The Stereotype of the Nagging, Contentious Wife: Understanding Proverbs in its Original Setting

I’ve come across a couple of sources lately that argue the book of Proverbs teaches that wives have a tendency to be complaining, contentious nags. One author believes that in this ancient book of wisdom we learn about “gender sin,” which consists of anger for men and nagging and complaining for women.

A gender sin is a wrongful action or attitude commonly displayed by one gender as opposed to the other. Gender sin may not be in the dictionary, but Proverbs attributes “anger sin” to men and “nag sin” to women. Of course, wives get angry and husbands gripe, but every time Proverbs mentions a nagging, grumbling, contentious person, it is a married woman, a wife.[1]

Others seem to think, based on the book of Proverbs, that if a woman feels like her husband is mistreating her it is most likely her own attitude that is really the problem.[2] After all, Proverbs never says it’s better to live on the corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome husband, does it? Or that dwelling in the wilderness is better than living with a contentious and angry man? No, Proverbs consistently hangs marital dysfunction on the wife.[3]

Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife. (Prov. 21:9)

It is better to dwell in the wilderness, than with a contentious and an angry woman. (Prov. 21:19, KJV)

A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm; restraining her is like restraining the wind or grasping oil with the hand. (Prov. 27:15-16)

The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down. (Prov. 14:1)

So yes, there are plenty of examples of problematic wives in Proverbs and not a single example of a difficult husband, though of course it speaks of wicked men. Yet the idea that Proverbs proves women are contentious nags and the source of marital strife rests on a misunderstanding of the context and meaning of these verses. There are at least four reasons this is true.

1. In its original setting the book of Proverbs was addressed primarily to young men.

Proverbs is not a general book of wisdom sayings intended for a mixed audience. Rather, for the most part it contains the instruction of a father to his son as preparation for his launch into adulthood, though sometimes the mother or both parents are speaking. It is inspired Scripture just like other parts of the Bible, but the focus is on what sons need to know. That’s why it talks so much about staying away from immoral, seductive women and what to look for in a wife.[4]

Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. (Prov. 1:8)

My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you…then you will understand the fear of the Lord. (Prov. 2:1, 5)

My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart. (Prov. 3:1)

Listen, my sons, to a father’s instruction. (Prov. 4:1)[5]

The reason there is not one lonesome word about staying away from seductive men is simply that daughters were not in view. If they had been, no doubt Proverbs would contain similar warnings for girls. Since the focus was sons, though, Proverbs goes into a lot of detail about what a young man needs to know to have a good life.[6]

Neither is there a section detailing the ideal husband. We never hear how challenging it is to find a man of valiant character who works hard from before sun-up to long past sundown, providing for his family. Daughters are never exhorted to look for a man who is savvy in business and generous to the poor, who will bring good and not harm to his wife all the days of her life. Proverbs never reminds young women that a handsome, charming man is nothing compared to one who fears the Lord, who carries faithful instruction on his tongue.

Why? Simply because advice to young women was not the purpose of Proverbs. We have to generalize certain Proverbs in order to apply them to women.[7] Of course young women need to know what to look for in a husband and how to stay away from a man who completely lacks honorable intentions. Just because it’s not explicitly stated does not mean the principle does not apply.

Most of you are aware of all that, though. What you might not have considered is the next point.

2. In a patriarchal culture, by definition, it is not possible for a husband to be “contentious” or “nagging” with respect to his wife.

Men can quarrel with one another and have a generally contentious attitude, yet this would not apply to the marital relationship.[8] Why? Because contentiousness has to do with fighting with someone until your perspective or will wins out. In Old Testament culture where men retained decision-making authority, even if argument ensued where the husband enforced his will, his actions would not be considered quarrelsome. In a world where a man is supposed to get his way, no matter how difficult he might be, fighting to get his way can never be classified as contentious.

