Following as a sure thing

This is the third post in a series on vocation, marriage, and work.

So much of this story is hard to tell because of the deep shame I experienced when I made these discoveries about myself. And the pain we experienced as we made these discoveries in our marriage.

This next part is especially hard to tell because my deepest shame is in how I applied biblical teaching and interpretations of that teaching to my relationship with Damien. And I am hesitant to talk about it because I don't want to misrepresent the Bible to non-believers. But it's not up to me to filter and spin how people interpret my experiences and my failures. I am choosing to live in the freedom that allows me to recognize I clearly don't have my act together. I'm broken. I'm loved anyway. This is the gospel.

I grew up in and have spent my adult life in branches of the Christian faith that advocate complementary roles in marriage for husbands and wives, not related to the specific work we do (who earns the income, who washes the dishes, for example), but how we lead and/or submit to each other.

A simplified view of the complementarian interpretation of scriptures is that the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church. And wives are to be subject to their husbands as the Church is subject to Christ. The relationship is to be mutually loving and submissive, with each spouse submitting to a different authority. Husbands loving their wives, as Christ loved the Church, even to death, and submitting to the headship of Christ. Wives are to submit to the headship of their husbands, and love their husbands as the Church loves Christ.

The complementarian viewpoint is based on several passages in scriptures, most notably Paul's letter to the Ephesians.

I have struggled here at this point in the narrative. I have researched and read different points of view, I have written many words and then deleted them as I've tried to figure out how to explain and justify this teaching.

I'm not up for that type of writing, it's not my gig. I cannot attempt to do justice to this teaching in this blog post, nor is that my intent. There are many books, bible commentaries and debate within the Christian community about this. Just as the Apostle Paul says in the passage I linked to above, "This is a huge mystery, and I don’t pretend to understand it all."

I don't want to get into any debate about this, though I'm open to respectful discussion. My purpose in this post is to share my experience. And the last thing I want to do is misrepresent the Bible.

Because "belief" (trust, faith, convictions, positions) is difficult for Sixes to achieve, and because it is so important to their sense of stability, once they establish a trustworthy belief, they do not easily question it, nor do they want others to do so. The same is true for individuals in a Six's life: once Sixes feel they can trust someone, they go to great lengths to maintain connections with the person who acts as a sounding board, a mentor, or a regulator for the Six's emotional reactions and behavior. They therefore do everything in their power to keep their affiliation going. ("If I don't trust myself, then I have to find something in this world I can trust.")
~ Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson (emphasis mine)

I am a traditionalist, an authority-respecting person. My nature is to value hierarchy and loyalty. These are my inherent ways of looking at the world. Unfortunately, one of the false beliefs I am susceptible to, that can drive my decision making, is the belief that I'll be ok (ie: secure) if I cover all my bases and do what is expected of me.

Throughout adulthood and marriage, I've held to the complementarian view of marriage. I grew up with that teaching, and to this day it has been the perspective of the (mostly charismatic) evangelical churches I've attended. I have read very conservative teachings on the subject as well as the more liberal interpretations that many Christians align themselves with.

As I applied this in my own life, my motives for following this teaching over the years were not so much to unravel the mystery of Christ and the Church in a marriage relationship as much as they were to "do the right thing". Respecting roles and responsibilities, managing and adhering to those is the way I naturally do things as an ESTJ. (Of note: I also have a strong rebellious, authority-questioning streak in me, especially against leadership that appears unjust and power-hungry.)

But as I started to feel more insecure in my world, my motivations to adhere to this teaching started to subtly shift, not that I could have verbalized it at the time but looking back I can see the change.

Remember, one of the largely unconscious forces in my decision making is the belief that "I'll be ok if I cover all my bases and do what is expected of me". So in a place of insecurity, if a complementarian marriage is what is expected of me (by God, by people I admire and trust, by respected Church leaders) and will achieve the outcome I want: security and safety, then I'm in. And I will work my ass off to do it well. I will hustle for that security.

