Women in Marriage

Some of my favorite blogs to read are written by or for conservative Christian women (both Catholic and Protestant). While I obviously have some disagreements with the religious views expressed in these writings, I often find that we have much more in common, and what we disagree on is expressed in such a way that I understand it better.

One issue that frequently arises in such circumstances is the nature of the role of wife relative to that of husband. Just as in Judaism, conservative Christians take the Biblical view that the husband is the head of the household and leads the family both in a temporal and spiritual sense. Part of this belief is taken from the creation story, in which Adam is told that Eva was created to be a helpmeet for him, but it is also an arrangement that has been found for thousands of years, across the globe, in the majority of cultures. The lengths to which this arrangement should be taken, however, are definitely open to debate.

One complaint I have frequently read in Christian circles is that of the neglected wife. Her husband spends all his time at work, ignores the children, doesn’t speak to his wife, and really doesn’t act like he is attracted to her anymore. The wife feels hurt, put upon (since she’s fulfilling a dual role at home), and confused. She misses the loving husband she married. BUT she doesn’t know how to approach the subject with her husband for fear that she will look like she is usurping his G-d-given role. Instead she resorts more and more to prayer. Prayer that her husband will have a change of heart or that he will notice the problem himself and prayer for the continued patience to suffer in silence.

Unfortunately, orthodoxy in any religion brings out dogmatic flaws as much as it brings out higher practice, and similar problems to the one described can be seen throughout the world’s major religions, including Judaism, which is why I am writing about this here.

The TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible, is rife with women who definitely take on leadership roles, both at home and in the community, especially when the husband is absent, incapacitated, or doing the wrong thing. Sometimes this leadership even involves outright disobedience to a wayward husband’s preferences (the stories of Abigail and Esther come to mind). Just as with the male characters depicted in scripture, the female characters are sometimes misled or behave badly and are all flawed, but their stories are more often than not included because they did the right thing.

The leadership and general behavior of both male and female characters, however, reflect the overall substance of what a healthy marriage should look like: a partnership. Yes, men and women have different tasks to perform, but each should be educated before marriage as a “specialist” in their field. Men as providers and protectors, and women as managers and nurturers. In a modern business, two people can occupy the same level of seniority and authority without occupying the same job or otherwise stepping on each other’s toes. For example, while I have the final say in how we spend the grocery budget (my role), my husband has the final say in whether we will move so he can take a better paying job (his role). Both are equally important to day-to-day existance, even though the husband’s role looks “bigger” than the wife’s.

Since the husband’s role also usually encompasses larger, long-term strategies for the family, that does tend to mean that the man steers the family’s overall course more than the woman, placing her in a slightly submissive position in that regard. In this respect a marriage may be compared to a ship’s command structure. While the captain is in charge and ultimately responsible for decision making, the XO (eXecutive Officer) has the important task of making sure that the captain has all the information necessary to make informed decisions (not just the information the captain wants to hear). It is also the XO’s duty to let the captain know (in the respectful, reasonable, and factual way in which mature adults ought to communicate anyway) when the captain is making an ill-advised decision and why. These two tasks are part of the job description, not mutiny. When it comes to the husband’s tasks of steering the family in an overall direction, the role of the wife is very much like that of the XO. It is also her job (like that of an XO) to take over leadership if her husband is negligent, incapacitated, or otherwise unavailable. This is the difference between being submissive and subservient.

While it usually seems more mundane, the same applies in the opposite direction. If my husband notices that I am not spending the grocery budget wisely, it is his duty to advise me to change my ways or take over until I am better able to fill my responsibility. He also has to give me all the relevant information before I do my weekly shopping trip (Are we having any guests this week? Will he be missing any meals? Does he want to eat out at all? Does he have any meal requests?).

While people of both sexes who go too far to the extreme with religious dogma have a tendency to portray wives as being subservient to their husbands, marriages are necessarily dynamic relationships. A wife who only agrees with her husband (because he said so and not because she actually agrees) and refuses to speak up when her husband is behaving badly is herself negligent. Her husband might as well have hired someone to clean the house, cook the food, and raise the children. This is the role, as described in the Bible, of the maidservant, with whom it is considered inappropriate for a man to have a sexual relationship. As G-d said in the very beginning, Man needs a partner, he can’t live alone. Moreover, husband and wife are supposed to be “one flesh” (B’reishit [Genesis] 2:24).

At the same time, religious women who use the excuse of subservience to avoid confronting their wayward husbands are forcing their husbands to walk through marriage blindfolded. It’s nothing more than using a religious justification for that tired and manipulative line, “If you don’t know what’s wrong, I’m not going to tell you!”

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