In the traditional marriage, roles are stilted and rigidly defined. There is very little flexibility as to how they may be performed. In the modern marriage, expectations are so loose that marital roles can be truly lacking. Without any set procedures to bring stability to these roles, the marriage relationship lacks integrity. The biblical marriage has flexible and interchangeable roles as each occasion calls forth what is needed. These roles are intended to foster authentic Christian character, leading us to resemble Christ and his work in the world.
Since change can be expected throughout the cycles of family life, it is vital that spouses be flexible and adaptable. Married life and family life are at their best when they are neither predetermined nor undetermined but provide structured security. This structured security allows spouses and family members to experience the exciting process of each member working for the good of the whole. Family members are empowered to serve others in collaborative efforts.
Leadership and Decision-Making Authority in marriage is persistently a controversial issue among Christians. Until very recent times, authority in marriage exclusively meant a strong male
headship approach. Christians and non-Christians alike have adhered to the idea that the husband is to be the head of the home, whereas the wife is expected to submit to her husband. Recently in Christian circles, a renewed philosophy of authority has emerged involving mutual submission. The husband is challenged to love, serve, and submit to his wife, just as Christ gave his life for the church. Paul argues that family authority should be based on the model of Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:21 reads, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (NIV), which prefaces perhaps the most famous passage regarding family authority (5:21–33). Everything that follows—husband-wife dynamics, parent-children relationships, and even master-slave roles—is based in the context of the church’s submission to the authority of Christ.
Modern marriages are opposed to the traditional male headship arrangement and emphasize individual spousal power in marriage. While this may present power dilemmas for spouses, it enhances equality, freedom, and personal power. In particular, the postmodern perspective recognizes that there are a variety of authority styles, determined mainly by cultural values, and, therefore, not just “one” way to define authority in marriage. Each couple, considering their generational and culture values, will determine authority issues accordingly.
The system of social exchange plays an integral part in dealing with personal power struggles in modern marriage. The focus is on the quid pro quo notion of getting something for something—“if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Spouses are satisfied as long as everything comes out equal and neither partner perceives things as unfair. However, it is hard to define equal, and therefore authority and decision-making power may cause conflict.
Under a system of social exchange, negotiation is the best way to deal with conflict. Each partner tries to maximize the returns on his or her investments in the marriage. Accordingly, research shows that in this system, wives who work outside the home have greater power in the marriage relationship than wives who do not. The money earned can be converted into power, thus elevating the authority of the wife in the marriage.
It should be noted that the system of social exchange is built on an assumption about humans that is consistent with Christian thought—namely, that people are basically self-centered by nature. In reality, social exchange is a fairly good model to describe how many marriages operate. We would,
however, question the assumption that fighting for your own rights without regard for a partner is ideal. The Christian worldview, by contrast, values unselfish giving, mutual exchange, and even going beyond what is expected. The goal is not to maintain power over one’s partner but to empower and be empowered through the relationship.
Authority in Christian, biblical marriage includes dual submission to the lordship of Jesus Christ and to each other. The chain-of-command view that a wife should submit to her husband, who in turn should submit to God, is popular in some Christian circles. This faulty authoritarian persuasion fails to take into account the great news of the New Testament promotion of mutual love, joyful service, and reciprocal submission.
Ephesians 5:25 reads, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” From this, it is clear that headship is to be understood not in the hierarchical sense of the husband’s lording it over his wife but rather as taking the role of a suffering servant who gives himself out of his love. Christ’s example as a compassionate servant who gave his life for his bride, the church, is the model of how the husband is to be a source for his marriage. Wives too are called to this same self-giving, suffering-servant role. Mutual submissiveness, then, is the overriding message of Ephesians 5.
In place of mutual submissiveness, the biblical marriage is based on the concept of mutual regard. That is to say, the biblical view is for marital love to regard the other as one would want to be regarded. This mutual regard emphasizes empowering the other to submit to Christ in discipleship and sacrifice. One way to conceptualize this is the idea of Christ as mediator. Christ mediates one’s relationship to others (Bonhoeffer 1995)—in this case, the spouse. When one is a Christian, he or she experiences a separation from the world and an immediacy with Christ: “Although the direct way to our neighbor is barred, [Christians] now find the new and only real way to him— the way which passes through the Mediator [Christ]” (Bonhoeffer 1995, 100). In a Christian marriage, each interaction, each engagement between the spouses, expresses Christ to the other. This mediation of Christ challenges each partner to become more like Jesus in love and self-sacrifice. Stanley et al. (2006, 289) report that sacrificial attitudes were found to predict the maintenance of relationship adjustment over time.
