Submit? I’d Rather Not

Post Author: Emily Munger

When my husband made the decision to become partner at the ranch, a part of me felt betrayed.

As a pastor who leads day in and day out, I feel comfortable when I am the primary authority, giving vision and guidance to others on how things need to be done. But as a woman in an egalitarian relationship with a man, I feel less comfortable—all right, I admit it: I feel very angry—when I hear the word “submit.” The very word makes me feel gross. Gross, for the million ways abuse has transpired under the guise of religious teaching. Gross, for the countless opportunities this word has allowed self-avowed Christian men to ridicule, demean, and belittle the women in their lives. Gross, for all the reasons submission seems like such a backward notion after you have experienced the freedom of life in Christ.

Nevertheless, I have learned that I need to reclaim the essential idea of submission, using language appropriate for a 21st century covenantal relationship, for the sake of a healthier and more life-giving relationship with my spouse. My husband and I struggled for several years early in our marriage. One of the biggest tension points is how we made decisions. I’m stubborn, and my husband arguably moreso.

A few years into our marriage, our therapist gave us tools to discern that we both have ENFP personality profiles, according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Knowing one’s personality type alone can’t determine a relationship’s health, but we did learn plenty about how we make choices together. When we’re on the same page, life is grand. And when we disagree, well…heaven and hell can’t sway either one of us. Being willing to submit is not a strength we possess.

I know, I know. I used the seemingly forbidden word: submit. It still rubs me the wrong way when I hear it, but in my quest to strengthen my own marriage (and, providentially, as part of the required reading for my graduate school courses), I happened upon the work of John Gottman. Ever heard of him? He’s not Jesus, and his narrative is hetero-normative, but he does offer some pretty excellent insights in his book called The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.

The first time I read this book, I began to see patterns of conflict within my own relationship more clearly. Specifically, I saw the ways I resisted my husband’s influence in my life (a no-no, according to principle #4). Yes, I loved him. Of course, I wanted to support him. But let him influence the way I make decisions? Now that’s a bit too far! It sounds an awful lot like submission. My response to John Gottman was the same as to the Apostle Paul: “Submit? I’d rather not; thanks anyway!”

At that point I had been married for three years. This week my husband and I celebrate nine years of hard-earned marriage. One thing I’ve gradually come to terms with, thanks to John Gottman and Jesus the Christ, is the need to let my husband influence me. I still don’t easily do this. It’s a discipline I cultivate day after day, and only because I’ve seen the real value it offers my marriage. It’s also something I expect of my spouse, because this principle only works when it’s given and received. Oh, but what a gift it can be!

About three years ago, my husband had a big decision to make: whether or not to become partner in his family’s ranch. During this discernment, I thought I knew exactly how much his decision would negatively impact the way I could pursue my ministry career. Ranching inherently limits your geographic opportunities, and I knew that serving a UCC congregation somewhere proximate to the ranch seemed a long-shot at best. I let him know all this, and often (not my finest moments, by the way). When he made the decision to become partner, a part of me felt betrayed, as if I was being unfairly asked to submit to something that wasn’t in my best interest.

Today, I’m serving a wonderful and loving UCC congregation in a perfectly situated geographic location that allows my husband to ranch while I pursue the fulfilling calls of pastor and mom. I love our new life and am happier than I could have imagined. It turned out that I couldn’t see the potential goodness his decision might offer my life, because I was emotionally unwilling at the time to receive his influence.

Hindsight also offers me a chance to rectify my understanding of God’s role in all this, thanks in part to Paul’s writing in Ephesians. Isn’t this a life of faith, after all? Aren’t we called to mimic in our marriages the faith required of those who choose to follow Jesus? Doesn’t it actually build a grander kin-dom of love when we allow the influence of others to infuse our own lives?

When I do this hard work, when I let down my emotional guard and receive my husband’s influence, I am humbled at the strength we possess together. (Incidentally, I have found that receiving your spouse’s influence provides a great invitation for them to receive yours.) It’s taken me this long to see the value of a truly shared life with my spouse, and I imagine the remainder of my days on earth will be spent learning even more about this life-giving way of making decisions: together.

Maybe this is what love is: allowing ourselves to be influenced by another who has our best interests at heart. You can use the term “submit” or not; I don’t care. But I do care that we choose not to resist the influence of those with whom we are in a covenantal relationship, and, above all else, that we do not resist the influence of Jesus in our lives, the one who gave himself for us, the one who loves us and will reveal that divine love more and more, if we are willing, in all of our messy, tough, rewarding, and grace-filled relationships.

Emily Munger is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, currently serving a congregation in Pierre, South Dakota. Her husband's family owns a ranch (in which they are partners), where her husband is employed full-time and (according to their son), “Mommy shows up for pictures!” In her free time, Emily loves travel, exercise, friends, NPR, and being mom to Briggs, 5, and Blaire, 3.

Image by: Pixnio
Used with permission
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