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Help Needed!

I was recently handed a worksheet being used by a well respected marriage counselor in our area. It identified 5 types of troubled marriages and listed characteristics of each as talking points to help couples in crisis identify and address specific failings in their own marriages. The first 4 types dealt with communication, physical intimacy, conflicting values, and finances. The 5th type of troubled marriage addressed was called “the misaligned marriage.” Here is the list couples were to use for a misaligned marriage:

Failure of the husband:

  1. to be a spiritual leader
  2. to be financially responsible
  3. to make wise decisions
  4. to seek to solve
  5. to be attentive to his wife

Failure of the wife:

  1. by not having a gentle spirit
  2. by trying to control her husband
  3. by becoming involved in power struggles
  4. by withdrawing emotionally
  5. by being bitter and sarcastic

The supporting scripture given was Ephesians 5:22-25.

It was offensive to me on several levels. For instance, even if one were a complementarian, why are the husband’s implied roles overwhelmingly stated as positives: to be a leader, to make wise decisions; while the wife’s are negatives: to not control her husband, to not withdraw and not be bitter? To me, this list seems harmful even for a complementarian couple in crisis. While it might address the power hungry wife, it does nothing to protect a woman from a power hungry husband. It’s also difficult not to see this as a sad waste of what even a complementarian wife could add to a marriage. Isn’t she also required by scripture to make wise decisions, seek to solve problems, and be financially responsible? And what husband wants a foolish, contrary, financially irresponsible wife!

How could this list be re-written ?

How could marriages which are truly misaligned be corrected?

How can these issues be identified and addressed in counseling without resorting to artificial roles?

Author: Susan Larson
I'm an adjunct university instructor, former middle school teacher and former stay-at-home mom. I've been married for 35 years to a man who mostly gets my budding egalitarianism. We're members in a wonderful though predominantly complementarian church where this month I begin teaching a women's class using Carolyn Custis-James's The Gospel of Ruth, (a book I discovered at the CBE bookstore) so pray for me, for us! For His glory!


  1. Comment #96614 posted August 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    The first thing that bothers me is using Ephesians 5 and starting in the wrong place in the passage. Verse 21 begins the plan of mutual submission. Also so much more is directed at the husband and it is centered in the mystery of the church and Christ. For me it is not a handbook of roles but an encouragement to see Christ living out His life of sacrifice and relationship through a marriage where He is the center.

    • Michelle
      Comment #96615 posted August 17, 2012 at 3:06 pm

      That is not a bad starting point, and I’m sure someone posting after me will be able to add something more specific, but without (if I understand correctly) punctuation in the original Greek, translation can get tricky.

      In addition, from a translation perspective, in the original language, there’s a verb in v. 21, and no verb in v. 22. So where does the verb come from in v. 22, if not from v. 21?


      To give a reason for you to pose the question about the non-inclusion of v. 21 ;) , if you so desire it.

      I, too, was in a comp church as an egalitarian. I’m sorry that it can be tough sometimes.

    • Susan
      Comment #96635 posted August 20, 2012 at 5:26 pm

      Kathleen, I so appreciate your observation that as Christ is the center of a marriage, it follows that the contentious aspect of role assignment begins to take care of itself. That probably says more about the Word’s intention here than we evangelicals often recognize.

      Michelle, Thanks for the link!

  2. Comment #96616 posted August 17, 2012 at 6:22 pm

    Maybe it depends on what a person’s idea of misaligned would be. I think of misaligned as ‘not even’ or ‘unbalanced’ and whenever one person has more power than the other in a marriage (however they achieve it), that is ‘misaligned.

    So, I would find it difficult to work with the quoted lists because they have an emphasis of the husband being somehow more responsible and yet it all depending on the wife to enable him to be the ‘leader’ (which to my mind, makes her the ‘leader’)

    In answer to your second question about the correction of misalignment……I would offer the suggestion of helping the couple see that in God’s eyes they are on the same plane
    (aligned) and that as they grow into full respect for one another and learn to listen to one another they will find themselves working more together than worrying about who has what role. This would be a start…….