Average Sixes want to reinforce their support system, to strengthen their alliances and/or their position with authorities. To that end, they invest most of their time and energy in the commitments they have made, hoping that their sacrifices will pay off in the increased security and mutual support.
~ Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson

The complementarian view of marriage, and no doubt, the dirty lens through which I understood it, encouraged me to step behind my husband and follow when I felt insecure. I'm not saying that is what is "supposed to" happen. I don't know what is "supposed to" happen, it's still a mystery to me. But that's what I did. And my misplaced allegiance, which you could call idolatry, made me look to Damien to reassure me that everything was ok. I could step behind him, follow him, and it would be all right. He would lead and I would follow. This was biblical, everything would be ok.

I'm not blaming the complementarian viewpoint for my errors and faults but how I interpreted and misinterpreted this teaching contributed to a breaking in my confidence and self-assurance. The way I applied this teaching to my life in the context of my inherent personality traits and my natural bent to insecurity and anxiety; in the context of our life circumstances and decisions; and in the context of my already weakening confidence and increasing reliance on Damien led me to conclude that when things didn't feel ok for me it was because something was wrong with me.

And of course, a lot of things were "wrong" with me by this point, in my mental and emotional health. But the essence of my personhood was not wrong, and that is where I was feeling mis-aligned.

I had come to believe that if it was ok for Damien, leader and captain of the ship, then it should be ok for me. And if it wasn't ok for me then I was flawed, deeply flawed. Not just flawed the way we all are flawed and recognize our private sins and inconsistencies in belief and action, but flawed in the very traits that make me, me.

I was so confused and hurt at this point because I do believe I was knit together a certain way and yet I'm called to growth and transformation, and marriage is part of that. And I wasn't sure where the line was in that process. I didn't know anymore which of my preferences, desires, and needs were essentially me, and what were attitudes, beliefs, perspectives that could and should be changed.

I needed things Damien did not need. I saw the world differently than he did.

And from there I jumped to the conclusion, not supported by biblical texts or interpretations (or reality), that I was the wrong partner for Damien, and that I would lose him. And that was the lowest point for me, and the most difficult part of this journey.

The reason Sixes are so loyal to others is that they do not want to be abandoned and left without support - their Basic Fear. Thus, the central issue for Type Six is a failure of self-confidence.
~ Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson

I reached this point in the summer of 2014, on the Appalachian Trail. No wonder I was so depressed that summer.

In my desperate attempt to do it right, to find security, I f&*($ it up, big time. That's what I thought.

The following metaphor provides a good picture for what happened. I imagine our marriage and family life as a ship and Damien and I are standing at the prow. We're on a journey and there are calm seas and stormy ones. And over the last few years, during the storms, instead of standing beside Damien, I tucked in behind him, again and again. And I would ask "how're we doing?", and he'd reassure me, "we're doing fine". And even when it was calm, I'd ask "how's the view?" And he'd say, "it's great!" And he, as captain, felt confident that we had what we needed to meet the challenges.

Now, to step behind each other every once in a while to take a respite and reprieve from the prow, that's a good thing. For one of us to be standing perpetually behind the other, trusting the other's judgement, perspective, and view of the situation, that's no good. That was us. That was me.

I needed to increasingly rely on Damien's sense of situations being "ok" because I had lost my confidence and my inner guidance. Because so much was unfamiliar and outside my comfort zone, over and over again (sometimes we make those choices and sometimes life brings them) I wanted someone tell me it would be ok. And I looked to Damien to be that person.

Earlier I talked about how my tendency is to find security in doing what is expected of me. Damien did not expect me to step behind him. He knew I was, both by my actions and my communication. But I was not doing so to meet his expectations. I was working to achieve a standard, a measuring stick, that I set for myself, based on a certain view of marriage.

