I remember watching a program in which a guy stated that he understood women. In response, he was asked why he was still single, to which he replied: “Because I understand women”! Many misunderstandings that undermine relationships can be demystified and overcome by following some timeless biblical advice… but if only warring couples would heed it. Attention to these three simple elements can pay huge dividends, albeit with the possibility that some impartial counsel and guidance may be needed to help with maintaining accountability and overcoming blind spots.
1. Yieldedness – In Ephesians 5:21, Paul prefaces his specific advice to men and women with: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”. This doesn’t invalidate gender differences, but contextualises them. Importantly, it also speaks of a voluntary yielding of personal rights by Christians who are called to love unconditionally. This means also yielding the right to be offended, since we choose our response to others. Can we truly say we love someone if we remain bitter toward them? Alternatively, can we really stay offended if we choose to pray with them?
Addressing perceived wrongdoing may be an act of responsibility, but it may also not bring change. The question is whether we can show gracious forbearance in the face of tension. For instance, anger, nagging, impatience, intensity, inattentiveness, overtalking or undertalking do not have to be deal breakers. Especially within a marriage, intended to be for keeps, there needs to be a willingness to preserve relationship in spite of inevitable weaknesses. That doesn’t deny that these should still be owned and addressed. However, it is not my place or my job to change my wife (or hers to change me). I need to own what I must yield and am then obligated to follow through on this as an act of love, so as to focus on the value of relationship and not on the rightness of actions.
But where one or both couples won’t, can’t (or occasionally shouldn’t) yield, it is time to seek a third party for help. Reaching out is not an admission of coming to the end of the journey, but of beginning a new one; it is often the first step of humility. Both can see someone separately, but will ultimately need to see someone (or a couple) together. After all, Ephesians 5:30 reminds us that Christians are part of a body, so submitting to members of that body in humility and with a preparedness to change will help our alignment to the will of Jesus, the ‘head’. It is also helpful to remember that the likely difference in tone, objectivity and focus in the presence of a mediator offers a starting advantage for reconciliation that may then be faster than anticipated.
2. Affirmation. The specific relational instruction to wives in Ephesians 5:22 repeats the more general instruction of mutual submission, but with the idea that the husband is the head of the wife. This doesn’t warrant a sense of dominance or control from the context, but of servant leadership. Naturally, then, the submission requirement needs outside intervention if trending toward unhealthy extremes, but the key desire here undoubtedly involves the husband’s need to be affirmed in, and for, his leadership role.
The respect that men often seek may appear to be a mere power trip accompanied by anger (which may in turn be exacerbated by the resulting lack of sex). Sometimes, it may relate to their search for significance. In fact, many men will be acutely aware of their own needs but disproportionately unaware of the emotional needs of their wife. Some men are simply blinded by an affirmation void they then want their wife (and perhaps others) to fill.
These problems are very often a result of some degree of under-fathering. Men need to end the generational cycle by teaching their sons how to handle emotions in a way that their mother may not best understand. It is also important to differentiate between what only God can do and what people cannot, since a wife (or a husband) cannot live up to unreasonable expectations. As men affirm their sons’ abilities this will buy them the necessary rapport for relationally teaching to the overcoming of their innate weaknesses. Families without dads need trusted male role-models from extended families, churches or schools. Extra role-models can also aid the complex task for biological dads, too.
Ultimately, women need to understand that a male’s anger and sex drive are often connected with the need for such validation which may not be about indulging a weakness as much as enhancing a strength with reciprocal benefit. Pornography or alcohol sometimes provide unhealthy stimulation and control that can mask what feels beyond control in a relationship that is not working. Also, an emasculated or unconfident man will not offer the leadership that his wife needs, but a wife who resists her husband with a detached, unsympathetic or reactionary attitude will similarly deprive herself of what he can provide.
Although men should by no means remain unaccountable for their own conduct. It becomes too easy for some men to become the objects off scorn for inattentiveness to a woman’s needs which may genuinely derive from naivety, distraction or dysfunctionality more than from neglect or abuse. This situation can become magnified by the expectations of some women which can become overly-simplistic projections masking personal needs, all of which may remain minimally-discussed. Some will deflect from any culpability by suggesting that men should simply show more love before receiving more submission, but Paul does not make his advice to women dependent on their husbands’ responses.
3. Security. A woman may well have many similar needs to those of men, but a significant need often underestimated by men is that of security. This is not to suggest that women are inferior or helpless, but their physical and emotional differences often warrant far greater male attention being paid, not to what should be received before security, time or commitment are offered, but to what should first be provided for these to be experienced. Husbands are to love sacrificially and this often means showing enough maturity to make the first move, irrespective of the status of the relationship.
To feel that they are secure women will want to feel valued and special (and romance needs this, and not sex, to be the priority). Women need to feel relationally and conversationally safe in their home, too, and won’t normally minimise the importance of this if that safety is actually missing. But why wait until it’s too late? Naturally, physical violence threatens and destroys relational trust, but anger, shouting, and even excessive discipline or raised voices with children can all damage a secure environment, too. Importantly, even shutting down conversations and disrespecting feelings or opinions will also threaten relational warmth. Sexual intimacy will need relational intimacy to be established first; and according to Paul, men are to bear primary responsibility for the climate and culture of their homes.
This requires the sacrificial love that is said in Ephesians 5:25 to resemble that of Christ who laid down his life for the Church. Men will seldom be expected to go that far. They will, however, find it particularly difficult to offer sacrificial love when they don’t feel like doing so, since it is an unconditional love. This means that, irrespective of how little affirmation, sex, or support is received, an attitude of love needs to be maintained and intentionalised. It also requires the posture, body language and tone of voice that such love suggests.
So, imagine if every couple followed this advice, advice from the author of half the New Testament which promotes selflessness and servanthood. What a wonderful world it would be.