surviving complementarianism

Over the past few days, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood held their annual conference, which was titled “The Beauty of Complementarity” this year. I knew it was happening sometime soon, and yesterday some of the people I follow on Twitter started using the #CBMW16 hashtag, or responding to people who were. If you’d like to read some excellent commentary, I highly suggest looking up @miheekimkort and @BroderickGreer. Yesterday, inspired by others using the #CBMW16 tag, I took the opportunity to voice a concept that I’ll probably be shouting about until complementarianism is dead and buried:

Complementarianism is abusive. Removing a woman’s right to self-determination is abuse.

I am currently writing a book that lays out my comprehensive argument on why I’m convinced that complementarianism is an abusive theological model for relationships, but something that I probably won’t cover in too much detail in the book is a pattern I’ve picked up on. If you’ve been with me for the past few years, you’ve seen me do extended reviews on Fascinating Womanhood by Helen Andelin, Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge, Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll, and Lies Women Believe by Nancy Leigh DeMoss.

As I’ve read each of these books, all of which purportedly give women advice on how to be a proper woman and/or wife, I’ve realized they all argue for the same basic relationship “style.” Helen Andelin is the most direct about it, but the same principles exist in each of these books– and I suspect they’d be present in any book on marriage written from a complementarian perspective.

In short, their advice can be summed up in this: wives are supposed to be cautious.

At some point in all of the books I’ve reviewed, Helen, Stasi, Grace, and Nancy tell women that they are not permitted to have open, honest, and direct communication with their husband. Instead, each of them deliberately tell us to be passive-agressive or manipulative. The words they’ve used for this have been “alluring” or “cunning”– there’s this understanding that we have to “handle” our husbands.

Their explanation for why we can’t just come straight out with our problems and concerns is based on how men will (supposedly) inevitably react to being confronted by a mere woman. Helen repeats all through Fascinating Womanhood that a wife should expect “rage” and “violence” if she were to ever contradict her husband or question his decision-making abilities. Stasi emphasizes how men can’t be forthrightly challenged because that would be “emasculating.” In fact, she blames a woman for her physically abusive marriage because she supposedly “emasculated” her husband by trying to communicate with him. Mark and Grace Driscoll blame Molly Wesley for John making her “black and blue” because she confronted him over what she felt were emotional affairs.

These are some of the biggest names in complementarianism and “Christian living” books. These are men and women talking about how they themselves think the typical complementarian marriage can– and should– function, and it’s plainly abusive. The advice they are giving to complementarian women are survival tactics for abusive marriages.

One of the biggest reasons why a person stays in an abusive relationship is that they’re not really aware of why their relationship is abusive. They think– because their abuser has spent a long time convincing them to think– that the abuse is their fault somehow. If only they could do what they were supposed to. If only they could figure out a way to avoid making their partner angry. If only they were more helpful, or less lazy. If only they understood their partner better, then they could understand how to stop the abuse.

Helen, Stasi, Grace, and Nancy agree with abusers. They think that a healthy marriage is attainable if only the victim could avoid making her husband angry. So they write an endless list of books and articles and blog posts, and host their annual conferences, and preach their sermons, all telling women how to try to survive their abuser. Be more submissive. Be more compliant. Be more obedient. Be more sympathetic to his needs. Be more gentle. Be more quiet. Be more accepting. Be the perfect homemaker. Be a flawless mother.

Blame yourself for the abuse.

Each of these books is, ultimately, an attempt to convince women that all men are inherently abusers. They are trying to convince us that at the core of manhood is violence and rage and a bloodthirsty need for dominance and control. If only we women can recognize that an abusive marriage is unavoidable, then we can get on with the business of shouldering the responsibility for the emotional or physical violence all of our husbands will inflict on us. But not if we do what they say. Not if we’re gentle and lovely and submissive. Not if we give up on our own thoughts and wants and dreams and sense of self.

These are all things that people in abusive relationships try to do. When I was engaged to my abuser and rapist, I did all of these things. I read books like Me, Obey Him? and Lies Women Believe and I ate it all up because it reflected what I was experiencing. He was emotionally abusing me, he was coercive, he was sexually abusing me, raping me, and over and over again he would tell me that it I was to blame, that everything he ever did was all my fault. For years I believed him, and these books all told me the same thing he did: if I did what he (and they) said, then he wouldn’t hurt me anymore. The abuse would end. Ultimately I believed I failed, because when he broke our engagement he told me it was because I “hadn’t been submissive enough.”

All marriage-advice books written from a complementarian perspective tell wives the same exact things that abusers do: the abuse is your fault, and if only you abided by my ever-moving goal posts, it would stop.

