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Why Is Love and Respect Gender Specific?

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Q: Why does Ephesians 5:33, in the Bible, command a husband to love and a wife to respect? Emerson says: Recently on facebook, we posted the following quote from my book, Love & Respect: "When sorting out how to slow down the Crazy Cycle, it helps to remember that men are commanded to love because they don’t love naturally, and on the other side, women are commanded to respect because they don’t respect naturally” (p. 70).

While the majority of readers related positively to this post, there were some who disagreed with my interpretation of “why” the command was gender-specific in Ephesians 5:33.

In other words, why is a husband commanded to love his wife with agape-love, but a wife isn’t commanded to agape-love her husband?

And why is a wife commanded to respect her husband, but a husband isn’t commanded to respect his wife (with the same Greek word)?

First let me say that I don’t think the reason is because a husband doesn’t need love and a wife doesn’t need respect! Other verses in the Bible would dispute that, so it is not a wise conclusion.

God commands us to do what we won’t do naturally.

God’s commands are always given to help us, not to harm us. Because God loves us, He is trying to keep us out of trouble and His commands reflect that. For example, we are commanded to love our enemies. We won’t do that naturally, so God must command us to love those who don’t love us. I know it is not natural for me to love my enemies who really hate me and want me dead!

He commands us to do what we won’t do if left to our sinful nature.

But back to Ephesians 5:33.

I have been married for 41 years but around 1999 I discovered something. As a Bible teacher and an academic who liked to study, I had an illumination after meditating on Ephesians 5:33. That light bulb moment was about myself, and it was both disturbing and helpful.

Why would God command me in Ephesians 5:33 to love Sarah?

It dawned on me, “Oh, there must be something in me as a married man that needs a divine imperative to love Sarah with agape-love, especially during conflict." That disturbed me because I thought, “Doesn’t a husband fall in love and automatically love his wife? Why would God command me to love Sarah?”

I appeared unloving in ways I did not intend.

Well, there must be something about me as a man that either is unloving or appears unloving to Sarah. I then realized that, though I loved Sarah, I could definitely appear unloving in ways that I did not intend, especially when I felt disrespected!

For example, as a researcher I later learned that 85% of those who withdraw and stonewall during marital conflict are the husband. Because our heartbeats get quickly to 99 beats per minute which is warrior mode, we seek to do the honorable thing by backing off to calm down.

But to Sarah that did not feel honorable at all. When I said to Sarah, “Drop it. I don’t want to talk about it anymore” she felt rejected and unloved. She wanted to talk it through until she felt connected with me.

Sarah is a nurturer by nature, which all the research confirms about women. As nurturers they are off the charts predictably to be the caregivers - even women who are lawyers and astronauts.

Are there exceptions? Of course, but when the research overwhelmingly supports the nurturing nature of women, and the nature of men to withdraw in conflict, we need to pay attention.

I love less naturally than Sarah.

What this meant to me is that I love less naturally than Sarah loves at the level of intimacy in marriage. She nurtures naturally and longs for her husband to care for her as deeply as she cares for him. Many wives wonder, “Does he love me as much as I love him?"

This explains in part why most wives want their husbands to be more loving, sensitive, and caring toward them.

But research also reveals that wives complain and criticize more than husbands, and I believe this is rooted in wives longing to help their husbands to change for the better - to be more loving.

Let the facts govern our interpretations.

Yes, yes, there are husbands who care more than their wives and there are husbands who complain and criticize more than their wives. However, when 2000 people are studied for 20 years at the University of Washington and these findings repeatedly revealed that the vast majority of husbands stonewalled and withdrew and the vast majority of wives complained and criticized, the facts need to govern our interpretations.

It was not natural for me to draw close to Sarah to connect and receive reassurance during a heated conflict. I naturally wanted to withdraw and stonewall and drop it and move on. I was done. I didn’t need to talk about it, and I was a communicator with a graduate degree in communication!

I had to work against my nature.

Though my motive was honorable, in Sarah’s world that felt unloving. So, I had to work against my nature - my natural tendency to stonewall - and act lovingly to Sarah by staying engaged and talking through the issues until she felt reassured. If I did not, Sarah found it natural to complain and criticize. She felt disrespect for me! She found it tough to let go of her assessment and feelings.

