Updated: Aug 28, 2019
This is a controversial topic, but it's one we cannot shy away from. Catholic doctrine teaches that the husband is the head of the house. St. Paul teaches that wives are supposed to be submissive and obedient to their husbands. So, what exactly does that look like?
I don't know about you, but I did not grow up with an example of this to go by. I grew up in a house where Mom was boss. She barked orders at everyone, she was clearly in charge, she had the final word, and what she said went. I would venture to guess most of us grew up in a house similar to this.
But ladies, this is not how it should be. Now, people get all up in arms when I say "submissive." I'm not sure what culture connotations that brings to mind, but please remove them, and let me tell you what I mean.
We are called to be obedient to our husband in all things, unless you are being asked to sin. This works just like nuns are obedient to their Mother Superior, priests are obedient to their Bishop, etc. Things always function better with a hierarchy because someone must have the final say in order for difficult decisions to be made. And, I would wager, the idea of obedience to religious isn't nearly as repulsive as the modern wife finds it today. Why is that?
We have to go back to the Fall. This was one of Eve's curse: a desire to thwart the natural order and take charge. This is why we women hate to not be in control. It drives us nuts! It's because of original sin, folks. And guess what? We have to overcome it.
If you're not yet motivated to overcome this vice, let me give you two good reasons. The first is that, as part of the curse of the Fall, when women attempt to usurp their husband's authority, their husband naturally grows colder and colder to them. You see this all of the time. In a matriarchal marriage, the husband totally shuts down. He absorbs himself in his man cave, video games, or football team. He stays at work late. He goes to a sports bar instead of coming home. He gets that dead look in his eyes and just says "yes honey" as his wife totally berates him. It's absolutely devastating to watch.
Women: let's call this behavior what it is: it's bullying. It's trying to boss someone around who is not yours to boss around. That is normally why you see women having to resort to yelling, flaring their nostrils, furrowing their brows, and totally contorting themselves to make sure their orders are followed. On the contrary, have you ever watched a man in a rightly ordered marriage give orders? It's calm, direct, maybe even with a smile. They don't have to transform into horrible mean creatures, because they don't have to usurp someone's authority to get it done. It's natural.
And, ladies, let's talk about what a rightly ordered home might look like. It is a total lie that you will walk in and find some oppressed, battered women and sullen children. No! You will find a husband and wife who are best friends, because there is no power struggle. You will find a wife who is happy. She knows her husband in charge—that responsibility is not on her shoulders. And the husband is happy too, because he was made to be in charge. It doesn't burden or contort him unnaturally like it would a woman.
And, no, a rightly ordered marriage doesn't mean the husband is permanently exempt from ever washing a dish or changing a diaper. Reject this lie! See, the entire house is a husband's responsibility. Like the CEO, he delegates the work, and he also bears responsibility for the whole thing. For example, in our house, my husband does all of the budgeting and most of the grocery shopping. That's just what he (with my input) has decided works best for us right now. In another house, it might be reversed. That's okay, too! Just let your husband delegate.
A second reason to learn the virtue of obedience is that it will help you get to Heaven. Fr. Ripperger puts it well: a wife who overcomes the curse of Eve will master the other virtues rapidly. A wife who never does will never master a single virtue, because they all depend on that.
Okay, people say, but what if my husband is a total tyrant? Two things. First, when you married him, you agreed to subject yourself to him. This is why it's so important who we marry. If you aren't married yet, remember this when you are considering marriage with someone: Is this someone I could give myself in obedience to? Because that's what you're doing when you marry him.
Second, if you have the unfortunate task of being married to a horrible person, take heart. You are not obeying him so much as you are obeying God. Remember that. Your obedience and how you act as a wife actually has nothing to do with your husband. It has everything to do with God. Your virtue is between you and Him, no one else.
[Side note: if your husband is neglecting his duties as a spiritual leader, it is your job to step up and lead here until he decides to, especially where children are involved. Pray for him very hard.]
So you say, Why do I have to obey someone who's not as holy as I am? The Blessed Mother was far holier than St. Joseph, and did she obey him? You bet. Well, he is a horrible person and honestly kind of stupid. Do I have to obey him? Did St. Rita obey her husband? You bet. He was probably worse than yours. And she converted him in the process.