Photo by Saorise Alesandro
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  • Trevel

    I remember, during my conservative days, thinking basically (although in a less-self-aware way) “This is a bit problematic, but it can work out as long as the man ignores the power given to him and lets his wife just be herself, which is clearly what the man SHOULD do, out of loving.”.

    It was only later that I realized it was better to not give the husband that power in the first place, since women shouldn’t have to *depend* on their partner constantly deciding not to use their biblically-mandated authority to abuse them.

  • While I definitely saw the connection between complementarianism and (at least allowing if not necessarily always encouraging) abuse, I had never quite thought of complementarian literature for women in such stark terms as “how to survive an abusive marriage”. That’s probably mostly just because I haven’t thought about that literature from the perspective of women as much as I have from my own perspective as a man, but wow, that’s a lightbulb moment.

    • How does the problems of the literature hit you, as a man? I imagine that I wouldn’t want my partner to behave in these ways, that it’s somehow dehumanizing or insulting (but I’m reading from my own perspective as a woman).

      • At best, it relies on a lot of insecurity for men. As Samantha has pointed out, so much is geared toward protecting the fragile male ego. I think they created some insecurity in me that wasn’t there before. I thought I was perfectly fine the way I was, but with all these extra things to worry about in asserting my leadership, I wasn’t good enough anymore. It’s a classic class of creating a problem so that it can sell you a solution.

        At worst, it encourages violence. I remember reading a couple of books as a young adult that tied in a lot of language about how men are supposed to be aggressive. Wild at Heart seriously talked about things like hunting for no reason than to assert your violent manliness. Anything I read didn’t directly encourage violence against other people except perhaps if you need to defend women, but my desire – not just willingness – to fight at all times was supposed to be a part of who I was. That never has been me. I’ve always been somewhere between passive and peacemaker. And now I’m a Mennonite so the idea that a Christian is supposed to be violent is even more laughable.

        I admit I did not catch on to how it dehumanized women much at the time. That needed some input from women who had heard it and told me. But I did feel like it dehumanized men as well. We could also throw in other dehumanizing elements like being unable to control our sex drives, but this response is long enough for now.

        • Thanks for taking the time to respond. There seem to be fewer male voices in the conversation about how complementarianism causes damage, and it’s so important to recognize that no one is really winning with this structure.

          • Yeah, I haven’t written as much about it myself in the past couple of years just because I’m not really connected to those communities anymore. I sometimes honestly forget that patriarchy in the Church is still a thing until I see #CBMW on my Twitter feed.

            One of my best friends in university basically lost his faith – at least in any practicing sense – because of some neo-Reformed complementarianism influences, specifically in his engagement that fell apart (and probably should have as a bad match, but his church hurt the process rather than helped). Before that, though, he was like me where he as a gentle and kind man just didn’t fit the role he was supposed to fill.

          • Yes. We (the church) lose a lot of good people by demanding they conform to roles rather than delighting in who they were created to be and helping them develop the flourishing of their identity. It’s heartbreaking.

      • Erik K

        I’ll also reply to this question as I read a ton of this kind of literature growing up. One of my life goals was to be the best husband ever, which meant a lot of research. I read all of the books for couples, all the books for men, and all the books for women, all the way through high school and college.

        I remember being very frustrated and confused. I didn’t FEEL emasculated when the women in my life confronted me with problems in our friendships (I wasn’t dating much, partially because of the book Samantha is now reviewing). I didn’t FEEL angry or furious. Was this something that was going to come with love? Maybe the problem was that I didn’t love the women in my life enough to have these sorts of emotions, maybe our connection wasn’t deep enough. Maybe I’d know I found my future wife when I started behaving in this manner with her, or feeling these urges.

        Which, quite frankly, scared me. A lot. I didn’t LIKE the image of the husband presented in these books. I didn’t want to feel out of control, or paranoid, or insecure. I hated the thought of needing to be managed, the thought that the woman I loved the most would try and find ways to work around my behavior without telling me honestly. That she’d need to tell me what she thought I wanted to hear instead of how she felt, or what she thought.

        I didn’t want to be like that, but for the longest time, I thought it was my destiny. This was the man I’d turn into.

        It scared me, and it took me a very, very long time to realize that I didn’t need to become this.

        I didn’t need to work hard to become an abuser.

        Thank God.

      • Timothy Swanson

        I’ll chime in as another male voice. Even at a young age, I was irritated by the way that many of the women I knew felt they had to manipulate rather than communicate. As Samantha puts it, these authors “tell women that they are not permitted to have open, honest, and
        direct communication with their husband. Instead, each of them
        deliberately tell us to be passive-agressive or manipulative.” That is so true.

