I Went to the Well, and the Well was Dry: How Complementarianism Destroys Women

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When I started Revolutionary Faith a year ago, it was never my intention to write from a largely personal perspective. I had done that on a previous blog and wanted to keep this one Bible-centered as much as possible. That’s still my intention.

But, for today, I need to make an exception. And a confession.

I announced (rather boldly) a while back that when it comes to gender relations, I’m functionally egalitarian. In reality, that’s only half true. Complementarian teachings have had their claws in me for years, and they’ve proven rather difficult to shake.

I’m about to tell you how deep that rabbit hole goes.

For the past several years, I have devoted myself to the needs of my husband and family. Whatever they need. Whenever they need it. Even when I was tired. Even when it was soul-crushingly inconvenient. In the course of my husband’s short Naval career, I have given up two jobs, three if you count the at-home business I was about to start earlier this year (and into which I had sunk about $200 of my personal spending money on start-up costs). Four years ago, I did an out-of-state move while 7 months pregnant and recovering from hyperemesis gravidarum. (I remember lying on a mattress in the living room of the South Carolina duplex we were evacuating while my husband said, “Baby, you can’t just lie there all day; you have to help me clean.”) About six months ago, I took a full-time job with steady pay and hours so we could save for my husband’s upcoming transition from the Navy to the civilian world, yet I still come home to most of the cooking, cleaning, shopping and childcare. Mainly because my husband is now at sea for weeks at a time. I could go on. And on.

I have accepted this without much complaint or bitterness (or desperate pleas for help) because an insistent voice in my head told me that this is what good Christian wives do. I told myself if I could just get to the end of my husband’s term in the Navy, things would be better.

I have a well inside of me. In this well is my life source and energy. It’s where I call up my emotional fortitude and strength. Each time a demand of service is placed upon me, especially one that’s hard or inconvenient, I draw deeply from this well. It keeps me going in the tough times. In the times I want to cry or complain. In the times I want to scream and run away. The reserves from this well enable me to swallow the bitter words that rise up in my throat and soldier on for the good of my husband, my child, my friends, my church.

But not for the good of me.

Due to some special circumstances in my family, I have been drawing from this well more than usual lately. Once upon a time, it was only a few times per week. Lately, it’s been multiple times per day. And even though I’ve been praying and drawing closer to the Lord, I haven’t been doing anything else to refill the well.

I don’t think I’ve done anything of well-filling significance in 10 years.

Several days ago, I went to the well, desperately needing just one more gulp of fortitude to get me through a stressful moment. I lowered the bucket, and…

Nothing.

There was nothing.

I had sensed this moment coming for a few weeks. My mind and body were shutting down without my permission. I had black-outs at work where I would just stare at my computer, unable to move, function, or remember what it was I had planned to do next. At home, I fumbled through my cooking, struggling to concentrate on the recipe, my mind carrying me far away into a dense fog through which I had to claw my way back. I crawled out of bed every morning, in physical pain, with exhaustion thrumming deep in my bones, and the thought of facing another day in this meaningless hamster wheel of insanity seemed literally unbearable.

And now I stood at the lip of my well with an empty bucket in my hands. The well was finally dry. I had given it all. And my family still needed me. My job needed me. My friends needed me. My church needed me.

I very nearly panicked. The kind of panic rubber rooms are made for.

Three days ago, I decided to reach out to my friends for support and posted the following to my Facebook page:

Anyone who has talked to me in the past couple of weeks knows I haven’t been ok. My life looks fine on the outside (I go to work, bills get paid, my family is happy), but inside I’m falling to pieces. Tonight, I finally realized why. I haven’t taken care of myself. I carried burdens that were too heavy to carry alone. I said ‘yes’ when I should have said ‘no’. I said ‘ok’ when it clearly wasn’t ok. I didn’t make enough space for my needs or my grief. I didn’t allow myself to be served. And now I have hit a mental and emotional wall and am watching myself crumble against it like a crash test dummy. The more I try to hold myself together, the more I seem to shatter. I want to just let go and grieve, but my pain is so great that it terrifies me. A bucket of tears might not be enough. I’ve been through so, so much, but I’ve never been here. It’s so dark.

