The Submissive Wife: How This Role Damages Boys (and Girls)

How do I keep my son from growing up to be a jerk? How do I help him become egalitarian? 

Great question: How do we raise boys to share power in relationships? The answer lies in your willingness to share power in your own relationships.

The “submissive wife” sounds like the title of a porn movie or a handbook from the 1950s. But it’s actually a one-down female role still prescribed in many families and doctrines. It says the woman in a heterosexual relationship should defer to her male partner in all or most areas of conflict. It says the woman should try not to fight about issues that upset her. It says the man is the head of the household and should have the final say-so.

This article is not a political treatise, but a collection of psychological observations I’ve made over my lifetime – as a child growing up in a conservative community full of submissive wives – and as a family psychologist. Based on what I’ve learned, we really can raise boys (and girls) to be egalitarian. We can teach them how to share power with their partners, which will help them develop more satisfying love relationships as adults.

Yes, the submissive wife still exists. She may tell you she’s a complete person and on equal footing with her mate, but she still blames herself if the marriage becomes tense or gridlocked. She blames her spouse if there are money problems. She stifles her anger. She develops other symptoms (like migraines or other chronic pain) and she spends too much on shoes and Xanax.

The son of the submissive wife has a challenge. He must try to get to know his mother, while she hides much of her true self from view.

At the level of family interaction, here’s what I notice.

Like girls, boys watch their parents interact. Boys follow the flow of dialogue, even about minor, everyday things. They watch their fathers to see . . .
1. if they can share power
2. if they can share emotion
3. if they can admit their mistakes
4. if they can express affection openly
5. if they possess purpose – and how this purpose drives their behavior

Boys (and girls, for slightly different reasons) watch their mothers to see . . .
1. if they can express emotion freely
2. if they can assert themselves
3. if they can express resistance and still be warm and approachable
4. if they can maintain the integrity of who they are in relation to their mates
5. if they have passions and personal agendas and clear wants and needs

I watch my son watching us, my husband and I, as we talk. I see when he looks worried and when he looks relieved. I see when his attention is focused and when he’s free to unfocus it. I listen to the stories of boys and men in my practice, too, and how they tell those stories. Particularly the ones about their parents, so key to their own current love relationships.

“She wouldn’t look him in the eye.”

“They never talked about love.”

“They only disagreed behind doors.”

“She seemed invisible.”

“I don’t know what was important to him.”

“He didn’t say much.”

Between the lines of these stories, I hear these grown-up boys craving some signs of the emotional life of their parents. They need to know who these people are – so that they can figure out who they are too.

Here are some tips for modeling egalitarian relationships in your family. These tips assume a non-violent relationship. So if there is any physical aggression of any kind happening between you and your partner, please seek immediate professional assistance to create safety – before you address the things on this list.

Tips for Modeling Egalitarian Relationships

(assuming a non-violent relationship)

1. Allow some of your conflict to be seen and heard. Don’t hide it all behind a closed bedroom door. Children need to see their parents resolve arguments . . . or at least attempt to listen to each other’s points of view.

2. Even if you divide household duties in gender-traditional ways, make the division of labor overt. Talk about who does what – and why. Don’t allow the unchallenged assumption of “women’s work” or “men’s work” to prevail in your family’s culture.

3. Regardless of your gender, if you’re the dominator in conversations, tone it down a bit. Practice doing more listening than talking. Allow your mate to get the last word. Model a quieter approach to arguments. If you bluster (that is, raise your voice and stomp around or become physically menacing), take deep breaths and focus on helping your partner feel comfortable enough to stay in the argument with you.

4.  If you’re the one who normally gets quiet in an argument, practice staying emotionally present during conflict. Don’t retreat to a corner. Stay there. Make notes about how you feel. Share them. Out loud.

5. This one goes without saying, but I’m saying it again anyway. Absolutely no violence whatsoever should be tolerated in your relationship: no verbal, physical, or sexual violence – and no destruction of property. If this has been an issue in the past, please seek help from a licensed professional. If you’re the recipient of aggression by your partner, the previous four tips don’t yet apply to you. Seek safety first, then you can recruit help to address the balance of power in your relationship.

6. Talk about power openly. During times of low stress, when you and your mate are feeling relatively satisfied, discuss how power is shared between you. Allow your kids to observe if you feel comfortable enough.

7. Talk about your interactions – in real time. It’s hard to overstate what a gift this will be for your kids. (Can you imagine yourself as a child, listening to your parents calmly discuss their power relationship or the heated exchange they just had?). Bringing covert emotional operations into the open air allows your children to avoid the trance-inducing effects of experiencing a power-imbalance but having no words to describe it.

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