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Submission in marriage: How do men define it and how do women understand it?

Between The Sheets
 Submission, for many people, regardless of their religious or cultural backgrounds, is a dreaded and controversial word (Shutterstock)

Over time, the debate on submission in marriage has cut across various contexts, but what is it about this term that causes such an uproar? How do men define this concept? What do women understand it as? What do relationship experts say about it all? We speaks to a few people on the topic

Some time back, Lisa Gaitho, a blogger and vlogger started a debate on submission in relationships when she posted a video titled, ‘How To Get Anything You Want From Your Man’. She advised women to do four key things, including washing their men, to keep them happy. While some said that she had gone too far, others concurred with her take on relationships.

Like many trending topics on social media, this debate did not last long but it showed the huge divide among Kenyans when it comes to submissiveness in relationships.

Submission, for many people, regardless of their religious or cultural backgrounds, is a dreaded and controversial word — one  that is always debated by women and often used by men for chest-thumping.

What is it about this term that causes such an uproar? How do men define it and how do women understand it?

Jane Muchiri, a Nairobi woman who has been married for 7 years says that life was not easy when she got married.

“I felt like God was unfair in telling women to submit to their husbands,” she says. “But over the years I’ve learnt that there is no other path to a successful marriage. I’m still highly opinionated but in cases where I disagree with my husband, I have learnt (and indeed continue to learn) to just let him take the lead.”

Jane is not alone. Judy Njoroge, married for over 20 years says that, in her circles, the term that has been highly misunderstood by both men and women.

“I’ve had couples come to me for counsel and the only thing the man keeps repeating is, ‘she must submit to me because I am the man!’ You cannot force a woman to submit to you,” she says adding that submission is a by-product of mutual love, respect and trust.

Judy also notes that one must understand their spouse on an individual level and know what works for them, what doesn’t work and relate to them based on such information.

Lisa Pitkin, who has been married for over 15 years, defines submission more as a state of the heart than compliance to an imaginary to-do list developed from cultural systems.

“What one man would understand as submission is completely different from how another would define it. For example, to one man, a wife should cook for the husband and in that he sees a submissive wife, to another, it doesn’t matter who cooks as long as there is food,” she says, noting that any marriage where the woman takes the role of the man or vice versa is usually dysfunctional and one party is bound to be unhappy.

“That said, marriage is a journey and you get to grow together and learn your own lessons. You get to understand what works for your spouse and what doesn’t,” Lisa adds.

Jane concurs. She says it is wrong for men to consider submission as a tool for enslaving their wives, noting that a woman who feels that her opinions matter will gladly submit than one who feels that her thoughts don’t count in the marriage.

“I think what has worked in changing my mind on this topic is prayer, otherwise, truth be told, submission does not come naturally to anyone as we all want things done our way,” she shares.

What do the men have to say?

Lamu Maundu, a brand strategist is of the opinion that submission in the context of marriage means that there is order in headship.

“We can’t have two heads in a marriage. This means that the man must be allowed to be the head of the home that he is,” he says adding that this does not mean that a woman cannot air her opinions but rather that she must be willing to follow the leadership of her husband.

“This of course must be done within reason. If your husband tells you to accompany him as he goes to rob a bank, submitting to such instructions would be foolish. So, even as women submit to their husbands they must remember that he is not God over them, and hence know where to draw the line,” he notes.

On the other hand, according to Nelson Munene who has been married for eight years to his sweetheart, Mercy, submission means respecting your spouse.

“I believe that marriage is a partnership and not a set up where one spouse dominates over the other.” He adds that he runs decisions through his wife and even though they don’t always agree on everything, he values her opinion.

“I know that the term is often used in the context of women obeying their husbands and I agree with the concept. I do however know from experience that it is easier to have a submissive wife if as a husband one works on creating a deeper friendship with their spouse rather than seeing it as a tool for conquest over disagreements.”

Having married a woman from the coastal region, he notes that in some ways, he does appreciate the fact that women from this region are taught to take care of their men. As such, he has not seen his wife struggle much to submit to his leadership.

 Many individuals, especially women, are under pressure from society to conform appropriately (Shutterstock)

Submission should not be forced

Esther Nzioki, a counsellor, defines submission as the conscious decision to surrender one’s thoughts, ideals, actions, ideas for a greater good. She says that if it is not an act of the will then it is manipulation.

“Even though couples are meant to submit one to another, the truth is, it is to be applied more by the woman in wisdom. Husbands interpret submission as love,” she says.

She notes that submission is not easy and that it sometimes feel like death sentence.

“Your husband could tell you he wants to invest in something that you very well know is a bad idea, you know that he will lose the money. You try to talk him out of it but he is adamant. Well, don’t argue with him and call him names. Let him learn the hard way. And if you don’t constantly remind him of the mistake he made then he will be quicker to consult you in future decisions because he begins to trust your judgement,” she says.

According to Dr Khamati Shilabukha, a Research Fellow at Institute of Anthropology, Gender and African Studies at University of Nairobi, for most couples, things are not always that simple.

He says that upon getting married, couples can face conflicting perspectives regarding the patriarchal idea of male headship and female submission in marriage. This he says can be attributed to the fact that headship and submission can be placed within both cultural and religious contexts.

“In many African cultures, just as the religious scriptures, the position and role of men and women in marriage is defined very clearly. However, in practice it is not that clear-cut, which presents a challenge for many contemporary couples,” Dr Khamati explains.

He adds that contemporary society may view such, culturally defined positions, as designated status of men and women which often result in an unwillingness to openly confront the issue of gender inequality resulting in oppressive attitudes especially towards women.

“However, it is important to remember that gender identity and expectations from individuals to adhere to the dictates of that identity are not universal, more so in the culturally diverse African context,” he says.

Can submission work?

Nzioki maintains that when applied in wisdom, submission works for the greater good. “As the head of the home, a husband is better equipped to lead the family. It doesn’t matter how smart we think we are as women,” she says.

According to her, even though it does not get easier with time as one might suppose, it is a tool that will win many battles in the context of marriage: “Submission mellows the heart of a man and it will in the long run cause the woman to win more battles than endless, opinionated arguments. Though it is painful at times, it is worth it,” she says.

Though it is a powerful tool in forming and keeping a peaceful marriage, Nzioki says that there are many factors that make women struggle with the concept of submission, from wounds developed in past relationships, to being manipulated in the name of submission and so on.

“The truth is that one has to heal if they are ever to be submissive again. Then there are men who want to force their spouses to submit to them because they got hurt from being vulnerable in their previous relationship. It doesn’t work like that. It is human nature to truly submit only in the context of trust. Where there is mistrust there cannot be submission,” she says.

She concludes by noting that submission can bring out the best in a man as it does boost their confidence in themselves and such confidence spills over to other areas of their lives such as careers, ministry and so on.

On the other hand, Dr Khamati cautions that individuals are socialised differently to fit within their particular cultural milieu noting that marriage is one of the markers of gender identity that society cannot wish away. Therefore, many individuals, especially women, are under pressure from society to conform appropriately.

“Marriage is a symbol of status and therefore much pressure is exerted on women to get married. This can lead to their entering into unwanted relationships in an effort to escape the stereotypes that come with being unmarried,” Dr Khamati says.

This, he says, also contributes towards encouraging women to stay in abusive relationships in an attempt to display “virtues of character” such as loyalty and submission to the husband.

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