Role conflict arises naturally and not necessarily because a person is immature or unprepared for role skirmishes. Role conflicts need to be worked out in an atmosphere of grace, acceptance, and dialogue. Spouses who have good skills in problem-solving and conflict resolution will have a head start. Resolving role conflicts throughout marriage gives the couple a solid base of operation. Those who cannot achieve solutions are likely to struggle with these same role conflicts, and the marriage will resemble a wrestling match more than a dance.
The marital-role dance is an ever-changing dynamic that must evolve as new patterns emerge. Role definitions appropriate in the beginning stages of marriage may become outmoded two or three years later; roles will change
over time and in response to family life-cycle changes. In the daily acts of being husband and wife, new ways of playing out roles are constantly attempted. Role taking does not stop when a couple marries but continues throughout the life cycle. For example, even among very egalitarian couples, the transition to parenthood is associated with a return to more traditional gender roles in marriage (Frederick and Balswick 2011). A couple may have decided early in the marriage that one spouse would stay home with the children when they are young. But when that spouse begins to imagine what a full-time job outside the home would be like (role taking), a role conflict is evident. When any new course of action is taken, the couple must carefully consider its impact on household chores and responsibilities, cooking, childcare, socializing, and so on. A small step now can make a huge difference down the road.
The most troublesome adjustments in marriages are those not clearly worked out ahead of time. In such situations, each spouse may have unspoken expectations of which the other is unaware. Assuming that spouses can read each other’s minds is a recipe for relationship breakdown. A typical example is the wife who assumes that her husband’s agreement that she be employed outside the home means that he will take on household responsibilities. When he fails to do so, she finds herself doing double duty, a common complaint in marriage that understandably leads to resentment. Many women who imagine they are entering an egalitarian marriage have been disillusioned to find that they are expected to be the superwoman who does it all.
A spousal role can be defined objectively by spouses, family, culture, church, community, and society at large, but the one who performs the role defines it subjectively. And there is rarely a one-to-one correlation between the general definition of a role and how that spouse actually defines it. Because each individual person is unique, role playing is always role making.
Each person plays the role of husband or wife according to one’s own distinctive taste and style—a person embellishes the marital dance with his or her unique flair. Marriages in which either partner has a prescribed definition of what the other’s role should be will most likely encounter trouble. It’s best to recognize individual differences and unique personalities in taking on roles. During the Balswicks’ early years, Jack complained that Judy was too much like her mother, a very spontaneous and expressive person. Judy’s spontaneous ways would embarrass Jack, who was more
reserved, and he would reprimand Judy for her behavior. Talking about this helped him see how his role expectation for Judy dampened her free spirit. In fact, he realized that her outgoing personality was one of the things that attracted him to her in the first place. Judy, in turn, was willing to be more considerate of Jack in these situations. It led to an acceptance and appreciation of each other as unique persons with unique personalities and became a significant stepping-stone of growth in the relationship.
Tom and Gail married in May, moved across the country in July, and started seminary in August. They had to rely on one another for help because Tom’s parents were in Pennsylvania and Gail’s family of origin was in Taiwan. One early adjustment involved negotiating dealing with others. For example, Gail would interactive with wives and Tom would interact with husbands separately at social events. In the car on the way home, Gail would have a list of details and other information from the wives with whom she interacted. She would then ask Tom about details from the husbands. He would frequently respond, “I don’t know,” since he did not want to pry into other mens’ lives. Initially, it was a little frustrating that Gail would learn things about others that Tom would not. But eventually they learned to appreciate how each of them uniquely interacts with those who would become friends.
Adjustment in the Marital Dance Throughout the marriage, role adjustments must be made for the sake of the relationship. Whatever the reason, both partners must recognize the continual need for flexibility. On occasion, a marriage is adjusted at the expense of one or the other. Although this may occur from time to time out of particular circumstances and by mutual decision, when one spouse always gives in to the demands and needs of the other, it is a one-sided proposition. This is contrary to perichoresis, which involves two people agreeing to make room in themselves for the needs and desires of the other. Each learns to honor and not compromise the unique contribution of the other. Reaching mutual satisfaction through assuming marital roles is the goal. This occurs when both spouses derive fulfillment and pleasure from the marriage union. Their commitment to each other, the relationship, and the marriage permits flexibility and creative openness to change that is in the best interest of both spouses and the relationship.
A Model for Biblical Marriage
While the previous chapter dealt with some of the social and psychological issues involved in marriage, this chapter applies our theological basis for family relationships, as presented in chapter 1, to marriage in postmodern society. Both modern and postmodern ideologies have influenced today’s marriages. For the sake of simplicity, we use the term modern marriage to refer to contemporary marriages that have been affected by both, in contrast to the traditional marriage preceding these influences.
