I have sought to suck the marrow out of life. Since I am married for life, I want to be intensely married, to explore it, to understand it, to experience it to the full extent that I can. In order to do that, I need the courage to delight in the differences between women and men.
My eyes were freshly reopened to this by natural philosopher Dr. J. Budziszewski, a Yale educated professor of philosophy at the University of Texas. In his book On the Meaning of Sex he philosophically but poetically broadened my understanding of marriage as God created it, which I am so enthralled by. And that is because as a man I am married to a woman. I was created to be fascinated by the wholly other, my wife.
We often fear to discuss the differences between men and women because they can be so politicized and we avoid appropriate conversations because they can be so polarized. Let’s put those discussions aside for a moment so that we can address how literal differences play out in marriage in a good, healthy, God designed way. This isn’t about power, roles or influence; it’s about understanding how two people can become radically one. We needn’t be afraid to admit what nature and science says is obvious.
Dr. Bud (Sorry, Dr. Budziszewski, but I simply can’t keep typing out your full name; it takes me ten minutes to get it right and it is driving my spellcheck absolutely insane) uses the work of neuroscientists to affirm that “the cliché that variation within each sex is greater than variation between the sexes is simply false.”
The brain science behind this is too large to repeat here but let me give you a taste: “Large parts of the brain cortex are thicker in women than in men. Ratios of gray to white matter vary, too. The hippocampus, which plays a role in memory and spatial navigation, takes up a greater proportion of the female brain than of the male brain. On the other hand, the CA1 region of the hippocampus is larger in the male…The right and left hemispheres are more interconnected in female brains than in male ones…The amygdala, involved in emotion and emotional memory is larger in men, but the deep limbic system, which is also involved in emotion, is larger in women…” These differences are evidenced-based and God designed.
Dr. Bud lists double this amount of neuroscience, but since this is just a blog post, not a book (I’m happy to recommend his book if you want to read more), this should be sufficient to make the point that this isn’t about any specific opinion, it’s about the reality of neuroscience. One of Dr. Bud’s students tried to argue (for political and social purposes) that except for our genitals, men and women are identical, to which he responds, “our brains are even more different than the rest of our bodies.”
Understanding this research makes me appreciate marriage as much as it makes me appreciate my wife. There is so much I can learn from my wife as God designed us, to better understand her, to study her and learn from this aspect of her humanity that is simply not natural to me.
This also isn’t to slam singleness at all. Pointing out that parenting shapes you like nothing else ever will isn’t to deny that there are other ways to be shaped (just talk to someone who has actually fought in combat, or gone through cancer, etc.). What this does tell me is that being married as a man to a woman affects me in ways that male friendship never could. And that’s by God’s design. It is spiritually good for me and I need to lean into it.
Dr. Karl Barth, a famous early twentieth century theologian, stressed that just as the full image of God is displayed when male and female come together in marriage, so the fullness of relational intimacy is experienced in the differences between women and men. Dr. Bud calls this the “duality of nature. Manhood and womanhood reflect the same human nature, and with equal fidelity and dignity, but they reflect different facets of it.” My soul is enriched and my world is broadened when I experience my marriage in this context.
The two ways to distort this glorious truth of our duality is to attach value to biology by saying different must mean inferior (on the part of one or the other) or to assume that “because the sexes do have equal worth, they must be exactly the same.” Both of those points are demonstrably untrue—to science and reason. They are both born out of power plays and political agendas. We should yearn for the poetry of marriage, delighting in God’s creation. Our differences are a gift to us, though they may not always feel like it.
When Dr. Bud speaks of “polaric complementarity” he highlights a beautiful truth that enriches our understanding of marriage: “Each sex completes what the other lacks and helps bring the other into balance.”
Instead of wishing Lisa was something other than what she is, I can recognize that she completes what I lack and helps bring me into balance. That sounds beautiful to me. As a pastor, I’ve seen some women resent men for being men, for acting like men, for thinking like men, for responding like men. I tried to address this in my book Loving Him Well, for instance, when I talk about the different ways that male brains and female brains express empathy. For example, in times of stress, many women really do think the female tendency to “mirror” hurt is relationally superior to the male tendency to try to “fix” or “solve” hurt. Hilarious videos about this have made all of us laugh (“It’s Not About the Nail” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4EDhdAHrOg).
