Do gendered teachings in the church make direct communication harder?
Today and tomorrow I’d like to look at specific teachings in the church that can make direct communication more difficult, especially when that teaching is gendered, and we’ll start with women.
But not all teaching that makes direct communication difficult is gendered, like this first one:
1. “Be content in every circumstance” makes direct communication hard.
Christians are taught that one of the highest virtues is learning to be content no matter what you’re living through. We often hear the apostle Paul quoted with passages like this:
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength….
We’re supposed to be able to live with anything that life brings us.
But whether we can live with something is not a good metric for whether we should live with it. Paul was not talking about being content with mediocre or bad relationships that could be improved with a little bit of effort; he was talking about learning to be content when he had no control over his own circumstances. He wasn’t telling us to put up with things that are preventable; he was saying don’t obsess over things that you can’t do anything about.
Nevertheless, we’ve often used this teaching to tell women (and men) that they have no right to be upset about anything. This teaching is especially focused on marriage, where the goal is on keeping the marriage together rather than building intimacy in that marriage.
In this teaching, our legitimate feelings are seen as threats to the relationship, and so the antidote is to be grateful for what you have, rather than focused on what you don’t have. To express your desire for things to change, then, means that you’re not content and you’re somehow not being Christian.
2. “Let go and let God” tells women not to communicate directly
Now we turn to some teachings that women especially are given. Here’s how I explain the “Duck Principle” in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage:
I’ve heard it explained at women’s retreats and on marriage and mom blogs, and it goes something like this:
Pat Answer: If you’re upset at your spouse, state your opinion, but then “duck” and get out of the way, so that God can be the one to smack your husband, not you.
I can remember one conference where we were handed little paper ducks to put in our Bibles, to remind us that it was not our job to point out any error in our husbands; it was only God’s job. We were to “pray and get out of the way.”
Leslie had really mastered that Duck thing. She was just like a little mallard, looking peaceful on the outside, while under the surface her legs were paddling frantically as she waited to see what would happen. After all, she’d ducked. So now God should smack her husband!
But let’s look at it another way. If God’s truth is timeless—and I believe it is—then we would expect that the things God wants also lead to better and healthier relationships. So if the healthiest thing were simply to “duck” and not express disagreement, then research should show that the best marriages are those in which there’s little or no fighting. Actually, research shows the opposite. When Ernest Harburg of the University of Michigan looked into what makes a healthy marriage, he and his colleagues discovered that couples who express their anger live longer than couples who suppress it.
The healthiest couples are not those where the wife states her position once and then ducks—or worse, never states her position in the first place. No, the happiest couples are those who wrestle through issues and don’t back down until they rebuild intimacy and trust and closeness. In fact, conflict resolution contributes to healthier individuals in general, since people who suppress conflict actually die earlier. So peacemaking isn’t just good for your marriage; it’s good for your heart too!
The book Power of a Praying Wife is full of this type of principle–just leave it to God. Trust in the Lord. Don’t take matters into your own hands. (Download our healthy sexuality rubric from The Great Sex Rescue to see how Power of a Praying Wife scored!)
To actually try to address something in your marriage, then, would be seen as a lack of faith in God. You aren’t supposed to be the one to fix things–God is! If you try to step in, then you’re not exercising faith.
I think this one is especially given to women because women are seen to be always trying to be in control. We have a hard time trusting God. We’re control freaks. We’re trying to “usurp” authority. And so we’re told to calm down and trust instead.
3. “You must never undermine his masculinity and his leadership” means she can’t communicate directly without being in sin
By far the most damaging and common message that hurts direct communication, though, is this one: If a woman asks for something directly, she is trying to lead and is undermining his role and his masculinity. Instead, she must be submissive.
This one is so ingrained that I’m having a hard time figuring out which quotes to use as examples, because there are so many, and the more I looked for them the more enraged I got. But here are just a few.
In Love & Respect, the only place where Emerson Eggerichs specifically tells women how to handle a husband who is in sin and hurting the family is in this anecdote in Appendix E, on how to deal with a workaholic husband:
Third, to influence him directly, respectfully say, “Your son (daughter, children) needs you at home more. You have a unique influence on him. In certain areas, nobody matters to him as much as you do. It may not appear that way to you, but your positive presence has the power to mold him. I know you are swamped and have little time, but I also know that you want to give him that part of you that no one else can give to him. Thanks.”
After delivering your “we need you at home more” message, don’t repeat it for anywhere from ten to twenty days. Then mention it again, quietly and positively with the general tone of “just a positive reminder because of your importance.” …
Have confidence in God’s Word. Quietness shouts to a husband.
Now, let’s compare that to the 6 markers of direct communication we talked about last week:
Notice how in this example that Eggerichs gives, she never actually asks for anything. She merely makes observations, but then leaves it to him to decide what he is going to do with those observations. She does not share any of her own feelings about the situation. She does not tell him what she needs from him. And then, at the end, she says “thanks”, though it’s not clear what exactly she is thanking him for. Existing? Listening? Considering what she has said?
Then, she is supposed to be quiet and say nothing. This goes against every single one of our principles for direct communication.
Men reading this, please understand the weight of this: Women are told our whole lives that to actually ask you for what we want is a sin.
