When do I submit and when do I stand?
Most Christians have taught the ‘submit’ doctrine in a way that disempowers women. It teaches women to ignore their gut feelings, to put their legitimate needs and preferences and wishes aside. It discourages wives from using negotiation skills with their husbands. It deters wives from setting boundaries when their husbands behave selfishly or sinfully.
Here is a question we received from a reader who is separated from her abuser, but was thinking of going back to him:
I’ve been learning and leaning so hard on submission. How do I know when not to submit? And then how do I stand my ground when he pulls at the “you are displeasing the Lord” string? It’s as if I know he’s pulling it and he knows I know. It’s just so effective. It affects me. And it’s so awful because it’s repugnant that someone would do that and then claim to be a spiritual leader in their next breath.
When do I submit and when do I stand?
Here are our two answers:
In your case I would not recommend a head/submit model, particularly since there is so much confusion about what that truly means among Christians.
Instead, I would encourage you to approach the relationship with mutuality, serving each other as equal companions. See how he responds when you function this way. It will be a good test.
If your husband is a Christian, he will truly repent and turn from these sinful patterns, but do not be surprised if in the end you realize he is not changing. Very few of these people ever change.
If you do not have children with him, DON’T! Not now. Don’t be duped by false repentance only to find out too late, after having a child with him, that you are stuck.
I would, in fact, recommend that you not return until he shows actual visible steps toward getting serious counseling by a counselor who understands men like your husband AND your husband sticks with that program for quite a time. Otherwise it is almost a certainty that your hopes will be dashed by his deception. We see such a scenario over and over again.
Submit only if you are sure he is not manipulating you or coercively controlling you, and even then only if you feel that by submitting you will in no way be violating your own conscience.
Stand whenever you are unsure, whenever you feel that little gut feeling “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this.”
Stand even when you are not quite sure whether you are having that little gut feeling or not.
It’s quite okay to say (to yourself, or to him) “I want to take more time before I let you know what I’m willing to do or what I think about that…”
It’s safer to not submit if you are unsure. You can always change your mind later and choose to submit. But once you have submitted, it can be harder to re-set the boundaries up again later. If we submit when we are doubtful it is wise or safe to submit, we risk being deeply hurt by an unexpected arrow or cluster-bomb from the abuser. And after we’ve been hurt, we are less likely to be able to muster the strength and clarity of mind to re-set the boundaries in a timely and effective manner.
You have the right to take as much time as you need to sense out and assess your own feelings, your intuitions, your degree of comfort, your sense of safety.
Furthermore, when we have been under coercive control it takes time to become more aware of and honor our gut feelings (those little intuitions). It also takes time and application — reading, learning from those like Lundy Bancroft — to understand and be alert to how abusers think and act. And it takes time to recognize the multitude of particular tactics which our own abuser has used against us.
I suggest you take a lot of time. Your husband will be pressuring you to come back to him sooner rather than later, but you are free to refuse.
Given that he has been showing many signs of being an abuser — his possessiveness, his pulling the headship card to assert his power over you, his emotional abuse, etc., you are free to say “No, not yet, Not sure when…”
Also, he is unlikely to unlearn the abusive mindset and behaviors he has grown so accustomed to while he is living with you. If he resumes living with you, he is much more likely to revert to his old habits and even develop some new, more underhanded, more subtle coercive control tactics to make it look to you like he isn’t being as bad as he once was.
He might have said he wants to change, but words are cheap. Unless he gets himself into a behavior change* program and works hard for a long time to undo his abusive mindset and beliefs, he is most unlikely to change. And even then, he might not have changed enough to be the kind of person you really want to live with.
If you are a born-again Christian, you would want to be living with a spouse who is a born-again Christian, someone who is truly regenerate, not just
- someone who has ‘made a commitment’ at some altar call
- someone who has ‘recommitted their life to Christ’ as a ploy to get you back
- or someone who has had some kind of emotional experience which everyone thinks was conversion — but in time it proves to have been seeds sown on rocky ground.
Many abusers say at one time or another (often many times) that they want to change. Very few actually do change. Don’t go by his words. Pay attention to his BEHAVIOR and his ATTITUDES.
And beware when he plays the Pity card. Many abusers play the ‘pity me’ card to disguise the fact that they are intentionally seeking to have power and control over their target.
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*Here are some articles on Behavior Change Programs at this blog: