In days long gone, standard marriage vows made the ceremony. For the woman, there was a phrase to be repeated – “to love, honor, and obey.” This “obey” was not present in the male vows, though. Those were “to love and to cherish” only.
We’ve come a long way, and the truly rare wedding ceremony includes the word “obey.” For this special occasion, this type of submission won’t fly today. But have we learned to differentiate between “submit” and “obey” daily? Let’s make sure we understand this difference before we commit to a relationship next time.
In some cultures, women must obey their husbands in a marriage. It means that the husband has complete control of what a submissive wife does, how she dresses and behaves, what meals she prepares, how she raises the children, and that in a relationship, she is to meet her husband’s own needs, not ever her own.
This seems appalling and even abusive to most of us. When one partner in a marriage has total power over the other, it doesn’t seem like a modern marriage or a partnership.
A part of the “textbook” definition of submission is to accept the will of someone.
Now, if we take this definition and talk about submission in a relationship, it doesn’t mean that one partner relinquishes control to the other. It begins to look like either partner at different times, and in many different ways, may submit to the other partner’s wishes. Being submissive within this context doesn’t mean complete control of one over the other. It means that submission in a relationship is flexible, depending upon the consequences.
Let’s take a common example: one partner has a more significant career than the other.
They may be offered a position in another city – one that means a huge career jump. The partner whose job is far less significant “submits” to the other’s fantastic opportunity and agrees to the move.
We need to stop thinking of submission in a relationship as inequality. That type of submission may happen in the bedroom, especially in BDSM-type activities. But in the everyday life of a healthy relationship, the word submission is not a dirty word.
Submission takes many forms as partners who love one another and have mutual respect make an effort to please each other. It’s not about control. So, if your partner calls you up during the day and asks you if you will pick up their favorite ice cream while you are running errands, you will do that. Next week, you may be the one making that call. It’s not being subservient – it’s being of service to one that you love.
Healthy submission is more like a compromise, or doing favors for one another.
In a healthy relationship, both parties involved will “submit” to their partner’s needs and desires without feeling that this is a sign of weakness. In fact, submission in a relationship is one of a partner’s positive traits that is to be admired. And if you both have good self-images, and one of you is not self-centered, then submission will be expressed mutually.
Related reading: Setting Relationship Rules For a Healthy Partnership
Submissive female or male partners see that their own roles in relationships will call for them to lead and submit at other times. So think of that as a long-term balance, not a short-term imbalance of power. If you fall into the latter perception, this is where the word submission gets a bad rap and becomes a dirty word. People think of one person as being subservient to the other, but submission in a relationship is nothing like that.
So, as you read through this list, think about how being submissive helps relationships actually thrive. It’s not about who is in control, because that will vary. It’s always about mutual respect, love, and trust.
“In a relationship, compromise is an invitation to collaborate with your partner while solving problems. When we compromise, we validate our partner’s feelings, needs, desires, and aspirations. We are showing them that we respect them, their needs matter, and that their point of view is valuable—even though it’s different from our own.”
Claudia de Llano, marriage and family therapist
By its definition, compromise means that both partners are willing to give up something, or submit, to the needs and desires of the other. You and your partner will not always be on the same page.
Let’s assume two partners are looking for a new place to live. They each have a checklist of what they want in the new place. The woman wants a fireplace and two walk-in closets; the man wants a bonus room for a home office and a separate space for his weight-lifting equipment. To get all of this, there is nothing they can afford. Who gives in? The woman submits by crossing off the two walk-ins; the man submits by combining his home office with his weight-lifting space, even though that will be a bit cramped. In their acts of submission, they have both given consideration to their partner’s desires – it’s a matter of strengthening the foundation of their relationship.
It’s not about power and control, and it’s certainly not about weakness; it’s about giving up selfishness to the support of the most important person in your life.
When a person loves another, they want to do things that will please that other person. They speak and act in ways that the partner sees they truly care. These can be as simple as a small act of consideration to larger acts:
These may be acts of submission but not of weakness. They come with the territory of loving someone. That’s why the submissive spouse or partner is showing their consideration for their partner’s situation and wants to prove that they care – something that always improves a relationship.
Related reading: Putting Love into Action – It’s a Language
In all long-term relationships, there are decisions to be made. A couple needs to decide something as small as which event to attend when there is a scheduling conflict – or as huge as money matters, who goes back to school first, where they will live, etc.
When some decisions are to be made, one partner of the duo may defer to the other, saying they trust the other to make a good decision for the team. Yes, this is a submission, but the submissive partner means it as a voluntary act of trust. One partner will lead, and the other will follow.
A common problem is solved by one partner taking the lead with the other partner submitting. The tables may be turned in the future when decisions must be made.
Related reading: How to Build Trust in a Relationship: 15 Tips
Sometimes, one person will need to change their plans or give up something they want for the good of the other person.
Let’s say one person has decided to go back to school. This can easily mean sacrifices on the other’s part to make this happen:
Again, this is a clear sign of submission of one person to the other. They talk openly about the sacrifices that may need to be made, which makes the submissive partner undergoing the most significant changes and adaptations feel comfortable submitting for the good of the other.
Again, the fact that one is submitting to the other is not ultimately about power and control. It’s submission out of love, with an eye to a better future for both.
The submissive wife, husband, or partner has this understanding and willingly puts the relationship above all else.
Both partners should never fear having open communication and equal say when discussing things. When only one has the “right” to speak, that is subservience, not submission.
Submission during communication means that each person stops whatever they are doing (yes, put down the phone) and truly listens to what the other is saying, even though the time may be a bit inconvenient. This crosses into the area of respect and is one of the various ways one partner submits and can show that respect to their partner.
Related reading: Quality Time – It’s a Love Language
This is an area where submission in a relationship is really important. Each of us has boundaries in many aspects of our lives. Maybe we have lines we will not cross regarding sexual activities; we might refuse to cheat on our taxes; perhaps we have boundaries regarding alcohol consumption or drug use; maybe we don’t allow co-workers to pass their responsibilities on to us; and we don’t allow friends to take unfair advantage of our feelings and kindness. All of this is a part of self-awareness and confidence.
If our partner has boundaries that are not dealbreakers to us, we will respect and honor them. This is a submission based upon respect and has nothing to do with anyone trying to have more power by forcing someone to compromise their red lines. And this allows the other partner to feel secure in the relationship. Their feelings are honored.
Related reading: Boundaries in Relationships – Keeping Them Healthy
Submission in a relationship also calls for understanding a partner’s goals and dreams. When we choose to sacrifice some of ours to create an environment where a partner’s desire can be fulfilled, it is an act of submission.
And, if the relationship is healthy, there may come a time when we need such support from our partner, and they will submit to us. It’s an “equality opportunity” thing that often appears in life. To submit and put off some of one’s goals for a partner is a good thing, so long as that partner is willing to do the same at some point.
There are times when each of you wants to be alone with your thoughts and emotions. Partners must submit to that need out of respect and love. And a partner will always appreciate that submission.
In this age of full equality between the sexes, it is easy to confuse subservience and submission in a relationship. But subservience in a relationship equals inequality, because one partner completely defers to the other, who controls all aspects of that relationship. And if you realize that you are the subservient one in this type of relationship, you will never be happy.
In its turn, submission in a relationship is different. When partners submit to each other, it is out of respect, trust in their decision-making, care for their feelings and emotions, concern for their well-being, and more. Each partner has a keen sense of purpose for the success and health of their relationship. If you find a partner to whom you want to submit and who wants to submit to you, you’ve found a keeper.