Marriage Advice From A Christian Perspective

Gender Roles in Marriage: What it Means to Lead and Follow

  • Paul Coughlin Author, Married But Not Engaged
  • Updated Mar 07, 2011
Gender Roles in Marriage: What it Means to Lead and Follow

Like a growing number of Americans, we're finally taking dance lessons. You could give both of us a drink with Sodium Pentothal in it and we still couldn't tell you why, after 15 years of talking about it, we finally bought those special shoes and threw pride to the wind. Perhaps we weren't ready to push aside our fear of public humiliation, which was actually kind of fun.

Though we still don't know what got us over the hump and onto the dance floor, we now possess a deeper insight into what it means to lead and support each other in our evolving marriage thanks to some stunning visual displays.

Tango is by far the most arresting dance we're learning. By arresting, we mean what other couples accomplish through unique roles, not what we are able to stumble through. These roles of men leading and women supporting, properly executed, give the impression that there are no roles at all. It's not obvious that anyone is leading or supporting. What you witness is the fruit of their abilities, which is delicious.

You witness two people mustering their talent, power, and sensuality to create a level of physical and emotional intimacy that cannot be created by an individual dancer. He steps forth and leads with intention; she supports his intention, enhancing their shared desire to create something grand. He leans into her, and she into him. Technically it's leadership. But practically, his behavior looks more like guidance, provision, and care with style.

Advanced tango dancers, as in advanced marriages, ad lib their way across the floor because there are no shoe prints outlined in white to follow. They move by the impulses of their hearts, by the room's physical borders, around others in their path, and by the direction of his firm hand and her receptive body. As in marriage, someone has to guide, or they will fall on one another. It would just be a matter of time before everyone on the dance floor fell into a heap of twisted ankles and angry words.

Her support and receptivity are not degrading. She glows with dignity. She honors him with donations of her trust. His lead is not stern or overbearing. He exudes reverence and, in doing so, cherishes her.

He does not fall into the sin of domination; she doesn't cower and become a passive accomplice to such ugliness. That would be heartbreaking to witness: He pushing her around the floor with a scowl on his face, and she retaliating with spiteful words and punitive glares. A creation with so much potential for beauty would become a foul display, another gender-war skirmish and hash mark on the wall of sexual disillusion. It would be like watching an anti-miracle of wine turned into stagnant pond water.

I sometimes stand on the edge of the floor and juxtapose the elegance and harmony of our instructors' display with how poorly we Christian men sometimes understand leadership in marriage. I've heard some crazy ideas as a Christian talk show host from callers regarding this pivotal issue. I've heard even crazier ideas from Christian men over dinner about their role as leader in their home. Substitute the word leader for fearful dictator, and you are closer to the real story.

One of these men, I'll call Bill, had a "biblical" answer for every problem in his marriage, much of which revolved around his wife's inability to "submit." Remarkable how his "biblical" answers helped create one of the messiest divorces I've ever seen.

I stand on the edge of this clean dance floor, water in hand, some sweat on my brow, and I wonder how they would fare. Not whether or not they could dance well because no one does at first, but could they treat each other well on this wide and somewhat slippery metaphor of life where the weakness of rigid roll play is easily exposed.

But Bill is not the dancing kind. Dominating men don't bring their wives to places where something blessedly unexpected might happen. Fear owns them, and fear does not suffer the company of freedom (and with it growth) well.

I also think that the marital insights gleaned from dancing would be lost on him. Such men are transmitters of self-serving information, not receivers of richer insights. As I would see two people creating something inspiring, he would focus on whether she were submitting to her man or not. Such men see what they want to see and in doing so, see hardly anything at all.

When a Christian husband leads well and a Christian wife actively and creatively supports his lead, you don't notice who's doing what because roll play is not the main point that lingers in your mind. What you notice is what kind of fluid and God-glorifying life they forge together. When done well, it's a powerful, graceful, and intimate creation of gender harmony that is uncommon and electrifying. It makes others want to know your secret of your engaged marriage because the blessings they witness are palpable.

*Originally ran on August 2, 2006.

 Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying. 

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Visit Sandy's website for reluctant entertainers at: