Tuesday, 8 May 2007

The wrongs and rights of the surrendered wife

My Chelmsford Anglican Mainstream blogging of a Daily Mail item on the Channel 5 documentary Obedient Wives seems to have provoked a flurry of interest via Google, so I thought I'd blog a couple of personal thoughts over here.

I read Laura Doyle's The Surrendered Wife a few years ago, and must admit to being rather impressed. Like it or not, the fact is that men and women get into all sorts of tangles in their relationships. One of these tangles is the struggle for power that seems to ensue when they live together as a couple, and Doyle offered something she thought might help.

This struggle has been celebrated (if that is the right word) in the arts for centuries, if not millennia, via archetypes as diverse as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew or the hen pecked husband in seaside postcards. And of course none of this would make sense, let alone have any appeal, if the audience did not recognise some truth behind the presentation.

Some people feel this simply reflects misogyny or the imbalances in human relationships brought about by sexism or capitalism. To them, equality and harmony will naturally emerge when people are allowed to 'be themselves' in a relationship, without the external pressures of social expectation or economic necessity.

Personally, however, I feel that 'being ourselves' is the heart of the problem, which is fundamentally deep rooted not only in the human psyche but in human spirituality. Men and women struggle with one another because they are what they are, not what they ought to be. The solution, therefore, is not to be ourselves but to change ourselves.

I am also convinced that the change required is different for men and for women. I am not at all sure, however, that the term 'obedient' or 'surrendered' best conveys all that is required on a woman's part.

Whilst I am persuaded that the traditional marriage vow of obedience is right, it is not the only vow a woman makes. Neither is giving his wife directions for her to obey the sole task of the husband. Indeed, the little bit I saw of the Channel 5 programme illustrated this problem exactly, where a Christian husband seemed, quite frankly, to be a scary control freak giving micro-managerial orders to his equally-scarily malleable wife.

Again, 'surrendered' can too easily take on connotations of giving in to a greater or irresistible power. In our world, it is the defeated who surrender, and whilst power struggles certainly take place within relationships, we should surely not encourage the idea that there should be a 'winner' in conventional terms.

However, Doyle's thesis was, as I recall, more subtle than the title of her book might suggest. Her notion of 'surrender' was not that the wife should 'give in' to her husband but that she should 'give up' her own controlling behaviour. And this, it seems to me, is quite astute spiritually as well as psychologically.

Much of the trouble between men and women arises from the fact that women want to improve things in their homes and their relationships. Specifically, this means they want to improve their men. It is what author John Gray describes as "the home-improvement committee". An older generation referred to it as the "aisle, altar, hymn" approach to marriage ("I'll alter him", for those that don't get it).

I was very amused some years ago to see a staunchly conservative young evangelical stating his views on the right role for a Christian husband and in the next breath describing how his wife threw out a couple of his old jumpers when they married. Yet to be honest, I was also rather saddened, because it seemed to me they had imported the same problems into their relationship that we find in Genesis 3, without even being aware they were doing so.

You will remember in Genesis 3 how Eve is described as taking the forbidden fruit at the promptings of the serpent. Yet her reasons for doing this are profoundly good: "When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate." (Genesis 3:7).

What woman wouldn't feed her husband something that not only tasted good and looked good, but actually made him smarter? And what man wouldn't take such a gift, offered in such a spirit?

Yet the Bible text indicates we are consequently locked into a destructive pattern of behaviours reflecting just this paradigm. When God speaks to the woman later, he concludes by saying to her, "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." (Genesis 3:16).

There have been many interpretations of this passage, most of which ignore the fact that Genesis 4:7 is a precise parallel. There God again speaks, this time to Cain, saying, "If you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it." (emphasis added).

What God means in the second case is quite clear. Sin seeks to master Cain, and Cain must resist this. Thus, as Susan Foh has observed, the woman's desire in 3:16 is similarly to master her husband - a desire which he must also resist. She will be trapped in a Sisyphean pattern of behaviour, constantly wanting to improve her husband in ways which are just beyond what he currently is. He will be constantly challenged to break the cycle, not only for his sake, but for hers.