    • Susan
      Comment #96636 posted August 20, 2012 at 5:35 pm

      Liz, it’s an interesting contradiction, isn’t it, that in many complementarian arrangements the wife is given tremendous responsibility for the husband’s supposed leadership, which, as you say, makes her the de-facto leader.

      That really rubbed against the grain for me for a long time, but I wasn’t astute enough to articulate it.

      I think it contributes to the image of a weak male ego and so a terrible cycle is set up. The more the husband feels his leadership threatened, the more pressure for the wife to take a submissive posture while shoring up the weak ego which increasingly feels threatened and so on and so on – a damaging spiral.

      • Michelle
        Comment #96643 posted August 21, 2012 at 1:21 pm

        The latest thing I have heard is that the bruised egos of men (e.g., men returning to the homefront after war to find that women had been and were still doing jobs that were traditionally male) is evidence of men’s God-given role. Rather than a sinful bent to a perfectly healthy and good desire of humans to provide/work/help.

  3. Comment #96617 posted August 18, 2012 at 4:03 am

    In my opinion, healthy marriages can be pretty well encapsulated by the Sermon on the Mount. Humility, love, and servanthood are the rule–seeking how to work for the betterment of your spouse.

    I tend to think of Ephesians 5 as being no more or less than the Sermon on the Mount, specifically applied. If either spouse is seeking to domineer or control the other, something is off. If either spouse is refusing to lend their shoulder to the burden of financial responsibility, decision-making, child-rearing, etc., something is off. It seems to me that if we over complicate things by trying to parse every single job down into spouse-specific roles, it actually makes it much harder to live out Ephesians 5.

    Love. Serve. Forgive. Give. The rest will sort itself out.

  4. Comment #96618 posted August 18, 2012 at 7:02 am

    I’m wondering how this sort of list would be used by a counsellor. Usually there is questioning in the line of ‘how do you feel’, not ‘what are you failing to do’.

    It’s one of the cardinal rules for relationships to not accuse the other, but to admit how you feel about something which gives the other person opportunity to respond with what they meant.

  5. Comment #96619 posted August 18, 2012 at 8:37 am

    If you wish to take a big step in figuring out the immediate context of some verses, look for the starting and ending points of what is called technically the pericope (or teaching unit) or perhaps paragraph that the verses are contained in. One way to take text out of context is to rip verses from their pericope. The pericope in this case is (thought to be by most scholars) Eph 5:15-6:9. Note that it is a hack to divorce Eph 5:21 from Eph 5:22, altho the (so-called) household code does start there and finish at the end of the pericope.

    Eph 4-6 contain a series of pericopes that at first use the verb “walk” and then finish with the verb “stand” so this is a way to further unify Paul’s teaching. It is a fun exercise to figure out now that you know the clues to doing it. Paul is a Torah scholar, having been taught by Gamaliel, one of the most famous sages in Jewish history.

  6. Laurie
    Comment #96620 posted August 18, 2012 at 11:28 am

    “Eph 4-6 contain a series of pericopes that at first use the verb “walk” and then finish with the verb “stand” so this is a way to further unify Paul’s teaching. It is a fun exercise to figure out now that you know the clues to doing it. Paul is a Torah scholar, having been taught by Gamaliel, one of the most famous sages in Jewish history.”

    Very insightful Don. Worthy to keep and repeat.

  7. Comment #96621 posted August 18, 2012 at 12:24 pm

    Anytime someone proposes gender “roles” one easy first pass attempt at redeeming them is simply to make them apply to both genders, to make them symmetrical. This can be done in the above proposed list, for example. Both spouses should be a spiritual leader in their family and both spouses should strive to have a gentle spirit and should not try to control their spouse.

