Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Are Women Natural Lovers?

This article was written for Christianity Today's Marriage Partnership and can be viewed in a slightly different version online and in the summer issue under a different title, "What We Need."

I grew up believing, like most females bred on 20th century evangelical Christianity, that women naturally love their husbands. It’s preached from pulpits, written in bestselling books, and seems to be a convenient explanation for Ephesians 5:21-33, that mini-manifesto on marriage: “Women are commanded to respect, not love, because God made women to love, loving comes naturally to them.”

Well, with a whopping six years of marriage under my belt, I’ve unearthed two rather inconvenient truths.

The first is that, despite my womanhood, I am not a naturally loving person. I act with impatience, stonewalled silence and selfishness just as quickly as a man. I wish I naturally unconditionally loved my husband, Dale, but I do not. Perhaps I could fool myself into thinking that moments of nurture, sensitivity and compassion, the sweet notes, anniversary surprises and home cooked meals prove otherwise, but really now! Love is more vigorous and hearty than romance and sweetness. Love takes the harder road, the more personalized approach than the one-size-fits-all technique that assumes sexy lingerie, warm dinners and a commitment to stay-at-home with the kids are what every husband needs. Despite the free advice at bridal showers, “Men want a Martha in the kitchen, a Mary in the living room and a Delilah in the bedroom” love requires much, much more attention to who my husband is.

I have to get know him, not what I think he should want, but what he really wants. From day one Dale surprised me. He wanted my body and soul, not just a flimsy bit of chiffon in bed. He’d rather me not cook, preferring to eat out so as to have my undivided attention as a conversationalist. He wanted my interests to guide my career path; and when he saw I could teach, made space in his life for me as a partner to travel and speak and write alongside. His wants came as a surprise to me; he wanted my love. Loving my husband, not my idea of a husband, didn’t come naturally to me, the good church girl prepared to maintain an arsenal of slinky unmentionables, Martha Stewart meals and a brood of children.

The second surprising truth upset me even more profoundly. I discovered I could respect my husband beautifully, but fail to love him completely. According to Dr. Emerson Eggerich’s popular Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires, The Respect He Desperately Needs, disrespect means to “hold in contempt.” I had followed Eggerich’s formula to perfection, I avoided contempt of Dale, I honored him, I treated him as my hero, but until I studied him and his needs, I was deficient in love.

Respect devoid of love is not the Biblical goal. The mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding had one without the other, “The husband is the head, but the wife is the neck. And the neck can turn the head any way she wants.” It’s easy to do exactly what my husband wishes, revere his decisions, go out to eat with him, but fail to engage with him as a person, as an equal, as a wife who wills his good. I can keep my love safe and locked away, my wishes unrevealed; my vulnerabilities protected and yet shine as a stellar respecter of my husband. (Respect without love may be acceptable in the military, but it is not acceptable in a marriage where two are working to become one). Loving him means I unlock my opinions to him. I discover what I uniquely bring to our relationship. Love of the 1 Corinthians 13 variety requires I bring my whole self to engage with Dale’s whole self. Love is open-faced and open-hearted, it only rejoices in the truth, refusing to passive-aggressively steer men behind the scenes.

It’s too easy to magnify the gender specific commands in Ephesians 5:33 to ‘love’ and ‘respect’ forgetting the first verse of this passage, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21, TNIV). Despite the English translators' sub-titles, verse 21 is the starting point, not verse 22. The apostle Paul gave us a strong hint to start with mutual submission when he placed the key verb "submit" in verse 21 but not in verse 22 (it's there in the English translations, but not in the original Greek). The two verses belong together. Paul is showing us that submission has various ways of showing up, including the submission of love and the submission of respect.

Submission is not an event following a disagreement when my husband uses his 51% vote to break the stalemate. Submission, according to Paul, is a life-long orientation towards all people I love, my husband topping the list. It’s a command for all women and all men, a major theme of the good life in Christ threaded throughout Scripture.

Respect is a way of submission. It is one way I alter my own life for the sake of another. Respect involves a sort of bowing, honoring, revering another as worthy. Respect, as a way of submission, is God’s will for both men and women. We are to have this sort of respect for those who don’t know Christ (1 Pet 3:15). We are told to give respect to all to whom respect is due (Rom 13:7). We are told to honor all people (Rom 12:10). If we read the whole of Scripture, wives, no less than husbands, are worthy of and want respect. Respect will always be significant in any enterprise where we want to preserve the spirit of unity and the bonds of peace.

