Equal, but Not Identical

In his beautiful and moving apostolic exhortation on marriage — Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) — Pope Francis has given the Church a treasure for reflective prayer and discussion. Catholic parishes will, I hope, use it as a basic text for marriage preparation courses. I would like to offer here a simple insight of my own that does not appear anywhere in the document but should, I think, be borne in mind by all of us in the Catholic community as we move on from the World Meeting of Families and the Synods of Bishops that paved the way for this apostolic exhortation and opened up the conversations that are now going on worldwide.

I have in mind a distinction that provides a key to understanding an essential difference between men and women and, thus, opens the eyes of those who establish families to the psychological complementarity of the relationship they share.

As a priest and pastor, I’ve been willing to take my life into my hands on more than one occasion by deciding to preach on the text from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that contains the famous words: “Wives should be subordinate [some translations say “submissive”] to their husbands” (Eph 5:22). That sentence is rarely heard or received in the context of the verse that occurs immediately before, namely, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The “to one another” in this opening sentence makes it clear that the admonition is addressed to men and women alike. The notions of deference and mutual respect apply to both men and women and belong in any discussion that the “subordinate” or “submissive” vocabulary might prompt concerning Paul’s politically incorrect and apparently misogynist point of view. The letter clearly represents Paul’s thought, although one or several of his disciples probably wrote it.

Exploring Scripture

There is no doubt that many contemporary Catholics, both men and women, find Paul’s words in Ephesians puzzling to say the least; some indeed find them offensive. Must wives be subordinate to their husbands always? What kind of subordination did Paul have in mind? Did he have any appreciation of the notion of equality between men and women?

In Ephesians, Paul goes on to say: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved his church [no one will want to argue with that] and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish [again, no problem]. Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph 5:25-28). Fine. So how did an inadequate idea of subordination enter into this cultural conversation?

We are stuck, I’m afraid, with the translation we have, so we have to make the most of it. That is not to say we have to deny or reject it. Scholars make the point that Paul, however inelegantly in this instance to our ears, is calling for mutual subordination; he is saying to both husbands and wives, “subordinate yourselves to one another.” In fact, it can be argued that Paul is narrowing the range of subordination of women in the society and culture of that time, given the infelicitous translation that we have to work with. Paul is saying, be subordinate only to your husband, not to all men, as contemporary social norms required.

I’m not out to settle that definitively now. I do, however, want to use this text as an occasion to make a point that I think needs attention in our time and should be borne in mind as we move on from World Meeting of Families and the 2014-2015 Synods of Bishops on the Family, and begin to study all that Francis has given us in Amoris Laetitia. Ours is a day and age where women’s rights are defended and celebrated, an age when the equality between men and women is just about universally accepted, at least here in the United States. What we need to consider, however, is that while men and women are equal, they are not identical. We all too often ignore this distinction.

Frame of Reference

Let me begin with the construction of a paradigm — a theory, or frame of reference, intended to focus on this important issue. It is based on my own personal observation, pastoral experience and extensive reading over many decades. I have found that in addition to the obvious physical complementarity between the sexes, there is a little-noticed and seldom-reflected-upon psychological complementarity. Both men and women at all stages of their lives experience varying degrees of discouragement and loneliness, emotions easily activated by job loss, a condition I researched for a book 20 years ago: Finding Work without Losing Heart: Bouncing Back from Mid-Career Job Loss (Adams, 1995).

The male, I found, is more bothered by and sensitive to discouragement, while the female tends more often to be beset with loneliness than with a feeling of failure in the transition period that follows job loss. This is not to say women do not feel discouraged at times, or that men do not experience loneliness. They clearly do. I have observed, however, that men tend to be more achievement-oriented and women more relational in their approach to work and life. Again, this is not to say that women have no drive to achieve and men are uninterested in forging relationships.

What I am getting at is this: there appears to be a male propensity toward discouragement and a female propensity toward loneliness. Their psychological vulnerabilities differ because their psychological propensities differ. Men and women are equal but not identical. Failure to achieve can activate discouragement; a failed relationship can trigger loneliness. Whether these propensities are genetically rooted and unalterable is not my question to pursue. I simply remark that, generally speaking, different tendencies are there. And it is my experience that an awareness of the difference can enable spouses or friends to draw closer to one another by permitting their psychological complementarity to come into play. It works this way.

