Healthy Marriage Teaching Always Involves the Word “Mutual”

by | Nov 29, 2019 | Marriage | 34 comments

What makes marriage teaching healthy?

I want to write a quick, more newsy post today with three things that I’m hoping I can tie up in a pretty bow as if they go together.

1. Do you know the 3 most important marriage skills?

I listened to an interesting TED talk recently about the 3 core skills for successful romantic relationships. I’m going to do a podcast on this soon, but they are: insight; mutuality; and emotional regulation (basically self-control). When I wrote my post on what makes a good marriage I think everything that I mentioned boiled down to mutuality, with a large dose of humility tied in. But I think humility can really be equated with her idea of insight. You’re not afraid to look at what’s really going on.

That theme–mutuality–comes up again and again in talks about healthy relationships. You need two people willing to invest. Two people thinking of each other. Two people putting the other first. That’s the biblical model found in Ephesians 5:21-33 (which starts with: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”)

That’s why I found this TED Talk so interesting. What’s also cool is that it’s about emotional skills we should possess before we even start dating. They explain:

Instruction about healthy relationships exists in the form of couples therapy or premarital counseling, which means either when a marriage is foundering or before it’s even begun. Those are both too late, says Davila. Wait a second — how is premarital counseling too late? “Because people have already selected the person they want to commit their life to,” she explains. “What if they selected poorly? No amount of premarital education can make up for a bad partner choice.”

In an effort to address this gap, Davila and her colleagues are studying what they call “romantic competence.” Romantic competence is, as she puts it, “the ability to function adaptively across all areas or all aspects of the relationship process [including] … figuring out what you need, finding the right person, building a healthy relationship, [and] getting out of relationships that are unhealthy.”

According to Davila and her colleagues, there are three core skills behind romantic competence: insight, mutuality and emotion regulation. “Let me say that we didn’t just make these up out of the blue,” she explains. “We identified the skills based on a thorough review of theory and research. The skills really represent the commonalities across the major theories and research findings on healthy relationships. Because they represent the commonalities, we think they really can help people with all the different parts of the relationship process, and with all different people – whether they’re in a relationship or not.”

Read the whole thing.

Joane Davila

The 3 Core Skills that Every Person Needs for Healthy Romantic Relationships

2. I speak at FamilyLife CANADA marriage conferences, not at FamilyLife U.S. marriage conferences

We’re just back from speaking last weekend in Whistler, British Columbia! Keith and I have been speaking for FamilyLife Canada for over 15 years now, doing at least 50 conferences.

FamilyLife Weekend Getaway

I do need to clear up some confusion, though.

I’ve had some people write to me after attending a FamilyLife U.S. conference that they signed up for because they had thought that if I spoke at these conferences, and they liked my blog, then the conference must be good! Unfortunately, they found the U.S. conferences were very different from my blog. I feel as if I must make a public statement on this, because there is confusion, and I don’t want to be seen as endorsing something that I’m not part of.

Before I start, I want to stress that this is coming from me. I am not writing on behalf of FamilyLife Canada. 

While FamilyLife US and FamilyLife Canada are in a cooperative relationship, they are two very separate organizations. The Canadian directors, Neil and Sharol Josephson, have created awesome marriage conference material from scratch. It truly is a unique conference. And if you live in Canada or in a border state, you should take advantage and come to Canada for a conference sometime! My staff attended a weekend getaway last year near Ottawa, and here’s their list of 10 things they learned at a marriage conference.

On the other hand, I have never been to a FamilyLife U.S. marriage conference, and I don’t know any of the speakers. I don’t know what they teach, and I don’t know what their conferences are like. I do know that while Canada has been having two couples speak–that is husband and wife speaking side by side–at all their conferences for over 20 years, FamilyLife U.S. still mainly uses men speaking, with the occasional couple or a wife talking to the women.

When I get emails from couples disappointed after attending a FamilyLife US event, the common thread seems to be that the conferences are very husband-centered, a feeling they get largely because of the predominantly male speakers, but also from the materials.

There is a new director for FamilyLife in the U.S., who may very well overhaul the conferences soon. Again, though, I have no firsthand knowledge of any of this.

I just don’t want people to assume that I’m endorsing FamilyLife U.S. when I actually know very little about them.

Before you sign up for any conference (wherever in the world you are, and whoever is putting on the conference!), just ask some good questions about who will be speaking, and about whether the emphasis is on mutuality.

3. Can you help us improve marriage curriculum overall?

To quote my emailer: “the lack of good curriculum on this subject is appalling.”