Many times I ended up not feeling good enough, and she ended up feeling rejected.

She felt unloved. I felt disrespected.

I realized why God commanded me to love Sarah. Though I loved Sarah I could naturally respond in ways that felt unloving to her. Add to this, when I felt disrespected, it was very natural for me to react in unloving ways when I exclaimed, “I don’t deserve this disrespect” and then walked away.

So then, by nature I tend to do things that feel unloving to Sarah - things that I do not feel are unloving.

To me there is a perfectly reasonable explanation:  I don’t need what she feels she needs during conflict and I don’t deserve disrespect during conflict. Even so, I had to counter my nature and act in ways that felt loving to Sarah during conflict.

By the way, I can love naturally when Sarah is lovable and respectable. Who cannot love at moments like these? I am addressing the moments of heated fellowship! During those times my male nature surfaces.

What about Sarah?

Why would God command Sarah in Ephesians 5:33 to respect me, her husband?

It dawned on me, “Oh, there must be something in Sarah as a married woman that needs a divine imperative to respect her husband, especially during conflict.”

I thought, “Doesn’t a wife fall in love and automatically show respect to her husband?”

I realized that love and respect are not the same.

Many wives during an argument yell, “I love you with all my heart but I do not like you right now. I do not feel much respect for you.”  A mother can love her son but not respect him and do the same with her husband. Furthermore, a female worker can respect her boss but not love him, nor should she.

Sarah appeared disrespectful in ways she didn’t intend.

Back to the research that found 85% of men withdrew and stonewall during conflict. I am part of the 85% and Sarah felt unloved when I did this and she certainly did not feel respect for me. She had to control her tongue from criticizing and complaining when I barked, “Drop it. Forget it. It is no big deal.” Not to her! She naturally wanted to vent negatively all that she felt about my request to drop it.

How could she respect what felt unloving to her? She could not imagine doing what I preferred to do. Besides, the best way to regain calm was by talking, not going into another room and turning on the television.

Though Sarah respected me, she could definitely appear disrespectful in ways that she did not intend.

A man’s honor code.

But also, because I lived by the honor code as a man in that men do not “diss” each other lest they kill each other and therefore do not cross a line by displaying contempt unless they are prepared to fight, I found Sarah’s disrespect shocking and disconcerting.

The research at the University of Washington revealed that many wives seemed “natural” at displaying disrespect, aggressively moving forward with a sour look, darkening eyes, sighs, rolling of the eyes, scolding finger, and hand on the hip. Throw in disrespectful words and this leaves many men feeling shell shocked.

During heated exchanges, the honor code demanded that I as a man back away and calm down. Sarah did not back away. Interestingly, we know that when men enter the 99 heart beats per minute, on the heels of provocation, physiologically they are in a state to fight. When they do not wish to fight with their best friend, there must be flight to protect the relationship. Withdrawing is the honorable thing between best of friends. It de-escalates a conflict that at the end of the day is no big deal. Two men can drop it and move on. They do not need to talk about their feelings. It will only re-ignite the anger and harm the friendship. The solution is easy: forget it. This isn’t worth fighting about. Most often there was a misunderstanding. Neither were wrong. One says, “Let’s go watch the game.” The other replies, “I’ll get the chips and dip."

By nature, Sarah did not resolve our conflicts this way. She needed to talk and talk right now until she felt connected. The culture affirmed Sarah. But she and I now know that God created men differently, and there are some conflicts not worth fighting over.

Sarah had to work against her nature.

So, Sarah respects less naturally in the marriage. She loves more naturally but she quickly shows disrespect when upset. God knew that. He created her this way. But He needed to reveal His command in Ephesians 5:33 to counter her tendency to be disrespectful when feeling unloved.

And, as for me, when I feel disrespected, I naturally react in ways that feel unloving to Sarah unless I take steps to control the unloving reaction.

God commanded us in Ephesians 5:33 to love and respect to prevent us from making that mistake!

Though disturbing at one level, I found this most helpful to me. I hope you do too. When we get on what I call the Crazy Cycle, we have to work against our tendencies to react negatively instead of positively!


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

Questions to Consider