True 'surrender', then, consists not in giving in to the man's 'power', but in letting the man be a man, addressing his weaknesses as an adult in his own right, and being a true husband to his wife.

The only observation to add, however, is that Cain was not successful in his resistance and neither, in many cases, are the male partners of women. On the contrary, they go along with it, at first accepting with good humour the admonitions to improve their appearance, their behaviour or their ambitions. Later, they may more willingly accept that the woman will do what they will not do for themselves - ensuring the smooth running of the house, taking the decisions about the children or about the holidays, though as time goes on the woman will be less and less content with this state of affairs and more and more resentful of her man's passivity.

Finally, he raises hardly a finger to help her or himself, and never a word to protest at her control. She has become the desparate housewife, and he the surrendered husband.

Revd John P Richardson
8 May 2007


  1. I don't think that generalisations based upon gender are helpful or convincing.

  2. badman said... "I don't think that generalisations based upon gender are helpful or convincing."

    And that's because ...?

  3. Was the Channel 5 programme the one where it showed the wives submitting to husbands, but the husbands not at all sacrificing themselves for their wives?
    Or am I confusing it with a similar BBC documentary.
    am preaching on Ephesians marraige passage tomorrow and want to refer to it!

  4. James, I can't remember! Check out the link. Good luck with the sermon.

  5. Darryl Parker3 May 2009 at 17:28

    Good article

  6. Great article. I have read Doyle's book (7 or so years ago) and it saved my marriage too. I really liked your discussion on Eve's sin of trying to control, and Adam's of passivity. After attempting to surrender to my wonderful husband (and failing at times, and then trying again... constantly!), in these last years, I must admit I can only see us improving as a couple, and me content and happy, the more I surrender. Are there lines the wife should draw? I have struggled with this. I was a former control-freak of the worst sort. And I have concluded that there are no lines. My husband has all authority. I am a MUCH calmer and happier person now too. What I find is odd is that many Christian wives will scold me for giving my husband too much authority, or for asking to do something. Anyway, I enjoyed your article.

  7. Anybody who wants to make one rule fit all doesn't get my vote. Even men have personalities - and some might be inherently submissive who seek out (inherently) dominant women. No, I'm afraid making dogmatic rules like this is demeaning to the very idea of the variety of humanity. It the good Rev has this kind of relationship with his woman that's fine; it simply doesn't suit every case.
    Imagine the trouble a family would be in if a capable woman surrendered herself to a man who turned out to be, or became, hopelessly irresponsible! But there again I haven't got it in me to be religious... I think it's was invented to dominate the masses

  8. Reality is the space between a man and a women. It will not do that a women simply surrenders to a husband or vies-versa. Both will lead to distortions which are not helpful to the health of their relationship. After-all the best example of a surrendered wife as far as I can see is Rosemary West. Male and females have a very different understanding and response to life which when shared and evaluated together often lead to wise and considered decision making.This is in my opinion the great creators intention and the yin-yang symbol a beautiful illustration of it.The tragedy of mankind has been in part to the lack of balance in male/ female relations and repression of the female experience.

  9. Thank you for your article. I read the Surrendered Wife a few months ago, and my marriage has completely changed since implementing the ideas. Submission is never popular- our society hates authority of any kind, both having it and submitting to it. This is no surprise to us!

    I, however, have become a much calmer, more free woman by letting my husband be my husband- the exact way God created him- since reading this book. I'm here to support him, of course! I'm no doormat. But as soon as I started allowing him to be a man without all my suggestions to change all the errors of his ways, as soon as I started surrendering, everything changed for the better. He's more a man than I've ever seen him be! Honestly, he's more a man than I've seen almost ANY man be. Regardless of the fact that this book is not explicitly bible-based, it is truth. And all truth is God's truth!

    Your insight is greatly appreciated!

  10. Carrie, thank you for commenting. Perhaps you'd like to write a blog about it! (Although that may be a bit too public.)