If you want a marriage filled with conflict, strife, argument, and angst … one where the result is passivity, eventually apathy, and potential divorce … embrace the notion of “standing up for your rights.”
Yes, at risk of being called a traitor to my gender, labeled anachronistic and a “doormat,” I’m telling you to lay that notion down.
And no, it’s not because I’m a martyr, masochist, nor am I into demeaning myself and womankind in the name of “religion.”
I’m also not a 1950’s housewife who wraps her identity up in her husband’s job, kids’ endeavors, latest bread recipe, and whether or not my furniture shines enough to bear my reflection.
I am also not speaking about the workplace, but please know that I spent over two decades in corporate America, as an administrative assistant, as a human resources manager, and as a professional trainer. I’ve also waited tables, so I understand work from both a white and blue-collar perspective. And no, I was never discriminated against. In fact, in a company completely run by men, with God’s help, I paved a new path for all of our female employees – and never once did I have to “stand up for my rights.” Instead, I spoke the man’s language of respect. I was in human resources, so I knew the compensation situation for my position and others. Discrimination did not occur in my world – instead, my employers rewarded me greatly. I am aware that other women have been discriminated against. I am also aware that the feminist movement and equal rights movement did much for the work place. What I am saying, however, is simply that when one is a respecter of self (especially when that is rooted in being a respecter of the Temple of the Holy Spirit, which those of us who follow Christ are), and makes it easy for others to pay them respect, we can sometimes avoid discrimination. I’m not saying that is the norm, either. I am saying, however, that there are ways to get your thoughts across without shoving them down someone’s throat. And even though I am speaking about marriage, know these principles apply in nearly all relationships – and not just with men, but they are extremely important to most men.
So why am I telling women NOT to “stand up for their rights?”
Other than the fact that Christ Himself did not do this?
Because regardless of where you fall in the “faith” discussion, I know something you might not.
Men’s and women’s brains are different – significantly so – and the difference affects the way we interact with each other.
God wired men to compete – and He wired women to connect. Inadvertently, we wives are setting off the “competition response,” the “defend my turf now! response,” in our men – by NOT learning to speak their language of respect.
And if we will instead become women of strength and dignity, women who encourage and bring life to our relationships instead of tearing them down with our own hands (or words), we can become women of influence, women who become part of the marriage equation, “1 + 1 + 1 = 1” (husband plus wife plus God = oneness) and represent Christ’s relationship with the church, which is something beautiful. Notice there’s nothing “doormat” in this suggestion.
Scientific research demonstrates that men and women’s brains are significantly different from each other, resulting in differences in behavior, communication, and information processing. There have been a number of studies done and books written recently that in essence are meta-analysis of the available data. A list of them is available on the “Resources” tab. The studies are provocative, but the results stand clear. Granted, while there are exceptions and variances in degrees for both males and females, there are some important generalities.
Bear in mind, too, that the myth of “women say more words than men in a day,” has been debunked. Some research even suggests that men speak more words than women do – most current research agrees, however, that men speak more in work environments and women speak more in relationship-based environments. Some research suggests that the volume of communication occurs where the gender is considered ”expert” or of “higher status.” What remains true and provable is the physiological research demonstrating the differences in the real make up of the brain itself between the genders. It is good to remember, however, that within the differences themselves, there are varying degrees. For example, while most research demonstrates men are “isolationary” (having few close relationships), there are men who are gregarious and have many friends. Recognizing what the overall tendency is can be helpful in helping people sort through what they are dealing with inside their own relationships. The other factor that needs to be considered – and should bring great hope to many wives is this: the research also demonstrates that experiences impact our development, regardless of gender. Both male and female brains can be altered by experiences. Social science is never an absolute and there is no intention on my part to injure or insult those who do not fit the “average” mold. Since I speak to large groups, I tend to try to “major in the majors and minor in the minors,” paying most attention to the majority, while also giving attention to the minority. I like to say, “I like being average, most people are.”
The following statements are based on the results of the research and show generalities. Please keep that in mind and try not to take offense if you or the guy you married are a little different. Know I don’t “fit the mold” exactly, either, and neither does my husband. But we can learn much from the research, and it can help us navigate the murky waters of marital experience. Most scholars agree that because of the effects of certain hormones, the male mind is more equipped to interact with his world in a focused, practical, and systematic way – some research even suggests that men are more equipped to interact with objects, as opposed to people. The female mind is generally equipped to interact with her world with more empathy and relational emphasis.
In utero, as the boy’s body begins to form, the hormones affect his brain structure. The connections between the right and left side of his brain referred to as the feeling and thinking sides, respectively, are severed, leaving him with a brain wired to be focused, but less in-tune with emotions of himself or others.
The average man’s brain is structured for creating systems, being constantly aware of threats, and competing with others for dominance.
Stop a second.
Do you want your husband to feel threatened by you? Do you want him to feel like he has to defend himself against you?
What does that perception do for your relationship?
A majority of men do not want to compete with their wives. And while most men say they want competent women, they also want to be the hero, the problem solver, the rescuer, the knight in shining armor. In a day and age when the entertainment industry portrays men as lazy, foolish, overgrown children, know that the one who validates his existence is YOU. The absolute last person he wants is to have to defend himself against is you – he wants to honor, cherish, love, and protect you. The problem is, our culture has influenced both of us, and when we interact, things go awry. The sitcoms have modeled sarcasm and harsh startups as the ground rules of interaction and our snarky jabs at each other destroy any potential for love and respect to flourish mutually.
Do you think that arguing with him works better than respecting his opinion, being a good listener, then gently suggesting another thought to consider? Is this how YOU want to be treated?
Has constantly “standing up for your rights” been working anyway? Has the frequent defense for yourself brought you more intimacy and closeness?
I know it has not.
Perhaps you are fine with creating either an angry man, or a passive man. Know this is the outcome for many women who frequently practice, “standing up” as their way of getting their way.
Don’t get me wrong – there are times to stand firm and communicate solidly, to calmly state your position unwaveringly. I’m not talking about those. If your attempts to resolve problems are ending in shouting matches, slamming doors, name-calling, harshly spoken words, or end in tears of anger, something needs to change in how you approach resolution.
For what it is worth, I’m also not talking about allowing yourself to be abused. That’s a totally different situation. We are putting up a page to address this, also.
Let’s go back to your husband’s brain – it is created for protecting his turf by defending it. Studies have shown that regardless of attempts to gender neutralize toys and environments, “boys will be boys,” in that they engage in attempts for dominance in play. As men, they often exert intense effort to maintain and improve career standing. This competitive nature accounts for their overwhelming presence at the top of the heap in careers and the military. Right now, the executives at the highest levels in corporations are predominantly male. The majority of “dangerous” careers like police, firefighters, and the military are also men. This does not discount a woman’s ability to do these jobs, but rather highlights a man’s ability and natural desire to perform them. Back to the physiology, men are also low in the bonding hormone, oxytocin.
Conversely, the female brain maintains multiple connections between the thinking and feeling halves, resulting in a more holistic approach. She interacts with her world in a more empathetic and relationship-oriented way, understanding emotional cues better, and the relatedness between events. Women, on average, see better and hear better than men do – thereby picking up on non-verbal cues more easily. That’s why he can look in the refrigerator sixteen times and not see the ketchup bottle – but because she sees the entire refrigerator, she knows it is right next to the salsa on the third shelf. We like to jokingly say it is because the uterus is really a tracking device, but the reality is, women actually have better holistic vision. Women also have more oxytocin, which creates emotional connection within a few minutes of interaction. Women also do not measure “success” the same way men do. They will give up status to spend time with their children as relationships are more important to them. Research also supports the lack of high percentages of women in corporate executive jobs due to this last fact, rather than attributing it to diminished abilities. Women, in general, value their relationships and families more than their careers.
Men, generally speaking, do not experience this in the same way. Men will, however, demonstrate their love for their families by working hard for them. That is not, however, to say that men are not interested in bonding with their families. Overall, men do take longer to connect, even with their own children – and bonding is linked to the amount of care they participate in. So if a woman wants her husband to bond with their baby, she needs to let him take care of the baby – in his own way. Too often we hear stories of men who give up on learning how to care for their babies because their wives criticized their efforts – and as a result, they grow into men who are detached from their families. Without these important interactions, the eye contact, the touching, with his own children, this new dad will not (over time) begin to generate more oxytocin, that bonding hormone. Men, in general, even have fewer intimate adult relationships.
In terms of married affinity, men need physical touch several times a day to maintain oxytocin’s bonding result, while women’s need, while present, is less. In general, women connect and men compete. This is not to say that men do not connect and women do not compete, but rather their natural tendency is the opposite. For example, a woman would not naturally be wired to compete with her daughter for her husband’s affection – she easily accepts and actually encourages their relationship because she is connected to both. Likewise, a man is not naturally going to start talking about personal things with someone he just met, but women can bond and begin sharing within just a few minutes of interaction.
There are also varying degrees of these differences within each gender, based on how the hormones (particularly testosterone) have washed the brain over the developmental years. This is why it is nearly futile for anyone to give you a prescriptive 100% accurate answer for what will absolutely work in your marriage. The truth is, your unique wiring combined with your husband’s unique wiring make for a marriage cocktail that is unique to you. Some men have a more “female” brain, while some women have a more “male” brain. Women who have an inordinate amount of connections between the right and left sides of their brains and have a huge amount of estrogen and oxytocin may struggle with being concise and overly emotional. But if she has more testosterone and an average amount of connections, she will likely be more objective and struggle less with emotional control. Men who have extremely high amounts of testosterone washing in development and very little estrogen and oxytocin will be extremely analytical. The jokes about engineers and accountants exist because there is a bit of truth in them!
We also know that women are typically the ones who experience dissatisfaction first in their relationships with their husbands. They are usually the ones to instigate counseling or suggest books or seminars. This is in part due to the fact that they are more relational by nature than men, on average and are generally more aware earlier when something is awry in the relationship. Given that women are the first to begin sensing the problems exist, our goal is to equip them to be the ones to begin to solve them. Because of each gender’s natural wiring, we suggest wives impact their relationship in ways which facilitate more satisfaction. The bottom line is that wives have a powerful opportunity to create an environment in their marriage that either facilitates team work and cohesion, or creates conflict and competition.
As a product of second-wave feminism, I personally spent nearly the first decade of my own marriage “fighting for my rights” with the man I married. Nearly destroying our relationship, my methods made him feel defensive and disrespected. Being a practicing Christian, I ran across a Bible verse that at first angered me: Ephesians 5:33, “and the wife shall respect her husband.” Another verse suggested I “submit” to my husband, and I had the same reaction. Having tried everything else, however, I implemented both, and a decade later, I can say that those two verses literally saved my marriage. Once I learned to speak my husband’s language of respect, and learned Biblical submission, boiled down, basically captured the notion of, “don’t be a contentious competitor to him,” I communicated less argumentatively and became happier in my marriage.
And, no, I did not give up my voice or become a doormat. We did not avoid conflict, either, but rather worked together better through differences of opinion. Even though I had been respectful as a professional woman, somehow I missed that element in my marriage. I chose to start treating my husband as precious to God. I viewed myself in that same light. Knowing that like many men, he struggled with how to communicate his feelings for me, I began asking my husband to do specific things that made me feel loved and respected.
I actively chose to create an environment where I removed myself as a competitor or a threat to him.
So yes, at the risk of sounding anachronistic, subservient and a traitor to my feminine gender, I actually suggest to wives that they respect their husbands to improve their marriages. What most people fail to realize is that the give and take of a loving and respectful relationship is nurtured and created with a ton of effort. It does not just happen. One of the biggest issues women face as well is falling into the trap of ”mothering,” “enabling,” or “rescuing,” their husbands. That concept is one which occurs when the wife forgets or doesn’t know how to treat herself as the Temple of the Holy Spirit, respecting herself and making it easier for her husband (thereby helping him) to be respectful towards her. We talk about this quite a bit at our workshops and in our classes. It’s really too much information for a blog.
One thing remains certain, however, the concept of “applied respect” has changed my marriage. I now have a marriage where my husband and I both seek each other’s advice, make decisions together, and are both happier. Neither of us is perfect, but our marriage is better because of the continued effort on both our parts.
And that, I believe, is as close to “happily ever after” as any married couple could hope for.
PS – if you are wondering what respect looks like in marriage and want to take a spiritual journey with us, subscribe to the blog (it fills in the details) AND order The Respect Dare. Hope you join us!