Brain science suggests mirroring and fixing are two complementary forms of expressing empathy. One brain primarily acknowledges the pain (which is important for the other person to feel understood) while the other seeks to solve the problem. It’s a better world when empathy is expressed by feeling and doing. Because Christian marriage is the joining of male and female, we don’t have to choose one over the other. We and our children can have both. We don’t have to fight over the “superior” response. We can marvel, appreciate, and respect our differences (but I still believe husbands need to learn how to mirror empathy first, or our wives will never feel cherished and understood).
Dr. Bud warns that those who militantly argue (for the sake of politics or theology) that men and women should be seen as identical in every way lest power be expressed in unfortunate ways, often end up devaluing women, in this sense: “The underlying wish is that both sexes would be men, but that some of these men would look like women.” I don’t want to be married to a man who looks like a woman; I want to be married to my “Eve,” so different and lovely in all the right ways, difference that is delicious to my soul in every way.
You can take this too far, of course, so couples need to be careful that they don’t let stereotypes define their own relationship, which is unique. While it is undeniably and scientifically true that women everywhere (across all cultures) “tend to have much higher survey scores than men in nurturance or tender-mindedness” and “also show greater sensitivity to emotion” and that “men are in general more assertive” it is also true that “any given woman may be more assertive than most men.” Dr. Bud doesn’t use this language, but I think it’s fair to summarize him as saying that this is the exception that proves the rule. “The fact that most women are more nurturing than most men is much more than an accident. It arises from a genuine difference in the underlying reality, the difference between womanhood and manhood as such.” But a successful marriage is based on the brains two people have, not the brains that most genders are assumed to have.
I am saddened that we can’t talk about these marvelous differences without falling into heated arguments about power and roles in both marriage and the church. I believe what Bud is talking about could be respected and enjoyed by both egalitarians and complementarians. It could enrich everyone’s marriage. I’m not trying to help either side win an argument; I just want wives to be in awe that they get to be married to a man, and for husbands to be grateful to God that they get to be married to a woman and seek to learn all they can from God’s design for marriage.
It’s one thing to say that women are different; it’s another thing for me to say, “I’m glad you’re different. I need your difference. Your difference makes me a better and more complete person.”
I’m sure I haven’t done justice to Dr. Bud’s fine essay, as he is able to go into much greater detail and obviously displays philosophical skills that far outnumber mine. But I do hope this will draw couples together in a world determined to pull us apart.
For week one of our “Cherish Challenge,” let’s remind ourselves that an essential cornerstone of building a cherishing marriage is cherishing (rather than resenting or denying) our spouse’s differences.
Cherish Challenge Week One (If you didn’t read last week’s post launching the Cherish Challenge, you can find it here Raising the Bar for Our Marriages
- Read this blog post together along with chapters 1 and 2 of Cherish.
- Spend a date night or date afternoon talking about your differences—the way you talk, the way you think, the way you respond to stress.
- Apologize to your spouse if you have resented him/her for acting like a person who is different. Listen if your spouse wants to tell you how they have felt devalued in part for being who God created them to be
- Tell your spouse at least three things you appreciate about him/her being different than you
I’ve gotten a few messages from couples asking if they need to sign up to take part in the Cherish Challenge? I just wanted to clarify that this summer long experience is absolutely FREE!
Each weekly challenge will be posted to my social media accounts and webpage on Mondays, blogs will be uploaded to my website on Wednesdays, and Cherish Challenge email updates will be sent out on Fridays.
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If you would like to be entered into the drawing to win some of the prizes we are giving away at the end of the summer, please submit a photo of you and your spouse (optional) and a testimony (optional) on the Cherish Challenge webpage.
You can also find any additional information about the challenge there as well: Cherish Challenge 2020