in such a financial understanding the recognition that there is no real commitment to each other. At least not at that point in time.

It is usually the case that one spouse says “we need this,” about a particular expenditure, and the other says, “we can’t afford this.”  Over and over again throughout a marriage, each spouse is likely to take the same position. The person who thinks something—a vacation, a new bathroom—is necessary always thinks what is being considered is necessary, and the other always thinks it is unaffordable. These roles are not gender specific.

Religious matters:   It used to be in some places that women took the religion of their future husbands. There are still places in the world where there are rigid rules about these matters. Some religions will not honor a marriage if it takes place outside the church. Nowadays, in this county, the man’s wishes are not determinative. Usually, when there are children, the parent who feels most strongly about religion will get the spouse’s consent to bring up the child in that person’s religion. More commonly, the children are raised—not very seriously—in both religions or in no religion. It is unusual to find two parents who are prepared to marry who feel equally strongly about their particular religion. In fact, over the years I have encountered fewer people who feel strongly about religion in general. In taking a history, I always ask about religion. More people are not affiliated. Some people say, “I am spiritual,” which means that they are not religious.

Child rearing practices.  No one parent, by virtue of being the mother or the father, has the last word in determining child rearing practices. It can be either; but, usually, one person feels more strongly than the other about discipline and other matters, and that person’s opinion is likely to hold sway. Sometimes parents do not come to an understanding about such issues, and ugly confrontations ensue, upsetting the children.  Parents who have different attitudes about education are particularly likely to disagree about how much studying a child should do. Children can learn to exploit these differences and become manipulative, which is not in their long-range interest.

Sex   There used to be relatively clear-cut attitudes about sex. The man’s wishes were what counted. No one believes that anymore; but there is still an expectation in our culture, that the husband should take the lead in initiating sex. But not all the time.  Husbands and wives are not likely to start off automatically in agreement about exactly how much sex they would prefer to have. It is not reasonable to expect that two people will want exactly the same amount of anything, whether it is the number of children they should have, or the number of times they should go on vacations, or the number of times they are required to visit in-laws. These differences can be readily compromised if there is good-will; and the same is true for sexual matters. However, it is true, nevertheless, that often one of a couple (and sometimes both) is unhappy with their sexual adjustment.  Usually, the discontent centers on having too little sex; and the person who wants to have more sex is just as likely to be the wife as the husband.  Some couples seem to adjust to having very little sex, while other couples do not. The level of dissatisfaction often mirrors other dissatisfactions in the marriage.

Who is in charge?  There was a time when husbands were in charge. In some areas of the world that is still plainly the case. In fact, in some distant, but more and more familiar places, like Pakistan or Afghanistan, women are not only cast into a submissive role, but are treated as inferiors. But not in Westchester County in the twenty-first century.  In most families here no one would claim to be in charge. Even if someone really thought he/she was in charge, it would be considered bad manners to make such a claim.

Looking over the shoulders of so many families, I find it difficult usually to say if one spouse or another is really in charge. Gender roles are shifting and complicated, as described above. One person can be the final word in one sort of issue, like finances, and have little to say about other matters, such as dealing with the children. Still, there are couples whose friends will agree that one person, or the other, is clearly “the boss.”  I think this is not necessarily a bad thing. Usually, in these cases it is simply that one person feels more strongly about certain things than the other, or is by temperament more passive than the other. If that person makes most of the decisions in family matters, it does not mean that the other person has a lower status. These roles can change, anyway, in the event of illness or some other family emergency.

The individual and more or less arbitrary division of labor in a marriage is not likely to undermine its success. As is always the case, the success of a marriage will depend primarily on mutual respect and affection.

The role of the children  The role of the children, of course, is to figure out the computers and tablets, and other arcane devices that seem to appear at brief intervals entirely reconfigured. (c) Fredric Neuman Follow Dr. Neuman's blog at fredricneumanmd.com/blog

When two people join their lives together, how do they decide on direction? What if one has habits or tastes that annoy the other? What if their priorities are different? Secular marriages have no clear answer to these questions. Generally, counselors suggest couples should compromise or take turns in decision making. But these solutions don't always work. Spouses wind up saying, "We decided your way last time," and we open a new source of conflict. Then there's this one: "I think this would be a good compromise." "No, this would be a compromise!" Similarly, consider how you would feel in this scenario: "We decided my way about which movie to see last night, but now we have to decide your way on which house to buy!"