I’m trying to change that!  Debates over what builds a good marriage often focus on doctrines and interpretations of Scripture; I’d like to add evidence to the mix. If we have numbers behind what helps and what hurts, then hopefully those putting on marriage teaching will have to listen.

So can you help us by filling out our survey? We’ve got almost 15,000 respondents now, but we’d love to keep increasing that! As you’re enjoying a long Thanksgiving weekend, take some time and take the survey. And invite your female family members to take, too!

Thank you! And I hope all my American readers had a great Thanksgiving, and I wish you all a great weekend!

(I’m heading to Ottawa to see my grandbaby again!)

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Elizabeth

    What do we do if these three things are severely lacking and you’re already married? 😞

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m sorry, Elizabeth. I think there are ways to build mutuality especially, and if you haven’t looked at my emotional needs exercise, that can be a good way to start. Learning insight takes longer, and it requires a lot of humility. But talking about things, building friendship can help. And emotional regulation can be built when the other spouse draws boundaries and says, “I’m more than willing to talk about this, but not when you’re yelling.” I know that’s hard, but some things can be learned.

      I talk about a lot of these principles in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, and I hope that can help you!

      • Elizabeth

        Thanks, Sheila. Unfortunately I’m the only one willing to do any of that (and I have been for the past 25 years), and now ***if*** he were to start I’d probably have a panic attack due to the trauma. Your emotional needs exercise is literally what I’ve been doing our entire marriage, hoping for some sort of reciprocation. 🙁

        The three things have literally never been part of our marriage or even before marriage.

        Oh well…it was worth a shot.

  2. Noel

    It seems like most Christian teaching centers around who’s the boss. I know my husband (who is not a jerk, but is limited by his upbringing,) comments on marriages based on whether the wife is submissive and whether they have an active intimate life. I’ve only recently realized how odd this is… as in, God created Eve so Adam had someone to boss?! None of the other animals have that basis for relationship (theirs is only sex, no authority!) I’ve really been thinking about it, and about how to discuss this with my daughters as they grow up.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m glad you’re here, then, Noel, because I hope I can point you to healthier ways to look at it! If you haven’t read my submission series yet, start with this piece on Sarah and then read the other ones linked at the bottom. And I agree that we’re far too focused on sex in the wrong way. I completely believe in having an active intimate life, but it should be mutual, and the way we see sex is far too male centered. I’d love a conversation about how to have great sex like God intended, and that’s what I’m hoping that we’re having on this blog!

    • Arwen

      Noel, I agree and find the whole i’m the boss mentality bizarre, especially coming for men. Since they are commanded by scripture to imitate Christ’s action towards the Church. And what did Christ say, He literally told us the greatest position a person can be in is that of a servant. I always ask wives when was the last time their husbands washed their feet emulating Christ? I have yet to find a woman who’s feet was washed by her husband, NEVER met ONE!!! And then you wonder why so much of scripture chastises and addresses men and their weaknesses since they tend to be the most prideful and least humble of the two genders.

      • Lindsey

        My husband and I wash each other’s feet every year on Passover. We also take broken unleavened bread and wine. The wine and bread are, obviously, pictures of Christ’s sacrifice. However, the foot washing part is always the most special for me.

        At baptism we believe that Christ washed all of our sins away…and yet we still sin. We view the Passover as a sort of yearly renewal of our covenant with Christ, and in washing one another’s feet it feels as if we are symbolically washing away the sin that the other had walked in throughout the year (John 13:10). Let me tell you -it is difficult to do that and hold a grudge against your spouse! It’s always my favorite part of our Passover service.

        All this to say, my husband has washed my feet, and I’ve washed his as well. It’s more than just about stinky feet – it’s about forgiveness, sacrifice, humility, and love. Highly recommend it I the context of the annual Passover (and whenever else it’s needed!)

      • Ina

        Wow, this honestly shocks me! Where I live, couples always do a foot washing, at least the very least at the wedding if not at the engagement. Is this really not common in mainstream churches? We’ve also done congregational foot washing a few times at Passover. It is definitely a powerful and moving act!

  3. Abby

    On the note of changing curriculum choices when teaching about marriage, Sheila, do you have recommendations of marriage books that are gospel and research centered? I’m challenging leadership at my Bible school about a marriage class built around the Love and Respect teaching and I want to have several good resources to point them to. L&R is such a popular book in Christian circles (unfortunately so) and I’m working on building a strong case for a shift to a more biblical model. I love Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller but I’d love other suggestions on good marriage books.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m really thinking about it, Abby! How We Love by the Yerkovichs is great, but it’s not a marriage curriculum per se. I find that a lot of the marriage books are so focused on gender roles that they miss the boat.

    • Hanna

      I love the book “Families Where Grace is in Place” by Jeff VanVonderen. It focuses both on marriage and parenting.

  4. Sarah

    As a single woman who is actively trying to date and find a husband, I’m struggling with knowing how to find a man who shares this idea of mutuality in marriage. The American church is so saturated with the man is the head of the household, spiritual leader, makes the decisions kind of thinking that many men that I meet just assume this.

    I know you avoid using these words, Sheila, but egalitarian and complementarian are the easy shorthand for the ideas that accompany each of these views of marriage.

    My church teaches soft complementarianism, but from what I see many of the married couples are functionally egalitarian and have marriages full of mutuality. But I’m very hesitant to marry someone who believes these ideas, because if someone ultimately believes he is the head and makes the decisions or that men and women have distinct and differing roles in marriage, these ideas will show up in the relationship sooner or later.

    So I guess I’m wondering how a Christian woman should discern and evaluate these things in a potential husband before marriage, especially when it’s so prevalent in churches. How many men have actually studied the Greek and context of these passagesand questioned what the church is saying? I only began studying these things in the last few years and my previously vague complementarian views changed rapidly once I did, but should I marry someone hoping for his views to change or his actions to reflect mutuality if I know he has good character?

    For example, I’m on a dating website and just got a message from someone who said he believes in the biblical definition of marriage. I’ve asked him to explain how he defines that, but I suspect I already know. Does anyone have thoughts on this? I’m really wrestling with it.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Sarah, I think that people change over time, and that what really matters is not one’s beliefs per se but rather one’s central premise about how one acts to others. If someone believes that serving is the highest calling, then however they may label themselves in terms of marriage relationships isn’t really going to matter. Functionally they’ll be the same. The other issue is this one: how does he handle it if you disagree about something? What if you disagree about doctrine? Is he okay with that, or does he feel as if he has to convince you otherwise? If a man is humble and believes in serving, and if he is able to allow you to have your own thoughts, I think the relationship would be just fine (as long as you also serve and you also allow him to have his own thoughts!).

    • Maria

      Well, if learning about the original Greek and context helped you to see the truth, maybe it would help the man you are dating. And if, after seeing clear evidence to the contrary, he still believes that the bible says husbands should be allowed to boss their wives around, that might be a red flag. Or at least an orange one.

      • Maria

        That came out really snippy. What I meant was this. If research helped you see the comp/egal debate in a clearer light, maybe that same research will help the man you are dating.

      • Lea

        I didn’t think it came out snippy! I think seeing how people handle disagreement, no, and conflicting needs is very important in evaluating them as a partner.

        Also if he takes your point seriously and considers it, or just hand waves it.

    • Lea

      “I’m on a dating website and just got a message from someone who said he believes in the biblical definition of marriage.”

      I would run the other direction at this personally, although asking clarifying questions could help too.

      I’ve decided seeing how someone handles being told no is helpful, as well as seeing how they treat your needs verses their own.

      • Sarah

        Just to follow up on this, after several messages back and forth his definition on biblical marriage was centered around the idea of the husband leading and the wife following. When I brought up abuse, his answer was essentially that a little abuse is ok if God is glorified in the structure of the marriage relationship! (I’m phrasing it sarcastically but I’m not far off his original words) So no thank you to him and any other guys like him.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Oh, that’s awful. Really terrible. How can people think that’s what God wants?

  5. John

    In my experience, “mutuality” is used more often as a baseball bat to be against every aspect of life, rather than encourage sharing.

    “Since I don’t want to to X, then I don’t have to, since its not mutual!”

    Because I don’t want to have sex more than twice a year, I don’t have to, since it wouldn’t be mutual.
    Because I don’t like kissing, I don’t have to, since it wouldn’t be mutual.
    Because I don’t like wearing lingerie, I don’t have to, since it wouldn’t be mutual.

    More often than not, I think its women who use the “mutuality” deny-clause to stop from doing just about anything. I think when men try to do such a thing, we get accused of being selfish, uncaring, unloving twits.

    I mean, imagine if men said this (and some have!):
    Because I don’t want to visit your parents on the holidays, we aren’t, since its not mutual.
    Because I don’t want to save money for a house, we aren’t, since its not mutual.
    Because I don’t want to spend money on your hobby, we aren’t, since its not mutual.
    Because I don’t want to pray with you, we aren’t, since it wouldn’t be mutual.
    Because I don’t want to do a bible study with you, we aren’t, since it wouldn’t be mutual.

    We would immediately be (and are) castrated. Yet women play the mutuality card all the time and get away with it.

    Oh well. Guess thats the way it is then.