One FSSP priest puts it like this: When the mailman hands you a letter, do you refuse it because your mailman is a terrible person? Do you interrogate him and make sure he is holy before you take it? Do you only take it on the condition that he is smart and loves God? Um, no. You take the letter, because it is not from the mailman. It's from the sender. And the sender in this case is God. Your husband is just the mailman. Make sense?
So when your husband tells you to do something, remember that his command is from God, regardless of what the messenger is like. You obey him, because you obey God.
Now, can you talk to him privately about what he wants and respectfully posit another alternative? Of course! A rightly ordered husband will usually ask his wife's opinion, especially if she is obedient, because he trusts her. But, ultimately, he has the final word. So guess what. You can relax! You did what you were supposed to before God. Your conscience is clear. This is such a freeing way to live if we can just get over ourselves.
One point of meditation before we move on. If you have trouble with this concept, this would be a great story to spend mental prayer pondering. Think about the flight to Egypt. The Blessed Mother is woken up abruptly, in the middle of the night by her husband. She is told to pack up her things, get Baby Jesus, and follow St. Joseph to Egypt.
I laugh when I think of what my response would be right now. What? Why? We shouldn't leave now. You can't wake the baby. What are you talking about? Go back to sleep. I'm tired. The baby is tired. Can we leave tomorrow? Wait, I have a coffee date tomorrow. Can we leave the day after? Why Egypt? I hate Egypt. Are you sure it was an angel? Are you sure you heard him correctly? Where will we stay? What will we do all day? How will we eat? Yeah, I'd be dead.
What was the Blessed Mother's response? She obeyed St. Joseph immediately, without question, and her whole family was saved.
Trust me, this virtue is a hard one to master, and this vice is like weeding out the thickest weed you could imagine. What are some practical changes we could make to start practicing this? Read on.
1. Change the way you phrase things. Try to replace all "Do X" with "Would you please do X for me?" or "Can you please help me do X?" This takes more effort and thought in speech on our part (something we women can really struggle with), is just nicer and more effective in general, and reinforces the idea that we really are not the boss. He might not notice the change, but you will see a change in yourself.
2. Get dressed every day. Seriously. Again, this is partly for your husband (he thinks you are beautiful in a simple house dress, seriously!), but partly for you. I found that this changed my attitude about myself during the day and helped me to be productive. Embrace the discomfort of regular clothes as a bodily mortification. I like not putting on "comfy clothes" until all of my work is done, and I'm hopping into bed for a nice book.
3. Do a quick tidy-up before your husband gets home from work. No, I'm not saying the house should be spotless for him, especially if you have kids. But pick one area he really likes done and try to do it before he gets home. This will help train you to be in the habit of working to please your husband and not yourself.
4. Always fix your husband's plate and clear his dirty dishes from the table. Again, this is for you to train yourself to remember that you are called to be the servant of all. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and no servant is above His Master. View your main job as serving your husband, and I promise it will trickle into other areas of your life.
5. Stop complaining about your husband. You would not believe how many women I've heard complain about their husbands, even if he is right there in the room. Seriously, never do this. Be your husband's biggest fan. Train yourself to see the best in him. When you're in public and tempted to make a joke at your husband's expense or complain about some aspect of them, shut your mouth. You will not obey him at home if you're going to disrespect or belittle him in public.
6. Direct your children to ask their fathers when they are seeking permission. "Go ask your father," should be your new favorite phrase. Use this especially when you know the answer to your child's question (and are particularly attached to it). This will help you train yourself to let go of control, and it's a wonderful example to your children of who is in charge.
Since this is such a hard topic, I've included some resources (articles, books, and video) below for further study, if you are interested. Let's learn this, live it, and change the culture.
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"Diabolical Narcissism: Go Clean up the Kitchen, You Stupid, Stupid Woman", by Ann Barnhardt
The Mirror of True Womanhood, by Fr. Bernard O'Reilly
By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride, by Alice von Hildebrand
& the following video by Fr. Chad Ripperger: