What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?

Man + Woman = Confusion?

There are few issues so hotly debated in today’s society as the roles of men and women toward each other and in society. The arguments range all the way from those who maintain that man is created to rule and woman to serve, to those who maintain that there are no significant differences between men and women besides the physical differences required for human reproduction. In other words, we humans are mightily confused about the roles of women and men!

Traditionalists in the largely Christian parts of the world often point to the Bible in support of their view that man is meant to be in charge and woman is meant to serve man. But a look at how men and women were first created tells a slightly different story!

In many ways, the roles of men and women have not changed all that much over the centuries. Yet today, in this era of change, one thing is new: both women and men have far more choice as to what roles they will play and what they will devote their lives to. The grip of church and state on our personal lives has loosened—and this opens up new possibilities for how men and women will relate to one another, and how we will each contribute to society.

How to Get into Trouble

Want to get someone mad? Just publicly say anything definite about the differences between men and women, and someone will get mad! The relationship between women and men and their roles in society has been a touchy subject for well over a century now.

That’s not surprising. Our gender is a core part of who we are. We identify ourselves as male or female, and that colors everything we think, feel, say, and do. If we are confused about our sexual identity, it spreads confusion over our whole life. And when we feel blocked or trapped because of our sex, it can create intense frustration and anger. Why should our whole life be determined by whether we happened to be born male or female?

When it comes to religion, gender roles are an especially loaded issue. It’s one thing if we humans have set up a system in which there are certain expectations of women and different expectations of men. But if our religion says that God has set things up so that women and men are obliged to play certain roles, it takes the struggle over this issue to a whole new level. Many people have rejected Christianity over this very issue.

Can we say anything at all about gender roles from a Christian perspective and not just get people mad?

Let’s give it a try, and see how we do.

Ancient Views of Men and Women

In today’s society, gender roles are in flux. Many women are out in the workforce doing traditionally male jobs. Men are often reluctant to take on traditionally female roles, yet many men find themselves serving as caregivers, or taking orders from female bosses at work.

For many centuries and in many cultures, the roles of men and women were much more distinct. Men were in charge and women served them. Women bore children, cared for them, and did most of their work in and around the household and the neighborhood. Men worked out in the wider world, interacting with the larger society and engaging in its business. Men provided for and protected the households and communities where the women engaged in their duties and raised the children. When the men returned home from their labors and their battles, women took care of their needs.

These roles of men and women toward each other and in society have been consistent enough throughout enough of history that they may seem to have been ordained by God from the beginning.

What does the Bible say about this?

The Bible has had a profound influence on Western views about the roles of men and women. Yet what we find in the first three chapters of Genesis may surprise you. It is true that in the Bible story women soon become subservient to men. But that’s not how it was from the beginning. Let’s take a closer look.

From Genesis 1 to Genesis 3

Many Christians look to the creation of Eve from Adam in Genesis 2 as the story that defines the relationship between men and women. Yet that story is put second, after the initial creation story in Genesis 1, for a reason.

It helps to understand that these early chapters of the Bible were not originally written to be taken as literal accounts of historical events. Instead, like the myths of many cultures, they are stories that speak of the spiritual origins and journeys of humankind using a symbolic language that reads on the surface like primeval history in poetic form.

From a literary perspective, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 were not originally meant to be read sequentially. Each is a self-contained creation myth telling its own story. These two ancient creation stories were collected from two different oral traditions, written down, and placed one after the other in the Bible. Despite the valiant efforts of Biblical literalists to harmonize the two as if they were two different angles on same story, they simply don’t agree with each other in the overall order in which God created things or in the details of exactly how God created the earth and all the plants, animals, and humans that populate it.

From a symbolic and spiritual perspective, though, the two stories harmonize perfectly. They are like two different verses of the same song. The story of the seven days of creation in Genesis 1 and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2 represent two different phases of human spiritual and social development, one following after the other.

With this in mind, let’s look at the first three chapters of Genesis with a specific eye to men, women, and their relationship to each other and to God.

Genesis 1: Man and Woman are Created Equal

In Genesis 1, the creation of man and woman comes on day six. It is so compact that it would be easy to pass right over it without noticing the specific meaning contained in it. Here are the words from Genesis 1:26–27:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God created humankind in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Did you notice it? When men and women were first created by God, they were created equally in the image of God, and both together were to rule over everything on earth. Men and women were originally created equal.

However, that early stage of equality in which “God saw everything he made, and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:31) did not last.

Genesis 2: Woman as a Helper and Partner for Man

In the second creation story, God also creates humankind—though in Genesis 2 the same Hebrew word is sometimes translated as “man” or “humankind” and sometimes as the name “Adam.” If we read these stories as spiritually symbolic rather than as literally descriptive, it all makes sense.

After each day of creation in Genesis 1 God pronounces the things he has made that day “good.” The first thing in the Bible that God says is not good is found in Genesis 2:18: “And the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper for him as his partner.’” This helper, of course, turned out to be Eve, who was created out of a rib taken from Adam while he slept (Genesis 2:21–23). We can gather two points from this story:

  1. In Genesis 2, the original equality of man and woman in Genesis 1 gives way to a situation in which woman is assigned to be a helper and companion to man.
  2. This takes place only after humanity fell away from the original “very good” state that God created us in, into a state in which something was “not good.”

But even this shift toward some inequality in the relationship between man and woman is mild compared to what happens next.

Genesis 3: Woman Ruled by Man

In Genesis 3 things go seriously wrong. You know the story. The serpent tempts Eve. Eve eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and gives some to her husband, who also eats. Having disobeyed God’s direct order not to eat from that tree, Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden of Eden . . . but not before both they and the serpent have received harsh words from God.

What God says to Eve includes these words: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).

“Aha!” say the traditionalists. “God did say that man should rule over woman.”

Not exactly. God said that because Eve had disobeyed God by eating from that (symbolic) tree, her husband would rule over her.

In other words, the thousands of years of history in which woman has been ruled by man are a result of humankind willfully disobeying God, and falling away from the kind of life for which God originally created us. In Genesis 1 God created man and woman to be equal. It was when humankind progressed first to things that were not good in Genesis 2, and then to open rebellion against God in Genesis 3, that the sexes fell from their original equality to a state of inequality.

The rest of the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New Testament, speak to humans who are in that fallen state. Accordingly, much of the Bible treats woman as subservient to man.

A Choice of Roles

Yes, most of the Bible presents rather traditional roles for women and for men. Yet our walk through the first few chapters of Genesis shows that the God of the Bible offers—and even prefers—other possibilities.

What it boils down to in practical terms is that the Bible gives us choices in our roles. Those choices are on a sliding scale from God’s original will right down to what we humans do when we’ve mucked things up pretty badly. Depending on where we fall on that scale, we can use any one of the three general role arrangements presented in the first three chapters of Genesis—and whatever variations on them that we may come up with.

Some people prefer a traditional setup in which men are in charge and women serve them. In this setup men provide and protect while women care for the home, the children, and their husbands. If everyone involved is happy with this arrangement, who’s to say it’s wrong? It can be very satisfying for both the women and the men if both take their responsibilities seriously and there is mutual respect.

Some people prefer a little more equality. Perhaps the woman’s life does revolve around the man’s more than the other way around. She sees herself as his helper and partner. She has a greater role in making joint decisions, and likely works part-time outside the home, adding her part-time pay to her husband’s full-time pay to make up the total family income. This, too, can be satisfying for both the women and the men if there is mutual respect and both take responsibility for their own contributions.

And some people prefer full equality, in which all major decisions are made jointly, the income is more or less equal between the two, and both have their tasks and duties within as well as outside the home. There may still be a division of labor based on the types of things each prefers to do—though that division of labor may sometimes involve a reversal of the usual male and female roles. Whatever tasks each takes on, these will be equally valued, and neither the man nor the woman will be seen as primary. Each will be an equal half of the whole.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that today, especially in the West, instead of the church or state imposing particular roles, both women and men have choices about what roles they wish to take.

Man + Woman = Completeness

The biological and social evidence so far suggests that even when there is no external pressure, women and men will freely choose varying roles in marriage and in society. And even when doing the same jobs, men and women tend to approach things differently. These different approaches often do follow the traditional view of men taking a more intellectual and goal-oriented approach while women take a more emotional and relationship-oriented approach.

Does this mean that men can’t feel and women can’t think? Obviously not. That idea comes from an old, one-dimensional view of men, women, and their relationship to one another. Women excel in colleges and universities, and men can be quite passionate about life and relationships.

Let’s look at it a different way. Physically, women and men have almost all the same body parts, but with subtle differences. In particular, both have heads, hearts, and hands. Both can think, feel, and accomplish things. But the way each thinks, feels, and goes about doing things is different, just as the heads, hearts, and hands of men and women are different.

Yin Yang in red and blue

Yin Yang

Here’s an idea to take home with you: Hidden away within a man is a love and passion that drives him to accomplish his goals, great or small. But he tends to express himself outwardly in cooler, more intellectual and mechanical ways. Meanwhile, the intellect that a man presents outwardly a woman holds inwardly as a wisdom that can give her deep insight into human minds and hearts. But she tends to express herself outwardly in warmer, more emotional and relational ways. Like the ancient symbol of yin and yang, one hides inwardly what the other expresses outwardly.

And also like the yin and yang, we are not complete individually or as a society without the presence and contributions of both male and female. Yes, sometimes man plus woman does equal confusion. But from a deeper perspective, man plus woman equals completeness.

This article is © 2013 by Lee Woofenden

For further reading:


Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in The Bible Re-Viewed
18 comments on “What are the Roles of Men and Women toward Each Other and in Society?
  1. Kim says:

    I agree with many of the things you said. Many commenters say that men and women were EQUAL before the fall. As far as value goes, men and women were equal before the fall and after it. The fall had absolutely no bearing on a man or woman’s worth in the eyes of God. God’s eyes being one thing and men’s eyes being quite another. God established Adam’s headship authority before the fall. Several things illustrate that:
    1. Adam was made first.
    2. Woman came out of man, and not other way around.
    3. Adam was instructed to tend garden (Gen 2:15). Adam named the animals (Gen 2:20). He was given a job and responsibility before he was given a wife.
    4. Adam received instruction directly from God about not eating from tree firsthand (Gen 2:16-17). Eve hadn’t been created at that time.
    5. God gave Adam the authority to name the woman. The woman didn’t name Adam (Gen 2:23).
    6. After sin was committed, God questioned the man rather than the woman. (Gen 3:9)
    7. Sin entered the world through Adam and not Eve. (Rom 5:12)

    I’ve heard so many teachers talk about the fact that man and woman were equal before the fall. However, several things illustrate a very distinct difference in Adam’s sphere of responsibility and authority and Eve’s, and those things were established Pre-Fall. As you mentioned, Eve was created as a Helper for Adam. Helpers submit and/or yield to the needs and plans of another. Teachings that suggest Adam and Eve were equal (equal being a very humanistic word. Bible speaks of oneness more so than equality) Pre-fall fail to acknowledge the very distinct duties and authority that God gave Adam and not Eve before the fall ever came into play. These were not slight differences, but very distinct and demonstrative ones. I do agree with your interpretation of Genesis 3:16.

    Unfortunately, far too many Christian men and women see a wife’s service and submission to her husband as part of her ultimate punishment (curse of Eve) rather than part of God’s original design and divine order for marriage. Unfortunately, that’s why so many men feel justified in abusing their wives, and many wives feel discouraged and believe that God doesn’t love women because He’s only out to punish them for Eve’s transgressions. The way we view the concept of submission (or anything else for that matter) as punishment or original design/ divine order will surely affect how we carry it out. Thanks for your post and time.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Kim,

      Thanks for your long and thoughtful comment. I have responded it to in it a new post titled “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”


    • here and now says:

      “Woman came out of man, and not other way around.”
      Before she came out of man she was……. a portion of the man. This is why it takes the two (male and female) to become one flesh (complete being). Neither ‘gender’ is complete in their own and neither inferior or superior, ( different but equal) Generally speaking, where man is weak woman is strong. Where woman is weak, man is strong.
      When in harmony, the genders compliment each other. Note, compliment, not compete. Men are not women and women are not men. Never have been, never will be regardless of what pop culture or feminism would like you to believe, or try to force in reality.
      Simply put, no matter how hard you try to put the square peg into the round hole, it ain’t gonna happen.
      It’s always fascinating that feminists knee jerk over ‘wives submit’ and never bother to look what was required of the husband. You might be amazed.
      Honestly, feminists get all a flutter over ‘submission’, but incorrectly define it because it suits their purposes to do so and because they simply do not understand what true submission is. It is not weakness and it is not an admission of inferiority..
      It’s an acknowledgement that we are different, yet equal.
      It’s not a power struggle for dominance, it’s team US, one flesh, building each other up, not tearing each other down because of our own insecurities.
      My wife submits to my authority in matters that I am the authority of. Likewise, I submit to her lead where she has the expertise and is clearly the authority.
      True story, she taught me how to dance because she knew how and I did not. It was incredibly difficult for her because she was leading me while trying to teach me how to lead her, without it seeming as though she were leading me, while also trying to do her part.
      I did not feel slighted, or emasculated. I had a real desire to learn because it is something that she enjoys. It was a lot of fun as well.
      Originally, Adam was complete. The Eve (feminine) was taken from him for a worthy companion, ( and how wonderful she can be). Also to procreate the species.
      Woman means Man with womb (womb man).
      God makes the point several times through out the old and new testaments that he is no respecter of persons and that he does not favor, or hold in higher esteem, one (gender) over the other.

      • Lee says:

        Hi here and now,

        Thanks for your comment.

        I agree with you that in God’s eyes, man and woman are different but equal. (And with the French, I say, vive la différence!)

        Unfortunately, we human beings seem to have a very hard time seeing men and women as being equal in our differences.