Both trading-off and compromising may be useful in some situations, but are often problematic. Some decisions won't allow for compromise. Suppose a couple does not agree in which area of town to live. If they compromise, they may end up living in an area they both hate. This is why, in real life we find that the more powerful partner usually compels the weaker to comply with his or her agenda. Powerless partners have to decide how much they are prepared to take. The choice seems to be either slavery, perpetual power struggles or flight. Other couples don't have a clearly more powerful spouse, and may engage in constant wrangling over even the smallest things.

In this illustration, we see two different people, each with their own frame of reference which determines their views, their values, their appetites, etc. Since the frame of references, or life experiences are completely different from one another, they have no basis for resolving differences.

When other people's actions hurt or annoy us, what can we do? When we simply can't get someone close to us to be reasonable, where do we turn? We either try to make the other person change through force or manipulation, or we learn to keep our distance. No wonder modern people have trouble attaining intimacy in relationships!

With Christ, we have an alternative way of life. We are no longer two people trying to get our own way. In a Christian relationship, both partners are concerned with discovering and following God's way.

Here is a basis for closeness.

On one hand, we have a reason for calling on the other person to change based on the will of God. On the other hand, we have an obligation to be willing to change ourselves in accordance with the will of God. Although we could still disagree about what God wants at times, at least we have some basis for agreement other than who has the most power. Finally, in Christ we also have a basis for grace in relationships, which means we can forgive negatives in our spouse-something we may do in secular relationships if we judge it to be expedient, but without any other reason.

The paradigm of Christian couples living under the authority of God includes benefits and sacrifices for both partners. Most of the sacrifices are in the area of ego and selfishness. The benefits are in the areas of closeness, the gratification of being used by God, and the joy of loving deeply.

Marriage Roles and Gender

In addition to the general idea of basing a marriage on the will of God, Scripture teaches that the husband should be the spiritual "head" in marriage. What does this mean? Headship is a troubling concept in our day, and we need to understand it in context.

Being the "head" in the biblical sense means the husband is responsible to initiate love and self-sacrifice for the well-being of his wife.1 It does not mean the husband must be spiritually older than his wife, nor does it give the husband a license to insist on his own way. He is only to call for God's way. However, faithful exegesis of the relevant passages will show that God affirms male leadership in the home.

Remember, leadership in the biblical context is servant leadership. Paul said husbands should "love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her." (Ephesians 5:25) This is the kind of leadership Christ demonstrated when he let himself be nailed on a cross for us. Jesus could be very authoritative, but he did not come to selfishly boss people around. He said, "Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45) When Jesus gives us a directive, it is not because he enjoys controlling us, but because he is concerned for our welfare. He also extends an amazing level of freedom to his followers, allowing us to defy his will and still continue our relationship without rejection. He will discipline us for our good, but he will never reject us. (Hebrews 13:5)

Coming under such self-denying leadership poses no threat to our happiness. A woman who submits to the servant leadership of a mature Christian man should be letting herself in for a life where her husband devotes himself to providing for her needs, protecting her and (yes) directing her at times. A servant leader will not insist on his way in areas where it is not possible to know objectively what God wants. He will call for his wife to follow Christ along with himself, but will graciously allow her to refuse his suggestions often. Like Jesus, he will not compel obedience, but will seek to win it through persuasion and love. The Lord doesn't force us to follow him; he wants us to follow willingly.

Any man who is eager to assume such a role of leadership has probably not grasped what the Lord is saying in this passage. To be responsible for initiating love--for initiating self giving--is a daunting role. Properly understood, no husband would object if his wife offered to lead the way in self-sacrifice for awhile. The role of head in a marriage is not a role of privilege but of responsibility and self-sacrifice.

Our postmodern aversion to authority is incompatible with Christianity, not only because it flies in the face of biblical teaching, but because it is based on our fear of corrupt and self-serving authority figures.

Servant Leadership In Action

Christian men should be spiritually mature enough to secure their wives' respect and basic willingness to follow their leadership, contingent, of course, on the higher authority of God.2 When the Bible refers to wives submitting to their husbands, it essentially means wives should cultivate an attitude of respect for their husbands.3 "Respect" in this context includes recognition of her husband as a legitimate leader--an inclination to go along with her husband's direction when possible. A wife who submits to her husband is free to suggest directions or to question and challenge his direction. She is obligated to point out when she believes he is violating God's will. But she would turn away from self-willed resistance or manipulation.

