Role Confusion: Celebrating the Truth about Men and Women

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak


Marlene and Steve were married for six years and had three children together. By all accounts, they were a loving family, who tried hard to live sincere lives of faith, and yet, Marlene was struggling with feelings of depression and a sense of real dissatisfaction with her life and marriage. What was wrong?  “Marriage just isn’t what I thought it would be. I get so frustrated with Steve. He won’t take any initiative with the house or the children. He gets completely lost in his work. I can’t even give him a hug without him wanting to jump into bed with me. I know he needs me, but I want to know that he loves me. I want a man who will be a partner with me, who isn’t afraid to take the lead in our home and spiritual life. But he won’t do any of that.  “When I complain to my friends about this, they just laugh at me and say, ‘That’s what you get for marrying a man, honey.’ They say their husbands are exactly like Steve, and I just have unrealistic expectations. They think I’m naive because I’ve only been married for six years, and that I’ll learn to accept it in time, but I don’t want to accept it. I want a partner. I don’t want to be married to some guy. I want to be married to a real man.”

When Marlene was finished, I asked Steve to respond.  “Its not like I’m trying to be obtuse. I just never had to do any of this stuff growing up. My mom took care of the house and my dad earned the money. And they seemed happy enough. I’m much more involved than he ever was. I try to help, but I don’t really know what she wants me to do. I always thought that God ordained women to be better at those kinds of things than men, and that I should just try to stay out of her way unless she specifically said she needed me.  Steve continued, “As far as the physical thing goes. What can I say?  Men just need sex to feel loved. I don’t think that’s abnormal. All the guys I know agree with me. The thing that bugs me the most is that Maureen wants me to be more present to the kids and help more with the house and stuff, but she would rather be pecked to death by chickens than ever even look at the check book, and when I try to talk to her about my work and the junk that goes on at the office, her eyes totally glaze over. I don’t see her exactly killin’ herself to be there for me.     Sometimes I feel like she wants me to be Superman so that she can play the little ‘kept woman,’ and it ticks me off, because there is only so much of me to go around, you know? This ‘partnership’ thing she’s always hounding me about cuts both ways. ”

It would be very easy to oversimplify their problems as just another dispute over the division of labor. But there is so much more going on. Ultimately, their concerns touch on issues that are key to John Paul II’s Theology of the Body; issues such as what can one properly expect out of marriage, understanding the true versus the false differences between men and women, and the true meaning of sexuality.

Too High Expectations?

Both Steve and Maureens’ friends accused her of having set her expectations too high, but even though her thoughts on the subject were not entirely on target, she had good instincts, and the fact is, as high as Maureen’s expectations of her marriage were, the Church’s expectations for marriage are even higher.  Both Cannon Law and the important Church document Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), define marriage as, “an initmate partnership,” but to understand what that really means, we have to do what John Paul II  does in his Theology of the Body, and that is to go back to the beginning, all the way back to the Creation of man and woman.  In the beginning, when God gave Eve to Adam, Genesis tells us that Adam cried out, “At last! This is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone!” The Holy Father makes a huge point of saying that with these words, Adam was acknowledging that in Eve, Adam discovered someone who could understand him completely, who was essentially made of the same physiological, psychological, emotional, stuff as himself and who could be a perfect helpmate to him, to the degree that even their differences made them better and more intimate partners than if they had been made exactly the same. And Eve felt the same about Adam. In this sentence, Genesis shows us that the two were one; a relationship the pope refers to as “the Original Unity of man and woman.”

And then came the Fall. Tragically, the Regrettable Apple Incident was to man and woman what the Tower of Babel (account found in Genesis: men attempting  to build a building in  honor of themselves; God then confused their languages so they could not communicate with one another resulting in their scattering to every corner of the earth) was to the world. When sin entered the world, the two were no longer one, but two. In effect, Man drew a line in the sand, declaring that though he had been gifted by God to do so, he would no longer serve Woman in certain ways, or exhibit certain traits, or display certain virtues for the sake of Woman, and he decided that from henceforth, that this Withheld Self is what it would mean to be a Man (albeit an incomplete one). The woman, for her part, did the same. Man and woman created separate domains for themselves, and generation after generation passed until their domains became separate worlds–Mars and Venus if you like.     Eventually, Man and Woman came to view each other not as helpmates, “flesh of each other’s flesh and bone of each other’s bone,” but as beings from a different planet altogether who had been commanded–or condemned–to somehow make it work. Martians and Venusians who had to find some way to hook up at the Interplanetary High School dance.  But there is good news, the resurrection that comes after the Fall. The Church teaches us that marriage is a sacrament, and sacraments are ultimately all about restoring the original order of the world as God intended it to be from the beginning. No, we will never again live in Eden, we will never again experience that perfect unity in our lifetimes, but we are empowered by the grace of marriage to strive to rebuild the Original Unity of Man and Woman, to become, in effect, New Adams and New Eves on our block.

