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An Alto Doesn’t Need Another Alto

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In music, a vocal quartet is made up of four different parts or singing styles: alto, soprano, tenor, and base. All four must be included in order for the vocal group to be a quartet. The tenor cannot kick out the bass and replace him with another tenor. The soprano cannot find two more soprano friends and get rid of the alto and tenor. All four parts must be present and fulfilling their roles for the harmonies of their music to sound just right. No part is more important than another; neither is any part unnecessary and would be better off being more like another part.

In similar fashion, the male/female relationship is a duo. As a soprano differs from a tenor, the male and female have also been designed with their own unique differences based on their gender, upbringing, spiritual gifting, and temperament.

Some differences are both more obvious and more easily appreciated, with few husbands and wives attempting to assimilate their spouses to their own ways. For example, it is rare that you would find a husband wishing that his wife would be less motherly and sympathetic toward their hurting children. She exudes love and care for their kids, in ways that he has never been very skilled at, and he loves that she nurtures them the way he wishes he could.

As well, a wife is not likely to ever wish that her husband who has the spiritual gift of teaching would stop leading their family in devotion time and would prefer to take up golf on Sunday mornings instead of bringing them to church, where he is a Sunday school teacher. Though she may not have the gift of teaching herself, it would never even cross her mind to try and quench this gift of his that he thrives under.

But not all differences between spouses are as appreciated. And worse, instead of seeing the opposite side of their “duo” as the complementary half they need to balance with in order to make beautiful music, they try and make their spouse to be more like them, because they have grown irritated over something that God actually designed in their spouse.

But many of us would be wise to learn to lighten up and rejoice over the differences in our relationship more than we do. This does not mean our spouse acts and reacts perfectly, but most of their reactions and differences from us find root in their gender, upbringing, spiritual gifting, and temperament.  

One main gender difference that is often treated as a problem and not as a complement is in how the male and female brains have been hardwired differently. Simon Baron-Cohen, Cambridge professor in neuroscience, states, “The female brain is predominantly hard-wired for empathy. The male brain is predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems.”

This is connected to something that I have taught for many years: that women are empathy-oriented and men are solution-oriented. For instance, she feels a need FIRST to empathize with a single mother who has a problem with having enough money for her children. But her husband feels the need FIRST to solve the financial problem that this single woman has. Generally speaking.

Both the husband and wife are seeking to do what is best for the hurting female. Each is hardwired to help, albeit it differently.

However, will this husband’s hardwiring for understanding be applied by understanding his wife’s empathy-orientation? Will he smile at her empathetic response to the heart of this single woman struggling with being a dollar above poverty? On the other hand, will this wife’s hardwiring for empathy be applied by empathizing with her husband’s solution-orientation to get this single mother on a budget? Will she smile at his way of understanding the problem and helping this single mother take baby steps by way of Dave’s Ramsey’s envelope method of saving, spending, and sharing? 

Bottom line, will this wife attack her husband for having no empathy while he attacks her for having no solution? Or will the tenor recognize the beautiful sound that emits when he combines his voice with her soprano? Will the alto see the need for her bass counterpart in this medley?

Isn’t it ironic that we don’t often apply to our spouse the very virtue we attack them for? This wife doesn’t empathize with her husband’s hardwiring to solve problems. This husband doesn’t understand his wife’s hardwiring—the system God built into women—to cry with this single mother. 

Sadly, instead of both standing back and smiling at God’s design, they end up attacking the other as wrong in their approach. She tells him he is wrong for not listening longer and caring about this single mother’s feelings before barking orders about what she should do. He attacks her for fiddling while Rome burned. While passively listening to the woman’s pain, she did nothing to stop the pain. 

Are there exceptions? ALWAYS. For instance, during my twenty years as a pastor, I hired pastors of visitation who no doubt had been equipped with the gift of mercy, a spiritual gift given by God. One such man, Royce Allen, bled empathy toward a dying patient. On the other hand, God gifts many women with the gift of leadership, like Anne Beiler, founder of Auntie Anne’s pretzels, who exudes a solution-orientation to business problems. And of course in contrasting these potential differences, it is almost never the case that there is zero percent or 100 percent in an area, we can have empathy and solve problems.  We are multifaceted.

The point is, your spouse has been designed with his or her own unique differences, based on gender, upbringing, spiritual gifting, and temperament. Some you’ve always known about and love and appreciate, and others you’ve seen slowly come out during the years and have made multiple futile efforts to extinguish or even make more like you. 

But remember the beautiful music that comes from the stage when a soprano, alto, tenor, and bass all combine their very different sounds in a single song. You and your spouse, too, are meant to combine your unique giftings into one song meant to glorify God and lead your family. Don’t try to make your spouse more like you; embrace the differences and allow God to complement you in ways that would not be possible with someone designed just like you.

Emerson Eggerichs, Ph.D.
Author, Speaker, Pastor

Questions to Consider

  1. What are some differences in your spouse that you have long known about and revered? Even though they may be very different from you in these ways, why do you appreciate these differences so much?
  2. What are some differences in your spouse—whether based on gender, upbringing, spiritual gifting, or temperament—that you have not shown proper appreciation for and have even tried to change? What happened when you tried to do so?
  3. What is one way in which you are grateful your spouse is not like you? How does his or her difference help strengthen you?
  4. What is one big difference between you and your spouse that you now see helps you to both complement the other in ways that would not be possible if you were both the same?