When Esther and I got married, we hadn't discussed who would do what. We were in love, and in the '70s "love was all you needed." If there was such a thing as premarital counseling to help us figure this (and other things) out, somehow we missed it. The only "counseling" I recall was from my family doctor who for some reason scheduled me for a physical when I asked for the requisite blood test. Clearly uncomfortable with the topic, he mumbled that it would be wise to engage in some "fondling of the privates" prior to intercourse. With that, Esther and I headed to the altar.
We learned about fondling easily enough, but determining who does what—and more importantly, who ultimately calls the shots—has been harder. Both of us grew up in homes where it was clear that the man of the house was, well, the man of the house. Maybe because of that, but also because this was the '70s, neither of us was keen on my laying down the law. For one thing, the woman I married was smarter than I was, especially in the area of finances. So the "traditional" male role of controlling the purse strings fell to Esther. And as one learns in economics and marriage, whoever controls the money, controls.
So I guess you would say we have a somewhat unorthodox relationship. Esther is still the one who decides, with my input of course, which bills to pay when, how much to sock away in a savings account, and which charities, besides our church, to support.
Add the fact that I do most of the cooking, and you might think we have one of those traditional hierarchical relationships, but with the roles reversed. She does the "manly" things while I pick up the slack by doing a few things normally left to "the wife." (Don't be fooled—I don't do windows or the laundry, or clean up after myself in the kitchen.) But given that, it might look like Esther is the man of the house.
Not exactly. We never sat down and decided who would be the head or even if the house would have a head. Instead, we sort of fell into roles that seemed to suit our strengths. The who-will-manage-the-money question settled itself about a month after we were married, when Esther discovered some uncashed paychecks I'd tossed into my dresser drawer and forgotten.
"What are these?" she asked.
"Um, paychecks," I answered vaguely, not realizing this was a big deal.
In retrospect, I can see how my lack of a financial management system was such a shock to my organized thinker of a wife. We decided she'd handle the money.
So it became divide and conquer for us. Pay little attention to traditional roles but rely on our personal gifts and interests to get us through life. Should work like a charm, right? Well, not always. You see, I'm still a man.
Whenever Esther and I had a conflict, it was usually because I needed to be in control and didn't like the feeling of letting Esther make decisions I felt I ought to be making. It was one thing to let her write the checks at the end of the month. It was quite another to let her decide that we couldn't afford a house that I really liked. Despite our efforts to forge an egalitarian relationship, I still wanted to be the final authority.
I'd like to report that after 27 years of marriage, Esther and I have it all figured out. But I can't, because we don't. We have, however, made some progress toward what I'd call an egalitarian relationship with male veto privilege. It's clear that when two reasonably intelligent people join together, it makes no sense for one person to set her gifts and abilities aside. That goes against the Parable of the Talents, where the Bible admonishes us to make the most of what God has given us. I shudder to think where we would be financially if I'd insisted on handling the money. So we still divide our duties along the lines of what we each do best. I've learned to trust Esther's ability to really manage our finances, schedule maintenance for home and cars, and generally organize a six-member household. Since she also has a full-time job, that has meant that in addition to my own contribution to our income, I cook (which I love) and help out with housecleaning (which I hate).
It's a neat arrangement, actually, but does this team have a captain? What do we do about Paul's teaching that a husband is the "head" of his wife and that she must submit (Eph. 5:22-23)? We handle it by being good creationists, honoring God's sovereignty by carefully and creatively balancing his Old Testament design for marriage with his New Testament instructions for working it out.
God's original plan was for two people to become one (Gen. 2:24). He didn't tell us how to do this, which is probably why the Apostle called it a "profound mystery." For us, becoming one has meant working hard at honest and ongoing communication. Defying those natural impulses to do what's best for me rather than what's best for we. When we do that, one person rarely feels the need to go out on a limb and rule by edict. If you work as hard on Genesis as you do on Ephesians, you'll naturally keep short accounts with one another, making decisions by consensus rather than control.
Becoming one also makes it easier for both of us during those rare times when we face an important choice requiring one person to make a Solomon-like decision. I'm not talking about who makes lunches for the kids or who closes the deal on a car, but whether to take a job in another city or change churches. If we've been diligent about becoming one, I know exactly what Esther thinks and feels about our options. If I obey the command to love her as myself (Eph. 5:28), I'd be risking my relationship with God if I disregarded her needs.
What Esther submits to then is something we've both thought through, not some personal agenda of mine that is forged in solitude.
I've noticed that most wives are more skilled at becoming one than most husbands are—as if it's natural for women and unnatural for men. That would explain why men so often abuse headship by distorting it into tyranny. It might also explain why God felt it necessary to command husbands to love their wives sacrificially (Eph. 5:25). And getting back to Genesis, it underscores why one of the best ways husbands can lead is by making sure both partners are enjoying the blessings of oneness.
Maybe we make too much of this issue of who's in charge. The Bible seems far more interested in a union that is lifelong and mutually beneficial—and most important, one that honors our Lord. That doesn't happen when either husband or wife is making a lot of selfish demands on the other. It grows out of a selfless love that concerns itself with serving each other.
A few weeks ago, Esther and I were trying to decide where to go on vacation. Actually, she just wanted to make sure we took one. I was the one who couldn't decide.
"If it were totally up to you, where would you go?" I asked. I wanted her to name some really exotic place so I could "come through" for her by making it happen and leading her into her wildest dreams. Then I'd be a real hero for my wife. But as much as I wanted to choose a place that would delight her, Esther was just as determined to please me.
"I'd go wherever you would be happiest," she told me, "because that's where I like it the best."
Now you can see why I married her.
Lyn Cryderman is associate publisher at Zondervan Publishing House. He and Esther have four children and live in Caledonia, Michigan.
Copyright 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.