Practically speaking, we do this by refusing to hide out in our comfort zones, by refusing to give in to the strong temptation to avoid certain acts of service our mate asks of us because we deem them to be “unmanly” or “unwomanly.”     We often justify such refusals by saying, “My friends don’t do that for their wives.” Or, “My parents didn’t treat each other that way. But the Holy Father tells us that we are not to take our parents, or our friends as models, but the pre-fallen Adam and Eve. By cooperating with the grace of marriage, we are able to transcend the imperfect languages that contemporary men and women speak, and create a new, shared language whose vocabulary is generous service and whose grammar is self-donating love.  Steve and Maureen were a little surprised and confused  by what I was saying. I could see the wheels turning, but it was so much to take in. Steve was the first with a question.  “But it sounds like you’re saying that there aren’t natural differences between men and women. That goes against everything I’ve ever been taught.     I’m not willing to accept that.”  “Good,” I told him. “You shouldn’t, but you need to make sure you understand what constitute true differences between men and women versus the false ones.

Differences Between the Sexes

“Think about it,” I said. “If God created men and women differently from the beginning, but they were still able to relate to each other as perfect partners and helpmates, what does that tell us about those differences.”  God love ‘em, Steve and Maureen just looked at me a little blankly.  “Let me help you out.” I offered.  I explained that “true differences,“ between men and women are the differences created by God at the beginning of time that allow us to a) relate to each other more intimately because of those differences and b) perform a task more completely and fully because of the unique gifts men and women bring to the table.  On the other hand, “false differences,“ the differences that are the result of Original Sin, are those differences that cause men and women to stare at each other in frustration and say, “I don’t know what the heck you want from me.” Or, “You could never understand me. You’re a man/woman.”

I asked Steve and Maureen, “Could you ever imagine the pre-fallen Adam and Eve making such a statement to each other?”  They agreed that they could not, but Maureen said, “I get what you are calling ‘false differences,’ Steve and I say that kind of thing to each other all the time. But could you give me an example of what you mean by true differences?”  “Sure,” I said. “Let me try an obvious one. God, is fully nurturing to us, His children, and in turn, he created both men and women to be fully nurturing. That’s just one of the qualities that he gave to men and women as part of our shared humanity. But even though God asks both men and women to be fully nurturing, he created our bodies to express that quality differently. For example, one unique way a woman can express nurturance through her body is to nurse her children; that’s something that is uniquely feminine. Something a man will never be able to do. In the same way, a man can use his body to express that same quality of nurturance in a uniquely masculine way; tickling his children’s belly with his beard, using his strength to wrestle and toss his children in the air, and carrying them on his shoulders in a way that most women find difficult.”

I added that another good example of true and false differences was one of the issues that brought them to counseling.  “Whether they care to do it or not, God gave men the physical and mental ability to do housework, just as he created women with all the physical and mental abilities necessary to manage finances. (Likewise, on Holy Thursday, Jesus bathed his children, and the Proverbs 31 woman makes productd  to sell in the marketplace). God calls both men and women to fully live out all the qualities which make them human (e.g., empathy, reason, intimacy, generosity, creativity, etc.) but men and women will exhibit these qualities both fully and differently through the bodies God gave them. This way, when men and women approach various tasks together, generously and willingly bringing the unique gifts that accompany their masculinity and femininity to the table, they are able to complete any task more perfectly–in a more fully human manner–than either could if left entirely on his or her own. And that, says the pope, is what allowed Adam and Eve to use what I am calling their “true differences” to be even more intimate partners to one another.”  Steve jumped in at this point. “You’re talking about intimacy. But Isn’t initimacy about sex? What does this have to do with our sexual differences?”

The True Meaning of Sexuality.

“Well, it is,” I answered, “but for the Catholic, sex isn’t just about what you do in the bedroom. For the Catholic, what you do in the bedroom is supposed to be a celebration and sign of how well you use your bodies to work for each other’s good all day long.”  The Church makes an important distinction between genitality and sexuality. Genitality refers to what a couple does in the bedroom, but sexuality is what one does all day long, just by being human. Any time we work to build unity between ourselves and another, any time we use our bodies to work for the good of another, any time we work generously and faithfully with another to build intimacy or create something new, we are being sexual. That’s why Peter Kreeft once commented  that you could easily talk about “the sex life of priests and nuns” without being scandalous. They literally use their whole selves to love and work for the good of the entire Body of Christ.

In my books, For Better…FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage and The Exceptional Seven Percent: Nine Secrets of the World’s Happiest Couples, I note that couples who have incredibly satisfying romantic lives know how to celebrate the same passion painting a room together as they do when they are in each other’s arms.  That isn’t to say that exceptional couples’ sex lives are as exciting as watching paint dry. Rather, those couples don’t save romance for date night. They know how to use the simple acts of dusting the house, or paying the bills, or working on projects, or raising the kids, or any of the other mundane tasks of everyday life to build intimacy. In other words, by applying the graces of marriage to the simplest tasks, they are sanctifying their everyday lives and rebuilding the Original Unity Adam and Eve experienced when they first gazed upon each other in the Garden.”  We had covered a lot of ground to get to this point, and I wanted to give Steve and Marlene some practical, even simple ways to begin applying this very profound teaching to their marriage.