It is a common mistake for Christians to defend a cultural version of marriage as the biblical ideal. They fall into this trap by reading the customs of their own culture into biblical passages or by regarding the biblical accounts of specific historical marriages as normative instead of descriptive. Records of marriages during biblical times do not necessarily reflect God’s intention for today.
While one mistake is to assume that what our society regards as traditional marriage is biblical, another mistake is to uncritically endorse secular humanistic ideals and ignore what the Bible and Christian tradition have to say about the nature and purpose of marriage. Somewhere between these extremes is what we believe to be the biblical model. Table 4 summarizes the major characteristics of traditional marriage, biblical marriage, and modern marriage, comparing them in terms of the four aspects of our theological model: covenant (commitment), grace (adaptability), empowerment (authority), and intimacy (communication). We will explore each of these characteristics in depth. Close examination will show that both traditional and modern relationships fall short of the ideal. Parenthetically, we believe that social-science research will reveal the practical wisdom contained in a biblical model of marriage. Recently, Day and Acock
(2013, 164) noted that “relational spiritual framework theory posits that religiousness is associated with couple well-being through relational virtues (e.g., forgiveness, commitment, and sacrifice).”
TABLE 4 Traditional, Biblical, and Modern Views of Marriage
Traditional Biblical Modern
Nature of Relationship
Commitment (to the institution)
Covenant (between partners)
Coercive Cohesive Disengaged
Nature of Sexual Intimacy
Dutiful Affectionate Self-centered
Male pleasure Mutual pleasure Personal pleasure
Law Grace Anarchy
Predetermined (segregated roles)
Creative (interchangeable roles)
Undetermined (undifferentiated roles)
Rigid/Stilted Adaptable/Flexible Chaotic
Leadership and Decision- Making
Ascribed power Empowerment Possessive power
Mutual submissiveness (interdependence)
Absence of authority (independence)
Male-centered Relationship-centered Self-centered
Inexpressiveness Intimacy Pseudo-intimacy
Nonassertive/Aggressive Assertive Aggressive
Because Western laws have come to treat marriage as a contract rather than as a covenant, the common statement “Marriage is a commitment!” is often misunderstood. A traditional view of the nature of the marital relationship focused on the notion that a couple should stay married for life; it viewed marriage as a sacred institution that must be upheld at all costs. Preserving the marriage took priority over each spouse’s individual well-being. There was also a collective emphasis on loyalty to the group (family or community) rather than to the individual. The individual sacrificed his or her (usually her) preferences in order to maintain the institution and support the collective. Over the years, this collective emphasis has given way to an individualistic, “me-oriented” emphasis—the hallmark of modern marriage. Tim and Kathy Keller (2013) report the results of a survey that describes how many respondents feel marriages impeded personal freedom. From a modern perspective, the marriage should be dissolved when the relationship’s demands outweigh the benefits. The focus has shifted to the individual’s right to personal happiness. Thus, commitment to marriage as an institution is rejected when it interferes with the individual’s perceived right to self-fulfillment.
Prevalence of divorce is one way to gauge the transition from viewing marriage as an institution to marriage as a contract intended to maximize one’s personal happiness. It was rare under the traditional system because of an intrinsic commitment to marriage as an institution. Divorce was unthinkable because it transgressed a strongly held belief that violating the institution was morally wrong. The youth counterculture movement of the 1960s challenged these traditional ideas and asserted that commitment to the institution was an invalid reason to stay married. Sexuality was ideally confined to traditional marriage, but with the advent of birth control and increasingly promiscuous sexual behavior, the individual’s happiness and personal satisfaction were becoming more important. These shifting values helped transform the nature of marriage (and divorce) from a traditional institution to a relationship contract between two equal partners. Our postmodern culture continues strongly to emphasize this self-absorption.
Accordingly, in the early 1970s, the divorce rate began to rise dramatically and continued to do so for nearly ten years. We have seen a flattening of the divorce rate beginning around the 2000s to around 50 percent. Social scientists now believe that one of the major reasons for this phenomenon was that people who were unhappy increasingly turned to
divorce as a way to remove themselves from their past and to find happiness. This turning to divorce was accelerated by several factors. First, we did not know the negative consequences of divorce until much later, especially with the publication of works like The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce (Wallerstein, Lewis, and Blakeslee 2001). Second, social stigma regarding divorce diminished as the definition of marriage changed. That is, marriage is no longer considered an institution, so the dissolution of the marriage is like the ending of other contracts. Divorce was pursued without fear of shame or failure because the partnership simply did not fulfill its contract. Finally, therapists tended to encourage the trend. In some ways, therapy reifies the hyperindividualism of modern and postmodern views. Therapists would subtly and not so subtly encourage people to end marriages that were no longer satisfying so an individual could find his or her personal happiness. Since therapists generally believed individuals had a right to personal happiness, this value took precedence over commitment to the sanctity of marriage as an institution.