    • Maria

      So, does “mutual” mean “I never do anything I don’t want to”? Because that sounds more like immaturity to me.

    • Maria

      Ok, rereading your examples, I probably misunderstood your point. Is sex not mutual if one person is forcing herself (or himself) to go through with it when she (or he) doesn’t want to? Of course it’s not. But why would you want to have sex with someone who does not want to be having sex with you?

      Should each spouse prioritize a healthy sexual relationship? Sure. That could look like her asking why she usually says no to sex and then thinking about whether it’s something she can solve.

      Examples. (This applies to men, too.)

      She says no because she’s too tired from staying up late last night on the computer.

      She says no because she’s tired from taking care of the kids all day long.

      She says no because there are relationship problems that are not being addressed

      She says no because he is abusive (or it could be the husband who says no because he’s being abused)

      Those are just some obstacles between a woman and frequent, enjoyable sex with her husband. If she can overcome the obstacle, she should try. If it’s a team effort, she should talk with him about it and seek solutions together. Or maybe it’s something she can’t do anything about. (Again, the genders can be swapped in those examples).

      • Lea

        ” But why would you want to have sex with someone who does not want to be having sex with you?”

        Right? This is kind of a problem.

        Figure out why she doesn’t want to have sex, kiss you, etc, and fix THAT. And go from there. If it can’t be fixed, maybe the relationship can’t be fixed.

        And there should be some mutual decision making major decisions, and that includes taking your partners wishes and thoughts into mind, but all of those examples about where to go for the holidays or saving for a house are not about sex and I think that is not the same thing at all.

      • Blessed Wife

        You listed several good reasons why a woman might say no to sex. However, I think the real complaint lies in women who say no for one of the following reasons:

        She just doesn’t feel like it, and doesn’t care how he feels.

        She uses sex or withholding of sex as a control mechanism, and values control over mutuality.

        She is directing her sexual energy outside the marriage.

        She wants the guy from the soap opera, who is effortlessly rich enough for a mansion and a yacht, who can loll around in bed all day or take her nice places and never go to work.

        Before you say, “Real women don’t do this, we only say no for good and legitimate reasons,” please know that my examples are drawn from real life too. There’s a lot of focus here on what men do wrong or don’t do right, don’t do enough of, etc. But men were not responsible for seven of the nine marriage failures in my family.

        • Maria

          Well, it is true that some women refuse sex for the reasons you’ve outlined. I never said otherwise. And it was a list of obstacles (between a woman and frequent, enjoyable sex with her husband) that I presented, not a list of reasons why. The problems that you mentioned exist, but they’re choices and not obstacles, imo.

    • Cynthia

      What my husband and I found was that showing genuine concern for each other, taking each person’s wants and needs into consideration and making big decisions together was really the key.

      It’s a model that moves beyond power struggles and concerns about being in control. It also goes beyond being transactional.

      Your examples are all about intimacy. In this model, we take a step back, and talk about how it can be truly enjoyable for both of us, and promote true intimacy. Is it a matter of setting aside time? Getting enough sleep? Having enough privacy? An approach where it comes across less as a demand and more as “I love it when you wear X, you are incredible and I love you and want to be with you so much”?

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        That’s beautiful, Cynthia.

  6. Nathan


    I’ve seen that attitude as well. Basically, you’re saying…

    wife: I don’t want to visit your parents this weekend, so we shouldn’t.
    husband: Okay, well I don’t want to visit your parents NEXT weekend.
    wife: You can’t say that! That’s selfish and uncaring!

    In my experience, though, there’s been plenty of this to go around both ways, gender-wise. I guess we should say that mutuality itself should be mutual as well.

    • Cynthia

      We occasionally fell into that transactional pattern at the beginning of our marriage.

      Going beyond it means first acknowledging each person’s POV and legitimate wants and needs. Wanting to keep up with family obligations is perfectly reasonable. So is wanting some time to relax and just be together with your own family. Once you each recognize that there are competing claims for time, and that any solution needs to take everyone’s needs into consideration, you can actually brainstorm for solutions together, without having to worry about constantly staking out your position. We found that once we took out the power struggle, we were able to get more creative. I remember one time, we had planned a trip to Montreal to see my grandmother, but then his uncle suddenly passed away so my husband felt an obligation to stay in Toronto. Both family obligations were real. In the end, we were able to switch around the dates to accommodate both needs in a way that made sense for everyone.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        This is perfect, Cynthia! Exactly–take out the power struggle, honor both people’s needs, and then you can brainstorm. And often you come up with solutions that you didn’t even see in the beginning, but you can’t see them if you’re in a win-lose mentality. I talked about this a lot in Thought 7 of 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage–Finding the win-win. And in Thought 5 I was also talking about how we’re not in competition with one another. It shouldn’t be a power struggle. That’s really what mutuality is about: a mutual acknwoledgement that both of you matter and that both of you have needs that are important.