        That’s why I can’t get all aflutter about feminists—who are, after all, a very diverse group, with a wide range of views about female, male, and the relationship between the two. The fact is, men on their own have not put an end to the pervasive gender inequality and abuse of women that has persisted throughout the world from ancient times right up to the present. This is a wrong that must be righted. And though I often don’t agree with various feminists’ views on the nature of male and female, I fully support the effort to bring about justice for women in our society and throughout the world—an effort that the feminist movement has spearheaded.

        Now about “Woman came out of man” (Kim’s words, not mine), while I think I may agree with what you are saying on the subject, it can easily be read the wrong way.

        Based on the Hebrew words used in Genesis 2, woman did not come out of “man,” but out of “humankind.” There’s enough variation in the way the various Hebrew words for man, woman, and humans in general are used to prevent any truly hard-and-fast conclusions. However, from a spiritual perspective and from a linguistic perspective, there is almost as strong a case to be made that “Adam” or “humankind” was not originally male, but included both genders or was genderless, as that woman was created out of man. This would mean that when Eve was created out of Adam, a humanity that was formerly not specified as to gender was being divided and distinguished into male and female. This, too, cannot be made as a hard-and-fast conclusion from the original Hebrew text. I’m bringing it up more as a cautionary note not to read too much into the traditional idea and interpretation that woman was created out of man.

        For more on these issues of male, female, and the relationship between the two, I invite you to read my article responding to Kim’s comment: “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”

        Oh, and the word “woman” is not actually derived from “womb-man.”

        Thanks again for your comment!

  2. Tim says:

    Interesting posts but I should say that one of the best ways to understand the role of man and woman (husband and wife) is to simply look at the relationship and role of our Lord Jesus Christ toward his Church and vice versa. If God used this as an example, it surely has one or two things to tell us as pertaining to how God expects us to play our roles in marriage. We cannot deny that Jesus is the head. We cannot deny that the church must submit to the head who is Jesus and never claim “equality” with him although we are one.

    The church is one with Jesus but must submit and recognise that He is the head.
    Yet we must also not lose sight of Jesus’ genuine love for the church. That loves makes him our servant. Love serves, submission tend to do the same as well.

    So I think we should not shy away from admitting that man is the head. I also feel that when we think like the world we will struggle to accept that woman should submit to the head (husband). Similarly, many men fail to understand that if they should love as God has commanded, they will never demand submission from their wives – Jesus never does.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Tim,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree that the marriage of the Lord and the Church is one way to understand the marriage between a man and a woman. But it is not the only way.

      The Bible does talk about the marriage between Christ and the Church. But it also talks about God creating man and woman together, both in the image of God, and giving both of them together rulership over the earth and its creatures (Genesis 1:27-30). It was only afterwards, when humankind fell away from the ideal situation in which God created them, that inequality entered into human marriages.

      For more on this, see the article:
      Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis

      Further, if we do model our marriages after the marriage between Christ and the church, we must keep in mind, as you say, that the Lord himself did not exercise authority or demand obedience from his disciples. In fact, as you say, he said that he was among them as one who serves. And to show what he meant, he washed their feet–which was the work of servants and the lower classes in ancient Mediterranean societies.

      In short, those “Christian men” who think that they can order their wives around, and that their wives must obey them and wait on them hand and foot, are very far from following the example that Jesus Christ set for us. If these “Christian men” truly want to follow the Lord’s example, they should be getting their wives’ slippers for them and massaging their wives’ tired feet, and not the other way around.

  3. OKRickety says:

    “From a literary perspective, Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 were not originally meant to be read sequentially. Each is a self-contained creation myth telling its own story. These two ancient creation stories were collected from two different oral traditions, written down, and placed one after the other in the Bible.”

    You refer to Genesis 1 and 2 as both myth and story. Believing that the Bible is God’s word, I detest referring to anything in the Bible is “myth”, and find “story” to be less than idea. Both words connote that these accounts (my preferred word) are not truth, but ideas that someone created.

    “What it boils down to in practical terms is that the Bible gives us choices in our roles.”

    I disagree with this idea. It might be a reasonable concept based only on what is found in Genesis, but there is significant teaching in the New Testament telling us about the marriage roles.

    • Lee says:

      Hi OKRickety,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

      I am not using “myth” in the popular sense of “something untrue,” but rather in the literary sense of “a story with deeper meaning.” Especially the early chapters of Genesis, I believe, were written in a symbolic style in which the meaning is not in the literal imagery but in the deeper meanings behind the literal imagery. For more on this, please see the article, “Can We Really Believe the Bible?” In that article, see especially the section titled, “Where is the Bible’s meaning?” and the example of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken.”

      Viewing the Bible in this way does not make it less the Word of God, but gives it far greater divine and spiritual meaning and power than does the ordinary literalistic view of today’s conservative Christians. Here are two more articles that delve into this further:

      As for story, in the Gospels Jesus makes extensive use of stories, better known as parables, to convey his message. And the Bible as a whole is more a story (about the ancient Israelite people, the life of Jesus, and so on) than a theological treatise. Clearly, storytelling is a powerful way of conveying deeper truths about the human condition and our relationship with God. Otherwise God would not have made such extensive use of storytelling in the Word of God.

      On the other subject you bring up, yes, there is more material in the New Testament about gender roles. But it’s not as cut-and-dried as many Christians seem to think. However, that is a huge subject, to which I can’t possibly do justice in a brief comment. For now I would encourage you to read this follow-up article: “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”

  4. Peter says:

    One thing for sure, any responsible man will always love and cherish any woman that is submissive to him as he will not stop to have that feeling of love in him coming out toward his woman. every good woman is so mindful and willing in giving her husband the very support she is able to give been it finance, loving, caring self-concerned about the family.

    Come to think of it, if a woman have no concerned, submissiveness to her husband, she will make the man to get frustrated and definitely grow annoyed.

    Women do all to be submissive, loving caring and supportive to your husband so that you both can contributes resourcefully to the humanity.

    A submissive woman make a loving man.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Peter,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

      However, the idea that a submissive woman makes a loving man is simply not true.

      There are many men who have submissive wives and who treat their wives badly, insult them, abuse them physically and emotionally, and treat them like miserable slaves. And this is an evil in those men. It has nothing to do with whether or not their wives are submissive. In fact, it has nothing to do with their wives it all.

      To say that a woman’s stance toward her husband determines his character is not only utterly false from a spiritual and psychological perspective, but also implies that men have no character or freedom of their own. It says that a man’s character is dependent upon the woman he is with rather than being something he chooses and builds for himself.

      The reality is that God has given each one of us, men and women alike, the freedom to choose whether we will be loving or hateful, good or evil. No one else can make us loving or make us hateful.

      In short, men are responsible for their own loves, beliefs, and actions toward their wives and toward everyone else. And any man who abuses and mistreats his wife will be subject to God’s judgment, no matter what his wife’s character and relationship with him may be.

      A real man does not blame his behavior on his wife or girlfriend. A real man takes responsibility for his own behavior.

      For more on this, please see: “God Hates Divorce” vs. “Do Not Be Unfaithful to the Wife of Your Youth”

  5. Man was created in the likeness of God them women was created for man in 1 corinthians 11

    • Lee says:

      Hi Shadrach,

      Yes, the situation after humanity’s initial fall from the perfect state into which God originally created us is reflected in the New Testament as well as in the old. For more on this, please see the follow-up article: “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”

      It is not until the New Jerusalem comes that humanity is finally restored to God’s ideal.

  6. Anonymous wife says:

    Hi Lee, I’ve been reading a lot of your articles about men/women/marriage, and I have a question…well, a request for advice, really…

    (By the way, yes, I’m the same anonymous wife who submitted a Spiritual Conundrum about a different but related topic under the name “A wife that is losing her patience”…sorry, I didn’t realize until later how obnoxious that name is and that I should have just gone with “Anonymous wife” to begin with… But I hope it’s OK that I’m asking my question via comment this time… I mean, I don’t need a fancy, formal answer, any ideas off the top of your head would be great…)

    I see from one article about submission, that you don’t believe that wives have to be submissive to their husbands, and from another about the Red Pill MRA’s that you believe that men need to take responsibility for their own character, for their marriages, etc., and I see from this article that we have choices about what roles we want to take on.

    So…my problem is that I don’t know what role would be best for me to take on, with respect to my husband…

    I don’t really want to have the dominant role, I’d prefer equality, but…sometimes I wonder if it would be good for him if I could somehow tactfully require more from him… I’ve been getting an inkling that perhaps I’ve been doing too much…”enabling” might be the word…? I fear I may be making it too easy (and not painful enough? but I don’t really want to cause him pain) for my husband to live the way he’s been living – spending most of his resources on himself instead of the family (time, money, etc.)…

    But on the other hand…I feel terrible just thinking about making things any harder on him, because he’s already had to deal with quite a bit of trauma and misfortune in his life, some fairly recent, and I’ve always wanted to be a blessing to him – I just don’t know anymore, whether the obvious blessings of continuing to give him resources and favor (or not demand more of his resources be contributed to the family), are truly good for him or not, in terms of his long-term character growth…

    Buuuuut back on that other hand, I worry that maybe he really does need those resources for himself worse than the family needs them, since he generally seems to be under a low-to-medium-level depression, and I worry that if I push him farther, he might just leave the family entirely, or something…which I think would be even worse than the current situation, for him and the kids at least. Sometimes it even seems like he could be capable of committing suicide… 😦

    So as you can see, I’m very conflicted!! I’m desperate for some kind of advice or guidance… I don’t want to be overly controlling or demanding or push him toward divorce or anything, but I don’t want to be pushed to it myself, either! I realize it’s not healthy for him to be the kind of person who would push someone to want a divorce, but to be honest – if it weren’t for my determination to make sure not to dominate him, I probably wouldn’t even feel tempted to divorce him, because he scarcely defends himself, and I have to really work at it, to keep from trampling all over him on accident. But if I stopped being so careful, I do fear I might push him to the edge even as I pull myself away from it.

    Sigh… I really just want to respect his human rights and freedom, while defending my own boundaries and human rights as well…but I wonder whether I could do more to support healthy character changes and growth, without crossing over into the territory of coercing him into doing what I want…

    Oh, and I should mention that my husband doesn’t have any of the huge, famous vices, like drug/alcohol addiction, or gambling, or even smoking… He just has these hobbies and collections that his resources tend to go to, apparently to try and make himself feel better in terms of his depression… Any advice you could give me to guide my decisions in these circumstances would be greatly appreciated!!

    • Lee says:

      Hi Anonymous wife,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and questions, as well as your submitted Spiritual Conundrum, which I may refer to here as well. It’s a bit too long, involved, and personal to write a post about anyway.

      First, the best thing would be for you and your husband to find a local marriage counselor who can help you with your situation. There’s only so much I can do in this forum. Plus, if things are going to get better, your husband is going to have to get invested in the effort as well. If he’s willing to go to couples counseling, that shows some acknowledgment that your marriage is in trouble, and some willingness to do something about it. Of course, if it becomes clear that he’s just going through the motions, and has no intention of actually working on the marriage, you might as well stop the counseling because you’re just wasting your money.

      Your marriage is in trouble. Though you say here and in your Conundrum that you want to keep divorce off the table, realistically that might not be possible. If a marriage continues to slide downhill long enough, eventually something’s going to break so badly that it can’t be fixed.

      Further, not that I’m recommending divorce (I’m not in your shoes), but if divorce is off the table as far as you’re concerned, that does put considerable constraints on you in your efforts to turn the relationship around. Not to put too fine a point on it, but as long as the sex keeps coming and divorce is out of the question, many men will simply stick with the status quo, regardless of how dissatisfied their wife might be, and how problematic the relationship is. I would suggest thinking very carefully about whether you are indeed willing to continue in this marriage for the rest of your life, or at least until the children are grown up and out of the house, even if the marriage does not get better, and (more likely) gets gradually worse.

      Having children in the mix does make it much more difficult. However, if a marriage deteriorates badly enough, there does come a time when it is no longer, on balance, a positive thing to “stay married for the children.” It is not good for children to grow up in an atmosphere of tension and conflict between their parents. As much as I hate to say it, sometimes divorce is better for the children. Sometimes it is the only way they will be able to grow up in an atmosphere of peacefulness in the home. But once again, I’m not in your shoes. I can’t make that sort of decision for you. These are just things for you to consider.

      If there is enough common ground between you and your husband that the marriage is salvageable, of course that would be the best outcome. That would depend upon a commitment both from you and from your husband to do the work necessary to salvage the relationship. You can make that commitment for yourself. You cannot make it for your husband. It would have to be a decision he came to himself, out of his own free will.

      While you can’t make that decision for him, you can make it clear to him what you are and are not willing to live with, and what you are and are not willing to do. Once again, weighed into this will be whether you are ultimately willing to end the marriage if it continues to be a source of frustration and pain for you. “Through thick and thin” is a good and admirable commitment. In the end, though, it will depend upon whether you and he have enough common ground to make that work, and whether both of you are willing to make the commitment and do the work to make it work.

      If you believe that if you drew certain lines, this would case him to commit adultery or to divorce you, you have to think about whether those boundaries are important enough to you to take that risk.

      But you do have to draw some sort of boundaries. You can’t let him just walk all over you. Nor is it right for you to pay all the bills and cover all the expenses while he spends all of his money on himself and his hobbies. That is not a partnership, and it’s not a marriage. Eventually you’ll lose patience, and the relationship and the marriage will break down whether you want it to or not.

      As for your husband’s depression, that is something he needs to face and deal with if he doesn’t want his marriage and his life to end out in the toilet. There are counselors, psychiatrists, and therapies available to deal with depression. It’s not easy, but it is possible to face and overcome it. But only if he’s willing to take the steps to do so.

      My belief is that beyond counselors, psychiatrists, and therapies, the best “cure” for depression is to have clear goals in life, and to devote oneself to accomplishing those goals. And not just any old goals, but goals that involve doing something that benefits other people in some way. This can be through job and career, or through volunteering, or through some sort of engagement in the local community. The best way to feel good about oneself is to be doing something good for others on an ongoing basis.

      Oh, and getting regular physical exercise and fresh air makes a big difference in depression, too.

      The reality is that if your husband doesn’t make a decision about his life, and take specific and concrete steps to do something about it, sooner or later he’s going to lose you, and likely the children too, and probably the rest of what he cares about in life. That’s just how things work. Men (and women) who don’t take responsibility for their own life and their own contribution to their relationships and to the wider community will sooner or later lose what they have.

      You also need to make some decisions about what life you are willing to live, and what you are and are not willing to do to keep your marriage together if your husband doesn’t make a decision and a commitment to face his issues and move forward in life. You can’t assume that things are just magically going to get better. If he doesn’t make that decision, they’re going to keep getting worse, not better.

      Are you willing to live with that? At what point does it become more than you can bear?

      You have to be able to live your own life with integrity and purpose, even if he is not willing to do so. You can’t nag or dominate him into changing. You can’t fix him. But you can make your own decision about what you will do with your own time, life, and money. And once you’ve made that decision, you can tell him what you’ve decided. Then he’ll have to make his own decision about what he is and is not willing to do.

      This is all very difficult and risky, I know. But the alternative is a marriage that continues to slide downhill, and that will likely end in divorce anyway.

      I hope this is of some help to you. Once again, I would recommend that you find a local counselor who can give you more specific and ongoing help with your situation.

      Also, don’t avoid learning about ideals of spiritual marriage. If we don’t have some idea of what marriage is meant to be, it’s awfully hard to work toward it. We may or may not achieve it here on earth. But once we give up our high ideals and goals, what’s left of life but to trudge on through the mud until we die?

      • Anonymous wife says:

        Hi Lee, thank you so much for your reply… Yes, we did actually try marriage counseling for a while, and it did help some, but one problem with it was that, as a secular therapist, she did not share a similar enough moral/theological background for me to feel I could trust her completely, whereas you do – I’ve been studying Swedenborgian theology and moral ideals for a couple/few years now, and I feel like it’s a revelation. I’m anxious to find out all the ways my traditional Christian upbringing got it wrong, haha… So with regard to marriage, I read all your articles and positions about submission and roles, in order to try and find out to what extent it would be right, or wrong, for me to take a more dominant or controlling stance in our marriage.

        But in the end, after reading everything, including your last reply, I’m starting to come to the conclusion that it isn’t just a matter of what’s right or wrong, but also, what we can each tolerate living with, and what we’re each willing to do for the children…

        So, thank you for your input… I will go ahead and start reading up on the ideals of spiritual marriage more as the next step. And I think it will be helpful for me, that you seem to have validated (I did interpret this correctly, didn’t I?) that it’s not morally wrong for me to put my foot down about some things, even if I risk the possibility that he might move in a direction of wanting a divorce or temptation toward adultery…as long as that’s a risk I’m willing to take from my end…right?

        Thank you!!
        -Anonymous wife

        • Lee says:

          Hi Anonymous wife,

          If I were to boil it down to two sentences, here is what I especially wanted to convey to you in my previous reply:

          1. You will have to make some hard decisions about how you are going to live, including setting boundaries about what you will and won’t do in your marriage and family life.
          2. You can’t do that for your husband, nor can you make him change or fix him. That will depend upon his own freely made decisions.

          If your husband decides he wants to make some changes in his life, of course you can support him in that. You can also make it clear to him what you will and won’t put up with, and that may become a factor in his decisions about his own life. But ultimately, his life is in his own hands, as it is for every reasonably functional adult.

          In answer to your concluding question, no, it is not morally wrong for you to put your foot down about some things, especially those that relate to your own beliefs and actions, and to anything your husband says or does to you, or that directly affects you. What you can’t do is tell him what he must do, and what decisions he must make.

          You can make statements in the form of, “If you do/don’t do x, I will/won’t do y.” Even this, however, should not be to coerce him into doing something he doesn’t want to do. Rather, it should be to inform him what your own decisions and boundaries are within the marriage, and what you are and aren’t willing to live with. It should not be a constant stream about minor things, but only to confront serious marriage-threatening issues that are likely, if not corrected, to lead to eventual divorce anyway. You are informing him that if things don’t change, the end result will eventually be divorce, regardless of whether either you or he want that to happen.

          It will then be his decision what to do, but it will be an informed decision in which he knows the consequences of his actions. Then, of course, you must follow through, or he will not believe you or listen to you. It is critical that you become clear of your intentions and boundaries in your own mind first, and that you do not say anything that you don’t actually mean, and aren’t ready to actually do. Men get used to, and quickly learn to ignore, a stream of empty threats from their wives.