The male needs encouragement in the face of an abiding (it has been there all along, not just in a moment of crisis!) sense of inadequacy, self-doubt and a propensity toward discouragement. The female needs the presence of another, along with the conversation, consideration and attention that the other person can bring. This provides her with emotional security — a sense of being connected — in the face of a propensity toward loneliness.

If each is attentive to the deeper psychological need of the other, each will enhance the likelihood of having his or her own psychological need met. The wife who gives encouragement, praise and personal reassurance to her discouraged spouse makes herself a significantly more attractive target for the attentive presence she needs and wants. (This is remarkably consistent with a principle of religious faith — “it is in giving that we receive” — that many of us admire but most of us neglect to pursue.) In stressful circumstances, like those surrounding unexpected job loss, criticism and resentment from a wife will repel the husband, deepen his sense of failure and create a chasm rather than a union between the spouses. Similarly, if the wife is the victim of job loss, insensitivity on the part of the husband will only aggravate the relational failure, the feeling of disconnectedness and the concomitant loneliness.

Protecting the Other’s Dignity

In Toward a New Psychology of Women (Beacon Press, 1987), Jean Baker Miller writes that a woman’s sense of self is “organized around being able to make and then maintain affiliations and relationships.” Women feel the need to connect; “affiliative” is a word that helps to describe her natural tendencies and related vulnerabilities. Obviously, it helps the relationship if the male partner is sensitive to this, particularly when a woman’s employment relationship or corporate affiliation is abruptly and involuntarily severed.

A full-page advertisement placed by the United Jewish Appeal Federation in The New York Times on April 15, 1992, pictured a woman staring out through the words of this printed (and then quite timely) message: “My husband got laid off from work eight months ago. Some days are so terrible. He breaks down and tells me he’s afraid he’ll never find a job. He’s afraid I’ll stop loving him. And I tell him that’s ridiculous. And then I go into the bedroom and cry because I’m not so sure anymore.” At the bottom of the page, potential donors to the UJA Federation are told that they can “make it possible for thousands of people to find training, jobs and, most important, dignity.”

Dignity is a central issue. Each partner to the relationship should, in the context of job loss, consider him- or herself to be the protector of the other’s dignity. And human dignity, you must always remind yourself, is rooted in who you are, not what you do. There is a great American secular heresy — namely, that “what you do is who you are.” And the unfortunate corollary to this proposition, the one that causes so much grief, is the tendency on the part of those who find themselves “doing nothing” — that is, those unemployed — to conclude all too readily that they “are” nothing. No one needs to be driven deeper into that hole by an insensitive spouse.

The paradigm I outlined earlier invites elaboration. Men tend to sell themselves short. They often regard themselves as failures waiting to be discovered. This applies to males at all stages and in all circumstances of life.

Those men who are rising toward or holding positions on the many managerial mountaintops in contemporary society disguise, even from themselves, their inner fears that they are doing it all with smoke and mirrors, so to speak, and that sooner or later, probably sooner, they will be “found out,” “put down,” even “let go.” Then what? That’s the scary question.

Virtually all displaced executives or sidelined managers want to “run something” again, even if there is no financial necessity to do so. They want to prove themselves. They want to achieve.

This is generally true of men, young or old, in all walks of life. Men and women differ in this regard, certainly in degree, if not in kind. And husbands and wives have to understand this. Even when it is clearly a “no-fault” job loss related to legitimate restructuring, men tend to question in the quiet of their hearts their basic competency.

There is a woman inside every man and a man inside every woman. The influence of the feminine in the man and the masculine in the woman is noticeable now where previously there had not been a trace of one in the culturally conditioned preserve of the other. But there are differences that remain and require respect. The sensitive spouse will want to be ready to deal with those differences.

The important question is how knowledge of the other’s vulnerability will be used. As a weapon? Or, as a reminder that the male always needs reinforcing encouragement and the female always needs companionship?

Men and women hold both a wand and a weapon in their hands. They can, in the case of a husband, give attention to a spouse or withhold it. When given, attention becomes reassuring balm; withheld, it freezes into calculated disregard. The wife can offer her spouse criticism or encouragement; criticism drives him deeper in the hole while encouragement gives him hope.

St. Paul would say, subordinate yourselves — husbands and wives — to one another. I would add: know the vulnerability of the other and do your sensitive and loving best to respond to it. As Paul put it in Ephesians, “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

My hope is that the follow-up to the World Meeting of Families and the discussion prompted by Amoris Laetitia will facilitate reflection in Catholic families along these lines. The result will lead to better marriages and stronger families throughout the world.

William J. Byron, S.J., is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.