  7. Lea

    I am between relationships at the moment and it seems like after every breakup I read more on relationships (including things like attachment theory) and how to get better at them and the things I’ve identified needing to work on are mostly having hard/important conversation instead of just taking a ‘wait and see how this goes and evaluate’ approach which is apparently my natural inclination.

    I find it easy to cut off things that aren’t working early on, but once I’m invested it’s so much harder. Definitely interested in listening to that ted talk you cited!

  8. Doug

    I have a few comments regarding mutuality, and why I think ot is a potentially destructive principle. I think when you are speaking to a couple, it is a good thing to bring up, but I’m not sure that is the case when speaking to an individual.

    Yes, the bible commands to “submit one to the other”, and in that context, it is clear that both spouses are being addressed. It sort of agrees with what I said above or more to the point, I agree with it. However, when you look at the individual instruction describing love in 1 Cor 13, it is never mentioned. I don’t think that is an accident. When you are holding out for “mutual”, you are thrust directly into conflict with the verse that says to not keep track of wrongs(don’t keep score).

    When we hear that things should be mutual our selfish hearts and I am including every person here who has commented, automatically thinks of those areas where our spouse has failed us. I know I do it, and based on comments here, I am not the only one. Not one person here has commented “Oh, dear, my spouse does so much for me that I overlook or take for granted and I have done a poor job of being mutual”.

    I don’t say that as an accusation. I include myself as ine of the failures, because my gut reaction was to jump on the bandwagon and heap accusation on my spouse. I’m not going to do that. One of the reasons I’m not going to, is because my wife and I used to have a very fair, very mutual marriage. It was fair and mutual in the sense that we re-paid hurt for hurt. I don’t believe it was deliberate or malicious on either of our parts, it just became our defense. I also don’t mean to say that it was all bad. It wasn’t. On many levels we were great friends, but we were not husband and wife.

    It was inky when we started trying to outdo each other in love that things changed, but that is not mutual, is it? In my case, it was little things like when I was so upset with her, that in the past I might have turned to porn I would be in the garage vacuuming and detailing her car at 2 in the morning. Not only would it help to settle my heart, it touched hers. To this day she has not figured out that all those insomniac nights on my part where she woke to a detailed car, or the entire living room, dining room, and kitchen, were the times I was most upset with her. When my mother passed away, my wife was emotionally absent. I can’t remember ever feeling so alone. I when her mother fell ill I was absolutely commited that she would not have to go thru that alone and I supported her as much as I knew how to, both emotionally and physically and was at the hospital holding both her jand, and her mothers, when she took her last breath in this world. I know that grief is a very lonely place, but I hope I made it less so for her.

    In short, I’m not a particularly good person. I am as selfish as anyone else, and probably moreso than many, but I won’t do better by keeping score. I will always see those areas where I come out on the short end of the stick. On the other hand, if I set that aside and just give as much as I can of myself, I trust God to balance the scales, then I know he will bless both my marriahe and myself.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Doug, that’s a great point. We do need to be outdoing each other in love, and we shouldn’t keep score. Absolutely.

      But at the same time, when marriage teaching focuses on only one person being responsible for keeping the marriage together, that isn’t healthy. We must all do all we can, BUT–and this is an important but–you need to realize that you can’t fix things on your own, and you are not responsible to. You are only responsible to do what you can.

      When marriage teaching teaches that only one person’s needs matter (take what Love & Respect said about how sex was only for men’s sexual release), then that marriage is going to end up being toxic for the woman, because she is going to feel as if she doesn’t matter.

      That’s actually different than a time where, in practice, sex is just for him. Sometimes we get in ruts in a while in our relationships, and one person’s needs are being prioritized. That’s natural, and it often (usually?) reverses itself.

      But when you are taught that this is actually the ideal, that’s when it gets toxic. Because then you internalize the message, “I don’t matter. I am a commodity.” And that’s just awful.

      We all need to live and love sacrificially, but also we all matter. And a lot of marriage teaching doesn’t actually say that, and that’s where things get really damaging. But I totally agree–in practice, we should be loving without keeping score, because no relationship can ever be 50/50 (and that’s not really what mutual means). Mutual doesn’t mean 50/50; mutual just means that each person’s needs matter, and that this is acknowledged as the goal. The simple fact is that in a lot of teaching in the church right now, women’s needs (especially women’s sexual needs) are considered secondary to his, and that’s not right or safe.


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