At times one partner may be required to give much more than an equal share to the marriage. God calls both spouses to give generously for the sake
of the other when sickness or some other circumstance makes it difficult for one to give much at that time. Putting the interests of the spouse first out of regard for his or her needs is the extraordinary way of the cross.
Communication In the traditional marriage, there is little need for verbal communication. What communication exists tends to take the form of pronouncements— talking at, rather than with, one’s spouse. The husband as head of the marriage legislates without consulting his wife. When conflicts or delicate matters arise, they are often dealt with by sidestepping the issue. Verbal communication is de-emphasized because meeting socio-emotional and companionship needs is not considered a major part of marriage. Marriage is regarded as an institutional arrangement that provides for economic needs and social status.
Communication in the modern marriage can be characterized as a series of declarations and demands that each spouse makes to the other. When conflicts arise, confrontation is the way to get one’s needs and disappointments out on the table. The motto is “Openly express what you need from your mate.” While such openness can be refreshing when compared to the traditional pattern, a combative posture and insistence on satisfying personal needs will obviously obstruct a sensitive caring for the other. Making aggressive demands, such as “I want my needs met regardless of how you are affected,” results in counterdemands that ultimately lead to a stalemate.
In a biblical marriage, the partners communicate by expressing themselves in an open manner. When one talks, the other listens. They care about what is best for their partner. Differences are dealt with by respecting each other’s needs and desires. They make an effort to understand each other’s point of view and to respond accordingly. There is an attitude of submission and a willingness to consider giving up one’s own needs and desires for the sake of the other and the relationship. Both spouses work together to seek solutions through mutual and reciprocal decision-making.
Dual-earner couples bring a new dimension to marriage and parenting roles in today’s world (Bianchi and Milkie 2010). Based on data from 2019, half of all couples are dual career or dual earner. The rate of dual-earner families with children has risen to 63 percent. Balancing career and family obligations creates unique challenges for dual-career couples (Su 2019). Economic necessity leaves many families little choice but for both parents to work outside the home. As they consider what is in the best interest of everyone concerned, they must decide whether both the husband and the wife should work. If a couple decides that they will both work outside the home, then the question is how to accomplish this in the most satisfactory way. In a recent study, husbands with more traditional gender-role ideology had lower marital satisfaction if their wives had higher levels of work and family role conflicts (Minnotte, Minnotte, and Pedersen 2013). Additionally, husbands’ gender ideology also affected wives’ marital satisfaction, while wives’ gender-role ideologies had no effect on either spouse’s marital satisfaction.
The key to finding the right balance is learning how to manage work and family so that neither impinges on the other in disruptive ways. We believe that the working couple must proactively establish and maintain a balance between work and family. The couple will be most successful in coming up with a suitable arrangement if they (1) mutually contribute unconditional love, grace, empowerment, and intimacy to their relationship; (2) have an extra dose of cohesion and adaptability; (3) agree on priorities, recognizing what is essential and what is nonessential in their family and work roles; and (4) identify resources within themselves, their marriage, the family, and the wider community to help them meet the demands of their dual roles.
In dealing with work and family conflict, two key dimensions are needed (Frederick and Dunbar 2019). First, role salience is critical. Dual-career couples need to acknowledge that both work and family demands are relatively pressing at a given time. Within a biblical view of marriage, each spouse acknowledges the importance of these demands as well as the individual’s need to fulfill these demands. This means that personal identity as both a spouse and a career holder is honored. Discernment, based partly on this personal-identity perspective, enables each spouse to evaluate the actual salience of each sphere’s demands.
Role satisfaction is the second dimension needed in balancing work and family conflict. Each partner takes satisfaction in the many or multiple roles they play in life. One’s overall satisfaction as a person is not subsumed in
either being a spouse or holding a career. One’s ultimate satisfaction is being a child of God based on Christ’s saving work. Recall the words spoken at Jesus’s baptism: “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:11). These words are spoken of each Christian as we are adopted into the family of God via Christ. This is the basis of our ultimate identity, which is expressed as we fulfill our other callings as husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, and earners. As we experience satisfaction in one role, the crossover effect builds endurance for challenges in another role.