The Personalist Project

Accessed on July 03, 2022 - 2:20:47

One More Time: Man and Woman, Head and Heart, Equality and Complementarity

Michael Healy, Sep 25, 2012

I do think that in this on-going conversation we should try to imagine our way into the truth implied in both Eph. 5: 21 (be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ) and Eph. 5: 22 (wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord). We all agree that this does not involve literally giving orders and simply expecting obedience, which would quite evidently violate Casti Connubii as well as the teaching of JPII.  Thus, whatever “headship” means—the man as the head of the family, the woman as the heart, each with their own responsibilities and priorities—it must be within the mutual subjection to Christ.  Still, if man and woman are truly complementary and thus not merely the same, this mutual subjection (recognizing an equality) will have different nuances and manifestations.  This is worth considering, rather that throwing out the concept of headship itself, with all its richness and history.  Thus also, in light of complementarity, by discussing the role of the man we are perforce also discussing the woman, not ignoring her.  Sheldon Vanauken has likened this positive role of the man as one of initiation or leadership without the least command.  I want to investigate this in light of “creative negation”—what we can see positively from the description of certain mistakes, in this case about the man-woman relationship in marriage. 

Individual personalities evidently can fit together in quite different ways and thus a given relationship may be quite “out of whack” with what we might consider a natural or healthy balance while nonetheless appearing "content."  A given lady (wife) might have a thoroughly dominant personality—“bull in a china shop” variety—and a given man might be very passive and unassertive.  If these two types find each other—as sometimes happens—they might seem to be a perfect fit, even though it reverses the image of an initiatory or leadership role to the man. Conversely, an especially dominant man might marry an especially passive woman—again, not uncommon—and they might seem perfectly content, though the woman might be getting squelched in the relationship. Naturally, “contentment” in these cases would seem to be a “false peace” which would be upset if the passive individual begins to grow more mature, independent, and self-assertive.  

Over the last fifty years I’ve seen a number of marriages of both these types.  However, there is a difference.  The overly-dominant male rarely complains about his dominance and, in fact, is often blind to it.  He doesn’t see it as a problem or a fault, even though he may be quite extreme in this direction.  In other words, this kind of a fault is particularly dangerous for a man due to his natural bent in that direction.  After original sin, he can easily go too far in the legitimate manly role and not realize it.  As has been mentioned, this is part of the list of punishments resulting from original sin (Gen. 3:16: “and thou shalt be under thy husband's power, and he shall have dominion over thee” [Douay-Rheims]; “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” [NAB]).  This doesn’t mean that male leadership is itself a result of sin, but that false forms of it certainly are the result of sin.  As an analogy, labor is itself noble and good, but after original sin it also becomes more of a cross and even part of a punishment. 

However—and you are all welcome to correct me if your experiences are different—in the female dominant-male passive marriages I’ve seen (only a handful, so just anecdotal evidence), the lady in question, while insisting on dominance, will also complain about it fairly regularly.  She may have participated in or completed the emasculation of her husband, but she’s not particularly happy about it.  This comes out in off-hand comments at times, such as the following, all of which I have heard: “I wish he would give me a real answer instead of always saying, ‘Whatever you want, dear!’”  Or, “Why does he always leave everything (every responsibility, every decision) to me?” Or, “I wish I had a real man around the house!”  Or, “It’s such a pain to have a husband who’s like another child!”  Or, “I wish he would stand up to me more, challenge me more!”  Or even, “I wish he would just really tell me off one time!”  I hear dominant woman speak this way much more so than dominant men (even if they should). 

Now the implication I take from this is that, despite personality differences, there are also certain natural bents (which would only be sinful or “at fault” if taken to extremes) to the male and female personalities that are part of the equal I-Thou consensus, part of the mutual submission in Christ.  The man has a natural tendency to lead such that his danger is being insensitive about going overboard in this direction—when he should be self-consciously questioning his tendencies and their effects on his wife.  The woman does have a desire for an initiator or a leader (not a “dominator”—none of the “quoted” exclamations in the above paragraph should be understood as wanting to be run roughshod over or dominated), in the midst of the I-Thou equality and with all due deference to the “non-commanding” nature of the leadership.  Thus when the woman dominates, she more quickly senses that something is indeed out of whack; she wants her man to have more spine, even though she may have been the very one to wear him down or cement his weakness.  Tragic flaws in either case, i.e., where one’s very strength becomes a debilitating weakness or causes one’s downfall (or that of the relationship).  Again, as Vanauken says: 

Although we should have fiercely denied it, except perhaps for Davy in that last year, I say that I had exercised a sort of headship—in the sense of an initiatory or leadership role—that was accepted, even desired, by Davy without either of us being aware of it.

The fact that men don’t complain, although they should, when they are oppressive or overly dominant, while women—in my experience—do complain about their men when they dominate them reveals a valid natural tendency here.  It thus confirms a subtle truth to Eph. 5:22 in the midst of Eph. 5:21.  There is such a thing as a legitimate initiatory or leadership role to the man (not captured by any image of  “commanding” authority) even in the midst of the I-Thou equality.  It also fits with the creative interplay of the head-heart relationship. This, it seems to me, is part of or one [removed]among others) of the complementarity of the sexes.  To deny this kind of thing is to move in the direction of “unisex” or of a disembodied Platonic personalism—which itself opens onto a Manicheanism.  We must do justice to the complementarity and the difference, not only to the equality—and this would be fully in line with JPII.