When Male Hierarchy Teaching Turns Good Men Bad

by | Feb 21, 2024 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 25 comments

Complementarianism male hierarchy turns some good men abusive

Not everyone who ends up dominating their wife is actually an abuser at heart. 

What they are doing may be abusive; the same dynamics may be at play, and the same harm may be being done. But it doesn’t always come from the same place.

Over and over again since we have started doing this work, we have heard from couples who ended up acting out male hierarchy and female submission because they thought they were supposed to–and it turned out horribly. But the guy was not initially abusive.

For instance, here’s a letter that came in to me recently:

My husband and I were raised in the church but it was not ultra conservative or fundamentalist. We thought we had escaped most of the toxic teachings but we were unfortunately unaware of how engrained those teachings are in our communities, especially our homeschooling one. We recently had to leave our homeschooling group when we realized how the toxicity of female subordination was affecting our teenage daughter (including harassment from the boys). 

At this time I also found your books and my husband and I listened/read them. I was hit with the realization of how we had both been trained that female submission only was how marriage was supposed to be. We were married young and everything immediately became about his career and schooling. I’ve changed my career and then given up my career to support his endeavors.

I have struggled for years with my self identity and had no idea why I was resentful. Seeing our daughter be exposed to the same mindset brought everything into perspective for us and we are both horrified by our actions. Me for letting it happen to me and him for allowing it to happen. We both thought we were doing what was supposed to be done for happy successful marriages. We have unfortunately had many difficulties because of the decisions we made influenced by this mindset.

So we sit here in our 40s trying to figure out how to get out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into. Female only submission has brought nothing but hardship for us and turned a good man into one who unknowingly assumes he will always get his way. Our marriage is not abusive at all so we are trying to figure out how to reconcile the past with our new knowledge. It is incredibly painful and is requiring a lot of work to move forward. We are both determined to teach our kids how to have healthy mutual respect relationships so they will not be in the same situation.

So we have two different types of marriages:

  • We have marriages where they both are good-willed and love each other, but they internalize these toxic things which breed entitlement and terrible dynamics that cause harm.
  • We have marriages where he is controlling and abusive, and he often turns to churches that teach this stuff so as to enable and cover up for his abuse.

The problem is that from the outside, both marriages can look the same, but they’re fundamentally not.

In the first case, if a man is confronted with what he has done and the harm he has caused, he will often be repentant and want to change (and I do see a lot of this). In the second he will not.

There’s not a lot we can do about the second types of marriages, except to help women recognize bad character and avoid these men altogether, or teach women that it’s okay to get out and get to safety.

But for the first group of men, we can hopefully prevent these altogether in the church by simply changing how we teach.

We also need to recognize the need for emotional health in both men and women.

Another aspect is that people (both men and women) often turn to control in marriage because they have unprocessed wounds that leave them vulnerable. Here’s one of our Patreons described it, in response to a woman talking about how her husband had changed:

I’ve pondered the idea of (1) true narcissism and (2) unintentional narcissism a lot, and your husband sounds to me like he falls into the second camp (To be clear, I believe both cause harm on those around them! Trauma doesn’t care about intention, just impact). I also had a similar experience in my life in pursuing the same repentance and change a couple of years ago.

I always want to be so careful to not defend, but sometimes I do think explanation is helpful: In my case, my narcissistic behavior was due to (1) emotional regulation issues from childhood trauma (therapy and Bare Marriage have worked wonders) and (2) OCD (I had no idea how much my desire to control my wife and children came from my brain’s desire to “STAY SAFE” when my amygdala was firing).

Neither of those excuse the trauma they caused, and we’ve been working through that and it’s required my complete ownership with no excuses to my family and a lot of work to turn that around (still in the process), but my case was one example where it wasn’t really about a desire for power at all. It was a desire to control those around me because of my inability to process my fear and trauma.

Sometimes I wonder if that isn’t the case for more controlling men, and it sounds like your husband may have been in a similar place? I also don’t want to negate the fact that there really are evil-driven, power-hungry people out there as well and it’s definitely challenging to know the difference. Although even then, a person who is harming another has no excuse, and many men who fall into the first category don’t WANT to put in the work to heal which perpetuates the trauma… so that doesn’t make it easier either, if you’re the one being abused.