          On the other hand, men are often taken completely by surprise when their wives tell them they want a divorce. So if your mindset is, “I don’t want a divorce, but it’s awfully hard not to go that direction given the way things are,” then you’ll be doing him a favor—if an unappreciated one—if you let him know. That way he can do something about it before it’s too late, if he actually does want to stay married to you.

          It’s also important to consider and decide in your own mind whether you think the marriage is ultimately salvageable. Are you attempting to have a good marriage with your husband? Do you believe that is possible? Or do you believe that the two of you are disunited in spirit, and that there never will be the spiritual connection (common values, goals, motives, loves) that constitutes an actual marriage from a spiritual point of view? If you conclude that a real marriage with your husband is possible, that will lead in a whole different direction than if you conclude that there is no inner marriage there. If the latter, you may still not have breakup as an immediate goal, given the family situation. But your effort will be to make the best of an ultimately temporary situation for reasons other than a commitment to eternal marriage with your present husband.

          Marriages with no internal connection and oneness can and sometimes do last to the end of life here on earth. But they do not make it far into the spiritual world. There, only oneness of minds and hearts counts. All legal, social, financial, and family ties that hold spiritually mismatched couples together here on earth are no longer in effect in the spiritual world. If you decide to attempt a “till death do us part” marriage, you’ll have to set your sights considerably lower in this world than if your aim is to have a real, eternal marriage with your husband.

          I should mention that I come from the most liberal of the Swedenborgian denominations. If you get very far into the Swedenborgian literature you may encounter other, more conservative views. And you may encounter some that are more liberal than mine as well. This is just one of the reasons I am saying that you’ll have to make up your own mind about these things. Only you are standing in your shoes.

          If you decide you want to go all-in and read Swedenborg’s book on marriage, at the moment I would say the best translation in print is the one by David Gladish, for which I served as Latin consultant many years ago. You can get the Kindle version very inexpensively on Amazon here, and the paperback version here. Just be aware as you read that it was written and published over two centuries ago, in a considerably different social and cultural context.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Anonymous wife,

          Now to say something about the sexual issue from your submitted Spiritual Conundrum.

          Sex can have two drivers:

          1. biological sexual drives
          2. oneness of mind and heart

          The first one we share with other animals. The second is uniquely human. In the absence of the second, the first will commonly drive people to pair up and have sex with each other. A desire for children is part of that drive. After all, in nature reproduction is the primary, and very nearly the only, reason for sexual intercourse.

          In human beings whose spiritual side has been opened, however, biological drives are not sufficient to sustain interest in sexual union with a partner. For human beings, beyond the common animal drive to mate and reproduce, sexual intercourse is meant to be, and is at best, the physical expression of a spiritual union of two people into one.

          If that spiritual union does not exist, desire for sexual intercourse among women, especially, will commonly follow the biological cycle and wane after the woman feels she has had enough children (which, for some women, is zero children), or after menopause, when she can no longer have children. Men are able to father children right into old age, so men’s biological sexual drives are more likely to continue on into old age. These, of course, are generalizations. We humans are a complex species, and nothing about us is more complex than our sexual nature, drives, and feelings.

          However, for women, especially, it is quite common to have no interest in sex with a partner for whom there is no feeling of closeness or oneness in mind and heart. This can also be true of men; it’s just more common in women. (And contrary to old attitudes, women do also have sexual drives and desires that don’t always depend upon a sense of closeness to a partner.)

          Sexless marriages are usually troubled marriages. But the real problem is not a lack of sex. It is a lack of the sense of connection and oneness that naturally expresses itself in the connection and oneness of physical sexual intimacy.

          In a heterosexual relationship, it is more often the woman than the man who is the gatekeeper of that sense of inner connection and oneness. (This is not necessarily true in marriages in which both partners have a strong and deep shared spiritual life.) The man will figure everything is okay as long as there is a “love life” in the marriage. The woman may feel that the marriage is dead even while going through the motions of a sex life in which, as far as she’s concerned, there is no life. It’s not that men aren’t capable of comprehending this. It’s that they’ll tend not to if they don’t have to.

          In saying this, I’m not advocating that you cut your husband off. This is something you alone can decide. Rather, I am (I hope) putting some context around the situation you describe in your submitted Conundrum in which your husband wants sex daily, whereas you don’t want it at all, and what actually happens is somewhere in the middle. This situation is not likely to get better unless you and he are able to repair your marriage. Failing that, it boils down to the decision you’re already faced with: Do you continue to go through the motions with him in order to keep the marriage together for reasons other than a connection of love with your husband? I’m not saying that is right or that it’s wrong. Rather, I’m saying it’s a decision only you can make, and it’s best to make it with the clearest mind possible.

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Lee & Annette Woofenden

Lee & Annette Woofenden

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