        I never wanted that, and I never wanted to be in charge. I wanted a best friend and equal for my wife. (And that’s who I married.)

        Another great line is “Removing a woman’s right to self-determination is abuse.” I strongly agree with that, and that is why I would never be comfortable being a “leader” the way Complementarians view it.

        Ryan is also right that the authors assume an incredibly fragile ego for men. However, many of us (most?) can handle being told things directly. I certainly prefer it.

        I agree as well that the structure of hierarchy that Complementarianism promotes is damaging to both men and women. It would have killed my marriage, and made things miserable for both me and my wife.

      • tophergraceless

        Reading those kinds of books and ideas when I was young made me very nervous. I am an introvert and have pretty pronounced social anxiety so being told I had to be the leader in my home was something that really frightened me.
        Those ideas helped ruin my first marriage. For one example, because we had been told that the man should be in charge of the checkbook I tried to control our finances. To put it bluntly, I am not good at personal finances and got us into a lot of trouble that put a ton of strain on two people who had married far too young. I also disliked that she never told me straight out what was wrong or what she wanted me to do. Because she had absorbed the idea that she had to control me “behind the scenes.” So she felt she had to be passive-aggressive. I felt frustrated by that and it usually didn’t work with me so she would get frustrated she could’t manipulate me into doing what she wanted or just needed me to do. (I don’t want to say anything bad about my ex she was doing the best she could with what she had been told her whole life to do)

        Anyway, long story short we divorced about as amicable as we could, both of us have remarried are are much happier. I have discovered that I love cooking and now cook almost every night. My wife and I just treat each other as adults and talk about things and work them out because we view our relationship as a partnership and we want each other to be happy and to succeed.

        So, in sum I see nothing in complementarianism that would make my current marriage better, in fact it would make it much, much, worse.

  • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

    Complementarians work hard these days to sell their outlook as beautiful, amazing, mysterious, veiled in glory, who knows what else. The fact that they are doing this gives me hope, because tells me they are on the run. People confident in their power don’t bother doing this.
    I remember becoming convinced that complementarianism was what God required (I was around 21, and had been a Christian since I was 14, but only got clobbered by people pushing a hardcore submit, submit, submit message in my last year of college) I remember the way I began to adapt – and I was behaving like an abused child or an abused wife. I drew into myself, in some ways I shut down, and I began to have awful feelings about myself and my future. When Jesus came into my life, he opened up the world and the future to me. Complementarianism shut that down. It’s why I think complementarianism is anti-Christian.

    • tophergraceless

      Oh they are on the run alright.Just as you said they are in full-on used-car salesmen mode to sell their ideas. Scratch on the bumper? No big deal we will buff it out before you drive it off the lot…etc. basically the 1950’s ideal that complementarianism is based on is no longer viable in the modern world for the vast majority of people. That is why it is so hard to nail them down on what they really think because to do so would ruin the sale for too many couples.

  • Lee Hauser

    Just…wow. That was an amazing post, Samantha, and it opened my eyes. Having grown up in the mainstream Protestant church, with a flirtation with evangelicalism, I’ve always been on the edges of complementarianism. But I know the pattern, the way these writers speak about marriage. Thank you for bringing it together.

  • Northwoods Dan

    This may seem like a naive question but is this complementarianism a growing “movement”, at least in fundie circles? It would be more heartening if it would go away, of course, but I can’t tell if it’s fundamentalism as it’s always been or if the cancer is metastasizing. Thanks in advance for any feedback.

    • m. castleberry

      I’m obviously not Samantha, but IMO, soft-pedaled “complementarism” has the potential to grow and spread in ways that obvious, direct, straightforward sexism does not. I have read (I believe it was on the “Baptist Women for Equality” blog) of a church in a denomination that does not follow comp-ism using some comp materials on marriage.

      Why? The reason would be that this teaching, particularly in its “softest” form, mirrors our popular culture–our rom-coms that think it’s funny when a woman takes initiative (should be as natural for a woman as a man to do) or a man manipulates a situation about which the woman is unaware to his advantage (creepy). So my main concern is that it’s easy to spread *outside* of recognized fundamentalist circles.

      • Northwoods Dan

        Thanks m.castleberry. Your response helps. My fear is that comp is spreading as orthodoxy. I remember when pro choice was the position of about half of republicans and none other than W.A. Criswell thought that Roe was the right decision and that life began at birth. (He later changed his mind). I have the sense that Comp is a notion that it’s proponents are trying to legitimize as being the default “correct” position and that it is metastasizing.

    • I would add to m. castlberry’s thoughts: It’s actually also spreading outside Christian circles into mainstream culture, largely because this treatment of women often utilizes feminist rhetoric — these women “choose” to live this way, and we should all support them because as feminists we believe all women are free to make such decisions.

      Of course, that ignores the way that women often don’t choose to live this way but are indoctrinated to do so, often with punishments for doing otherwise (whether socially through shunning or worse). And ignores the way that a woman making one decision to abnegate all her future decisions is not the same thing as utilizing agency.

      • Kevin

        Especially if they were raised that way! I’ve noticed an assumption that because someone grew up in an environment and stays in it, they MUST believe what is taught there.(All the blogs like this one disprove that theory.)

      • m. castleberry

        Ah yes, and here is where “bounded choice” comes in (let me know if I’m not using the term correctly). I used to love how it was said “women are followers”, “God made women’s nature to follow”, “women are not supposed to lead men” (all in the context of sin and the “total depravity” of human nature, so there’s religion/God/punishment/reward and guilt involved), in addition to the non-verbal support for/evidence of such ideas, and at the same time, “submission must be a choice that is made voluntarily”.

        What????? I was never quite certain how one was to voluntarily choose that which was both intrinsic to and required of them.

        So while it is disappointing to hear the reasoning of “choice feminism” used to support the comp system, it is not surprising. Your second paragraph does a great job of explaining the situation.

    • Tegan Giesel

      It would be so relaxing if evil just went away, wouldn’t it?

      • Northwoods Dan

        It’s a lot like a tumor. Sometimes it can be shrunk,slowed down or even eliminated. Other times it grows, moves or spreads. Unfortunately, the unhappy cases seem to outnumber the happier results.

  • So basically, men represent Christ and are supposed to be the head of their families, the leaders. Yet they have little to no impulse control and are prone to violence. Something doesn’t add up here.

    • Erik K

      Well, remember, their version of God also says that God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son, so whoever believes in him will be able to watch the world burn – yes, it’s because He loves us so much that if we don’t repent, He’s going to hurt us again, and again, and again, and again.

      So, you know, with a god like that, is it any wonder that men are supposed to have no impulse control and be prone to violence?

  • This is so important. In my graduate studies, I did a lot of work on the notion that refusing to use one’s agency is itself a sin — the equal and opposite sin to pride. From that perspective, much of the conservative, complementarian Christian establishment is actually encouraging women in sin rather than leading them to maturity and flourishing. We are told that abnegation and smallness and submissiveness will save us, but it’s actually leading us further into our sin. What betrayal.

    • Kevin

      Like I said in my comment the whole basis of human rights is recognition that humans have more than basic biological needs; and to deprive someone of ANY of those needs forces them to live a subhuman existence — that, I say, is oppression par excellence.

  • Kevin

    I find posts like this very helpful, since I grew up with comp theology(it’s a long story of my leaving the theology). The was a comment on the love, joy, feminism blog(it was on homophobia/transphobia) that conservative hostility may result from a lack of empathy. I may have mentioned this in another comment but I’ll say the first step was feeling that submission was used to treat the teenage me like I had no brains, for people just to throw their weight around.(Obviously I resented the treatment.) At that time I vowed to never treat anyone else that way.
    Another aspect is, in the words of the Switchfoot song, I know what it’s like to be in a position of wanting to thrive, not just survive. In fact recognition that this is an aspect of being human forms the basis of human rights(the term “right” being used because it’s stronger than “need”) and oppression is depriving someone of such rights.
    I think the hypocrisy in comp circles is awful, in that they tell women to stay with their abusers, then say Islam is inherently evil because of spousal abuse in Islam. (And they ignore the fact that there are people in Islam who fight patriarchy in Islam, arguing from the Quran, like their Jewish and Christian counterparts argue from the Bible/Torah.)

  • About two years, Denny Burke came to our church and talked about marriage. I wanted to walk out when he started talking about complementarianism, but my wife prevailed upon me not to make a spectacle of myself since we were sitting in the front row. (My two older girls soon asked if they could leave, using words like “chauvanistic,” “sexist” and “misogynistic.” I gave them my blessing.)

    Afterward, the lead pastor tried to defend Burke’s position as less offensive than I was arguing that it was. I pointed out, “If you need to defend your position three times by stressing that it doesn’t give husbands the right to abuse their wives, isn’t that an indication that there’s something wrong with your position?” The pastor conceded the point, and has since told me that Burke isn’t welcome back at our church.

    I’m still flabbergasted that he was invited in the first place, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. Every one of the elders is a man.