    Note that this may not work in every case, but it does work in a lot of them. It also exposes the supposed gender division lines to being arbitrary

  8. Michelle
    Comment #96622 posted August 18, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    I’m going to share my thoughts on this point by point. I hope your church is different than mine was. You probably already know or have thought of most of these things, but I’m troubled by this situation and wish I had more to offer.

    (ESV, as I know that’s what my PCA church switched to after the updated NIV was available. Which version is your church using?)

    Eph. 5:2-25
    22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

    25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

    Failure of the husband:

    1) to be a spiritual leader

    Okay, they’ll map this to the husband being the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the wife. There are many things “head” can mean other than “leader”: origin, beginning, literally the part of the body that sits on top of the spine. But I doubt they’d be open to discussion on this.

    2) to be financially responsible

    Where are finances mentioned in these verses, if these verses are the only ones they are using? I suppose it gets mapped to submitting in everything.

    3) to make wise decisions

    Decisionmaking also not specifically mentioned in these verses.

    4) to seek to solve

    What is the husband trying to solve? Certainly there is no puzzle or anything else mentioned in these verses about “solving”.

    5) to be attentive to his wife

    This is not the same as laying down his life for his wife.

    25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,

    What hierarchical complementarians often miss here is that it is not merely an “I’d take a bullet for her,” attitude. It’s a *daily* choice. Christ gave up his life with the father not only by sacrificing his body, but also by making the sacrifice to come to live with us in the first place. He experienced a separation from God that was previously unknown to him, every. day.

    In a fallen world where the stronger (e.g., physically, financially, possessing more of whatever is valued in a particular culture/subculture) rule, however politely, the weaker–that is to say, the world we currently live in–this is the sort of life men are being asked to live for their wife.

    Do NOT let them trap you into the whole “We’re countercultural to feminist influences” argument. The fact that sexism is alive and well in US aside, Christianity is worldwide, and there are many, many places where women are oppressed, all over the world. There are some places where there is less sexism than in the US. So, is Christianity counter to the culture in that handful of countries?

    • Michelle
      Comment #96623 posted August 18, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      Well, you can see that none of this, as it is presented, comes from the scripture they cite. And I agree with you that it is more focused on who a wife is, or how she behaves , than what she does. I actually find a few of them unsurprising that a comp therapist would be concerned about, since they’re a reasonable reaction to being the person with less power in a complementarian relationship. But I digress. And I’m sorry I’m probably not bringing anything new to the table. But just in case I might….

      Failure of the wife:

      1) by not having a gentle spirit

      This is a part of their understanding of the nature of submission as unilateral.

      2) by trying to control her husband

      This would be great if it were mutual.

      3) by becoming involved in power struggles

      Ditto 1 and 2.

      4) by withdrawing emotionally

      This is not an unreasonable reaction to being in a marriage where one person has been designated the supervisor over another.

      5) by being bitter and sarcastic

      Ditto 4.

      I hate to say, check out Proverbs 31, but she is a lot more active than some folks notice when they read it, because they know what they expect.

      She has agency: She conducts business (real estate, clothing, a vineyard) and the verses don’t talk about her consulting her husband on all these decisions. I wish I had more to offer.

      Proverbs 31:16-18
      16 She considers a field and buys it;
      with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
      17 She dresses herself[b] with strength
      and makes her arms strong.
      18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
      Her lamp does not go out at night.

      My prayers are with y’all.

      • Susan
        Comment #96637 posted August 20, 2012 at 6:35 pm

        Michelle, it was in reading Prov. 31 with fresh eyes that originally convinced me that the hierarchical view misrepresented the Biblical view of women.

        Apropos to your comment, notice vs. 11a: “The heart of her husband trusts in her.” I think this is why she doesn’t need to consult him. Trust is essential to a healthy intimate relationship. But how does the counseling list promote trust, I wonder!

        As you point out, the “failures” addressed in the list: bitterness, emotional withdrawal and manipulation (power struggle) are “not an unreasonable reaction to being in a marriage where one person has been designated the supervisor over another.”

