What do you get when an emotionally immature man marries an emotionally immature woman? Answer: role-reversal. The phenomenon is widespread! Role reversal in marriage is so common that the reality either rings true in your own home, or very close to it! Nearly all, know a family member or friend in and upside down marriage.

Typically, role reversal in marriage is discussed from the standpoint of inequities in education, earnings and household chores. Bruce’s story is a great example.

“Our marriage is upside down and backwards. I am the stay-at-home Dad. Between the four kids including our nine-year-old, Asher– I’ve changed 14,000 diapers. I do the laundry, the cleaning and most of the cooking. I worry over every cough and bloody nose.

Roni is a corporate attorney. She loves power tools, hardware stores, steakhouses and playing the stock market. She warns me not to jump up every time someone skins a knee so we don’t end up with a houseful of crybabies. She organizes, plans, and strategizes. But even though she is Generalissimo Momma, we struggle over who’s in control.” (Ms. Magazine, June 2003)

According to Bruce, Roni was more educated, earned triple his income (and triple the hours away from home), leaving him largely responsible for managing the children and household chores.

Bruce’s story captures the easily observable things that often occur in role-reversed marriages. Seldom checked is the emotional content rampant in these kinds of relationships. For many couples it is the unaddressed emotional reality at work and to their demise. Despite Bruce’s relationship appearing to work for them, notice his last sentence: “But even though she is Generalissimo Momma, we struggle over who’s in control.” Perhaps Generalissimo Momma is a funny pet name, but an endearing one-I think not! The words that follow, “we struggle over who’s in control”, are a clue to an emotionally charged relationship.

It’s not the tasks that do couples in. In many cases, an emotionally responsible and secure husband or wife can separate what they do from who they are. But for the emotionally immature it is not so. It’s how we feel about the tasks. It’s how we feel when engaging the task. It’s the tension between what God created us to be versus what we were raised and socialized to be. Over the past 20 years, as a counselor and pastor I have spoken with hundreds of husbands and wives. Many experience role reversal. Husbands experiencing role reversal tend to be diplomatic, hospitable and supportive. On the other hand wives married to these husbands commonly are goal-oriented, focused and dependable. All of these characteristics are positive and helpful.

The irony is Jesus was all of these things. Husbands and wives fight to retain their respective qualities when each can have all of them. Think of these qualities as a right and left hand. Nearly all of us have a dominant hand. It’s the one we use all the time. When threatened the dominant hand almost without fail defends. The subordinate hand is the last resort. We have it. It works. We use it. Sometimes in low risk situations the subordinate hand makes a cameo appearance. But mostly, it is in use only when required. Immediate relief comes to the role-reversed marriage, when one spouse begins to engage the subordinate hand. But for most this simple idea is laced with fear and thus avoided altogether. Unfortunately, this contributes to emotional toxicity.

Each of the above characteristics has a toxic side for which Jesus died on the cross. Toxicity occurs when the strength of husband and wife is built up to the point that it dominates interactions and the spouse is unable to process what is happening fast or thoroughly enough to achieve emotional stability. The inability to adjust to the pressure results in emotional injury. Repeated injury erodes both the relationship and more importantly, the desire for relationship. Toxicity in husbands looks like non-confrontational, passive aggressive and non-committal. For wives toxicity appears as aggressive, controlling and inflexible behaviors.

The primary cause of emotional toxicity is overfeeding strengths. We do this in a variety of ways. For most, our strengths are employed at work and play. Constantly using our strengths toughens them. Another way we guzzle down our strengths is by associating exclusively with those that share them. Moreover, our strengths are energized when we maintain unfavorable attitudes toward those that do not possess them.

There is another discovery I made about husbands and wives in emotionally role-reversed marriages. They actually have some underlying things in common. These shared characteristics are lynchpins to emotional immaturity. They prevent us from growing up. They are especially apparent in toxic relationships. A few things tole-reversed husbands and wives have in common are: fear, anger and distrust. For instance, a husband typically fears abandonment. A wife fears rejection. A husband generally is angry with himself for signing over his power to another. A wife is angry at others for misusing power assigned to them. Such husbands do not rust self, while their wives do not trust others.

Both husbands and wives in emotionally, role-reversed marriages are rebellious toward authority. Oftentimes husbands refuse to take God-given authority and wives usurp God-given authority. Perhaps the best way to begin re-ordering emotionally charged, role-reversed marriages is to explore those things husbands and wives have in common. It certainly would make for robust dialogue. And I hardly think either husband or wife would covet bragging rights to such a conversation!