I wanted them to learn how to use the simple tasks of everyday life as spiritual exercises that in spite of–or perhaps because of–their simplicity would empower Steve and Marlene to get on the road to becoming the New Adam and New Eve God was calling them to be. Over the next few weeks, I asked them to reflect on those household tasks that they were physically capable of doing, the tasks that each had asked the other to help with in the past, but both had avoided, either because they didn’t feel like doing them, or because they were simply beyond what they were used to doing. While I assured Steve and Marlene that I did not mean they both had to be equally competent and equally involved in every task, I challenged them to think of pursuing greater competence and openness to these activities as the main way a couple increases both self-donation and the intimacy that results from this kind of heroic generosity.

Living the Complementarity of the Sexes

A few sessions later, Steve and Marlene began discussing the ways that they had been holding back from one another.  Steve’s list concentrated primarily on housework and parenting, while Marlene found that she had been excusing herself from the financial aspects of their marriage.  “First of all,” says Marlene, “I saw that even though we had different styles and different perspectives on money and the house, when we worked together, we could get things done much more efficiently and completely. It was like Steve and I both brought different pieces of the puzzle together to make one whole–his gifts as a man and mine as a woman–and together we were able to complete these tasks better and more intimately than either of us could have on our own”  Steve added, “As far as the finances go, like a lot of men, I have a tendency to think about the money for money’s sake. Saving for retirement, investment, that kind of thing. I guess it has to do with trying to save for the future and being a provider for the family. Marlene’s approach was much more people-oriented. She wanted to make sure that the money was serving the people in the family and not the other way around.”

He continued. “The same thing was true about the housework. I was all about making a plan and being efficient and getting it all done as quickly as possible. She was much more focused on making sure that things were comfortable for everyone and that the environment was warm and hospitable. But together, we could make sure that all of these needs were being attended to without either one or the other of us going overboard on our own focus.”  Marlene interjected. “For instance, I know Steve likes taking family vacations, but if it were up to him, he would rather see as much money as possible going into our retirement account, even if that means doing without the occasional weekend away or our yearly, family vacation. Me? I think that it’s good to have money saved for the future, but it doesn’t do any good to have all this money socked away but not like each other anymore because we haven’t taken time to stay in touch with each other.”  She added, “The same thing is true about the house. I tend to get so caught up in the little details of making our house a home that I am not as efficient as I would like to be and things pile up. Steve, on the other hand, helped keep things on some kind of a schedule.  “The funny thing was,” Marlene continued, “we both used to hate doing all these jobs, and we resented each other if we were asked to do more than we already were. But now, when we look at all these jobs from the perspective you are teaching us, we’re learning to stop thinking about it as ‘cleaning the house,’ ‘watching the kids,’ or ‘paying the bills.’     We tried to ask ourselves, ‘How can we do this in a way that will make us feel closer to each other? How can we use these jobs to make a spiritual connection with each other?’”

It was at this point in the session that Steve raised a very important insight he’d had over the week. “I had always heard that men were supposed to be servant-leaders, but I wasn’t really sure what that meant, practically speaking. Most of the men I’ve known were like my father, kind-of aloof, leading from a distance, maybe even a little timid when it came to the home and kids either because they didn’t want to do it or weren’t sure how. But it dawned on me this week that by becoming more involved in Marlene’s work, I could know what she really needed and lead more effectively. I think being a servant leader is like being the kind of company president who worked his way up from the factory lines, knows every job in the plant, and is willing to step in to help anywhere and anytime he is needed–without waiting to be asked to do it. For that kind of leader, it’s not about power and being aloof. It’s not even about what seems “fair.” It’s about knowing what needs to be done and being willing to roll up your sleeves and do it for the good of the company. I realized that I had been acting more like the kid who inherited the business from his dad but had never really worked a day in his life. That’s not the kind of husband I want to be.”

A Partnership of Love

Over the course of our sessions together, Steve and Marlene discovered what it really means to live out the complimentary roles the Church talks about instead of the merely compensatory roles they had been living. While they maintained the traditional structure of their marriage–Steve was still the point man on finances and Marlene was still the homemaker–each was more attuned to and active in each other’s domains. They shared their lives with each other more easily, helped each other more readily, and cooperated more effectively in every aspect of their marriage and family life.  In our last meeting, I asked Marlene if she ever still felt depressed about her marriage.  “No.” she replied. “All I ever really wanted was to know I could count on Steve and to really feel like partners, but I didn’t know how to make that happen. I don’t know of too many people who are talking about the kind of things you taught us. I had no idea that the Pope’s teachings on marriage were both so profound and practical! We’re working harder to really attend to each other more than we ever have and I’ve never felt better about us.”  Steve agreed. “It’s nice to not have to be afraid of stepping up to the plate in my home or with my kids anymore. Once I got over the initial strange feelings that came with leaving my comfort zone, I really started enjoying how well Marlene and I worked together. And I love seeing how much more she respects me.”  When a couple takes the time to really understand complimentarity, they begin to respond to what the Holy Father calls families to in his teachings. They allow the graces of the sacrament to lead them to experience generosity, respect, servant-leadership, intimacy, and all the qualities that enable them to live life as a gift.

Comments are closed.