Headship does not mean that only wives should be willing to defer to their spouses. In fact, willingness to defer to others for Christ's sake is the foundation of all relationships in the Body of Christ. The verb "submit" in Ephesians 5:22 is really borrowed from verse 21: "submitting to one another in the fear of (out of respect for) Christ. . . " Therefore, the wife's submission to the husband within Christian marriage is grounded in both spouses' willingness to defer to each other in love as well as to other Christian friends in their church.4 We are all to submit to Christ's moral leadership whenever it is expressed through others.

All of this means we should emphatically reject the view that submissive wives let their husbands do all the thinking in the marriage. Neither does it mean that Christian husbands can be bossy and controlling. Biblical headship does not mean that the husband must decide on every matter or even most matters pertaining to the household. Husbands and wives should negotiate and agree on who will take responsibility for bill paying, grocery shopping, car maintenance and other like matters. Creative and critical discussion between spouses about major decisions is also fully compatible with the idea of headship. Such discussion is necessary for a healthy marriage. If both spouses are committed to God and to the good of the other, most decisions can and should be mutual, and only the weakest husband would fear such discussions.

In the rare cases in which husband and wife cannot agree on an important decision, the husband who has proven himself as a servant leader will usually be able to make a mature decision--either to hold for his view if necessary, or to sacrificially let his wife have her way.

Like Christ, the Christian husband is to lead the way in demonstrating a humble commitment to God's will rather than insisting on his own will.

Jesus' authority was valid because he did "not seek his own will, but the will of him who sent" him. (John 5:30) He also explained that he was willing to "lay down his life for the sheep." (John 10:15) In the same way, the Christian husband is to lead the way in demonstrating a humble commitment to God's will rather than insisting on his own will. He should take the initiative to practice sacrificial service to meet his wife's needs, even at his own personal expense. Such husbands are usually able to secure their wives' trust and respect.

Both partners in a marriage should understand and agree on their concept of headship before getting married. Christians differ on how they interpret these passages, but however a couple understands them, they need agreement. Those already married may also need to rethink this area. If you are a married woman, are you comfortable responding to the spiritual leadership of your husband? Or is the idea of following your husband unrealistic or distasteful? Recognizing leadership in the home may be especially difficult for women who have experienced evil male authority figures, or who have adopted an ideology that opposes the concept of gender roles.5 At other times, the husband's way of life makes it difficult for the wife to take his leadership seriously.

Whatever the causes, resolving these issues are important for Christian marriage. Additional reading on the subject of headship may help.6

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Footnotes

1. See Ephesians 5:22-29.

2. Christian wife should never follow morally wrong directives from her husband. The principle of contingent, or conditional obedience is well understood when it comes to secular authorities as in Daniel 2:1-18; Acts 4:19,20; 5:29. Strangely however, some commentators argue that wives should obey their husbands in an uncontingent and unqualified way! The text often used to justify this position is 1 Peter 3:5,6 which refers to Sarah's obedience to Abraham with approval. Based on this passage, it is argued that even when Sarah lied to Pharaoh by saying she was Abraham's sister (and nearly had to commit adultery as a result) she was doing the right thing. However, the passage does not condone this incident, but only commends her attitude. In fact, God will hold individuals responsible for wrong they do, even if they were ordered to do it, as the incident in Acts 4:19,20 demonstrates. Notice also that the incident to which 1 Peter 3 refers involves a sin of omission, not one of commission. The statement in vs. 1 that wives should obey husbands even if they are disobedient to the faith means that the husband himself is disobedient, not that his directives are morally wrong.

3. Note that in summing up the spouses' respective roles in Ephesians 5:33, Paul uses the word "respect" to describe the wife's role.

4. The New American Standard Bible has chosen to indicate not only a new sentence in verse 22, but a new paragraph. This, in spite of the fact that verse 22 is a dependent clause sharing the participle "submitting" of verse 21. The New American Standard Bible, Referenced Version (Lockman Foundation, 1963) p. 300. See correctly the paragraph division in New International Version of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1973). However, in our opinion, they still fail to bring home sufficiently the force of the shared action.

5. Scholars have demonstrated that exploitation of women is a dominant theme in church history. However, to respond by holding that submission to anyone is a betrayal of one's own personhood, is throwing out the baby with the bath water. Just because some have abused the concept of male leadership in the home doesn't mean there is no such thing as a sacrificial servant leader.

6. For example, Richard N. Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics For Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), pp. 70-93.

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