The response was, thankfully, immediate, and there were soon over 30 responses to the post, and my phone rang off the hook for the next two days.

But I noticed a common theme running through several of the responses. By saying this, I don’t mean to diminish the sincerity of the people who were trying to encourage me (because I’m very grateful), but I’ve noticed this trend in complementarianism as well. It goes something like this:

In His presence is FULLNESS of joy; that’s the place we can receive. Push everything out of the way and, like Esther, go into the king’s presence with praise and make your request known. HE alone is all we need.

(Actually, Esther went into the king’s presence with great dread and reluctance, but that’s a sermon for another day.)

The underlying assumption is, I’m in a mess because I haven’t drawn close enough to the Lord. I haven’t allowed His peace to fill me. I’ve just been worrying and fretting and not submitting enough to either God or my husband this whole time, and now the roof has caved in on all of my efforts. If I just had a little more faith, I would have perfect tranquility and everything would be ok.

There’s just one problem with that. My faith has never been stronger than it is right now. And if it’s so strong that God is performing miracles in answer to prayers that I’ve prayed, then there can’t be anything wrong with it.

Here’s what is wrong: Complementarianism (as defined by most evangelical teachers) tells women that they have no intrinsic value. That the only purpose for their creation is to serve a man and his children. A few go as far as to claim that any dreams or desires that a woman feels that in any way deviates from those of her husband come from Satan as a temptation to stir up discontent in her heart. (Hint: This idea is not in scripture. Anywhere.) The kind of complementarianism outlined in the Bible is more-or-less a 50/50 proposition, with the man loving his wife just as Christ loved the Church (Ephesians 5:25), and with the wife submitting to her husband as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22). But in my experience, about 95 percent of complementarian teachings in books and sermons are directed at women. It seems it’s not terribly important to the church if the man decides not to love, but if a woman fails to submit in whatever way the leadership deems appropriate (because the Bible isn’t clear on the details), Christianity itself is subverted and thrown into chaos.

As a result, women force themselves to carry burdens that humans were never meant to shoulder alone. And what’s worse is that complementarianism denies women access to the physical, emotional and relational provisions God has given to strengthen and nourish them. When a complementarian tells a woman to “Trust God,” he or she doesn’t mean trust God for the opportunity to attend a girl’s night out, or trust God that your husband will volunteer to do the dishes, or trust God that your call to missions is genuine. No, they mean trust God for peace to calmly (and silently) accept your lot as the long-suffering servant. The keeper of all things. And, eventually, the happy housewife. (It is the “highest calling,” after all!) It’s a bit like calling out, “Daddy, help me!” And He gives you a meal. You ignore it and call out again, “Daddy, help me!” And He sends you a helper. You ignore the helper and cry out, “Daddy, help me!” This time, He reaches down and gives you a hug. You ignore the hug and continue to cry, “Daddy, help me!” After a while, Daddy is left shaking His head.

I was amazed at the number of women who responded to my Facebook post and confessed that they felt the same way. Isolated. Overworked. Overwhelmed. Doing it all with little help. Men who just don’t get it when they try to explain. Or men who aren’t there at all. Friends who are only on Facebook. A church that’s only there on Sundays. Psychiatrists who give us pills to cope. Because that’s the only way we can cope with heresy like this. And it’s not just in our churches. It’s everywhere. Saturated into our culture. Preached to us in television commercials. We go out into the world, and the well is rushed. Assaulted. Drained.

Jesus wouldn’t tolerate this nonsense.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:1-4).

Related Posts:

Where Complementarians Go Wrong on Headship

Blessed in Mourning

Submission or Celebration?

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17 responses to “I Went to the Well, and the Well was Dry: How Complementarianism Destroys Women

  1. Jesus also left the needy crowds to go off and refresh himself.

    The most thoughtful thing a caregiver can do is to take care of her or himself first so that s/he can remain a caregiver instead of crashing and needing more care than s/he can give.

    Jesus told us to love others as ourselves, not loving ourselves MORE than others, but not loving ourselves LESS than others, either.

    Overgiving is as pathological as selfishness. I often tell people whose needs are deep that I will help them until it starts harming me, then they will have to find another resource. The people who really care about us will not want us to spend ourselves dry and we need to set firm boundaries on those who don’t care enough to keep their expectations reasonable. I even have a “Do I look like God” speech for those who attempt to manipulate by guilt-tripping after I have told them I have too much on my plate to take on any more responsibilities. I guess that is why I have reached my 71st year in reasonably good health, while many of my more “selfless” friends have become cash cows for the healthcare industry. BTW, about that “selfless” thing, how can we give ourselves to God if we have no self left to give?

    Nietzsche stated two reasons for turning away from Christianity–it tended to produce herd and slave mentalities in people. Actually, that is too often what churchianity, not Christianity, does to many people.

      • If you would like to read about recognizing unsafe people and setting legitimate boundaries from a Christian perspective, I recommend two books by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend:

        (1)Safe People and (2) Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No To Take Control of Your Life.

        Both of them have been on the market for over 10 years and can be bought used for a very reasonable price.

  2. My wife drew from that well for 30+ years and last year it ran dry as we learned about the degenerative neurological condition that has been building up since she was born. I thought I had been a dutiful loving husband but I know now as more and more of what she can no longer do becomes my responsibility, I am beginning to understand how badly I failed.
    Christianity can be an enslaving force for women especially when it devalues “women’s work” and those who do it.

  3. Grace is not about “doing.” It is about freedom – for women as well as for men. It is not about law-keeping. It is about accepting the generous love of God. No one is supposed to shoulder all burden – it is to be shouldered equally. Churches who support any form of subservience are doing half of Christendom a disservice.

    I will be praying for you; and yes, please begin to care for yourself, and request that your husband begin also to care for you as well.

    • I wasn’t really thinking of my service in terms of earning grace for myself; more like showing grace to those who “needed” it. But perhaps that’s not entirely my job, either.

      Thanks for the prayers. They do help.

  4. Hi April. You are suffering from clinical depression (classic symptom pattern). The first thing that you need to understand is you are ANGRY. All of the other stuff you are feeling is legitimate too, but most of it is just fallout from the anger. The most basic definition of clinical depression is “internalized anger” that is banging around inside of you like bullets ricocheting inside a bank vault. It is okay to feel angry. Jesus had angry momnts too. The anger is merely a signal that you have some issues that need some conscious attention.

    God has provided two remedies that work best together: medication and talk therapy with a good Ph.D. clinical psychologist. I recommend against a licensed clinical social worker (M.A. degree) with a specialization in psychotherapy because they are like nurse practioners and paramedics—not all that great in many cases. Ignore any advice you might hear that says to go only to a “Christian” clinical psychologist. This advice is bad and utter nonsense. Clinical psycholgists ARE NOT taught to advise people that they must abandon their faith to be happy. Most will respect whatever faith you have because their job is to respect you and be on your side.

    At any point, if you feel like you are despondent and want to kill yourself, call 911 or go immediately to the emergency room at your local hospital. They will help you get past the “20 minute window” that is usually the difference between life and death. It is a legitimately accepted medical emergency, and this is what professional psychotherapists advise their patients to do.

    Theology 101: The scripture says to “love your neighbor AS you love yourself.” You are giving all of your love to your neighbors and virtually none to yourself. It is okay to say:

    “Do this yourself.”

    “Please help me with this.”

    “I need some space and plenty of it.”

    “No!!!” (If necessary, follow it with: “Which part of NO is it that you do not understand, the “N” part or the “O” part?”)

    • I’m coming to a very painful realization that, yes, I’m not going to be able to work through this crisis on my own, or even with the support of my husband. I don’t want to attribute it all to repressed anger or depression or even to complementarian voices in my head, because I feel this is a very multi-faceted situation with lots of things to examine and address. One of those things is grief. I’m pretty sure I’m entering some type of grieving process. It has just hit at the same time as all of this exhaustion and…whatever else. Several things are becoming clear to me though: I need to establish healthy boundaries, I need more time for rest and personal pursuits, and I need to work on strengthening the life-giving friendships I have. I think God is showing me that my current lifestyle of endless giving is unsustainable. Especially if I want to grow in my faith (blog post coming on this one).