I love how he said that trauma doesn’t care about intention, just impact.

Exactly. Even if malicious intent wasn’t there, the trauma is still the same.

The problem is that the church takes men, like this one, who have unprocessed childhood wounds and so who naturally clamber for control in relationships, and tells them that this is spiritually good. And so, instead of helping these men grow emotionally, they actually put up stumbling blocks to emotional growth by saying, “your maladaptive coping strategies are actually of God.”

If we want couples to be healthy, we need to change what we teach.

That’s what we’re trying to do here at Bare Marriage.

But today, I just wanted to quickly note an important thing, that often gets lost in talk about abuse and trauma in marriage. Not all people who cause trauma are fundamentally abusive. Not all are trying to do harm.

Some are honestly trying to follow God and think that control is the way to do it; some are emotionally traumatized already and are being shuttled into roles that perpetuate emotional immaturity. 

In terms of impact they still do the same harm. 

But since the intent is not to harm, then we should be able to prevent a lot of this harm by simply teaching better. 

"A groundbreaking look into what true, sacred biblical sexuality is intended to be. A must-read." - Rachael Denhollander

What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the messages that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these toxic teachings?

It's time for a Great Sex Rescue.

Great Sex Rescue

Just think of how much healthier we can be!

Keith and I are in the last few weeks of writing our marriage book before we submit it to the publisher, and this vision is what I dream about. What if we could change the story about marriage in the evangelical church? What if we could show what true health and partnership looked like?

Think of the problems we could avoid! Think of the growth we could see! I get excited thinking about it. And I also get sad that so many are still clinging to old ideas that never worked and were never of Jesus anyway.

But, boy, I’m praying that millennials and Gen Z change the church, because people don’t want it like this anymore. They want better relationships. And, quite frankly, we all deserve it.

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. G M

    My husband fits into the good man/bad belief category. I believed it too, and it’s hurt our marriage so much. It’s taken a lot of work to unlearn what we’ve been taught, and we have a long way to go. I wish I had known about boundaries. I wish I had known that I mattered too and deserved to be taken care of just as much as he did. You’ve helped us both, and I’m excited for your marriage book. It can’t come soon enough!

  2. Jen

    So good. I love the delineation between the hearts of abusers. The abuse is the same, the intention doesn’t matter to the traumatized victim, but the REASON for the abuse occurring does matter when it comes to healing and, of course, whether or not to stay in relationship with the man.

    My husband has religious OCD (scrupulosity) which, in addition to having been raised by an abusive , controlling mother, caused him to be controlling of our sons. I didn’t think he was controlling of me until I found out about the secret sex addiction, which meant he’d been controlling my reality.

    I believe that he did not desire to abuse me and my sons, but he absolutely did abuse us. This discussion is helping me to separate out the types of abusers and that helps me calm my nervous system. We are in recovery, and recovery is really, really hard. One of the first steps in that recovery is determining what kind of abuser my husband is. Obviously, there is no recovering with an evil hearted person. You simply run. But I am willing to work with a broken person who is truly repentant.

    Thanks for another great post!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Jen, I hope there can be real healing and restoration (not just papering over problems!) I honestly love hearing those stories, and I think that Jesus is so much about restoring. I truly wish that for your marriage and your husband!

    • A. L.

      Actually they do look different, Even if they were taught doctrines of hierarchy They are going to operate mutually if they are not abusive. Watch them. The husband still listens to his wife. If they are operating in hierarchy The opinion of the wife does not matter. Even if they say they don’t believe in hierarchy anymore, you can see the difference. You don’t listen to what they Claim you watch what they do. Fallen men instinctively try to push their biological advantages.

  3. Amy

    My ex husband grew up unchurched in a home with an abusive father. He started attending an SBC church as a young adult. Years after I divorced him, I realized that his exposure to conservative church teachings only solidified the relationship dynamics he learned from his family of origin. It’s a sad state of affairs when the church is teaching and supporting abusive behaviors.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It really, really is. It’s just heartbreaking.

