By Cynthia Ulrich Tobias

At one of my recent seminars, I mentioned I had picked up a copy of the book The Surrendered Wife by Laura Doyle. One woman blurted out what several must have been thinking: “Did you find it in the science fiction section?” Fortunately, my husband was smiling! I have to admit, I don’t think anyone who knows a strong-willed woman would think of her in terms of a “surrendered wife.” Perhaps it’s because the word surrender has such a negative connotation. To us it means admitting defeat, turning tail and running, giving up all control.

Although I find the title of the book highly offensive and I disagree with most of the content, I did read enough of it to realize that the author does not define her terms the same way I do. She urges the surrendered wife to relinquish inappropriate control of her husband and to respect his thinking. I can go along with that. She ends up defining “the surrendered wife” as someone who will “stop trying to control everything.”

Okay, I admit it; I do like to control things. But I don’t even want to control everything, especially when it comes to my marriage. I wouldn’t have much respect for my husband if he just gave in all the time. But I also wouldn’t respect him if he always had to be in charge. One of the things I like best about him is that he is willing to share control without simply letting me take over. But there’s no doubt that the whole institution of marriage presents one of the greatest challenges of all for strong-willed women everywhere.

There are some basic tenets that make a marriage healthy regardless of strong will or compliance, and we certainly don’t have the time or the need to go over the whole thing here. So let’s just take a quick, hard look at why being a happily married strong-willed woman has some unique aspects.

Hazards for the Strong-Willed Wife

Most strong-willed women will fight passionately to keep their marriage together, if for no other reason than we hate thinking of ourselves as quitters. There are, of course, some drastic causes for failed marriages (abuse, etc.). Aside from those, however, there are some especially treacherous hazards even for the strong-willed wife in a perfectly healthy relationship.

Who’s in Charge?

The strong-willed woman who has dedicated her life to Christ does not live at cross purposes with God’s Word by demanding her rights. On the contrary, all the women in my focus group quickly agreed that God’s plan for women with respect to their husbands’ leadership as outlined in Ephesians 5:22-23 is not something we are seeking to overturn:

Out of respect for Christ, be courteously reverent to one another.

Wives, understand and support your husbands in ways that show your support for Christ. The husband provides leadership to his wife the way Christ does to his church, not by domineering but by cherishing. So just as the church submits to Christ as he exercises such leadership, wives should likewise submit to their husbands.

Husbands, go all out in your love for your wives, exactly as Christ did for the church—a love marked by giving, not getting. Christ’s love makes the church whole…. Everything he does and says is designed to bring the best out in her…. And that is how husbands ought to love their wives. They’re really doing themselves a favor—since they’re already “one” in marriage.

When it comes to the roles of husband and wife, the term submit has never meant “be subjugated.” Men cannot justify domination or abuse in the name of submission. By the same token, women cannot justify “equal rights” based on their resentment of God’s designation of the husband as the leader of the household. With Christ as the center of our marriage, we both seek to love and serve one another, not to compete for status or rank.

The challenge for strong-willed women comes when we find ourselves being a little too bossy, demanding too much, or having a critical spirit. It comes so naturally for us! It doesn’t mean we’re trying to take over, but it can sure create some serious obstacles to a mutually loving and respectful relationship.

Whose Stuff Is This?

One of the hardest parts of marriage for me may seem a little silly to some people. I have a naturally territorial nature, and I just about come unglued if my husband starts messing with my stuff. Now I don’t have a problem with changing my name, sharing a joint checking account, or pooling our financial resources. But it just drives me crazy when he starts reorganizing my closet or cleaning off my dresser when I’m not home. After talking to dozens of other strong-willed wives, I found out I’m not alone! There is a certain personal parking space in our lives that is reserved only for those who have permission to be there, and even then it is loading and unloading only. If you park without permission, you’ll be towed away, and it’s expensive to retrieve your vehicle and make things right again. Sometimes I feel a bit guilty, but I really need that personal distance when it comes to my cherished possessions, no matter how ridiculous and unimportant they seem to my husband.

I can’t blame John for trying to organize my things in a way that makes sense to him, because it’s certainly a natural tendency in almost everyone. But I am working on more positive ways to let him know what’s important to me and what will keep peace and harmony between us. His sudden urges to reorganize and redistribute my clutter are becoming fewer and farther between, and my instant anger at what I perceive as his intrusion into my privacy is not as frequent or intense as it used to be.

Who’s Sorry Now?

In my first book, The Way They Learn, I told a story that has now become the classic illustration for the difference between how my husband apologizes and how I say I’m sorry. It has always been very difficult for me to apologize, even though I will definitely make things right when I realize I am wrong. The actual words “I’m sorry” are infrequent visitors to my lips, even when my heart seeks to make amends.

Early in our courtship, John and I had a very heated argument and I realized he was right. I took a deep breath and actually did bring myself to say those foreign words: “John, I’m sorry.” He nodded but replied, “Well, Cindy, ‘sorry’ is a statement of condition; ‘apologize’ is the active verb. Now are you sorry, or do you apologize?” You guessed it—neither at that point! It was hours before I even spoke to him again!

It has been a sore spot in our marriage from the beginning. John feels he apologizes at least ten times more often than I do. That could be, since my apologies don’t sound anything at all like his. I’m practicing, and I’m really trying to get better at saying the words that are important to him. I’m actually able to occasionally say to him, “I’m sorry—you were right.” I still have a long way to go before I can add those other three important words: “I was wrong,” but I’ll keep working on it!

Preventing Nuclear Battles

Early in our marriage, John asked me the same question hundreds of people have asked me since: When the strong-willed woman is in the middle of a confrontation headed for melt-down, what can be done to stop the destruction? I’ve given it a lot of thought, asked a lot of strong-willed friends and acquaintances, and lived through enough of my own meltdowns to know how they work. But here’s the thing: once the confrontation has begun, it’s just like the president pushing the buttons that release the nuclear warheads; there’s no turning back. I have told myself, in the middle of a heated argument with my husband, I should just back off of this. And I watch myself go down in flames, knowing full well what I could have done or said to prevent it. I don’t think it’s hopeless. I have compared notes with enough strong-willed women like me to know that there are two or three strategies that might just freeze that button before it is depressed. First of all, let’s take a quick look at a few things that will almost always push that button. Husbands, take note—these are fighting words!

It almost always starts a nuclear battle if you say to a strong-willed woman:

  • “Don’t be so sensitive!”
  • “What’s your problem?”
  • “You’ve got a bad attitude.”
  • “It must be nice to know it all.”
  • Anything with “why” and “you” in the same statement.

Okay. So you blew it and the fight is on. Before everyone is destroyed, the determined husband can try these midbattle strategies to silence the weapons:

  • Put your arms around me and just remind me how much you love me and how glad you are you married me. (It may not work for everyone because it’s bound to make your strong-willed wife even madder at first, but she can’t argue with what you’re saying, so give it a shot!)
  • Back away and leave me alone for a while, but not too long. Leave me a note—friendly, affectionate; give me some space and wait for me to respond to you.

Maybe you can think of another strategy that would work best for you. Don’t try to come up with your strategy during the argument itself; try discussing it calmly at a time when you’re not angry. I’m absolutely committed to my marriage, so it’s worth the time and effort it will take for my husband and me to learn how to fight fair and make up quickly. If I truly want my strong will to bring honor and glory to God, I must learn to put myself aside and keep my husband first. Wow—that’s harder than it sounds! I love this illustration from On This Day by Carl D. Windsor:

Even the most devoted couple will experience a “stormy” bout once in awhile. A grandmother, celebrating her golden wedding anniversary, once told the secret of her long and happy marriage. “On my wedding day, I decided to make a list of ten of my husband’s faults which, for the sake of our marriage, I would overlook,” she said. A guest asked the woman what some of the faults she had chosen to overlook were. The grandmother replied, “To tell you the truth, my dear, I never did get around to listing them. But whenever my husband did something that made me hopping mad, I would say to myself. Lucky for him that’s one of the ten!

Awareness is at least half the battle. If I can recognize what I am doing and how it is affecting my husband, I can decide to improve. One of the promises we have made to each other is that we will never annoy one another on purpose. Of course, we’re still bound to irritate each other, often daily, but you’d be surprised what a difference it makes when we know it’s not deliberate!

Taken from Redefining the Strong-Willed Woman by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias. Copyright © 2002 by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias. Used by permission of Zondervan.