Complementarianism: The Hidden Health Risk

Comp Blog

The Take Good Care of My Son Cookbook for Brides.  When I pulled this from the back of the cupboard, I laughed.  Are you serious?!  It is amazing the things you find when you begin going through every inch of your house in preparation for a move.  My first instinct was to toss the book.  That is becoming my first instinct with most things these days.  My curiosity got the best of me though, and I began to read.  This wasn’t just a recipe book for good meals, but supposedly for a good marriage too.

Among Christian denominations, there are two camps when it comes to gender—complementarianism and egalitarianism.  My first meeting with these terms came as I was learning about ministry.  Those that fall in the first camp believe that men and women were created to complement each other and therefore have different roles.  The egalitarian view holds that men and women are equal in God’s sight.  In ministry, these two contrasting views work themselves out in what jobs each gender can hold within the church.  In complementarian churches, women are forbidden from holding many jobs as leadership is considered a place for males.  There are varying degrees to which this is carried out, but you certainly wouldn’t see a woman as lead pastor.  They are confined to those areas where they are only leading other women or children.  In egalitarian churches, the sky is the limit.  Men and women take on roles according to their individual gifting rather than predefined gender roles.  Women can preach and teach and be on decision making boards.  As a woman pastor, you can guess which side of the coin I land on.

What some do not know, as I did not always, is that complementarianism and egalitarianism are not just terms that describe views on church leadership, but leadership within the home as well.  In other words, these terms apply to marriage.  Complementarian marriages hold to ideas of male headship, while egalitarian marriages practice mutual submission.  Many have done extensive work to understand the heart of God when it comes to the roles of men and women, both in the church and in the home, by studying the Bible in depth when it comes to these issues.  They have not leaned on their own understanding based on a church’s teaching or their glossing over certain passages of the Bible in English but have dug into language (the original of the text), culture, and context.  I could write a blog about the Hebrew word ezer (Genesis 2:18), the curse of sin (Genesis 3) and Jesus’ breaking of it, or the context of Paul’s instructions in his various letters to early churches, convincing you that egalitarianism is the correct interpretation of scripture, but the truth is those blogs are a dime a dozen (for which I am thankful) and those who have written them much more qualified than me.  If you are interested in that, I would encourage you to check out The Junia Project, Ezer Rising, or Making the Academic Practical where there is a bibliography of titles about women in ministry to get you started (all links below).  Instead, what I would like to explore is the risk of complementarian marriage.

In worst case scenarios, complementarianism can produce abusive relationships.  Why?  It gives power to only one—the man.  The misuse of power in business, politics, ministry, etc. is harmful to those without.  In marriage, it leads to domestic violence, abuse of every kind—physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, verbal, financial, etc.  Even in homes where the use of power does not go this far, there is the potential, perhaps even a guarantee, of developing some level of codependency.  Complementarianism threatens mental health.

According to the dictionary, codependency is “excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner…”  Codependents find little to no worth in themselves.  As a result, they must find that in external sources.  They worry, obsess, and control in order to receive the sense of worth they so desperately need.  In an abusive relationship, one will do everything in their power to keep the abuser happy, so they will show them the “love” they crave in order to feel value.  They walk on eggshells, holding themselves responsible when their partner treats them poorly.  Their partner holds them accountable as well and so the vicious cycle to please continues.  In situations of addiction, in order to maintain what makes them feel loved and valued by their partner, they enable the addiction.  In cases of mental illnesses, like borderline personality disorder, the emotional and mental stability become the responsibility of the partner and just like in the case of abuse, they tread lightly in order to maintain control of the situation to keep peace.  These examples may seem extreme, so the question becomes, “How does complementarianism lead to codependency?”  Let’s look at a few excerpts from that cookbook I found.

At the very beginning, the author forwards the book placing great responsibility on the wife for the well-being of the husband.

“Congratulations!  You are about to—or have just—married a mother’s son.  I hope his mother reared your man on a balanced formula of warm devotion and wholesome neglect.  Now it is your turn to be the number one female in his life and to assume the responsibility for his nutritional well-being” (p. vill).

Shall we laugh or puke at the absurdity of so much in these very first sentences? Ew! Ew! Ew! I take multiple issues, but for the sake of codependency, we’ll just stick with the great responsibility of the wife.  Lest we think the responsibility ends with nutritional well-being, the author tells us differently in Chapter One, titled “On Being a Wife” before we can move to anything culinary.

“Always remember that it is the woman who establishes the emotional climate of the home.  Her positive attitude toward cooking and her proud estimate of the value of her job as a homemaker will be reflected in the happiness and contentment of her family” (p. 1).

Wow!  I hope a new recipe never fails and the brownies never burn!  Moving on…

Following chapters of culinary advice and recipes accompanied by relationship commentary, some of the last words “take the cake.”  Go ahead, groan.

“Lastly, I presume that if you take good care of your mother-in-law’s son, he will cherish you and take good care of you in return” (p. 170).

Do you see it?  There’s an if-then pattern.  If you (the wife) …, then he (the husband) … While this book is extreme and hard to take seriously (this isn’t a farce though, the author was very serious), it is repeated by complementarian sources everywhere.  The unhealthy patterns emerge.  Wives who desire to be loved and cherished are responsible for producing that from their husbands.  Husbands can hold their wives responsible for whether or not they treat them well based on how they feel.  This is codependency!  Healthy people find their worth in themselves (for the believer, in the knowledge of being made in the image of God…men AND women) and take ownership of their own emotions.

Perhaps in less severe scenarios than the ones listed earlier (abuse, addiction, mental illness), codependency does not seem all that bad.  The effects are damaging though, damaging enough for it to be considered poor mental health itself—low self-esteem, people pleasing, lack of boundaries, need for control, obsessing, dependency, depression—to name a few.  Certainly, these are not things God desires to come from a special union He established for the precious people He created.

And just for laughs, before I sign off, one more piece of marriage advice from our cookbook expert…

“One way you can show affection to your husband is to care about what he is coming home to Don’t bother with household sprays that remove the aromas of good cooking.  A man should have the pleasure of sniffing his way from the front door to the kitchen, following the promise of something delicious being made just for him.  Marriage counselors would do well to advise the young bride to slice half an onion and simmer it gently in a bit of butter a few minutes before the groom comes home.  Throw the onion out if you have to, but only after the delicious aroma has shouted, “Welcome Home!””

Who would have thought?!  Onions can save your marriage…at least if you’re complementarian. 😉


Roth, June. The Take Good Care of My Son Cookbook for Brides. New York, Essandess Special Editions, 1969, pp. vii-170.

Note:  No references are given for codependency because I used knowledge acquired as I began a journey healing from codependency.  If you want a good source for learning, check out Codependent No More by Melody Beattie.