He did it with just a touch of his big toe.
My husband and I were having coffee with friends, sharing our spiritual highs and lows of the previous week when he saw the warning signs. It was subtle: a rise of my shoulders, an intake of air, leaning forward, my mouth beginning to open, and he knew. He knew what I was thinking and what I was about to say. He knew that I was prepping myself to be argumentative and to say something unnecessarily controversial.
So he nudged me under the table. Just once.
In full disclosure, we’re not the stereotypical conservative couple—we simply don’t fit the personality paradigm. He’s type B; I’m type A. He’s quiet; I’m outspoken. He actually enjoys cleaning and after ten years, I think I finally believe him. (He says he likes bringing order to chaos, which on further reflection shines significant light on why he fell for me in the first place.) But there in that moment when he expressed his disapproval with the slightest nudge of his big toe, I immediately stopped.
Most conservatives would hail this as a great victory, that this is exactly how marriages should function. Husband directs, wife obeys. But I have to admit, my response to him in that moment had little to do with an immediate understanding of headship and hierarchy. It wasn’t mapped out by a complementarian flow-chart. It wasn’t because of a role.
It was because I love him.
Over the last couple of decades, there’s been a strong push to recover a Biblical understanding of roles in marriage. But somewhere on that path, we’ve started taking short-cuts. Short-cuts around the gospel and right into legalism. And these short cuts have led us to think that obedience to the roles, that our ability to have perfect families and properly ordered homes, will show Christ to the world. So we end up talking more about paradigms and less about people, more about rules and less about Spirit.
Maybe it’s time we remembered what it’s all about in the first place. The truth is that we were never made for roles; we were made for relationships. And just as Christ had to remind the first-century Jews that man was not made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath for man, we have to remember that marriage was not made for roles but roles for the benefit of the marriage. That the relationship, the one flesh unity, the loving communion is what is of greatest significance. That this, the love we have for one another, is what will show the world that we are His disciples.
And if you think about it, the differences in marriage are one of the greatest opportunities to do just that. Because here you have two sinful human beings—so diverse that even their molecular composition is different—who must learn to live in loving, daily communion. Not temporarily, but for a lifetime. And we learn that as we fail each other, as we selfishly demand our own way, and as we run to Christ for mercy. For only there do we experience true love and only there will we learn to extend that same love to each other. We will never learn it by simply conforming to roles.
So in that moment, when my husband nudged me, my deferring to him had less to do with performing my role as his wife than it did with loving him already. And quite frankly, why would I have done anything else? Why would I have chosen to barge ahead knowing that the man I loved didn’t want me to? Why would I have insisted on my own way when I knew it would make him uncomfortable? What wisdom, what convoluted sense of liberation would have led me to do something that he thought was unwise?
And so I didn’t.
As quickly as he had understood what I as about to do, I understood his objection. We looked each other in the eye and smiled that knowing smile that comes only from living and loving together. I settled back into my chair and comfortably nestled my head against his shoulder as if to tell him, “Yes, dear, of course I won’t.”