This week, I’m doing something different—sharing my thoughts on an issue I’ve been asked about. If you came here to get sex tips for your bedroom or address a sexless marriage or enjoy something funny about this whole sexy thing, here are a few other posts you can go read:
- 12 Ways to Make Good Sex Even Better
- These 3 Actions Could Bring You to Orgasm
- What Can I Do About My Sexless Marriage: Part 4 (with links to others in other posts in the series)
- Lighten Up a Little and Laugh about Sex
- Sex Isn’t Just for Bunnies
But recently, there has been some controversy in marriage circles and conversations about a particular book and what it teaches. That book is Love & Respect: The Love She Most Desires; The Respect He Desperately Needs written by Emerson Eggerichs. The core question has been whether the book encourages maltreatment and abuse of women. But the discussion also touched on whether the book defines sex in terms of a physical need for husbands and an obligation for wives.
While I’d read Love & Respect many years ago (and taken the video course at a marriage retreat), I decided to read the book again. Not with the hope of finding or not finding proof of the accusations, but with as open a mind as I could have.
Following is part one of my conclusions, with two other parts coming later in the week. Someone else might have a different take, but where I make a point, I try to back it up with an excerpt from Love & Respect, along with the page number where the quote can be found. I also expand on my own perspectives that differ from the author.
The Missing Piece
Eggerichs begins with the premise that the importance of love in marriage has been well-covered in churches and marriage classes. “For the past forty years, the American church has preached unconditional love. I preached it for many years in my own church, as I remained clueless about the importance of unconditional respect” (48). The addition of respect as part of the marriage relationship is his unique selling proposition; that is, what differentiates this book from other marriage books (27).
Given this initial premise, Eggerichs focuses more on wives giving their husbands respect, since that’s the part he believes has been neglected. “Yes, love is vital, especially for the wife, but what we have missed is the husband’s need for respect” (11). Understandable, but the next sentence is this: “This book is about how the wife can fulfill her need to be loved by giving her husband what he needs—respect” (11). That’s a bothersome statement, as it seems to place the burden for making a marriage work on the woman respecting her husband.
To be fair, he includes plenty on husbands needing to love their wives and how men can assume the responsibility to make a marriage work better. The “Crazy Cycle” Eggerichs describes even begins with the husband’s part: “Without love, she reacts without respect. Without respect, he reacts without love—ad nauseum” (25).
He also points out that either spouse can, and should, go first in giving the love or respect their mate needs: “Taking the role of the mature mate and moving first may be risky, but it is powerful” (73), and “In your marriage, be the first to ‘seek peace and pursue it’ (1 Peter 3:11)” (73).
Defining Differences by Gender
Eggerichs’s approach rests on a core belief that love isn’t enough, or that love to a man is better spelled R-E-S-P-E-C-T (174). This viewpoint hinges on the final verse of the Ephesians 5:21-33 section on husbands and wives: “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” Eggerichs focuses on how the husband is commanded to love his wife, but rather commanding the wife to love her husband, she is told to respect him.
You can believe or not believe his premise. Eggerichs goes into how he pursued that interpretation, considered its various angles, weighed it against the struggling couples he counseled, and looked at research on this topic.
For myself, I believe the premise in part. That is, adding respect to the conversation about marriage is important, and overall men seem more concerned about receiving respect and women about receiving love (more on that in the next post).
However, we have other scriptures in the Bible that tell us to love and respect each other without regard to gender:
- “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10).
- “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17).
- “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
There are also verses instructing husbands to respect their wives and wives to love their husbands:
- Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Peter 3:7).
- “Then [the older women] can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children” (Titus 2:4, and yes, that instance of love is phileo rather than agape).
While Eggerichs agrees husbands also need love and wives need respect, he emphasizes the opposite so much that readers can forget that we all desire love and respect and are commanded to give it.
Unconditional Love & Unconditional Respect
Eggerichs uses the terms unconditional love and unconditional respect a lot. Here’s an example of his view:
“My thought process went something like this: ‘A husband is to obey the command to love even if the wife does not obey the command to respect, and a wife is to obey the command to respect even if the husband does not obey the command to love.’ So far, so good. Then I reasoned further: ‘A husband is even called to love a disrespectful wife, and a wife is called to respect an unloving husband.’ There is no justification for a husband to say, ‘I will love my wife after she respects me’ nor for a wife to say, ‘I will respect my husband after he loves me'” (23).
He thus lays out how unconditional love and unconditional respect are keys to a godly marriage and how expressing them can heal your relationship and open up the feelings of love or respect you’ve been missing from your spouse.
But here’s where I’m going to get really unpopular. I’ve come to detest that word unconditional. I can discuss my theology on it another time, but practically speaking, that word has been used like a mallet on people, pressuring them to put up with things God never intended us to put up with. We use God as our example, but even if there are no conditions to His love, God most certainly laid out expectations in commands and followed up with bad consequences if you don’t get with the program.
We are called to extravagant love, far beyond what we usually display, given our selfish nature. But what happened when someone displayed ongoing hate toward our Father? When they hardened their heart again and again? Look at the biblical record, and you’ll see that God didn’t stick around interminably; sometimes, He walked away.
Can He come back? Sure, He did that too. But at times he “hid his face” from those who pursued evil and would not listen. And in a way, isn’t that love too? To set reasonable conditions in the relationship, walk away if they’re not being met, and pray that your absence causes a change of heart.
So this call to unconditional love and unconditional respect can be problematic in practice. While I recognize we shouldn’t have to earn love and respect, because we’ll never deserve it enough, we should have reasonable expectations in our marriage of good treatment.
It is from those relationships, where things are reasonably good, that Eggerichs’s advice is best understood. For those without good will, a call for unconditional love or respect can become manipulation at best and abuse at worst. (See Are You in an Abusive or Destructive Marriage?)
But Does Eggerichs Advocate Abuse?
In short, no. Eggerichs addresses the importance of having two good-willed people in a marriage, using that phrase “good-willed” more than 30 times. For instance: “What do I mean by good-willed people’? Simply that both of these people love each other a great deal. They do not mean real harm; they do not intend real evil toward one another. They are hurt and angry, but they still care deeply for one another” (39). That’s the audience he’s writing to.
Eggerichs also recognizes abuse of women throughout history. “Over the centuries, men have used Scripture in ignorant, abusive, and even evil ways. They have justified all kinds of terrible treatment of women, all in the name of ‘the Bible says so.’ But the Bible doesn’t say so. It says something much different from what is claimed by chauvinists” (184).
That said, he does believe in the what he calls “biblical hierarchy”; that is, a woman placing herself under the headship of her husband, while her husband takes up the responsibility to love and protect her. And one might presume he’s fielded questions in the past about that belief and abuse: “Will the concept of biblical hierarchy lead to abuse? Will a man take advantage of being the head of the family by putting down and even abusing his wife and children?” (186).
He answers: “Yes, this is possible, but because it is possible does not mean a woman should refuse to allow her husband to be the head. If a husband is evil-willed, the abuse will happen anyway, no matter what the family structure is. Any hierarchical role given to him has nothing to do with the abuse. The evil-willed man always treats those around him abusively” (186). Eggerichs then goes on to talk about the importance of a good-willed husband who accepts his duty to love and protect his family, not selfishly use his position over others to mistreat them.
Now, the gender-role continuum ranges from patriarchy through complementarianism (hard, moderate, soft) and egalitarianism to feminism/matriarchy, and some Christians assert that more patriarchal systems create an environment where abuse is not addressed properly. Believe me, I take that concern seriously. But I also don’t think you’ll convince another Christian to surrender their view by saying it can be abused. After all, so many things God created for good can be twisted for evil.
We have to engage in conversations about what God actually said and our resulting theology and ultimately decide for ourselves what we believe about gender roles in the church and in marriage. That theological debate is beyond the purview of my blog (hint, hint: don’t leave a long comment about it).
Regardless, any and all marriages need church resources that will honestly and effectively address abuse. No wife should go to a church leader with the heavy news that she’s being abused in her marriage and be told to simply submit to her husband more.No wife should go to a church leader with the heavy news that she's being abused in her marriage and be told to simply submit to her husband more. @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet
Back to Eggerichs’s view: “When a man acts in this way [doing something illegal, wrong, evil, abusive, dishonest, unethical], he is not a good-willed husband, and he forfeits his right to be head and to be followed. A wife’s submission to God takes precedence over her submission to her husband. She is not to sin against Christ in order to defer to her husband” (196).
Next time, we’ll get into more about gender roles, how Eggerichs views their impact on marriage, and whether his views lead to problematic outcomes. And in the third and final installment, we’ll tackle his chapter on sex.
Other recent takes on Love & Respect:
Love and Respect: Why Unconditional Respect Can’t Work – To Love Honor & Vacuum
Don’t Study the Counterfeits – The Generous Husband
Respect: A Dirty Word? – The Curmudgeonly Librarian