Those holding to the complementarian view of marriage might say: you read it wrong, you did it wrong, you were really messed up woman (no need to remind me), Damien did it wrong, something was wrong here. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Was it a failure of understanding, a failure of application, a failure of interpretation?

I don't have firm answers, but I'm ok with the questions. I'm ok with the mystery.

I don't know what I think anymore about complementary marriage, but I'm not seeking clarity in defining marital roles right now. And I'm not seeking my security in doing the right thing, or what is expected of me. I'm seeking Jesus.

I am unclear about some things, but here's what I know. I didn't marry an idea of marriage. I didn't even marry a biblical idea. I married a person, Damien. And I am to submit to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, with Jesus Christ as my example and my Lord. This is what I know and it's good enough for now.

Did we push ourselves too far outside my comfort zone? Probably. Did we bring this confusion on ourselves in some way? Maybe. Should I have listened more to the still small voice of the Spirit? Yes. But life, the choices we make and cards we're dealt, take us through circumstances that allow us to grow. And this path has allowed for much growth.

In the tradition of pilgrimage, those hardships are seen not as accidental but as integral to the journey itself. Treacherous terrain, bad weather, taking a fall, getting lost - challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for true self to emerge. If that happens, the pilgrim has a better chance to find the sacred center he or she seeks. Disabused of our illusions by much travel and travail, we awaken one day to find that the sacred center is here and now - in every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep within our own hearts.
~ Parker Palmer

A lot of my shame about what happened to us is around how I responded to Damien's awareness of the situation. Damien could see I was struggling, he's a loving husband. He could see that I was cowering, and he would ask me, is this what you want to do? Is this ok for you? Should we pull back, steer into calmer waters? But I was so blinded by my own sense of loyalty, to him, the idea of his leadership, and the course itself that I couldn't be honest with him or myself. I would say and write Yes but my actions and insecurities communicated No.

If we are unfaithful to true self, we will extract a price from others. We will make promises we cannot keep, build houses from flimsy stuff, conjure dreams that devolve into nightmares, and other people will suffer - if we are unfaithful to true self.
~ Parker Palmer

Remember that Who We Are list I mentioned in my previous post? It was the list I've been writing, post breakdown, which catalogues the core traits, needs, desires, etc. of Damien and myself. One of the few things we have in common on that list is our shared value of accuracy/truth/honesty. I was not honest with my husband, because I wasn't honest with myself, and this also is a point of deep shame for me.

It was the perfect storm of circumstance, choices we made, personality traits, deeply ingrained beliefs, and unconscious motivations. And as we found out, when I'm in an unhealthy place, once I've lost that sense of self and my confidence, I'm more inclined to go down with the ship than I am to change course.

We have named personality type Six the Loyalist because, of all the personality types, Sixes are the most loyal to their friends and to their beliefs. They will go down with the ship and hang on to relationships of all kinds far longer than most other types. Sixes are also loyal to ideas, systems, and beliefs... they will typically fight for their beliefs more fiercely than they will fight for themselves, and they will defend their community or family more tenaciously than they will defend themselves.
~ Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson (emphasis mine)

But with God's grace my husband had the courage to listen to his intuition (which he could no longer ignore anyway in the face of my anger, blame, ambivalence, and disillusionment) and I had the courage to admit I was wrong and bring all that shame into the open rather than keep crumbling.

We started to confess our faults and failures to each other, our immaturity, and the false idols that had crept in and damaged our relationship with God and each other. We choose to bear each other's pain in that awakening. And then we decided to change course, to learn from our mistakes and to choose self-awareness and individual well-being (spiritual, emotional, physical) as a key piece to a healthy "us".

I had rooted myself in my relationship with Damien, looking to him to be my "sure thing" in life, which included my income-earning work, instead of finding security in my identity in Jesus Christ, who dwells in me, and is the Essence of my life.

