In Defense of Marital Submission

Candace Cameron Bure has written a new book about the leather daddies in her life — Jesus and some hockey player dude — and it seems not everyone is a fan. When I read the critiques, I find myself mostly nodding along in agreement. I don’t believe that men have a right — whether divine or natural – to be in charge. At the same time, I feel like I should say something in her defense. Because I don’t think biblical submission is really about Jesus. Okay, it is about Jesus, but it’s not just about Jesus.

Here’s what Mrs. Bure has to say about her marriage: “[L]isten, I love that my man is a leader,” she said. “I want him to lead and be the head of our family. And those major decisions do fall on him. … It doesn’t mean I don’t voice my opinion. It doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion. I absolutely do, but it is very difficult to have two heads of authority.”

Let me translate:

I love that my man is a leader. In other words, the alpha male thing turns her on.

It is very difficult to have two heads of authority. This is what works for them.

When you get married, you talk about all sorts of big picture things like making love last and the number and spacing of your future children but what about what kind of car to buy and who should change the kitty litter?

photo by flickr user Andrew Malone
photo by flickr user Andrew Malone

Clearly the Bures chose the submission model because it’s Jesus-approved but I think they stuck with it because it’s what works for their family. That it falls in line with a particular Christian evangelical doctrine is nice but hardly necessary. After all, she’s not always such a stickler. Did you know that God gave her the drive to work and the means to afford child care? God really is good!

Now Bure wants you to know that her submission isn’t the yucky “Fifty Shades of Grey” kind (ewww, pervs!), and yet, one thing that her submission and the pervy kind have in common is that they are both the product of choice. But why would anyone choose submission?

You can choose what you want! You can even marry your legos! photo by flickr user nickstone333
You can choose what you want! You can even marry your legos! photo by flickr user nickstone333

If you’re an egalitarian, how do you decide who gets to decide? You might take turns. You might divvy up the decision-making. You might negotiate. These are all perfectly reasonable options that just happen to make me want to poke my eyes out very, very slowly with a toothpick. I don’t want to split up every last thing to do in my house because that makes me feel like I live with a roommate. And I don’t want to negotiate every single decision because then it’s like I’m living in some sort of dispute resolution training from hell. And, well, what can I say? In the words of Mrs. Bure, I love that my man is a leader, if you know what I mean.

Love, like sex, isn’t politically correct. At least if you’re doing it right. My husband likes to see himself as the head of the household and I like it too.

Now there’s always been just one problem for me: What do the kids think? How can we (and yes, my husband and I are both feminists) model a relationship that looks a lot like the worldview we reject? We reject the idea that everyone is heterosexual and gender normative. We reject the idea that men should be in power by virtue of the fact that they are men. So how is our family life not just one giant contradiction?

Well, it just isn’t. I worried a lot about all of this before we got married but it turns out that there was just no reason to worry at all. My kids don’t actually think they live in some sort of twisted episode of Leave it to Beaver because what they see is love and respect.

And the reality is that my husband doesn’t make every decision. There are very few people who want to make all of the decisions in a home — from finances to string cheese — and even fewer people who want to have absolutely no say over anything at all. To be in charge all of the time would be exhausting and to give up all autonomy would be frustrating and irresponsible. So sometimes we negotiate and sometimes we divide things up, which I’m kind of willing to bet is how the Bures do it too. The thing about marital submission — much like marriage itself — is that as between the two people who make it part of their relationship, it can be whatever you want it to be.

I know what works for me and my husband, and I know the kids are just fine. And while I may not be an expert on Jesus or hockey players, I kind of think the Bures are probably doing just fine too.

Jenny Splitter

Jenny Splitter is a writer, storyteller and over-scheduled mom of two living in Washington, DC. She spends her glamorous days trying to write whatever she can, counting 1-2-3 in a slow yet threatening manner to her children, playing with gluten and working to eradicate dog hair from the planet (or at least her home). Find her on Twitter , Google+ and Facebook

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  1. Quite usually, decision making isn’t about who’s going to make the call.
    Really, I think that this is one of the biggest isues with the whole subject. From my own experience there hardly is ever an issue where one person wants A and the other B and never the twain shall meet and the one wins and the other one loses. It’s not a zero sum game.
    Decision making process in casa Giliell. Usually at the weekend, becuase during the week I get to make all the decisions I want to because I’m alone*.
    Step one: What’s the problem/issue/topic? OK, right, the easter vacation
    Step two: What are everybody’s ideas? Because quite often, somebody else has a better idea. Duh. My idea for last year’s easter hliday was brilliant and everybody was happy. Maybe this year’s isn’t and Mr has a better one.
    Step three: What information do we have? What information do we need?
    Step four: magic! by the end of this process, we usually come to a joint conclusion, not a decision one of us makes and the other submits to. I admit, this takes work and personal communication skills, but in the end I don’t feel bad about this being the role model we present our children.
    I grew up with parents who didn’t communicate. Each one uttered half a sentence, the other one completed that sentence in their head and then they reached a point where they had to notice that the ideas in their heads did not magically agree and then they had a fight. Duh.

    *Also, why do people think that having to figure out what’s for lunch every day is isuch a fucking privilege?

    1. First of all, I have to say that communication styles, personality types and what works in a marriage are all issues in which I’m really interested. Just wanted to put that out there. I will not be writing a book on marriage anytime soon, and I don’t claim to have it all figured out! It’s more that as I get older, I’m interested in identifying what works for me and what doesn’t.

      What defines leadership (process v. end result) is kind of an interesting point here. Would you say one person is leading or guiding the decision-making process that you describe? I know my personality is always seeking clarity and a sense of order. If I have a framework for making decisions, I’m good, though I would probably like someone else guiding that process if I feel confident in their judgment. I don’t know. There are times negotiation feels like work and incredibly tedious and other times in which it’s really engaging. Could just be whether I’ve had a good night sleep the night before!

      Another layer to this that I’ve been thinking about recently — an important part of marriage (particularly as a parent) needs to be what works — efficient, fair, orderly — and another part needs to be and remind you of fun/sexy/falling in love times. Do you listen to Dan Savage’s podcast? I feel like he kind of gets at this when he talks about marriage, partnership and parenting. Again, a big part of this is personality. I know my life can’t be chaos — it’s too crazy, I prefer order — but you should swing from the chandeliers now and again (preferably after the kids have gone to bed!).

      Hope this makes sense! It’s an interesting topic to me though I’m not sure I’ve completely figured out where I stand on it. Partly just writing this and sharing it was a big effort for me.

  2. Honestly I have no issue with Mrs Cameron Brue submitting to her husband, be it biblical (eeeww) or in a kinky way. But she lost me when she said that she would do what her husband wanted, even to the detriment of her family. That is where I draw the line. I can not begin to understand a person who would put anything before there children.

    1. I hear you, although I kind of don’t believe her. I think she said that she will defer to her husband no matter what because it falls in line with her book and personal brand (speaking of ewww!). But maybe she does mean it, and I agree that that’s shitty. Remember Ayelet Waldman’s NY Times essay years ago about how her husband is number 1? I believe it was on Oprah where said (but omitted from the essay) that she would throw her kid in front of a bullet that was headed for her husband! Did she really mean that? Clearly some women are that screwed up, but at some level it might just be a weird twisted public expression of devotion.

  3. Yeah, what Daisy said. I have known women who do the (biblical) submitting thing. It’s very common here in Arkansas where I live.

    “Someone has to be in charge,” one woman who is more practical and less under the woo of it all said to me. “And guess what I noticed — I’m not always right!”

    “Well, good shit,” I said. “Is he?”

    See, that’s the thing. I know guys like to be in charge. Who *wouldn’t* want to be in charge? But it’s just not sensible to put your life (or the lives of your children) in another person’s hands. That’s why having a couple adults (or really more, frankly) in charge is a better idea. We all need someone to catch us when we’re fucking up.

    Or, as Giliell puts it, to say, hey, that idea you have, that’s not the best idea. Just saying. Here’s a better one.

    tld;dr No, someone does not “have” to be in charge. Family as democracy does work.

    1. I could not leave all of the decisions — particularly the parenting ones — to anyone else. Actually, in these traditional models, it seems it most often works well because the mother is in charge of the domestic stuff and the husband is in charge of whatever they deem husband territory. My husband does have quite a few opinions about parenting, and it’s been an area where we have both had to learn to sit, talk and listen to each other.

      Also, here’s another confession. I was raised (and still basically am) a liberal reform Jew from Santa Cruz, California. It’s the height of rebellion for me just to have married a man who can use power tools! Sometimes things get really wild and I bake a casserole while wearing an apron!!

  4. That came off a lot more vehement than I meant it, Jenny! It sounds like *your* family is working great. My last line was directed toward my biblical-submitting student, not toward you!

  5. Have you ever actually experienced Christian submission culture from the inside? I’m not sure that “happy” and “works for them, lala” is quite the way to describe it. In fact, I’m fairly certain it isn’t, seeing how I was raised that way.

    1. I know a couple of women who practice biblical submission and the experiences seem to vary. I have no illusions that it’s some universally happy experience.

      There seems to be quite a few women on Mrs. Bure’s Facebook page that say they embraced submission and it saved their marriage, some pointing out that they rejected feminism to do so. I’d like to know what their stories are and if they’re really happier now. And how they define feminism.

      1. I think the definitions for “submission” and “feminism” are critical here.

        Recently, a friend of my sisters (both went to the same Baptist school I did for high school) got married and got pregnant soon after. She had for years declared feminism evil and said a lot about how she intended to be a submissive wife. She was notorious for being from a super anti-vax family, and she mentioned to my sister that her husband’s family was all doctors/pediatricians and that it was causing some tension. When asked how she justified overruling her husbands wishes, she looked very blank and essentially said “but this matters to me!”. So in her mind, submission meant doing what your husband said, unless you didn’t like it. Apparently feminists were people who argued with their husbands over issues that didn’t matter.

  6. I would be very careful to apply terms like “happy” and “working” from an outside perspective.
    Well, it’s not a secret that I’m not American, so this whole Bible literalism is quite alien to me. I grew up in a pretty secular society, raised by liberal atheist parents. The more it surprised me to find out one day that, oh fuck, I was probably as submissive as any good christian wife could be. You see, I was not only raised by liberal atheist parents, but also by parents who were emotionally abusive. Where christian women get JOY (Jesus first, Others second, Yourself last) I got MOW (Mum is right, Other people are important and Who the fuck do you think you are?).
    I mentioned in the other thread, the only reason I didn’t end up in an abusive relationship was that my husband isn’t an abuser. I would not have said I was submissive, because I didn’t even realize that I completely lost myself in my attempts to please him.
    The communication strategies and tools I mentioned before are the result of more than two years of hard work and therapy.
    But here’s the thing: Before I completely broke down I seemed perfectly happy. And I would have told you that I was. Because you godsdamn HAVE to be perfectly happy (which is something explicitely asked of children raised in extremist christian households. I suggest Libby Anne’s writing over at Love, Joy, Feminism for further reading. I simply got it as part of the whole fucked-upness parcel).
    To divide abour within the family is another thing, but in my eyes it has nothing to do with being in charge or something if the person who’s responsible for the laundry is the one who decides what to wash next.

    1. Yes, I was going to suggest LJF for background research into the foundation of the Christian fundamentalist submission culture. And I keep thinking of my mom, who’s so immersed in CFSC that she frames even perfectly legitimate complaints from her own self as her just being “stubborn” or “domineering.” She would say that she is happy. She’d say that she chose her lifestyle freely, and in a manner of speaking she sort of did since it was her idea– that she got from church after being told over and over that a non-subjugated wife is bound for hell and dragging her whole family with her. She *has* to say that she is happy, because the other option is to be hell bound, because her unhappiness is a satanic character flaw and any admission to being unsatisfied with her role as subjugate is opening her heart to evil that will bring down her whole family. Is that a choice? It doesn’t sound like a choice to me, and it didn’t look like a choice when I was living under it, either.

    2. Well, I don’t have any way of knowing if someone else is truly, verifiably happy, and I certainly can’t tell from a Facebook post or anything else online. I just find it interesting how many people gravitate towards clear rules and structure in their life (religion is another example). In a relationship, that structure gives them a starting point for being conscious about their relationship. I was in therapy for years, and I also found it very useful.

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