        • Michelle
          Comment #96642 posted August 21, 2012 at 1:17 pm

          That’s neat about Proverbs 31! Yes, the verse you mention there did stand out to me, but I wasn’t sure with what to link it.

          Please excuse me–everyone else made great points, but those points would not have meant a hill of beans in my old church. The idea that women and men are different creatures with different desires and needs was SO ingrained there. That’s why I was trying to stick pretty strictly in some form or fashion to the document with which you were provided. I’m hoping your experience differs greatly and positively from mine!

          Thank you for asking for help, here.

  9. Comment #96624 posted August 18, 2012 at 5:22 pm

    Reading through the “wife” side- way to crush the spirit of women in oppressive marriages! Every item on that list sounds to me like guilt-tripping a wife who has already been browbeaten by bad doctrine into powerlessness.

    Is a wife’s desire to control her husband a negative? Should she have influence and authority within marriage? You don’t have to look far to find the male propensity to control, rule, exercise authority baptized as good Christian husbandry. I got nearly 8 million hits when I google searched “Bible husband ‘head of the household‘” (even though it’s a myth that the Bible ever designates the husband as the exclusive head of the household! The husband is head of the WIFE but that is an intimacy metaphor, not an authority metaphor.) But a wife desiring authority/control in the relationship? Can you find any encouragement and support for that anywhere among evangelicals?

    What are the results of a wife being denied any control/influence over her husband? In developing countries, the results are a big problem, with men spending money on alcohol and other vices while neglecting their families’ welfare. In my own background as a practitioner of Quiver Full teachings, I surrendered to my husband complete control over where we lived, how many children I had, whether I worked outside the home or not, whether I homeschooled the children or not, whether any of us received medical treatment or not, the “permission to participate in activities” of everyone in the family, how money was spent, what kind of vacuum cleaner we owned, etc. And I had no control/influence over how he spent money or time (which turned to vices during several seasons of our marriage). It was an oppressive lifestyle which sucked the life right out of me.

    I submit that the high divorce rate among evangelical Christians is rooted in marriage killing doctrines which rob evangelical wives of authority and influence within their marriages and then guilt trip them for their “failure” when their spirits are crushed.

  10. Comment #96625 posted August 18, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    To get back to the questions that the writer of this post is actually posing and seeking some answers to. I note that in the substance of the first part of the post it is mentioned that communication, physical intimacy, conflicting values and finance have already been addressed. These questions relate to what has been termed a ‘misaligned’ marriage.

    I presume that to mean that the marriage partners are on different pages in respect to the performance and health of their marriage. The list, as presented, is a strictly complementarian list with anticipated complementarian outcomes and cannot be used to assist marriages generally, and in fact, as the author has suggested, would even be harmful to complementarian couples because the wife is completely disempowered.

    How could this list be re-written?

    Well, for a start I would get rid of the ‘failures’ relating to the husband and wife separately and state the questions to the couple together in this way.

    Failure of the Husband or Wife …

    1) To be spiritually alive and able to discern what is best for one another.
    2) To be financially responsible, considering first the welfare of the marriage.
    3) To work together, consulting and considering one another to make wise decisions.
    4) To seek to gently resolve conflict and ultimately solve issues of tension.
    5) To be attentive and considerate of the needs of the other marriage partner.

    Then in dealing with the questions that were related to the wife, again I would put them to both the husband and the wife in this way.

    Failure of the Husband or Wife …

    1) To always approach issues of conflict with a gentle spirit.
    2) To resist attempts to control or manipulate their marriage partner.
    (even if they feel that they are ‘privileged’ to do so)
    3) To resist becoming involved in power struggles.
    4) To resist withdrawing emotionally. (because men do that too when threatened)
    5) To resist becoming bitter and sarcastic.

    How could marriages which are truly misaligned be corrected?

    Well I think that by looking at the questions, as related to both marriage partners, as listed above, would go a long way toward helping to resolve the tensions in a misaligned marriage and help the couple to get together on the same page.