After The Breaking, as the light started to shine through the broken places, we decided to return to our original division of labor. I wasn't going to be working in the world until I knew what it was I was supposed to do, and until I had built up my self-confidence. It felt like going backwards, a regression in our story, but it also felt safe. It was known. I needed to heal and Damien, seeing how desperately insecure I had become, sacrificed some of his dreams and goals for me.

He put aside what he had been building, an income-earning dream he had invested huge amounts of time into, to return full-time to work that yielded a better immediate financial return so he could provide me with some measure of security.

This is one of the most loving things Damien has done for me, he sacrificed something of himself to care for me. Yes, we have our faults and we've failed each other, but we keep turning back to loving and serving each other, to knowing each other intimately and choosing to walk alongside each other, to be each other's number one fan and number one friend. Right now, this is how we keep our marriage growing, our relationship nurtured. Not by following a specific guideline of roles and responsibilities (though I tend to love those) but by choosing to love each other in the knowledge of self-awareness and the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It's time for the story to return to my individual work, calling, and vocation, to come into the present. But first, I haven't yet defined these terms, which was an important goal for me in digging deep into this series. So the next post is a glossary of terms and why I define these terms the way I do.

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  • Carmen

    Carmen on Oct. 17, 2016, 2:46 p.m.

    Beautifully written! My overriding thought was such a touching love story too; well done you guys for working through this! 


  • Julie Currier

    Julie Currier on Oct. 17, 2016, 4:29 p.m.

    As always, I appreciate you telling your story, being vulnerable and authentic. My story, although not the same, is so similar and stems from the "christian" viewpoints of roles that I adopted because I thought they were the right thing, but the whole time I wasn't listening to my soul. This left me physically exhausted, riddled with guilt, and not the vibrant person I was made to be.

    I think we worry about offending or misguiding, because this area of submission and leadership is an area has been made more of a law than love. When a couple comes together, their way of applying this to their lives will look different than others. And that is ok! 

    When I read your story, the essense that shines through is your faith and your deep love and commitemnet to each other, and isn't that what marriage and love is all about. Brokenness and beauty! 

    You inspire me to write more authentically and to embrace who God has made me! Thank you.


    P.S. - I saw on IG that you are reading Big Magic, such a great book. Have you read Present over Perfect? I think you would love it!


  • anandar

    anandar on Oct. 18, 2016, 5:01 a.m.

    This entry is truly romance-for-the-long married-- thank you for your honesty and tenderness.

    I don't know that I would blame complementary gender roles per se, and I say this as someone from a more liberal Christian community where we tend to assume that prescribed gender roles are an artifact of cultural norms rather than gospel truth.  There is SO MANY roles that we are given, especially as women, that we may step into and internalize, and that may be very admirable in the abstract, but can be perverted or fail to serve the real people that we and our spouses are.  For me, it is the ideal of a sacrificing, servant-leader (not explicitly linked to gender, although my expression of it is certainly a result of female cultural norms), which I am only now, at age 41, realizing does not work as well as I believed it would work for the real person/body I am, married to another real person (who never set out to marry a martyr type!).

    That was a long-winded way to say that I really emphathize even though I am from a different religious tradition.  


  • Pam

    Pam on Oct. 18, 2016, 3:14 p.m.

    I am not religious and I do not share many of your experiences, but you are writing about a topic dear to my heart: how do we care for and honor our selves in the midst of long relationships with others, be they spouses, children, parents or employers?  I deeply appreciate your candour and sincerity and I am learning a lot. 


    • renee

      renee on Oct. 18, 2016, 3:35 p.m.

      Pam, that's exactly it. I speak about my faith in this post because it's my worldview, it's the lens that I interpret the world and my experiences through. But the experiences themselves are universal. Disconnect, fear, questioning, following, leading, etc. And your question: How DO we care for and honor our selves through long relationships... is a central issue in many of our lives, especially as we near and go through our middle years of living, trying to figure out who we are now, having established some of these key relationships in our lives. 

