“Once upon a time, men wore the pants, and wore them well. Women rarely had to open doors and little old ladies never had to cross the street alone. Men took charge because that’s what they did. But somewhere along the way, the world decided it no longer needed men. Disco by disco, latte by foamy non-fat latte, men were stripped of their khakis and left stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny. But today there are questions our genderless society has no answers for. The world sits idly by as cities crumble, children misbehave and those little old ladies remain on one side of the street. For the first time since bad guys, we need heroes. We need grown ups. We need men to put down the plastic fork, step away from the salad bar, and untie the world from the tracks of complacency. It’s time to get your hands dirty. It’s time to answer the call of manhood. It’s time to wear the pants.”

–From an advertisement for Dockers jeans

Initiative is the essence of manhood. Nothing comes to the man who is passive, except failure.

Men are not meant to be spectators. Real men accept responsibility rather than making excuses and look for solutions instead of casting blame.

Why is it that some men initiate great tasks and conquer overwhelming obstacles at work and remain so passive in relationships or in leading at home? It’s like it’s a disease that infects the male species.

Over the years I’ve done a little inventory of my own life; I’ve listed some of my own lame excuses for why I haven’t initiated.

Excuse #1: ‘Taking the initiative is hard work and I’m tired.’

I hate to admit this, but pure selfishness is the cause of most of my passivity. In years past, after solving problems at work I just wanted to vegetate, watch television, and not get involved with the smaller issues such as cleaning up the kitchen, helping with homework, or putting the kids to bed.  And I certainly didn’t want to deal with the bigger issues such as repairing a breach in my relationship with my wife or addressing a disciplinary issue with a child.

On multiple occasions, I pried myself out of my easy chair and into situations that I would rather have ignored. Being a man involves pain. Initiative demands sacrifice and self-denial.

Excuse #2: ‘I don’t know how to initiate.’

When I was single, developing a relationship with a woman felt risky. The learning curve was steep. Later, as a husband, at times I found it easy to abdicate leadership to my wife. As a dad I knew I needed to develop a relationship with my daughters and take them on dates, but what are we supposed to talk about? Other responsibilities, like having a “birds and bees” conversation with my children, were awkward and easy to rationalize putting off until sometime in the future.

Excuse #3: ‘Taking the initiative means I might fail.’

It may mean I’ve already failed and it’s easier not to risk failing again. Whether it was asking a young lady out on a date when I was single, or leading my wife in planning, discussing the family budget, hammering out boundaries and discipline for the children, or just the basics of leading my family, I found that the fear of failure created a huge gravitational pull toward passivity.

But real men take action. And when they do, great things can happen. Just ask my friend Tom.

The 10 questions

For many years, Tom Elliff and his wife, Jeannie, have taken time away from their normal routines to get away and be together. They read Scripture together, they pray, and have a wonderful time talking about their lives.

One year Tom decided to elevate the discussion and, in the process, open himself up in a way few husbands ever do. He developed his list of questions over a few months, basing them on issues he knew were of concern to Jeannie, and then sprung them on her during a retreat in the Rockies.

Here’s the list:

  1. What could I do to make you feel more loved?
  2. What could I do to make you feel more respected?
  3. What could I do to make you feel more understood?
  4. What could I do to make you more secure?
  5. What can I do to make you feel more confident in our future direction?
  6. What attribute would you like me to develop?
  7. What attribute would you like me to help you develop?
  8. What achievement in my life would bring you greatest joy?
  9. What would indicate to you that I really desire to be more Christlike?
  10. What mutual goal would you like to see us accomplish?

You’re probably thinking, There is absolutely, positively, no way I’m ever going to ask my wife questions like that.

That type of vulnerability takes courage.

‘I was almost blown away’

When I interviewed Tom and Jeannie on my radio program, FamilyLife Today®, I asked her how those questions made her feel. Jeannie replied that the first thing that crossed her mind was a sense of tremendous honor that her husband wanted to know how she felt about important issues in their lives. “I was almost blown away,” she recalled. “It was wonderful.”

Tom reviewed these same 10 questions with Jeannie many times since that first breakfast. When Tom told me about this experience, I couldn’t help but think it was a perfect illustration of 1 Peter 3:7, which instructs husbands,

You husbands likewise, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with a weaker vessel, since she is a woman; and grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life …

Asking these questions, and actually listening to the answers, helps a husband understand his wife’s heart. It connects a husband and wife to each other in a deeper way, and makes them accountable to each other.

This is the type of love, understanding, and leadership we are called to as men.

Spiritual initiative—the most frightening of all

Over the years I’ve challenged men to take the initiative and improve their marriages in another way. This action requires bedrock courage.

No, it’s not initiating sex. By comparison, that’s risky indeed, but nowhere nearly as challenging as … praying daily with your wife.

Now some men already are praying daily with their wives. But I’ve seen that look of hesitation and even fear in the eyes of many men when I’ve given them this challenge. It’s way out of their comfort zone.

I am not certain that Barbara and I would still be married had it not been for this spiritual discipline of experiencing God together in our marriage. It has kept us from building walls in our marriage, it has forced us to forgive one another, and it has kept us focused in the same direction.

Their relationship was transformed

A businessman who works for a well-known corporation took my challenge a number of years ago. He and his wife had been married for years and had two children. At the time, he was experiencing some difficulties in his marriage—he was angry over the lack of time they spent together, both relationally and physically; he had begun drinking (again) and they had been sleeping in separate bedrooms for two years.

They were not considering divorce and remained committed to the marriage, but, in his words, “We were both on different pages, spiritually and mentally. She wanted to have Bible studies together and pray, but I was not willing, due to my inner anger at her.”

A few years later, my path crossed his again, and he wrote me that when he took the initiative to pray daily with his wife, their relationship was transformed.

Quickly the level of anger subsided. Each night our prayers became easier and meant more. We quickly seemed to move onto the same page, our attitude toward each other changed, and we began liking each other again.

We also saw changes in our parenting as we started talking more and having in-depth conversations. Over the last few years, our conversations have turned to deep meaningful reviews of our lives and the mistakes we’ve made. We share hurts, frustrations, and worries. We both seem to want to help each other and support the other in times of need.

As we learned to love and respect each other, our sex life has grown into a beautiful expression of our love and is more satisfying than ever. Our walk with God has grown deeper, individually and as a couple. Our lives seem to be connected on a spiritual level as never before. As with any marriage, problems still arise, but now we feel equipped to deal with the issues in a positive way.

Just try it

Can you imagine what would happen in your marriage, in your family, if you showed that type of initiative and courage?

My encouragement is to try it. If you miss a day, then pick up again tomorrow and pray together. My experience is that the men who initiate prayer with their wives have a dramatically different relationship with them in less than two years.

Adapted by permission from Stepping Up: A Call to Courageous Manhood, © 2010 by Dennis Rainey, FamilyLife Publishing.