Women are told that before we communicate anything to men, we must make sure that we do so in a way that honors his masculinity and that shows respect–which, in the words of Emerson Eggerichs, means remembering that:
- he is in hierarchy over us;
- he has authority over us;
- we must value his insight over our own.
So basically, we’re not allowed to correct a man. And if we can’t correct him, then how are we supposed to ask directly when we want something to change?
Answer: we’re not. Because that would be a sin.
And that’s why women are supposed to talk in circles, like that example from Eggerichs.
Many of you reacted in incredulity to the John Piper quote from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that I put in Friday’s post–about when an “executive” who is lost asks a “housewife” for directions, she must be careful not to be “direct and personal”, since that would compromise both his masculinity and her femininity. (Presumably she should say something like, “I find that when I’m trying to find the freeway, I turn left at the third set of lights, go for a mile, and then follow the sign.”)
But Piper is not the only one who tells women they must not give directions to men. Shaunti Feldhahn, in For Women Only, talks about how men’s need to feel respected extends to needing to feel like you think they’re competent. So even if they’re clearly doing something wrong, and it’s inconveniencing you, you must not speak up about it:
The next time your husband stubbornly drives in circles, ask yourself which is more important: being on time to the party or his feeling trusted? No contest.
To even ask him to get you to the party on time would be considered showing a lack of respect and a lack of trust. She must instead say nothing at all (because, as the book points out earlier in the chapter, the male ego is the most fragile thing on the planet, and we must treat it with care).
And the advice starts even younger.
In For Young Women Only, Feldhahn’s book for teen girls (we’ve talked about the problematic way it handles date rape before), she repeats the quote to girls that males have fragile egos, and tells them that boys need to feel respected, and that you believe that they are competent and capable. She explains that when boys get angry, it’s a good sign they’re feeling disrespected. She says it’s fine to ask for you what you want, but you must always couch it in telling them you believe in them, that you are grateful for them, and that you respect them. And this is true even if you’ve just working on a group project together.
If you have superior knowledge than them, you must not share that with them, or they will feel disrespected. So you should not tell them how to get something done, but must instead show that you respect their abilities. (Again, this is all girls to all boys; not even girls in dating relationships).
At one point she gives an example of how a girl impacted a boy without disrespecting him, referring to the movie A Walk to Remember:
At the beginning of the story, after Landon has made an immature, costly decision, it just takes one look from Jamie to shame him and challenge him to change. At the end, when Landon makes a selfless decision, the look on Jamie’s face says how proud she is of him. She challenges him and makes him feel he can conquer his demons and become the man he was intended to be.
Feldhahn shows how all the ways that girls naturally talk can sound disrespectful. But her example of real respect? Simply a look. We don’t even need to say anything. We hold great power just through a look.
No direct communication here.
Mama Bear Apologetics offers similar warnings to young girls:
“Talk to little girls about how they might one day be surrounded by men who are bigger and stronger than they are. How might they stand up for themselves and be strong without emasculating the men around them?”
Even when we’re trying to be strong, we have to be sure we’re not emasculating men. Our first thoughts, when communicating with men, have to be about supporting his masculinity rather than sharing our feelings or dealing with an issue.
When we’re trying to communicate, we have to do so in a way that does not make them feel disrespected; undermine their authority; imply that we may know more than they do; imply that they may not be as good at something as they think. We have to make them feel competent, capable, better than us, and in charge BEFORE we think about expressing anything.
Can you see how that hinders direct communication and works directly against healthy relationships? And undermines truth?
Women, you are allowed to have feelings and you are allowed to express them.
It is not disrespectful to ask for what you want and need.
It is not a lack of trust in God.
It is not a desire to be in control.
It is not an unsubmissive spirit (let alone a Jezebel spirit).
It is not unfeminine.
It is not selfish.
It is not disrespectful.
It is, in fact, being Christlike, because you are walking in Truth and you are making peace.
You’re allowed to stop listening to people who tell you that expressing your own thoughts and feelings is somehow wrong. When they tell you that, they are also telling you that they are not safe people, and you are allowed to disregard them.
You May Also Enjoy:
- My Submission Series: Figure out what submission really means!
And men–next time you hear women being told not to speak up or else men will feel disrespected, please speak up and say, “hey, men aren’t actually that fragile, and that’s so disrespectful to men to imply that we are!”
Have any of these three teachings affected you when you try to communicate in marriage? Have you ever second guessed yourself because you don’t want to be unsubmissive? Let’s talk in the comments!
The Direct Communication Series
- 5 Reasons Direct Communication is Difficult
- 6 Elements of Direct Communication
- Why Direct Communication Feels Mean–and Why It’s Not
- 3 Reasons Christian Resources Tell Women Direct Communication is a Sin
- 4 Reasons Christian Teaching Discourages Men from Communicating Directly
- The Real Solution to Nagging (coming soon)
- How to Handle a Spouse’s Negative Reactions to Direct Communication (coming soon)
- 10 Tips to Having that Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Putting Off (coming soon)
- 10 Tips to Talking to Your Spouse About Your Sex Life (coming soon)
And please see my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, with lots on having difficult conversations and resolving conflict!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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