    How can these issues be identified and addressed in counseling without resorting to artificial roles?

    Again, if we separate them from gendered responsibility as I have done in relating the failures as being committed by the husband or the wife this has got to be a way forward.

    • Comment #96626 posted August 18, 2012 at 9:16 pm

      I should have added here that in approaching the questions in this way would also be more in line with what everyone has said already about a more correct rendition of the meaning behind the Ephesians 5 passage.

    • Comment #96630 posted August 19, 2012 at 7:09 pm

      IME a “power struggle” is a necessity if one has been living in a “one way submission” marriage paradigm because the power balance of the marriage is way off. So I would not put “power struggle” under a “failure” label. Great progress can happen through power struggles- eg freeing the slaves, women getting the vote, etc..

      Since women are chastised for anything but “gentle and quiet”, those trapped with men who will not receive their influence wind up exercising their power by getting divorced. Marriage researcher Gottman has observed:

      This observation led me to formulate the hypothesis that marriages work to the extent that men accept influence from, share power with women. Next I applied this to a longitudinal study of 130 nonviolent newlywed couples and found that, amazingly, those [marriages] in which the men who did not accept influence from their wives wound up divorced.The prediction rate was very good, 80% accuracy , and it did not work the other way around: Most wives accepted influence from their husbands, and the acceptance predicted nothing. Gottman pg 52 (link)

      • Comment #96631 posted August 19, 2012 at 9:37 pm

        Mmmm. Excellent point Charis. I guess that I included that thought (from the original document) without really thinking it through. Thanks for raising that and the book you cite looks really interesting. Will check it out further.

  11. Comment #96627 posted August 18, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    I have a problem with using the word ‘failure’ for either person. Always best to frame questions in a positive way. I’ll do as Don and Trevor suggest and make the questions suitable for either the wife or the husband.

    It sends alarm bells when questions are aimed at just one half of a union and could encourage separatism rather than mutually working together.

    * Are you taking initiative in this relationship to help the other person be the best they can be in their Christian walk ?

    * Are you financially responsible in your planning and spending ?

    * Do you pray together and ask God to help you make wise decisions ?

    * Do you try to be a good listener and attempt to build up your husband/wife in love ?

    * Could it be said of you that you have a gentle spirit ?

    * Are you aware that sometimes you could be attempting to control your wife/husband ?

    * Do you get into power struggles at times and how could this be averted ?

    * Would you consider that withdrawing emotionally is something you have done ?

    * Do you consciously ask God to help you with your attitude so you don’t become bitter and sarcastic in your manner ?

    I have left out the one about ‘seek to solve’ because I don’t understand what is meant.

    Maybe each person could have such a list and work on it on their own before sharing with the counsellor, then the couple could get together and talk about how they answered

  12. Comment #96628 posted August 18, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    On further reflection I’m thinking about the use of that word ‘misaligned’ as it appears in the original marriage counseling document. When I consider possible meanings I think of something being impossibly ‘out of alignment’ and in the context of the document it suggests that because the husband and wife are not fulfilling their respective roles they cannot possibly be aligned. For the complementarian alignment means things being in their proper order, in this case an order that is hierarchical, that is, from the top down.

    To extend the metaphor in another way. The husband is ‘out of line’ when he is not fulfilling his function according to the set of questions that have been devised for him. In the same way the wife is ‘out of line’ when she is not fulfilling her function in the way that the questions have been devised for her. The questions, as originally framed, only have meaning if one assumes that the complementarian viewpoint is the only viewpoint on which to base a healthy marriage. It would certainly not be suitable for people who approached their marriage in a ‘soft’ complementarian, let alone egalitarian way.

    Egalitarians would argue to the contrary and suggest that such a legalistic approach to marital harmony is one sided, favoring the man and his (assumed) ‘privileged’ position as the designated leader of the household. Where this lopsided arrangement can lead is amply described by Charis in her comments above. The Ephesian passage suggests mutual submission and therefore both husband and wife sharing responsibility equally for the success of the marriage. I like the way Liz has framed the questions without apportioning blame but initiating positive conversation and encouraging an expression of feelings.

