Many years ago, my husband and I sat in a therapist’s office, divulging all our deepest couple cuts and wounds. We talked about all the ways we felt unseen, unheard, and unfelt. In all honesty, both of us secretly thought we were really in that room for them—not ourselves. I wasn’t the problem; my husband was, let’s be clear (or so that was the belief then).
We were in a callous place as a couple back then. So, in that oversized, snuggly sofa, we waited with bated breath for words of wisdom that would help us like each other again. Sure, we loved each other, but we had drifted so far apart that we had a hard time finding common ground.
And then, the therapist dropped this idea into the room. He said, “Jennifer, while Terry is watching basketball this weekend, how about you just come up behind him and give him a shoulder massage.”
“Umm, say what? You have GOT to be freaking kidding me! Okay, we’re done here…” That was my internal response, but my husband LOVED the idea, of course. I smiled and said, “I…gueeess…”
Quickly, let me tell you the results: He did not get his massage.
Successful Partners Lean Into One Another
Fast forward to now, when I myself am a couple’s therapist. Believe it or not, that therapist, a renowned, well-known man in the area, has a lot to do with my husband and me still being married today and me becoming a marriage counselor.
What I learned from him, and now teach to my own clients, is that the most successful relationships are those with which we lean into our partners to help them feel loved. Being in a committed relationship means being part of a stable team in which we are immersed in our partner’s world. While it isn’t our job to make them happy, our job is to tune into their emotional needs with respect and understanding.
What Does It Mean to “Submit” to Your Partner?
Some years ago, I read a New York Times article written by former beach volleyball player and fitness expert Gabrielle Reece. She’d just had a book published in which she used the word “submissive” to describe her relationship with her husband. The internet and various news channels were up in arms about the story, even saying that she’d set society back dozens of years for using such disgraceful phraseology.
However, Gabrielle clarified in interviews that what she really meant is really two things:
- Women have the power to choose whatever role they want in their relationships
- Partners must practice submitting to one another
Just as I submit to my husband’s superior bill-paying for our family, he submits to my superior child development knowledge. I have the ability and capability to manage the finances of our home, but I defer to him because he’s really good at it, and I trust his attention to detail more than my own. Likewise, he can read and learn about child development. Occasionally he does, but it so happens that I’m an expert in the field of human development, so it makes sense that he defers to me on the topic of parenting our kids. This doesn’t set feminism back; this is just logic.
What makes my husband feel loved and cared for is to feel respected, appreciated, influential, and seen in our relationship. You know what makes him feel those things? When I defer to him because I trust him with specific aspects of our family management. It also helps when I sit and watch sports with him.
What makes me feel loved and cared for is to feel heard, seen, and respected. You know what makes me feel those things? My husband leans into my knowledge and expertise in specific areas because it shows he fully trusts my judgment. That’s also called submission.
Talk to Me Like I’m Someone You Love
When one of the partners in a counseling session is gridlocked and arguing about a very emotionally entrenched issue, I’ll hit the pause button and remind them, “This is someone you love. If you shifted just a bit and talked to them like you respect, love, and appreciate them, how would your words change and sound?” Without a doubt, they are always vastly different.
To submit in this context means simply that you defer and lean into your partner in ways that make you better as a team. One of you does not submit. Both of you submit.
It’s what we’re called to do in our marriages because it’s what we do when we love one another.
More than deferring, leaning in, and submitting, we must love our partners for the gifts they bring to the relationship. True submission does not mean you take away power, but that you have all the power as a team to work through issues together, using the expertise, knowledge, and know-how to thrive as a couple and family.