So, I have a theory about this whole idea that women want love, but men want respect.
In short: the people who promote this notion use the word ‘respect’ to mean something different to what I think it means.
If you’re new to this whole ‘love vs respect’ controversy, it’s easy to find in Christian circles, thanks to a popular marriage book by Emerson Eggerichs. The title? Love and Respect.
Eggerichs sets out his aim in the first paragraph:
This book is about how the wife can fulfill her need to be loved by giving her husband what he needs—respect.
The message is plain enough: men have a need for respect that many women simply don’t get and will not understand unless men explain it to them. Problem is, the explanations Eggerichs offers in his book are actively harmful.
Fortunately, there has been considerable pushback against the messages in Eggerichs’ book, including lengthy and careful work by Sheila Gregoire. When she benchmarked it against a scorecard of healthy sex teaching, Love and Respect scored 0 out of a possible 48. Yes, zero.
But something else about the idea of respect has been nagging at the back of my mind. I didn’t put my finger on what it was until recently.
Different meanings of respect
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, Sierra Wilston, posted a meme in response to the book’s mis-messaging. She said:
In many ways, this is a perfectly valid and accurate statement. But something about it didn’t sit right with me. Then it clicked: Sierra used the word ‘respect’ to mean something different to what Eggerichs means.
I’m not the first person to come to this kind of realisation.
Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority”
and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person”
and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t, and it’s not okay.
That’s what I felt when I read Sierra’s meme: when she talks about respect, she means treating someone like a human being. Which includes respecting a person’s boundaries.
However, Eggerichs’ understanding of respect is much closer to treating someone like an authority.
But there’s more to it than that.
I think Sierra uses respect to talk about self-worth, but Eggerichs uses respect to talk about self-importance.
How does Eggerichs define respect?
As Sheila Gregoire observed:
He doesn’t, actually. In the whole book, he never gives any succinct definition of respect.
However, he does use the acronym CHAIRS to describe how a husband feels when he’s respected:
- Conquest (appreciate his need to work and achieve)
- Hierarchy (appreciate his desire to protect and provide)
- Authority (appreciate his desire to serve and to lead)
- Insight (appreciate his desire to analyze and counsel)
- Relationship (appreciate his desire for shoulder-to-shoulder friendship)
- Sexuality (appreciate his desire for sexual intimacy)
What I want to show you is how each one of these is arguably more about self-importance than self-worth.
Conquest (appreciate his need to work and achieve)
I can understand the desire or even need to work and achieve things. In Genesis, we read that God worked to make a good creation; there is a huge delight and satisfaction in doing good work.
But that’s not conquest.
Conquest is about trampling down your enemies, beating your opponents. Yes, the Bible has much to say about God being the ultimate victor, but the endgame there is the end of all evil. Which… um… isn’t really the focus of a marriage relationship.
Put another way, God has no inherent need to ‘be the winner.’ And neither do we.
If Eggerichs genuinely wanted to talk about the desire to work and achieve good things, things that are bigger than ourselves, he could have used the word ‘Collaboration’ instead of ‘Conquest.’ But he didn’t.
I think this is because his understanding of respect is less about self-worth, the value each person can contribute to something, and more about self-importance, i.e. being the person on top.
Hierarchy (appreciate his desire to protect and provide)
Protecting and providing for someone should be about their needs and wellbeing, not your own. Eggerichs could have used ‘Help’ or ‘Helper’ to convey that meaning.
Instead, however, he uses ‘hierarchy’—a term loaded with importance. It’s like he’s less interested in the good results of protecting or providing and more interested in the status of being the Protector and Provider.
Authority (appreciate his desire to serve and to lead)
This is a thorny one. Bear with me.
Christians don’t shy away from the idea of ‘servant leadership’ for the simple reason that we believe our leader (Jesus) became like a servant for our sake. And he taught that we should serve each other.
However, no one pretends that Jesus’s teaching removes the need for leadership or decision-making. So instead of being either a servant or a leader, Christians say that it’s possible to be both.
There is something unsettling about the way Eggerichs wraps the desire to serve and lead under the umbrella of ‘Authority.’
It places more weight onto the idea of husband as specifically leaders. And it adds an element of assumed righteousness, like men inherently know what’s best. From this angle, ‘serving’ and ‘leading’ sit easily with each other, not because a husband leads with the humility of Christ, but because—in the husband’s mind—he’s leading his wife for her own good.
And if you weren’t aware, this attitude is a hallmark of abuse.
Yes, I appreciate that Eggerichs probably wasn’t trying to promote abuse. People might defend the book saying that he’s talking about a ‘sacrificial authority.’ (That’s the phrase Kathy Keller uses in The Meaning of Marriage, p179.)
But no amount of ‘self-giving’ or benevolence can overcome the implication Eggerichs makes, namely that husbands have the prerogative to make decisions for their wives.
No, that’s not OK. Why? Because that one-sided right of decision-making fosters self-righteousness and entitlement on the husband’s part, and these attitudes lead to abuse.
Also, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Let me lead you,’ or ‘Let me lead you because I know what’s best for you because I’m the son of God.’ He could have, but he didn’t. He said, ‘Follow me.’
Jesus wasn’t interested in putting his leadership onto us or collecting us as followers. He doesn’t lead because he wants to ‘be a leader.’ Rather, he’s going where he’s going, regardless of what we do; he’s giving us the choice of following him and reaping the benefits.
It might feel like I’m splitting hairs here, but this is important. When Eggerichs puts husbands leading and serving under the umbrella of husbands’ authority, the agency of wives gets relegated. In contrast, when Jesus said, ‘Follow me,’ that was a call that respects our agency.
Or to put another way: I think the ‘respect’ that Eggerichs says men want to feel, is less about the desire to lead well for the benefit of others, and more about the desire to ‘be a leader.’ It’s about feeling important, about status.
Jesus wasn’t interested in that.
In summary, yes, it’s fine if you have the desire to serve and the willingness to lead while you do. But if that’s the case the ‘A’ that other people ought to have regard for is not your authority, it’s your agency and autonomy.The ‘respect’ that Eggerichs says men want to feel, is less about the desire to lead well and more about 'being a leader.' It’s about feeling important, about status. Click To Tweet
Insight (appreciate his desire to analyze and counsel)
If you ask me, the desire ‘to analyse and counsel’ is more about intelligence, than insight.
The emphasis here is on status as a trusted advisor, much more than the ability to give insight. Because you know what? People don’t need to be intelligent to give insight. If we want to talk about worth rather than importance, then this line should read: ‘Insight (appreciate his desire to offer a different perspective).’
Relationship (appreciate his desire for shoulder-to-shoulder friendship)
On the surface this one looks fine, but in the context of the other bullets, it rubs me the wrong way.
There’s a song in the Baz Luhrmann adaption of Romeo and Juliet by Everclear. It has these lines:
I feel just like a local god when I’m with the boys
We do what we want
Yes, we do what we want
That’s what this bullet reminds me of when it talks about ‘shoulder-to-shoulder friendship.’ It’s not about people facing the world together as a team; it’s about being around people who make you feel strong.
And I get that this is my interpretation. But if Eggerichs wanted to talk about worth rather than status or importance, he could have talked about ‘reciprocity.’
Then it would have been clear that this should not be taken in a self-centred or self-congratulatory way.
Sexuality (appreciate his desire for sexual intimacy)
Here’s the thing about sex: you can give, you can receive, you can take and you can be taken from. There’s nothing wrong with the phrase ‘desire for sexual intimacy’, but it’s a pretty ambiguous phrase.
And if we look at the rest of Love and Respect, Eggerichs doesn’t talk once about wives’ sexual pleasure.
So, if you ask me, this bullet is problematic. As I’ve written before, sex is not a means of restoring a person’s sense of self-worth and less still about preserving their ego. Whilst it might be therapeutic at times, it’s not therapy.
This bullet shouldn’t be so vague that people can take it selfishly—and it’s pretty easy to fix! Instead of talking about ‘desire for sexual intimacy’ it could talk about ‘desire to celebrate each other through sex.’ Simple.
I get that what I’ve given here is my interpretation of the CHAIRS acronym that Eggerichs offers. But I think the words he uses and doesn’t use show something about what he fundamentally thinks respect is. Namely, that it’s less about recognising a person’s inherent self-worth (as a human being made in the image of God) and more about recognising a person’s importance and status.
You see, when I think about self-worth, I always think that involves respecting a person’s agency and their ‘keep-out’ boundaries. It means not interacting with them unless you’ve got the right context and relationship. So, for example, it’s fine for a husband to consensually remove his wife’s clothes in the bedroom. But that would not be fine in public. And supposing the wife was at work? In that context, it would be inappropriate for a colleague even to ask to remove her clothes.
When consent activists talk about respecting boundaries, they’re talking about keep-out boundaries—lines that should not be crossed without appropriate context and permission. And as Sierra put in her meme, this is a need shared by both men and women.
But the kind of respect that Eggerichs seems to promote in Love and Respect is different. It’s not about a wife respecting her husband’s keep-out boundaries. It’s about the wife paving the way in front of him, so that he can effortlessly waltz through life without the slightest discomfort or hinderance. Hence, as Sheila observes, he says wives should be quiet and let their husbands do whatever they want in the house, and that this respect should be unconditional.
But this kind of relationship isn’t what respect really is! It’s… I dunno. Flattery? Adulation? Idolatry?
This goes to another point that Sheila made about Eggerichs’ concept of respect:
While you can unconditionally love someone but still offer “tough love”, there’s no equivalent for “tough respect”.
Why? It’s because love is about worth, but Eggerichs’ book frames respect as being more about importance in the sense of status.
I understand that there are unloving and even abusive wives out there. I get that some wives don’t know how to express themselves considerately. But those women won’t be helped by expectations that are inherently self-repressive for her, and self-congratulatory for him. You don’t make a person less entitled, by telling them that someone else has a bigger, better right to be entitled.
Meanwhile, there are plenty of wives and women out there who’ve been unfairly put down and whose trust has been betrayed. They don’t need a lesson in ‘respect’ that relegates their needs and wellbeing beneath their husbands’ ease and comfort. At best, it makes women more vulnerable to harm.
But at worst? It harms women, it harms marriages, and it tells men to link their self-esteem to ego and status. And you know what? That’s not the gospel.There are plenty of wives out there who’ve been unfairly put down. They don’t need a lesson in ‘respect’ that relegates their needs and wellbeing beneath their husbands’ ease and comfort. Click To Tweet
If you appreciated this post, you might also want read When we don’t explain the Trinity, the gospel gets ugly (especially for wives) or On wives ‘depriving’ their husbands of sex because she ‘doesn’t feel like it’.