  4. Katie

    I’ve been watching this exact situation play out with a member of my family. He had a marriage go bad and felt like he failed so with the next time around they have tried so hard to be a perfect example of what god wants but unfortunately were heavy into a church that preached the wrong example. The now adult children think that marriage is just bad all around and I feel so sad that I haven’t been able to figure out how to convince them that it doesn’t have to be that way. I wish that I could get him to understand that he’s been taught wrong but as I’m not a churchgoer any more my information doesn’t carry enough weight with him.

    • Lisa Johns

      You could give the The Great Sex Rescue for a gift. 🙂

  5. EOF

    I can’t speak as to whether my husband would have been abusive or not without the church’s teachings but they sure didn’t help anything. While our church is still complementarian (at least in their official position) they haven’t preached harmful teachings in a long time — yet my husband continued his abuse at home. (We’re now separated.)

    It’s clear that he doesn’t want to let go of the power the church gave him two and half decades ago.

  6. Lisa J

    I have often wondered if my nex was a true narcissist or a traumatized narcissist, as there is a tremendous amount of abuse and trauma in his family background. I tried for years to get him to get help in that area.
    Bottom line for me was, whether it stemmed from trauma or a true personality disorder, he had no intention of working on it except where putting on a show of work would make him look good. Even if they are wounded human beings, seeking genuine healing and change is a requirement.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Absolutely. Impact matters more than intent. But I do think some, if they’re willing, can change. Others never will.

      • Lisa Johns

        I think the willingness is probably the BIGGEST indicator of what kind of people they really are.

  7. Lisa Johns

    And my apologies for the name on the comment requiring it to await moderation! For some reason the site has stopped automatically using my name and email, and I apparently didn’t get my whole name typed in. :/

  8. Taylor

    I think my ex started in category 1–he definitely has unprocessed childhood trauma. Unfortunately, with years of groups and therapy that didn’t get to the root of the issue, and his intentionally deceiving everyone (including himself) about his sex addiction, the trauma-based abuse hardened over time. At the end, even when he was faced with my long and clear impact statement regarding how much his behavior destroyed me, he no longer cared.

    I do wonder, had we had started our marriage in mutuality rather than hierarchy, and had I known much earlier that I wasn’t risking God’s disapproval if I rocked the boat by setting boundaries, maybe some of the problems could have been addressed before they became insurmountable.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, I wonder that about a lot of couples too. I think abusers can be made, they’re not just born. But once they’re made, it can really become calcified, for lack of a better word.

      • Taylor

        “Calcified” is a very apt word.

    • Lisa Johns

      “had I known much earlier that I wasn’t risking God’s disapproval if I rocked the boat by setting boundaries, maybe some of the problems could have been addressed before they became insurmountable.” I so resonate with this. I have wondered OFTEN how things might have looked if I had figured that bit out earlier. (And then I remember how long he was single in those habits before I married him…) But I think it is a trap to dwell on the “what-ifs.” I am so glad that God has given me freedom now!

      • Taylor

        I totally agree that “what ifs” that center on the past can be entrapping. It keeps the soul continually trying to change the past, which isn’t possible.

        “What ifs” can be empowering when they’re directed at the future. Like, “What if I had known earlier, and set boundaries?” can be turned into “Now that I know, what if I set boundaries for next time?” “What if, next time, I listen to my gut?” “What if I teach my children to stand up for themselves, so this doesn’t get repeated?”

        “What if” can be the initial foray into a new, daring and beautiful future.

  9. K

    Such a brilliant, well articulated post. Thank you!!

    I stayed too long in a relationship – hoping my marriage was in the first camp.

    I’m definitely a person who was in the second.

    You created a post a while ago talking about the stages of moral development. (Unbelievably good!)

    So long as the church remains locked into the fear of punishment / obeying the rules makes me a “good person” mindset – we will never get to principle.

    Separating from my abusive hex was the only course open to me – but I broke the rules to do so and I am now not a “good” person anymore.

    But the church will still tell me to avoid false teachers, that as children of light we shouldn’t enable darkness – we should expose it, that a tree is known by its fruits, that there are people who go around speaking “great swelling words of emptiness” – enticing people into destruction, etc.

    Except when a woman is married she cannot possibly figure out that ANY of these things apply to her own husband who is a teaching elder. She’s simply in rebellion for refusing to submit to faulty and destructive teaching.

    And then we wonder why so many women in church who are in destructive relationships are confused….

    My life was a boatload of cognitive dissonance.

    And because my husband didn’t show himself honestly in public – rather looking like a “good boy who follows the rules” – the church never applied the problems to my husband at all.

    It was “obvious” that the problems were with the “abandoning” party.

    We absolutely HAVE to do better.

    PREACH – Sheila and Co!!!!!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so glad you’re safe now! But I’m also so, so sorry that the church wasn’t your safe place. That the church made it worse. That’s what keeps me up at night. That’s what causes me such pain. How did we get here?

  10. K

    Thank you Sheila! ♥️
    Re-reading my comment it sounds a bit like I could be saying “I didn’t agree with my husbands teaching, and found it uncomfortable and the church agreed with him – so he’s a narcissist….”

    For posterity – Um. No.

    He is a world class manipulator, a man of 1000 faces, a devoted planner of his schemes, and all are completely covert. He’s the guy who says “But I don’t understand…” instead of “I refuse to see this from your perspective – so shut up already..” and after telling you he doesn’t understand takes steps to undermine you with other people in that area – so if you reach out everyone has been “vaccinated” against being able to give you a fair hearing, the guy who showed obvious pleasure in causing you pain … and so very, very much more.

    This guy was the “perfect” teaching elder. And he kept telling me that it was God’s will that things were like they were.

    Thank you for your heart for the church Sheila. Without getting eschatological about the term I truly believe we are in a time when MANY anti-Christ’s have come – people who’s goals and lives are the antithesis of Christlike. And instead of feeling deeply uncomfortable in church, they end up running them – with public acclaim.

    • Nessie

      “And instead of feeling deeply uncomfortable in church, they end up running them – with public acclaim.”

      The church (some iterations of it) is such a great place for these people to find their narcissistic supply needs met!
      “Encourage one another.”
      “Assume the best of people.”
      “He’s a good-hearted man.”
      “Get the log out of your own eye first.”
      “We are all sinners but you are full of unforgiveness.”
      On and on…

  11. Annie M

    Thank you Sheila, this has been a burning question for me ever since my husband walked out, labelling me as the abuser. I couldn’t work out how he could call me abusive when my whole heart was to honour and support him as we’d been taught. And when I started looking into emotional abuse online, he stood out as the abusive one! But I simply couldn’t bring myself to see him as a malicious abuser, which was the only definition of an abuser I could find. It was always posed in terms of being intentional, deliberate, and cruel. I couldn’t place either of us in that camp. So this post is a breath of fresh air – I feel like I can stop suffocating under the whirlwind of thoughts that swirl around getting nowhere because I am sure that neither of us intended to harm the other. Our marriage is two well-intentioned people following terribly harmful teachings that have caused MASSIVE damage that may not be repairable. But at least I don’t have the trauma of thinking he was deliberately trying to harm me 🙂

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so glad this could help you, and I’m so sorry for all the heartache you’ve been through!

  12. Mary Lamb

    My husband told me God gave him the authority to “control me,” and he has been severely abusive to me and had also committed in the past acts of abuse towards animals, especially cats for some reason. He pretends he wants my input on an issue but input with a fist in front of me is not really input at all. I am in the process of deconverting from Christianity. I agree with Tina Turner–Christianity is just too oppressive. You look at the bible and see that Rachel and Leah were bought like property, and that marriages were never about love. Unlike Tina, I have no plans to become a Buddhist. I just believe that Christianity has too much wickedness in it–genocide, beating of slaves, selling of women, condoning of slavery, and giving husbands completely headship over the wife. It’s just too harmful.


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