Do you ever fight about who does what in marriage? Or, how decisions are made? Who has the most say, or power, or who can make the final call on some decisions?
Most of the time these disagreements come down to the model of marriage we hold to: and when that’s different than the model our spouse holds, conflict is inevitable.
Power structure is a topic that is fundamental to marriage. Rarely though, do we actually sit down to discuss our model of marriage when we’re dating or engaged or newly married. So, let’s look at the three models of marriage, how they impact marital satisfaction and then what we do and recommend.
Power Structures in Marriage
Christian authors have come to various interpretations on the Bible’s teachings about how men and women should relate with one another in marriage. Many of these interpretations center around the issue of gender roles and what the Bible means when it speaks of headship and submission. At the end of the day, it really comes down to power.
Various models have been created to explain how husbands and wives should function together in the areas of decision making, work, and leadership (which, when we’re distressed as a couple is usually not about leadership but about the much less noble but more pragmatic issue: power).
Here’s a run down of three models of marriage.
View #1: Authoritarianism
- Husbands hold unlimited authority and leadership.
- Wives are expected to respond with unqualified submission.
- As leaders and heads of the house, husbands have unlimited say in all decision and wives are not permitted to question the husband’s leadership in any situation.[i]
What we see happening in these marriages is that the wife gains power and influence in other ways: withholding sex, using Scriptures to manipulate, guilting her husband, etc. However, there are authoritarian marriages where both spouses buy into the model and both are very happy. It is easy to get judgmental of this kind of marriage, but if it’s working for two people and she has chosen this model as much as he has, who are we to take it away from them or say it’s wrong?
View #2: Complementarianism
- Upholds the equality of men and women, while simultaneously recognizing the different roles, strengths, and weaknesses each gender brings to the marriage.
- Men hold headship in the marriage while upholding their call to love their wives.
- Women act as helpers, while upholding their call to submit to their husbands. (Helpers is the word from the author, we do not endorse that word)
- Decisions are made jointly, except in rare causes of impasse when final decision making is given to the husband.[ii]
View #3: Egalitarianism
- Men and women not only live as equals, but any hierarchy or headship in the marriage is erased.
- Distinctions in gender differences are downplayed or removed completely in favor of recognizing our oneness in Christ and joint calling to do His work.
- All decisions are made together.[iii]
In each of these models, roles are an issue, as is the degree to which we acknowledge or bypass gender issues. Decision making and power are also critical.
To help you understand your own situation better, we have an assessment worksheet you can download which also gives you ways to discuss those sticky topics with your spouse.
Beliefs vs. Practice
An interesting study was completed using data from the 1996 Religious Identity and Influence Survey to “examine the relationship between religious identity, gender ideology, and marital decision making.” The results of this study showed that:
- Conservative Protestants profess a traditional gender-role ideology that the husband is the head of the family and the leader in making decisions, BUT the actual decision making strategies they practice are similar to other religious groups who profess more liberal ideologies.
- Theologically liberal Protestants profess a more egalitarian ideology in terms of decision making BUT the actual decision making strategies they practice are not significantly more egalitarian than conservative Protestants.
- When it comes to male headship (the idea that husbands are primarily responsible for the marriage and family), the number one priority for most conservative protestant families in terms of actual practice was found to be the husband taking spiritual leadership of the family. This was cited more often as important in male headship than breadwinning status or decision-making authority.[iv]
What does this suggest?
Firstly, it suggests that in many families, ideology and practice often do not line up. Secondly, when it comes to the actual practice of decision making, submission, and male headship, many religious families – both conservative and liberal protestants alike – seem to meet somewhere in the middle of terms of what practically works for them.
I think the point here is, when you discuss this with your spouse, be honest with yourself about what you do practically versus what you claim to believe.
Which Structure Causes the Most Power Struggles?
The million-dollar question here is “Which structure causes the most power struggles?” or, “Which of the three structures leads to the greatest level of marital satisfaction?”
To answer it, let’s look at a 2010 study that examined the relationship between gender ideology, work-to-family conflict and marital satisfaction.
With regards to gender ideology, they had folks rank how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like:
- When the wife works outside the home, the husband should share in household tasks such as washing dishes and doing the laundry.
- A woman should not expect to have the same freedom of action as a man.
- The leadership of a community should be largely in the hands of men.
- In general, the father should have greater authority than the mother in rearing children.
For work-to-family conflict, participants answered questions related to how their job affected family life in areas of free time, ability to complete chores, and how much they got done around the house. They also rated how much their job kept them from spending time with their spouse and whether or not they felt that the relationship suffered because of work.
The researchers found that:
- Men’s marital satisfaction was highly affected by whether or not their gender ideology matched their spouse’s gender ideology.
- Traditional men married to traditional women had significantly higher marital satisfaction.
- Similarly, egalitarian men had above-average levels of marital satisfaction when they were married to egalitarian women.[v]
Other studies also affirm this finding: you have to look at both spouse’s gender ideologies – not just one spouse’s. If they match, the couple is above average on marital satisfaction regardless of the model of marriage they adhere to.
However, the results of the study were different for women than for men – and much more complicated! For women:
- Gender ideology didn’t predict marital satisfaction on it’s own. It only predicted marital satisfaction for women in terms of how it interacted with women’s work-to-family conflict.
- Egalitarian wives would typically ask their husbands to do more housework, which often resulted in conflict.
- Traditional wives are more accepting of discrepancies in contributions to housework so may do more than their fair share and consequently have less conflict which is better for the marriage, but harder on the wife.
- It comes back to the husbands because at the end of the day it comes down to the actual behaviours of their husbands more than their ideologies.[vi]
It’s more about what you do for each other than what you believe. As a husband, you may hold to an egalitarian view of marriage but if you are sincerely committed to that then you have an equal obligation to all aspects of housekeeping and child-rearing in terms of actual physical contribution. If your wife hits a patch of work where she is doing a lot of overtime, you’re going to have a full time job AND most of the housework.
Sometimes this is hard to do when you see your buddy at church whose wife takes care of the housework during the day and they do all sorts of fun stuff together in the evening. However, you can’t have egalitarian values and expect traditional outcomes.
If you’re in a traditional marriage, here’s something to think about: If you’re both earning an income and your wife is doing the bulk of the housework and childrearing, even if there’s less conflict, you are severly taxing one very key member of your household. If the income is necessary, and your wife is willing, you as the husband need to get in there and get thinks looking a little more egalitarian in terms of workload. It doesn’t require you to abandon your values; it just means you’re giving this huge gift to your wife in helping her when she’s not expecting it.
Going back to our question of “which model of marriage has the highest marital satisfaction?” – the answer is: a matched model, where you both hold the same view and you both behave accordingly.
I know some of you are curious as to what Caleb and I do as you reach out and ask us! So here you go:
We have a fairly complementarian view and practice. I generally work at home, but have had employment outside the home. Generally, breadwinning is Caleb’s responsibility and housekeeping is mine. He usually helps with the dishes, and it’s pretty 50/50 with dealing with our kids. However, the more “outside” work I do, the more Caleb helps me out at home. It works for us and we’re both very content with how it has balanced out.
How is it going for you? Let us know below!
Overall, the research does not advocate one model over another, but we do think a complementary marriage is the most theologically robust model and as such we’ve found it to be practically useful too.
A Picture of a Complementary Marriage
In light of that, let’s look at what a complementary marriage might look like practically. In the book “Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood”[vii], George Knight III writes a chapter called How Should Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Work Out in Practice? The following are his suggestions in bold and our comments/critiques in normal font.
- While men and women are equally God’s image bearers, at the same time, they will hold different roles in the marriage. He believes that the man should take on the responsibility of primary breadwinner, and the woman should take on the responsibility of care for the children and the home.
Our culture tasks wives with relationship development and responsibility, but we’d like to see husbands taking more responsibility in that area. So yes, different roles, but the idea that relationships and emotions are a female responsibility is more culturally informed than Biblically informed.
- Although wives should be primary caretakers of the home, this does not mean they should never work outside the home? Knight believes the following questions should be asked when deciding if a woman should work outside the home or not:
- Is it beneficial to the family?
- Does it aid her husband in his calling?
- Does it bring good to others?
We are hesitant to say that woman should be primary caretakers as it makes it sound like their primary calling is taking care of the home. Care for the home is so valuable, but it is such a small, narrow-minded, microscosmic view. A wife is so much more than a maid, and there is no reason why a husband can’t do dishes or vacuum either. We both need to be helpers.
- Husbands should take leadership in decision-making, but respect, value, and desire the wife’s opinions, beliefs, and wants.
- In determining how to allocate other duties and responsibilities out of breadwinning and caring for the children/the home, feminine and masculine strengths and weaknesses should be taken into account.
This happens in our marriage. He chops firewood; I sew. Yes, I do plumbing, but I can’t get the lid off the septic tank by myself (it’s too heavy!) so he deals with the sewer (can’t say I’m too upset about that one!! J). We share the tractor pretty evenly! There’s mutual interdependence but also a recognizing of equal capabilities too.
What about the other models? Don’t take this as criticism – think of it more as a few ideas about why we don’t like the other two models as much.
The traditional model really fails to accommodate the truth of Christ sacrificing himself in love for the church. In Ephesians 5, that is the model of marriage Christians are called to. We don’t see a lot of sacrificing from husbands in traditional marriages. What we do see is a lot of wives doing what they are supposed to do, plus a good portion of what we think HE is supposed to do as well.
We think it is a set up for the suppression of wives. We’re not saying this happens – there are women in these marriages that flourish – we’re just saying it is easier to get there from a traditional marriage. Also, it’s a much smaller step towards an abusive marriage than the other models because it can easily be used to elevate men over women. Again, most traditional marriages are not abusive – it’s just a shorter step from traditional to abusive.
Our main objection with the egalitarian model is that it fails to acknowledge gender differences. Some differences are socialized, however, we do believe there are intrinsic differences in the genders. For example, women crave love and men crave respect. However, we both need the other as well – there’s just a difference in how we prioritize it.
While the cooperative aspect is attractive, we think something is lost when we don’t acknowledge the Biblical concept of headship. Not as an authority paradigm, but as a responsibility paradigm. To us, egalitarian seems to be more spineless and fosters the rearing of children that have less concept of authority and the need for respect. Males and females are not equivalent. We are equal, but not equivalent. If we try to erase this, it just confuses the operation of marriage.
[i] Steven R Tracy, “What Does ‘Submit in Everything’ Really Mean?: The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission,” Trinity Journal 29, no. 2 (September 2008): 285–312.
[iv] Melinda Lundquist Denton, “Gender and Marital Decision Making: Negotiating Religious Ideology and Practice*,” Social Forces 82, no. 3 (March 2004): 1151–80.
[v] Krista Lynn Minnotte et al., “His and Her Perspectives: Gender Ideology, Work-to-Family Conflict, and Marital Satisfaction,” Sex Roles 63, no. 5–6 (September 2010): 425–38, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-010-9818-y.
[vii] “Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood,” CBMW, accessed October 20, 2015, http://cbmw.org/topics/complementarianism/recovering-biblical-manhood-womanhood/.