Is it backward to expect a wife to be submissive to her husband?
Former Full House star Candace Cameron Bure sparked this debate with a line in her new book:
“I am not a passive person,” she wrote, “but I chose to fall into a more submissive role in our relationship because I wanted to do everything in my power to make my marriage and family work. . . . I submit to his leadership.”
There’s plenty to debate in Bure’s view, and the idea of a husband as the head of the household is a complex and controversial one. But submission in marriage can be understood separately from questions of equality or leadership.
Submission is a broad term that includes lots of things you might otherwise do but not think of as "submitting." In my view, submission in marriage is a two-way street, and if both husband and wife adopt it, it’s an attitude and habit that can strengthen the relationship.
DEFERRING TO AUTHORITY
We defer to authority in many aspects of our lives. In marriage, even one grounded in radical equality, sometimes one of the spouses is the natural authority on a given issue.
I have my own fashion tastes, but I know that they aren’t very good. My wife’s fashion sense is impeccable. I almost completely defer to her on what clothes I should own. For dinner parties, I usually ask her to pick out an outfit for me.
On the other hand, I am our household authority on money. For other couples this role could just as well belong to the wife, but it just so happens I’m more financially minded. On a recent purchase decision, Katie made her case, I considered it, but I ended up nixing the purchase. Katie didn’t demand an explanation from me—she was confident I had thought it through and that I had the family’s best financial interests in mind, and so she accepted my decision.
DIVISION OF LABOR
Even where natural skills and interests don’t make one spouse a rightful “authority,” dividing up decision-making can create efficiencies.
Adam Smith, the intellectual godfather of capitalism, wrote that “the division of labor” has created “the greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor” in human history.
Submission in marriage is often little more than the division of labor. Couples always divide up chores, but we also divvy up decision making—and this is another form of submission in marriage.
I have very little control over my own social calendar. Katie decides which parties we’ll go to, whom we’re inviting over for burgers, what Church events we’re attending, and so on. I appreciate this; in fact it frees up time and room in my brain. The alternative is constant back-and-forth committee process. But continuous debate and consultation wastes time, and can even lead to marital tension—which leads to the third reason to submit.
Sometimes neither spouse has any expertise or a special claim. Sometimes there’s no reason why one spouse’s preference should matter more.
The other day, I called my wife and suggested we go together for a walk with the dog. It was a rare morning without the kids around, and Katie hoped to spend the morning lounging in her pajamas in a quiet house. But she could tell I really wanted to go for a walk—with her—and she said yes. She simply set aside her preferences. She knew I would want to spend the time with her, but that if I stayed cooped-up, she would have to deal with my restiveness. The path of least resistance was giving in.
On our daughter’s second birthday—also Super Bowl Sunday—we popped into the local bakery to pick out a cake. There were two smallish cakes with chocolate frosting. One was in the shape of a football. The other was plain round. It was obvious to me that these small cakes would feed the whole party that night.
My wife preferred the largest cake there, which was decorated with party blowers, plastic footballs, and even a mini football player figurine. It was more expensive, and it had no chocolate. It was obviously the inferior cake.
Katie pointed at the big white cake and said, “I really want this cake.”
So I submitted. “As you wish.” It wasn’t that different from how I might defer to a friend or a stranger—or generally try to be a gentleman.
In all of the above circumstances, there are logical reasons to submit without ever having to invoke “submission.”
But do this enough, no matter the intentions, and it becomes a habit. “As you wish” has become a refrain in our house. If you make submission a habit, all of the above practices become natural. And these habits—deferring to your wife’s wisdom, acknowledging her different needs, trusting her judgment, seeking marital peace, and selflessly seeking her happiness—are the habits that constitute love.