      Don’t worry: I haven’t felt any urges to harm myself…just maybe run away to Albuquerque, at worst. If things get bad, I will call for help. Thankfully, my husband only has until the end of February left to go in the Navy; the light is at the end of the tunnel.

  5. P.S. All issues should be on the table for consideration, including whether your husband actually needs to stay in the Navy. He could ask for a land-based assignment and cite unique difficulties at home as the reason. A friend’s dad was in the U.S. Air Force for 20 years and subject to constant moving around—Texas one year—California another year—Mississippi another year—South Carolina another year—-dad alone in Pakistan another—dad alone in Viet-Nam during the Tet Offensive. Being ripped away from friends and a sense of place and sometimes feeling that a loved one is in danger overseas contributes to a cumulatively powerful sense of loss emotionally and can lead straight into depression.

    I will warn you about one other thing too. If your husband is an enlisted man, he may have gone into the Navy because he needed a sense of order and regimen that he is incapable of imposing on himself in civilian life. If this is true, storm clouds may lie ahead in the form of a husband that cannot buckle down, hold a civilian job for long, and find hsi way through the maze of life. It may show up in the form of a desire to re-enlist when you most need him to share family responsibilities in civilian life at home. He may need some therapy too, and a good time to start is while the Navy will pay for it.

  6. We all love you April and are on your side. You are not alone in this. Get some help—Navy insurance pays for therapy and Jesus will be right there with you along the way. It was one of the best things I ever did, and it can actually be fun after a while—choice is yours. God heals in more ways than just a calm inner hand.

  7. Dear darling April, you are like Paul, pouring yourself out like a libation for those you love! We are not endless, limitless, or boundless like our God, though we are made in His image, and we can break our hearts and kill ourselves pushing our limits ever further. I will try to post some practical resources a little later (when I find them again), and meanwhile, I will lift you up in prayer…
    Thanks Don A, for posting this on another site where I fell into it 🙂 adding you and your wife to my list too!

  8. Dear April,
    I stumbled onto your blog, and as someone who had great faith and became completely broken by far too big of emotional burdens that any one person should carry, I just want to say that now is the time to deal with the grief, rage and deep sadness that you have had to carry for too long…I was a “good” person, when I went into therapy, my councilor could not believe that I was or had what I claimed to have, because the odds of me surviving and surmounting what I had dealt with were impossible.
    My family still requires the literally impossible from me–I recently had hand surgery and my mother, who is a narrcesistic person and perhaps borderline personality disorder–came in and demanded ( she has never asked) that I thread a needle for her—when I talked with my beloved about it, I was laughing….and said,” Forget the sound of one hand clapping, how about one hand threading a needle” she did not acknowledge that with my one hand unable to hold anything, I
    Was not able to do what she demanded. She went down the normal pathways for her, and since she is not willing to change, and I have changed so much to not be recognizable, I long ago came to the understanding that she would never see me
    And have chosen compassion for my guiding light through the life I live.

    I wish you well…and pray for you….I have had, since my body broke down and I had to stop….come to full stop, bedridden and supposed to be in a wheelchair almost 20 years ago…I have had many transformative experiences, and have come far away, although my Jewish/Christian roots are where I speak from, I have experiences that cover the map of all beliefs–which is what God asked of me.

    The leaders of the Churches, since they become ritualized (dead) pretty completely, often cannot help us. I have watched enough of women being shamed to not go anymore, that is not something I allow into my life any more….and it’s been tricky to stay a living breathing feeling heartbeat for God, going through all my mistakes in my life and correcting them….horrible, in fact. But if you have chosen to be “good” then all the mistakes you have made (in all of time) have got to be brought to accountability, because you are one of God’s beloved.

    I just came through a big correction of my vision, and it has left me exhausted –I am crawling away from my old self into the newer brighter me is very hard…and I asked for it—we have asked for bread from those who only have rocks to give.

    Be of good cheer, the help you have asked for will come—just not the way that you think it’s supposed to.

    Be well.
    Elise Von Holten

  9. About fifty years ago, a friend told me that there was no point in trying to do everything if there was no time for breathing. She was right. I know where you are and you can move into a new, more fulfilling life by choosing to be God’s beloved child, not a slave to an institution.

    I believe God loves to hear us laugh, to see us smile, and to watch us love others.