This post will either please a lot of people or make a lot of people mad. I'm excited to see which it is.
My husband and I entered marriage as complementarians. We believed God’s plan for marriage was for the husband to be the head of the household, to be a servant leader while the wife submitted to his leadership. I knew Justin loved me and I trusted him, so I didn’t have a problem with this idea. I also knew that he valued my judgment, in some cases above his own, and he wouldn’t make decisions without me.
I don't think Justin was ever comfortable with the “leader” part of the “servant leader” title. He worried that he would make a bad decision, or that exercising his authority would undervalue or invalidate my input. We thought that the husband’s authority was more like “veto power” if we couldn’t agree on something (something C. S. Lewis suggested in Mere Christianity). While we were dating and engaged, we tried to work out problems together, as a team, and that didn’t change when we got married. The handful of times he said he was making an executive decision were not even about things we disagreed on (usually this had to do with my personal safety, like when he told me he didn’t want me to give rides to strangers). With few exceptions, Justin shied away from exercising authority or making unilateral decisions. He didn’t feel like a leader type, and he questioned himself a lot. He wasn’t sure how to lead.
That said, becoming egalitarian was my husband’s idea. (Yes, it's ironic.)
I am a creature of habit. In my free time, I read the same books and watch the same TV shows over and over. In college, I ate the same things every day for breakfast and lunch, and alternated between three different meals for dinner. I like to sit in the same spot in a room, drive the same route, go grocery shopping on a particular day of the week, etc. Justin is adventurous by nature. As a child he would purposely get lost in the woods so he could learn to find his way. He’s always looking for new movies, new music, new books, new ideas, new things happening in the world. Let me say it this way: he loves Twitter and I don’t.
Over the past two years, Justin has cultivated several relationships online. Doing so has exposed him to people and philosophies that you just don’t encounter in a small, rural town. He has had many conversations with people that, over time, led him to the belief that God’s real intention for marriage, and for the world as a whole, is egalitarian: for there to be “no distinction between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female, for all are one in Christ.”
When he first started talking to me about this, I was nervous. If he wasn’t the leader in our relationship, did that mean I was? I wasn’t too thrilled with that idea, because although I’m a Type A personality, I’m also incredibly indecisive, and I’d so much rather have somebody else tell me what to do than be responsible to make choices that involve other people. Was Justin abandoning his role as leader because he didn’t feel up to it? I really didn’t know. But I did some reading and thinking and conversing of my own, and to make a long story short, eventually I did come to the same conclusion as my husband.
Now, I’m not here to tell other couples what kind of relationship they should have. This is not a post about why I think egalitarianism is right or what makes a relationship formula good or bad, so I’m not going to go into why or how I came to those beliefs. You can do your own research and come to your own conclusions. As I heard someone on Focus on the Family say once, it’s more important that you agree with your spouse on this issue, than that you agree with me. I’m also not going to try to say that all complementarian marriages look a certain way, or that all egalitarian marriages look like ours does now. I’m just sharing our story, because I think it has an interesting turn.
You see, I noticed a change in Justin around the time he embraced egalitarianism. He became more assertive, more confident in expressing his opinion, more confident in himself than I had known him to be before. Now, these things may all just be the natural consequences of growing up, but I really think that egalitarianism played a big part in that. It took the pressure off him, and that has made him feel free to think and speak and act without fear that he’s going to bring down our whole family by making an error in judgment. Since he sees us as equals in office now, not just in value, he feels secure that our joint decisions will yield the best results, whether those decisions come from his ideas or mine.
The strictly complementarian definition of manhood describes one type of man, and Justin, in many ways, doesn’t fit that description. According to complementarianism, I should feel discontented in my marriage if my husband isn't cutting it as a leader. Justin always felt bad about not having certain so-called "masculine" personality traits; I think those feelings were compounded by the fear that I would be disappointed in him if he didn't live up to the traditional stereotype that's marketed as "biblical manhood." Now that he sees he doesn’t need to fit a mold he clearly wasn’t made for, now that he’s free to be himself, Justin is learning to accept himself, to appreciate his own strengths.
At the same time, though, Justin’s taken more of a leadership position in our marriage, especially by exposing me to ideas that are new to me and encouraging me to learn and grow with him. When we talk about what we believe, what's important to us and how we want to raise our children, he's a lot more confident than he used to be in saying what he thinks. He’s introduced me to books and blogs that have helped me shape my opinions. Like I said before, Justin is naturally inquisitive and interested in learning new things. It turns out that’s where his true leadership potential lies. In this phase of our lives, it’s like he’s exploring a new, unknown wood, but he’s taking me along for the adventure. It’s challenging and thrilling and scary and exhilarating, and I wouldn’t have attempted it without him. Letting Justin be himself has given him the freedom to become more than he was able to be before.
I still describe our relationship as “egalitarian” – we don’t fit the traditional roles in terms of who makes the money or balances the books, and instead of having a leader and a follower, we try to submit to each other as we both follow Christ. Sometimes one of us has to be strong and lead the other for a while, and sometimes the other one does. We lean on each other and learn from each other and take on whatever “role” we need to in a given situation. I wouldn’t attempt to hold up our relationship as the paragon of marriages – we have stuff to work on, like everybody else – but I love our marriage and I love the way our relationship works.
As I said before, it's not my intention in this post to tell anybody what method they need to follow. I wanted to share our story because I think it shows that being "complementarian" or "egalitarian" doesn't always look the way you think it does. As we shifted to a more egalitarian marriage, my husband began to cultivate some of the traits complementarian husbands are supposed to have; I find that funny, but I don't really know what to do with it. At the end of the day, I don't think the purpose of marriage is to master a relationship model - whether it's complementarianism, egalitarianism, or any other formula. I don't wake up every morning and think "How can I assert my egalitarian-ness today?" I think about what I can do to love my husband better.
Today is our third anniversary, and I'm happy to say we are not the people we were on the day we said our vows. I'm also excited to see how different we'll be in another three years, or in another thirty. Life is a journey, and wherever it takes us, however it changes us, we're in it together and that's what counts.