    • Susan
      Comment #96638 posted August 20, 2012 at 7:17 pm

      Great re-writes, Trevor and Liz.

      I think the meaning of misalignment is critical (and we don’t know the original intention of the author). It’s difficult for me to interpret it apart from power. But if power is a primary consideration, the marriage is bound for trouble already.

      Charis, you provide a stark example of the problem of blindly placing all power in one partner in a marriage (power corrupts . . . . ?). It really frightens me to think of this list being used for a troubled marriage in which the husband is bent on exercising all power. You make a good point that in that case it is almost incumbent upon the wife to engage in a struggle, to confront, rather than to assume the overwhelmingly passive stance described in the list.

      On the other hand, if both partners in a troubled marriage are willing to submit to each other, then the list as Liz rephrases it above would be great as talking points in which TOGETHER husband and wife examine the issues: “I think I have a pretty gentle spirit, but what do you think. Do you see me exercising gentleness?” Or, “You say I’m distant. Where have I withdrawn from you emotionally?”

      This changes the tone. Instead of a kind of applying roles over each other, husband and wife move toward each other in a posture of listening and (hopefully!) humility.

      • Comment #96644 posted August 22, 2012 at 8:15 am

        “if both partners in a troubled marriage are willing to submit to each other”

        Big “if”. The most helpful resources for me were things that taught me how to establish boundaries and stand up for myself (and the children).

        “Boundaries in Marriage” by Cloud and Townsend
        “Sacred Influence” by Gary Thomas
        “Why Does he Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men” by Lundy Bancroft

        All of them address how to handle a resistant partner. eg, this is from “Boundaries in Marriage”

        Let’s suppose your spouse is aware of your feelings and concerns, but ignores, minimizes, or otherwise resists your boundaries. If this is your situation, you have some work ahead of you. It is hard work, but it can also be the most productive thing you will ever do for your marriage…You must not approach this problem as if you are a team. At this point, you have an adversary. Like a child having a tantrum, your spouse may hate you for entering the world of boundaries. So understand that you are on your own, within the marriage, in approaching the issue. Actually, you are not alone; you have God… But you don’t expect much cooperation from your spouse.

  13. Comment #96629 posted August 18, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    Our favourite verse for marriage is Ephesians 4: 32

    “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another even as God in Christ Jesus has forgiven you”

    Doesn’t answer the questions but is a great foundation on which to build a relationship.

  14. Comment #96632 posted August 20, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Gottman is great as he bases his ideas on what works and what does not work.

  15. Red
    Comment #96634 posted August 20, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Most of these apply to both partners, or will apply to an individual partner based on their particular strengths, rather than their gender.

    to be a spiritual leader

    That’s unhelpful, because neither partner is the spiritual leader all the time. It depends on what life season they are in, and which one has more insight about a particular problem. What SHOULD be emphasized is that both parties need to put God’s will above their own, and their spouse’s best interest as their high priority.

    to be financially responsible
    to make wise decisions
    to seek to solve
    to be attentive to (the other spouse)

    None of these are husband-specific. If a wife is financially irresponsible, or continually makes unwise decisions, isn’t active about being a problem-solver and is inattentive to her husband (all of which I have seen in women) that is going to be a pretty sad marriage.

    Now for the wifey stuff.

    by not having a gentle spirit

    This one is just dumb. How on earth can you read the NT and not come away with the impression that gentleness of spirit is for all believers of all genders and ages??

    by trying to control (the other spouse)
    by becoming involved in power struggles
    by withdrawing emotionally
    by being bitter and sarcastic

    Do they really think wives are the only ones who do these things? Seriously? I can think of many, many couples, just off the top of my head, where these things were more a problem for the man than the woman. That is so blatantly NOT gender-specific that it feels as crazy as someone saying “The sky is not blue, it’s neon green.”

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