Marriage Tip: Persistent Persuasion vs Servant Leadership

The following article was written by one of our Shepherds, Dr. Rex Johnson.

Ministering to pastor couples, you may come across a couple who maintain emotional distance from each other by internalizing their conflicts and being busy.  Eventually the conflicts emerge as anxiety, depression, overeating, isolation or other issues.  For example:

Jane is depressed and has been for some time.  She fights it, sometimes blames herself for it, and sometimes thinks it’s a spiritual issue so she prays and reads her Bible.  At times the depression is not as deep as at other times but then it gets deeper again, usually accompanied by feelings of inadequacy and guilt.

Jane’s husband, John, is the hard working pastor of a growing church, and is concerned about Jane’s depression and has suggested several different solutions, but none of them have worked for Jane.  Everything else in John’s life is firing on all cylinders, but he is not happy that he can’t make Jane happy, so he tries to persuade her to exercise, start a hobby or maybe get a job.

Pastors are supposed to be persuasive; we are trained in seminary to be persuasive.  Pastors’ wives – not so much.  In a marriage where one spouse is normally more persuasive than the other, intimacy is slowly quenched.

Persuasion can be based on position, (I’m the husband!) Scripture, (Ephesians 5:22-24) education, (I have an MDiv, what do you have?) logic, (My position makes sense, you haven’t thought your idea through.) financial (It’s my income that makes your spending possible.) or if nothing else works, verbal volume (more decibels or more words).

There is a thin, almost invisible line between persuasion, especially persistent persuasion, and coercive control.  For example, Democracy is based partly on consent of the governed, but illegal behavior warrants arrest and detention, then with conviction, usually punishment.  Another example – while driving, if an officer pulls you over you had better stop, even if you are not guilty and you want to speed away.  Also Military life is inherently and notoriously coercive, and many business hierarchies are coercively controlled as well.  So it is often easy to accept coercive control as normative, and live it out in marriage.

Marriage roles in many cultures are also based on coercive control. Usually the husband expects to lead and his wife is expected to comply.  Although Jesus was born into a male dominated, female compliant culture, he modeled and taught servant leadership.  Jesus healed his culture’s outcasts, treated women with dignity and tenderness, washed his disciples’ feet, and in order to serve and save sinners He submitted to torture and the cruelty and agony of the cross.  “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

The difference between submission and compliance is choice.  Coercive control demands compliance or else. . .  Servant leadership gives the person served choices.  When a husband loves his wife as Jesus loves his church, he makes it easy for his wife to choose to submit – or not to submit.  And as with the church, if she chooses not to submit, he keeps on loving her at his own expense.

Most pastors don’t want to be coercive controllers, but persistent persuasion eventually feels like coercive control to a pastor’s wife, and maybe to his kids as well. Some wives will resist the persuasion leading to something they don’t want – marital conflict, while others who don’t think they have a choice, and to avoid marital conflict, increasingly feel overwhelmed and discounted, leading in time to persistent depression.

Granted, not all depression is sourced in a husband’s persistent persuasion or coercive control, but at least when I began serving my wife, as well as all the people I was ministering to in our church, her depression lifted, and we have much deeper multidimensional intimacy.

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