When I was growing up, my mother sometimes mentioned that it was very important to her to be obedient to her husband. (I think she mentioned this more often to her children than she did to her husband. Her husband happened to be my father: we were very blessed that things worked out that way.) My mother was not always able to live obedience in practice, but she did her best because this ideal was close to her heart. As far as she was concerned, this was part of her Christian faith and part of what she had committed to when she had said her wedding vows.
I remember thinking that my mother’s approach was an old-fashioned inheritance from the past that was overly simplistic and a little backward. It seemed so much more enlightened and developed for couples to share responsibilities in a delicate checks-and-balances arrangement that divided up the responsibility between them.
This was the attitude that I took into ministry as a young priest. I never told a bride-to-be that she needed to obey her husband. Instead, I told couples that they should work out their own way of making decisions. I soon realized that this was bad advice: many couples needed real guidance on how to make decisions because they had the silly idea that they would make decisions by coming to an agreement on everything. In theory this sounded like the perfect arrangement, but in practice it could turn ugly. He would say, “We need a riding lawnmower” and she would say “You bought a gym membership but now you expect the lawnmower to carry you around on its back?” This could inaugurate days of arguing with no end in sight because neither of them was ever going to see it the other way, but their model of cooperation trapped them: they could not make a decision until they both agreed, which was never going to happen on certain issues. The way out of this mess was just as ugly: either 1) it became a war of attrition until one of them quit because they were sick of it or 2) it became rounds of negotiations in which the lawnmower would be used as leverage to get something else. Both “solutions” built up resentment and feelings of being hurt and being used.
Borrowing from my parent’s example, I told couples that there was a different way to make decisions that would keep disagreements from growing to gigantic proportions. My parents often discussed things and came to a mutual agreement, but their marriage had, built into it, an intelligent and mature solution for all those times when they could not come to an agreement: my father had the last word. My mother would give her opinion – sometimes repeatedly – but they were both committed to the idea that it was my father’s decision and she would abide by what he decided even when she did not agree with it.
Using this model, I told couples that they should work out their own arrangement of who had the final say on which issues. This seemed like the most reasonable and sophisticated way of arranging things, until one day a groom-to-be told me, “Oh, we have it all worked out. She’s the boss; I do what she tells me”. His comment really bothered me, but as long as I held onto the idea that couples could work out their own relationship any way they wanted, I could not say this arrangement was wrong. Since I could not accept the idea that the husband would have zero responsibility, I have gradually come to the conclusion that my mother was right all along.
This does not mean that the husband should make every decision: he should trust his wife to make up her own mind, especially on things that effect her directly. However, the wife should never permit her husband to give away too much responsibility. This is because the arrangement my mother and father used demanded a mature level of commitment from both of them:
1) My father was committed to take responsibility and to lead the family, no matter how he felt about a particular situation or decision.
2) My mother was committed to allowing my father to lead, to give him the space to make decisions and to accept whatever decision he had made, no matter how she felt about it.
Now I see very clearly the wisdom of this arrangement. My mother’s commitment made it very hard for a disagreement to ever become a wedge that divided my parents, because her commitment to obedience turned every conflict between them into an invitation: my mother had another opportunity to prove her love by accepting her husband’s leadership, and my father had an opportunity to prove his love by making a decision and taking responsibility for the consequences.
My mother insists that this level of commitment would not have been possible without their Christian faith. When she was feeling tempted to overturn this arrangement because she doubted her husband was making the right decision, she had to remind herself that God had given her this man to care for her, and she needed to TRUST that God would really care for her through her husband, despite his flaws.
Again and again and again, the challenge to keep this arrangement came back to trust. My mother’s commitment to obey her husband was a commitment to trust him. Love is the fruit of a good marriage, but the soil in which this fruit grows is trust. When a wife will not allow her husband to lead her, or when she will only follow a decision that she agrees with, she is sending huge signals to her husband that she does not completely trust him. This undermines their relationship, even if other things are going well. When a woman makes a commitment to accept her husband’s decision without knowing what that decision is going to be, she is sending huge signals that she trusts that he is going to care for her.
Wherever trust has been built up, there love can grow. As my parents have grown in their relationship there is rarely a time when they actually have a real conflict: the beauty is that my mother’s commitment did not turn her into a slave, or turn her husband into an overlord: her obedience gradually brought them together as equal partners, carrying the burden of life together. +
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