Love is also a way of submission. Love requires that I bow my will to know and value another. Ultimate love is sacrifice, giving up my life, bending, re-ordering my wishes under those of another. Love means I lay down my life, offering my life for yours in the mundane moments of toothpaste, parenting and money management squabbles. Love is one way husbands submit to their wives, but Paul is not excusing wives from loving in the same way. Laying down our lives for another is a command for all Christians (1 John 3:16). Paul writes that love is one of the fruits of the Spirit in us, evidence in all believers, male or female, husband or wife, of the life of God coursing through our souls.

In re-distributing the commands of love and respect equally among men and women I don’t mean to advocate an androgyny of the sexes. I’ve spent the last 4 years speaking and writing on the uniqueness of women. My job and passion as a female apologist is to defend the ways God made women different and vital in reflecting his image on earth. There are plenty of differences between men and women but the commands to love and respect are not among them. If we limit love to husbands and respect to wives, we’re not being consistent with the whole biblical picture. Both sexes need love. Both sexes need respect. And we all have much work to do.

Now here’s my caveat to women: I’ve come across an interesting trend in my study of women’s uniqueness. Women, especially Christian women, have a proclivity toward list-making. We love to know the requirements, to write them down and fulfill them to the letter. So if we come to believe that respect is our husband’s main needs, and our number one priority in marriage, we risk forgetting that we must work on unconditional (agape) love as well. For loving another does not come naturally to any of us.

Perhaps in light the book, Love and Respect's popularity, men’s love and women’s respect is a first step in marriage, but it cannot be the last. Love and respect are the mortar and the stone in the path of all relationships. They are the way modeled by Christ and the road for all women and men to walk.

I was re-watching BBC’s version of Pride and Prejudice recently when a line from Jane Bennet sounded like a clarion call. “A marriage where either partner cannot love and respect the other . . . cannot be agreeable to either party.” I cannot help but believe that Paul the apostle would have heartily agreed.


Paul F. said...

"but it is not acceptable in a marriage where two are working to become one."

I don't know why, but I just love the sound of that. Becoming one isn't some magical thing that happens just because of a ceremony in a church (or just because of the bedroom activities after the ceremony). Married couples are comprised of two individual people, who both must work to become one. I am glad that it takes work for this to happen because we tend to value things more when we work for them. It seems the same would be true in marriage.

And the beautiful thing about this is that, somehow, it actually begins to happen. When two people love and respect one another, they can become one.

Great article Jonalyn!

Julia said...

I totally agree about the love and respect thing being for men and women. Whenever I hear about these fad marriage books claiming to have the answer I always ask my husband about them. "Babe, would you rather I love you more or respect you more?" I just want to see what he'll say. He said Love. That doesn't mean I won't respect him, it just means that there's no magic formula. I treat him the way I want to be treated...most of the time. And I want love and respect and a whole long list of other things.

And thank you for bringing up the topic of submission. Most people don't know about the second usage not being in the greek (in Ephesians). We need to submit to each other AND love each other in marriage.

Great article!

Journey said...

it's fun discovering how unloving we are! (rolls eyes) I thought I was a loving person...it turned out to be merely co-dependency and "niceness" ;) ... it's sick how bad we are at the one thing Christ has asked of us..

Anonymous said...

"Married couples are comprised of two individual people, who both must work to become one."

Kinda true...a biblical model of marriage should not be "two" individuals...as it should take the model of the Trinity and include God first...If husbands and wifes would focus 1st on their personal relationship with Jesus, then their marriage will be blessed.

I know...too simple, but this is just a comment section.

dramaturge said...

men’s love and women’s respect is a first step in marriage, but it cannot be the last.

Very true. I think truly loving another person is never natural. Even pagans realize that it takes work...it takes putting that other person before yourself and learning how they need to be loved. That isn't natural for sinful humans. Perhaps affection comes more naturally, and adaptation comes more naturally for the average female, but love is hard work for both parties. I think perhaps the overlooked reasoning behind Paul's comment has more to do with what men and women generally need to see more. Men generally need to feel respected, and women generally need to feel loved. Not that it doesn't work both ways, but like you said....it's the first step, the foundation for all the other steps that go into making a marriage a true union.

Jennifer said...


Interesting article. I don't know how many times I have said that I need respect, too! To be honest with you I have never read the book you mentioned in your article and I'm sure it's good. But, I feel the same way as you do. Yes, my husband needs respect, but so do I. Yes, I need love, but so does my husband. Enough said.

Have a wonderful day!

Jennifer Barker

Quiara said...

Thank you for saying something I've been dying to accurately articulate for quite some time: women and men, by virtue of being human and being equal, have many of the same wants and needs in life and relationship. It does not mean there are not differences; it means that there is commonality of humanity, though, and that must be respected and nurtured.

Thanks again. I had never seen your blog until I followed a link from CT. I have a feeling I will become a regular reader.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Paul- glad one line in particular stuck out to you.

Julia- yes no magic formula, like what Paul said about work and as a friend who married us said "become a scholar of one another"

Journey- a good point that often our "love" is really co-dependency and niceness

Anonymous- I like how you used the Trinity as our foundation for working to become one.

What do you think about this phrase, "I'm more committed to this marriage than to this person"?

Dramaturge- in what general ways have you seen men need more respect and women need more love?

Jennifer- good to hear your voice on here

Quiara- glad you took the time to visit and comment. I welcome your upcoming thoughts!

Kimberly said...

Amen and amen and amen. :)

Thank you Jonalyn.

Paul F. said...


Perhaps I'm a stickler when it comes to the meaning of words, but if you're right that we have to include the Trinity as part of the couple, then we don't have a couple at all. We've got a triple (or a quintuple).

Anonymous said...

No Paul...you have a marriage. Remember, its God who defines marriage, not man. Recall the 1st Marriage God created in the likeness of "our" image, (God Head, 3 in 1). It wasn't Adam and Eve only in the Garden of Eden. God walked with them.

God is the Father of marriage.

The Husband as described in Ephesians 5:25 is to love his wife as CHRIST loved the church. (The Son)

Eve as described in Gen 2:18 was termed: "Helper" - a term also given to the Holy Spirit.

Seems a pretty good model for Marriage, yes?

Jonalyn, I think the statement should be, I'm committing this marriage to God and let his will be done.

Asare Titilope said...

Love is a two way thing that both parties must give to stay as one, else it would be a on sided affair. In all i've learnt from God i found out that the next best thing u can be given apart from the holy spirit is the AGAPE love from christ or from anyone, it give a calmness that no matter what there is someone that is ready to go through it with you and i think at one point in our lives w'll need that.Its in us all, but through christ we are able to manifest the love he showered on us when he gave his life so we might live.Men are born to love there wife just as women are if we all follow the example showed by our maker.

Paul F. said...


I didn't say you wouldn't have a marriage. I said you wouldn't have a couple. A couple is, by definition, no more than two. If we count husband, wife, & God as part of the married couple, then we actually have a married triple.

My original point was about how the couple interacts with one another. If each person of the married couple seeks after Christ for their own good and for the good of the marriage, then your main point remains true-we as individuals need not forget how our relationship with Christ influences our relationships with each other.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Anonymous- yes, I prefer to commit our work to God rather than compare our commitment to marriage to our commitment to the person. Also, I feel that our commitment to marriage can become a legalistic duty (robbed of joy and enchantment) when we forget we are working towards knowing another person (Marriage, like all love relationships is best described as a cycle of stages from enchantment--disenchantment--reenchantment.

Paul- I do think you were being a bit of a stickler (triplet/quintuplet) on the comparison Anonymous was making. I believe Anonymous was pointing out (correct me if I'm wrong) that the Trinity provides the example of how we work to become one, one in purpose, one in love, etc. The idea of putting God first is, I grant you, rather confusing as to what Anonymous meant. I suppose perhaps just that God has priority to my life over my spouse...

Anonymous- I am confused as to the example you gave about the garden. Are you saying that God and Adam and Eve made a sort of Trinity of marriage? I do see that both husband and wife are compared to different members of the Trinity by the verses you gave, however I don't think it's a one for one comparison. In other words both husband and wife work with each person of the Trinity both individually and as a couple. Is that what you are saying? I want to understand... help me out.

Asare- thank you for pointing out how both man and woman can love each other because God (our Maker) gives us the power and the example.

Anonymous said...

What I'm saying in the comparison is simply that the model of marriage is as created by God as creation itself. Modeled in the image of The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. To define marriage is to start at creation of man, not to take what we have now and push our own meanings backward.

To your question...the first marriage wasn't a sort of Trinity, I'm saying that it is modeled from the Trinity.

Good timing on this as well, don't you think? If society would realize that marriage isn't something man created, then maybe man and laws would quit messing it up. Hey California...ya listening?

layrab said...

I'm a regular reader of your blog and it always encourages me to think rather than believe. Belief is our foundation, but we cannot leave it at belief...women and men need to think about who God is, what he is teaching, and how specifically it applies to our lives NOT because some famous speaker told us how.
That being said, I want to thank you for this blog in particular. I have always struggled with the submissive role of the wife. Wifey stays home, wifey cooks, wifey puts her life on hold for the man. It's beautiful and holy to realize how equal God made us and how he didn't assign me a role in my marriage. Mutual Love and Respect are key. My husband and I have been married for 2 years and have been together for 5 months of those 2 years due to his deployments with the US Marine Corps. I have struggle understanding how to relinquish my household authority role and become the good Christian wifey at his return. Fortunately, I have a husband who does not focus on my jobs or my responsibilities in the house, however, I somehow got in my brainwashed mind that the wife does xy and z while the husband, well, doesn't. Your thoughts on love and roles have blessed me in my preparation for his imminent return. Thank you and keep 'em coming!

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...


Glad this blog gave your more to think about. What a challenge and a good example for us to think about: the way women love and respect their man when he is away so much (as in your case with him being in the Marin Corps). Our theory of gender and marriage must take cases like yours into account, for you are one of many.

Have you read Ruby Slippers? I think you'd find more freedom for women in it's pages as that is why I began writing in the first place.

strato said...

i think so...a woman with a great experience and wonderfull thinking should be a true lovers

madame said...

that was a great article. I enjoyed it.

Ephesians 5 21-33 has been exploited, I think. I struggle with it being preached at weddings now! It just sounds like a dry list of rules, always dressed up with whatever bias the preacher holds, and it's guaranteed to make me squirm in my seat. At the last wedding I went to, the preacher said "the husband is the savior of the wife, in a sense...."

Paul instructed wives to respect and husbands to love in that passage. Peter instructed husbands to treat their wives with respect, otherwise their prayers may be hindered (1Peter 3), and Paul told older women to teach younger women to love their husbands. (Titus2)

As you said, love needs respect. You can't love without respecting, but you can respect without loving.

Submission (or obedience!) without loving can lead to pitfalls. A husband can be heading down the wrong road. If his wife loves him enough, she can put herself in a difficult position and tell him what she sees. He might feel very much like she is being insubmissive and disobedient, but she is doing the greater thing: she is loving him. (I think about Abigail).

Marriage is too complex for manuals. I've come to that conclusion after just 5.5 years. We can turn the Bible into a "manual of sorts", laying down the letter as the way we should live, but if we forget love and the leading of the Spirit, we will probably crash.

Thanks for a good reminder of the better way. 1 Corinthians 13.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Madame- thanks for these encouraging words!

madame said...

" Submission is not an event following a disagreement when my husband uses his 51% vote to break the stalemate. Submission, according to Paul, is a life-long orientation towards all people I love, my husband topping the list. It’s a command for all women and all men, a major theme of the good life in Christ threaded throughout Scripture."

I agree with you. But want to ask a question,
Do you believe that husbands have a 51% vote to break stalemates?
Do you believe the Bible teaches that?

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Madame- a great question.
No, I do not believe the Bible teaches that men are given a 51% tie breaking vote in any decision, not spiritual, not financial, not parental, not in anything. I believe God grants each person in a marriage both the intelligence, ability and concern to offer different weights with each decision--some decisions the man will have more, others the woman more.

Casey said...

"Love is open-faced and open-hearted, it only rejoices in the truth, refusing to passive-aggressively steer men behind the scenes."

This is a powerful statement. This post really resonated with me. I found myself trying to do all the traditional wifely things I had been told to do by well-meaning Christians after my husband and I married. And kept realizing it wasn't the woman my husband desired. He desired me, my friendship, my thoughts, for me to feel fulfilled. And I was so caught up in legalistically managing him and tryign to be the right kind of wife and do what all the right books said. Great insights. You're definitely on to something here. There isn't one easy answer, marriage is complicated, messy and not formulaic.

Jonalyn Grace Fincher said...

Thank you for noting this in your own marriage and experience. I'm glad these words are bringing more freedom to be uniquely female, a unique wife the one your husband wanted to be with.