get married + be submissive?
A dog is wiser than a woman; it does not bark at its master. — Russian Proverb
If you want to be grotesquely fascinated, check out this book of relationship advice that is on bestseller lists across Europe:
This is not the kind of submissive involving handcuffs and paddles and black silk wrapped round your eyes. The author – who is a woman – states that
“we are not equal to men and to not recognise this is a guaranteed source of suffering”.
“you must submit to him. When you have to choose between what he likes and what you like, choose in his favour.”
And don’t forget that
“when your husband tells you something, you should listen as if it were God speaking”.
“A woman bears ‘obedience’ written on her inside…The man, by contrast, carries the role of liberator and guide.”
For he shall liberate your inner June Cleaver:
“If you’re not an experienced cook or the perfect housewife, what’s the problem if he says so? Tell him he’s right, that it’s true, that you will learn….Women forget that they can’t have it all: working like a man and being at home like a woman. Power is not designed for women.”
But Justine, I can hear you saying, surely such a book was written in a spirit of irony! This is one person’s craven attempt for sensationalism, sales and attention!
Yet the author – a devout Catholic — comes off as quite earnest, claiming that her book resulted from letters she wrote over the years to female friends.
Closer to home, one of the Real Housewives of New Jersey, Melissa Gorga, has come out with her own tome of marital wisdom called LOVE ITALIAN STYLE! The key to her apparently happy marriage is her head-over-heels submission to her husband. Melissa describes how he is, indeed, her liberator and guide:
“His style was to make corrections and to teach me from the beginning days of our marriage exactly how he envisioned our life together. Joe always says, “You got to teach someone to walk straight on the knife. If you slip, you’re going to get cut.” Even if something didn’t bother him that badly, he’d bring it up. He wanted to make sure that I knew, for example, if I ran out to CVS and he came home from work to an empty house, he didn’t like it. He’d call me and say, “I don’t care if you’re out all day long. But I don’t want to come home to an empty house.”
The routine of making dinner and keeping a clean house is how I stay grounded. It keeps me humble.
Someone might look at Joe and think, “Chauvinist pig.” He sounds like one sometimes! They might look at me and think, “Throwback.” The way I see it, Joe is cleaning up messes at work all day long—things you can’t wipe up with a sponge. That’s his job. It’s my job to clean up spilled milk. I just do it. There is simply no point to arguing about something that requires all of five seconds of my time and next to zero energy.
When gender roles are confused, sexual roles are, too. If he’s at the sink and then changing diapers, then who throws down in the bed? In our marriage, Joe is always the man, doing masculine things. I’m the woman, and I do the female things, including housework.”
Sam Owen, cited as a relationships coach and psychologist, says that the appeal of this kind of advice lies in a longing for the past. “We are a lost society when it comes to relationship roles within marriage. Due to a rapidly changing world, the desire for women and men to be seen as equal, and the drive towards having everything – children, a successful career and a happy spouse – husbands and wives are feeling confused about what their role is within the marriage and family unit, and this creates discord.”
He says: “If people are hankering for an old-fashioned marriage, it’s often because so much of it worked so well.”
I find this a curious statement. Let’s not forget that “old-fashioned marriages” took place in a world where divorce was taboo, job advertisements were divided into the His and Her sections (guess which list was longer and more lucrative), and a woman couldn’t rent an apartment or apply for a credit card or take out a bank loan without a male to co-sign.
In almost every state, men had the right to have sex with their wife at any time, whether she gave consent or not. She could not control when to have a child or how many children she would have (the pill had not been invented yet, and birth control was illegal in many places). Her husband, if he wanted, could keep her barefoot and pregnant.
Domestic abuse was a dirty secret.
Men worked and drank and smoked themselves into early graves.
It’s easy to hanker after the idea of an old-fashioned marriage. We are free to wax poetic, much like we can about unicorns; we can pretend that people married for true love and encountered nothing but happily ever afters.
And if women were presumed to lack the intellectual capacities of a man, and couldn’t or shouldn’t support themselves, it would make sense to encourage them to submit to their husbands’ superior judgment and greater worldliness and maturity. You would have no choice but to enter a parent-child kind of relationship, because the husband truly knows best.
The kind of genuine intimacy that is only possible between equals wouldn’t exist.
Which is what I think we all want, even if we’re also afraid of it or unsure of what it looks like. We want to see and be seen, love and be loved; we want to be accepted and recognized for who we are on the inside. We crave the kind of intimacy that power closes out. Polarized gender roles make it possible to function efficiently as a unit, but that doesn’t translate to an intimate relationship; it is, instead, an exchange of services (where one set is valued much more highly than the other).
When one partner must maintain power-over, neither partner is free to speak in an authentic voice. One person must use communication as a tool of control; the other must use it to accommodate, persuade, seduce, or manipulate.
Is this a recipe for happiness? Hell no. But it’s what we know, in a culture that didn’t respect women enough to give them the vote until less than a hundred years ago. And when people are confused, insecure, stressed-out or vulnerable, it’s our nature as human beings to seek what seems easy and best simply because it’s familiar. We are creatures who are not very comfortable with change.
To live in a world where women can uncouple sex and pregnancy is a radical change.
To live in a world where women as a group are attaining power – regardless of whether or not we were “designed for it” – is unprecedented, and freaking out a lot of people.
Emotional and sexual intimacy can be messy, tangled, difficult and volatile just to begin with, and we’re approaching it from a new level of possibility: partners freely choosing to be with you and to stay with you.
It ups the game. It raises the stakes. It demands that you show up more completely and more often, that you learn to speak your heart and also listen.
It demands that you risk more, and hurt when you have to so that you may grow. There is no shortcut we can take, no formula we can use, and the only paradigm we have is still very much in flux.
Which is why I think surrendered or submissive marriages are, in the end, a kind of cop-out.
Traditional gender roles are easy. Real intimacy is not.
Which doesn’t mean, by the way, that you can’t be submissive in bed if that’s what turns you on. Playing with power can be very sexy, if not always politically correct – the body wants what it wants. But when you have the ability and the freedom to say what you want, and what you don’t want, and act and be acted upon accordingly, there’s never any question as to who throws down in the bedroom. Which is probably why feminism makes for better sex.
Don’t get me wrong. I do believe in fairy tales.
I just think the real ones have yet to be written.