  • I’ve always felt that Complementation relied on a “Benevolent Dictator” argument: if you live under a dictator who gives you the same range of free speech and autonomy a woman who lives in a democracy enjoys, you can have the illusion of being equally free.

    More common though is the phenomenon I see in both Complementation women and people living in authoritarian regimes: they feel as though they are free because they are disinterested in engaging in speech and activities that would defy the dictator, and they find the knowledge that these limits exist in the abstract reassuring.

    However, as you point out, it’s when the dictator is not benevolent that we realize that all women who live under regimes are not free. One of the most tragic issues I’ve seen is congregations that plainly and clearly see that a husband is an abusive jerk, and the ability to put 2+2 together and tell the woman to get far away from him is on the tip of their tongue…but they’re slaves to the dogma they’ve believed in, and they’re afraid that making exceptions would bring the whole ugly system crashing down.

  • rdMark

    “Blame yourself for the abuse”…this is bang on and is exactly what I did during my “Christian marriage”. To be “fair” about it, I was passive-aggressive enough that I sort of gave as good as I got. Sort of. Let’s just say that my marriage was definitely the reverse though…sometimes women are the abusers and sometimes men are more like the women described in the article above.

    Anyway, what I learned when I left the marriage and my Christian faith was that “blame yourself for the abuse” is also how a large majority of Christians treat their relationship with the Evangelical version of “God”. They blame themselves for never being good enough. The Evangelical Christian God is an abusive husband. Period. So, it’s pretty natural for this concept to trickle-down into Evangelical Christian marriages.

  • Stephanie Gertsch

    I don’t agree with complementarianism at all, although something appeals to me in the idea of how the way you speak to someone matters. I think it’s wrong for a spouse of either gender to speak in a way that deliberately humiliates or belittles their partner.

    But I wonder if complementarianism itself breeds the kind of nagging, hinting, snide belittling that some wives use. Rolling their eyes at their stupid, oafish husbands must be like the only power they have left. They know they can’t talk honestly about what they need so they just undermine him as much as possible out of resentment,

    • carter

      It does breed passive-aggression, and it leaves a devastating legacy. A family I’m close to had a domineering patriarch. Protecting his fragile feelings was the focus of the entire family. If anyone else expressed a want or a desire, right down to the smallest child, they were punished or shunned. Basic care and support (such as paying for glasses for children) was to be treated as a gracious and undeserved gift. The result is that this entire family is competing in a game of Biggest Martyr. Who needs the least? Who gives the most? Who has collected the most personal suffering? The prize for being the Biggest Martyr is that you can leverage all your suffering as guilt to coerce others into doing YOUR will for once. They’re all so caught up trying to get each other to take care of their own basic emotional needs, in the most passive-aggressive, supercilious ways possible. It’s a nightmare.

      This is my problem with complementarianism. It creates a world in which a man’s ego is the absolute center of an entire family’s universe. The rest of the universe is a chaos of subterfuge, shame, and unnecessary suffering. Introducing absolute power into family life turns the family into the Stanford Prison Experiment.

  • I’m very much looking forward to reading your book when you publish it.

    Do you intend to present a model for options after one has realised the dangers and damage of complementarianism? I agree with the critiques that you’ve presented here and in other posts, but my experience of the ideology is that it is ‘sticky’. You can intellectually reject it, but your childhood messages can keep playing at the back of your head, telling you to feel guilty, telling you to conform, telling you that only certain behavioural patterns are acceptable.

    Are there success stories of people actually processing these messages successfully and building healthier, functioning, mutually respectful relationships? Are there tips you’d give people who have intellectually rejected it but still have to wrestle with deeply internalized unhealthy messages?

    • carter

      Great question. I’ve been married for over a decade, and our marriage was explicitly egalitarian from the outset, and yet we still find that social pressures, the well-meaning advice of friends, and just the legacy of complementarian upbringings invades & damages our relationship in many ways. The “sexual gatekeepers” myth is a particular problem. It is really difficult to un-do the idea that sex is currency, that good deeds earn sex, and that women want sex less than men (strangely, even in the presence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary). Any guide that sheds light on the tricky path out of those types of habits would be amazing.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    Great insights. I see one of the con jobs of comp ideas is that a man is never required to deny his wife’s will, agency, desires. If he does not, how can it be abusive? It is abusive exactly because it ties the wife up in knots because she is supposed to accept it smiling all the time, as she KNOWS this is God’s plan for her. It is a good thing to be a Stepford wife, she is constantly taught. When her will is overridden, she sees it as a test from God that she has been taught to want to pass by accepting the “final decision” of her husband. It really is a form of slavery by mind control.