      I have been listening to podcasts and teaching on long term relationships and marriage, taught from all kinds of worldviews. I just listened to an On Being podcast last night while cooking supper (these days I'm almost grateful for the chance to cook supper so I can listen to these shows). Krista Tippett was interviewing Helen Fisher. It was a fabulous podcast, as they almost always are with On Being. 

      We change and grow through our lives and yet we remain essentially, at our core, the same person we've always been, becoming either truer to self, or more estranged from true self, through our various experiences and experiments in living. And we're in close relationship with people who are in in the same process of discovery. It's fascinating, both thrilling and scary. My love of new encounters and new terrain makes me open to this process. My fear of the unknown (the dark side of my desire to explore) makes me sometimes scared about what I might discover, in myself or in others.

      This mutual changing through our lifetimes is what makes marriage feel rocky sometimes but if we come at with a more open mind it's alsowhat makes marriage fresh and new even after 20, 30, 40, 50 years. That person, remains new to us in some way, they are still novel and that's what attracts us to "the other" in the first place. They are a mystery to unravel.

      I love talking about this stuff, can you tell? I really appreciate that you can see the common thread and experience of self-discovery, even though we don't share the same religious persuation. That's always my fear in sharing deeply and intimately about my faith, that it will alienate people from what I'm saying. But like I said, I believe people have similar experiences but how we understand or explain those experiences is different, based on faith, personality, wisdom, maturity etc. Thanks for commenting.


  • Sarah

    Sarah on Oct. 19, 2016, 1:02 a.m.

    Wonderful post Renee. This one made me cry AND think. Your loss of self-confidence resonates so much with me, and the difficult path to making a change. A lot to think about here. Thanks!


  • Leah

    Leah on Oct. 19, 2016, 11:20 a.m.

    Oh, Renee, I so resonate with what you have written here. Totally different circumstances, but I have walked through something very similar in the last couple of years. And yes, the shame over dishonesty with myself and consequently with those closest to me has been hard to work through. Every day, I'm more grateful for grace and for the way that God takes our shattered souls and our most painful stories and brings beauty from them. Much love!


    • renee

      renee on Oct. 19, 2016, 4:07 p.m.

      Much love to you also. I have become a very firm believer in Love through all this (and redemption of brokenness also).


  • Marianna

    Marianna on Dec. 15, 2016, 5:23 a.m.

    Your words bring up so many thoughts and feelings...not only for myself, but also for the two women I know in Christian informed complementary marriages. One of those women is in an emotionally abusive marriage and I struggle constantly with how best to honor her beliefs. As for myself, let me just say I'll be doing a lot of thinking and journaling around what you've written in this series. Especially these: "I didn't know anymore which of my preferences, desires and needs were essentially me, and what were attitudes, beliefs, perspectives that could and should be changed." Thank you for being willing to share your journey. It helps to know I'm not alone  

    Finally, I just wanted to say that sunrise/sunset picture is absolutely breathtaking! 


    • renee

      renee on Dec. 15, 2016, 1:33 p.m.


      That is a very tough situation with your friend.

      That quote you share of mine is one of the biggest tension I live with as a mom, a wife, a believer, a human. I feel like I'm always bumping up against those edges. I believe God created me with a certain form and essence to my being. I am also certain that there is darkness in my heart (in other words, I'm not pure goodness) and self-centered interests that can cloud that essence. And those self-centered interests are the things that I want to be changed. And yet, there is a boundary line in which those self-centered interests become the essence of self (I lack the words for this so I'm making this up as I go). Where is that line? What does it look like for God to transform me and yet for the essence of me to remain? Lots of philosophical questions that I feel ill-equipped (in theory and language) to answer. But that's the journey of life right? To keep digging, keep learning, try to understand further. 

      Thank you for adding your reflections here. 

      Oh, and that's a sunset photo I took in Montana this summer. After a day spent in Yellowstone. 



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