Neither would the ancient world conceive of a husband as “nagging” his wife. Nagging ensues when one individual possesses the power to resist or say no to the other’s wishes. The “less empowered” person then resorts to nagging in an attempt to get what they want. This state of powerlessness over wives and children was simply not the perceived position of husbands during biblical times. Even if a wife resisted her husband and he turned to nagging as a solution, a patriarchal culture would not identify his behavior in that way.

So the real reason Old Testament culture associated sins like complaining, quarreling and nagging with wives was its perception of proper social hierarchy, not because they are innate, gender-specific qualities.[10]

On the other hand, in our more egalitarian society I believe it is possible for husbands to become quarrelsome nags toward their wives, though many may have difficulty conceiving of such a situation. One author notes that husbands can also be contentious, yet his example describes a man who quarrels with others rather than with his wife. The contentious wife, however, is explained as disappointed in her husband, continually fighting with him over trivial matters.[11]

In spite of these stereotypical depictions, it seems to me that in some marriages the husband may become a nag because the wife retains power over certain elements of family life. In others, the husband may have arenas of greater power so the wife resorts to quarreling. The principle remains; the gender specificity does not.

3. If Proverbs teaches that only wives nag and quarrel, then to be consistent it also teaches that only women seduce.

And we know that’s not true.[12]

My son, pay attention to my wisdom…for the lips of the adulterous woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword. (Prov. 5:1, 3-4)

My son, give me your heart and let your eyes delight in my ways, for an adulterous woman is a deep pit, and a wayward wife is a narrow well. Like a bandit she lies in wait and multiplies the unfaithful among men. (Prov. 23:26-28)

We have to be consistent. If some sins are innately gender specific (such as nagging) because they are associated only with women in Proverbs, then every sin connected only with women is as well (like sexual seduction). If the basis for proving gender specificity in sinful behavior is appearance in Proverbs, then that must hold true across the board.

Yet no one seems to be saying that women are the wellspring of sexual sin anymore, though this was pretty commonly accepted throughout history. Eve was viewed as the original seductress, revealing the fundamental nature of women as tempters of men. By this thinking, women were the source of sin and evil in the world.[13]

I think it’s pretty obvious today that both men and women can seduce the opposite sex, both men and women can be contentious, and both men and women bring evil into the world. We can’t blame any of this on one gender alone.

Yet too many people, in their unthinking reading of Proverbs, still envision contentious nags as women.

4. Even if a wife is behaving in a “contentious” or “nagging” manner, she may not be the ultimate source of the problem.

Yet many seem to think that she is.

John Piper answers a question about the “theme of the quarrelsome wife” in the Bible, especially as it relates to a man divorcing his wife.[14] Piper quickly states that these verses do not condone divorce and remarriage, referring to his understanding of covenant to support his view.

Then Piper goes on to explain what these verses do teach. This is the troubling part because he mostly takes them at face value, accepting as reality the idea that in such cases the wife truly is the problem. Instead of taking a step back, first discussing the historical context and the very real possibility that a man with a “quarrelsome” wife may actually be part of the issue, Piper simply exhorts wives to be agreeable rather than contentious. When it comes to the men, Piper encourages them to find a good wife. But if it’s too late for that Piper wants them to keep loving their quarrelsome wife, trusting that God can change her heart.[15]

In contrast to Piper, experienced marriage counselor Willard Harley has a different take on “How To Deal With a Quarrelsome and Nagging Wife.” Harley says he’s “counseled many husbands who have been driven out of their homes by wives who simply won’t stop criticizing them.” All these men want is peace, but what they get is war.

As a counselor, Harley’s perspective differs starkly from Piper’s. Harley explains how in his counseling practice couples describe what has happened in their marriage in very different terms, something Piper does not address at all. The husbands typically say that their marriage started out pretty much perfect but gradually, over time, their wife became quarrelsome to the point that now it’s absolutely intolerable. Wives, in contrast, explain that early on they tried “to be accommodating in the face of [their] husband’s thoughtlessness,” but nothing ever changed. Eventually it all reached a boiling point. Harley goes on to say:

The problems he [the husband] creates for her [the wife] persist indefinitely and the resentment that accompanies them finally boils over. He wants her to forgive and forget but she cannot do either. The more she thinks about what she’s been through the angrier she feels. And when she’s alone with him, she lets him know about it.

The reason that this problem has persisted for so many millennia is well understood by most women whose husbands ignore their complaints. By expressing their displeasure with intensity, at least they are letting off steam, and once in a while they get their husband’s attention.

Harley clearly identifies the underlying cause of the woman’s inappropriate behavior: her husband’s dismissive attitude toward her valid concerns. So what does this experienced counselor recommend to a man married to a “quarrelsome and nagging wife”? Find the right woman? Keep loving her, though she has a hardened heart? Hope that someday she decides to be agreeable rather than contentious? Trust God to change her heart?

Not at all. Instead, Harley tells husbands to listen and respond to their wife’s complaints. And right there we have what seems so mind-numbingly obvious to me, yet it remains surprisingly absent from so much Christian marriage advice.

Detailing what he calls the three stages of nagging, Harley goes on to describe how a husband should respond in each:

During the first stage, when a wife is being respectful when she has a complaint, a husband should take her complaint very seriously. She is trying to work with him to find common ground…But if he were to call her complaints nagging, and encourage her to keep them to herself, he would be making a great mistake. He’d be missing an opportunity so solve little problems before they grow to become monsters. By trying to shut her up in this first stage, he is not only being disrespectful toward her but he is also destroying the good will she still has for him.

By the time conflicts get to the second stage of nagging, her good will has been squandered. She no longer believes that her husband cares about her interests, so she must fight for them. She must force him to care for her. So she becomes demanding, disrespectful, and angry in an effort to get her way.

In this second stage, when a husband recognizes a shift in her approach from being respectful to being disrespectful, he usually fights fire with fire. If she wants to be disrespectful, he can be that way, too. But if he makes that mistake, he will see his marriage unravel rather quickly. The right way for a husband to approach a demanding, disrespectful, and angry wife is to try to temporarily look past her inappropriate way of expressing herself, and try to deal with the complaint in a respectful way.

By the time couples reach the third stage, where all the wife can think about is “the years of neglect that she has endured,” solutions can be very hard to find, according to Harley. Better to truly listen and respond to your “contentious” wife’s concerns sooner rather than later, Harley would seem to be counseling husbands.

So where does all of that leave us when it comes to Proverbs’ teaching on difficult wives? I don’t know how many women out there are fundamentally contentious no matter how understanding and caring their husbands may be.[16] Nor can I discern what proportion of struggling wives are simply responding to their husband’s dismissive attitude. That is something that must be determined on a case by case basis, most likely with the help of professional counseling.

However, investigating whether the husband possesses a condescending, dismissive demeanor toward his wife that has led to her extreme frustration would be an important place to start, before jumping to the conclusion that the wife’s irritation has arisen in a vacuum.[17]

So when it comes to those Proverbs about how difficult wives make their husband’s life miserable, I am absolutely convinced that simplistic applications have led to far more harm than good.[18] As Harley notes:

One woman recently told me that she felt as if she had been stabbed by her husband a thousand times, and as she lay bleeding on the floor he wants her to forget the past and hope for a better future.

If this is how we treat “contentious, nagging” wives, God help us.


[1] Linda Dillow, What’s It Like to Be Married to Me? And Other Dangerous Questions (Colorado Springs, Colorado: David C Cook, 2011), 50. I want to say that I have been greatly impacted by Linda Dillow’s teaching, particularly her book Intimate Issues. In this case, however, I disagree.

[2] Emerson Eggerichs, “Not Wrong, Just Different and Valuable!” See also Nina Roesner’s article in The Atlantic, “How I Learned to Stop Criticizing and Be Nice to My Husband”; Answers From the Book, “In Proverbs 25:24 why is only the woman called contentious? Many men are contentious too”; Sarah Beals, “12 Ways Women Tear Down Their Husband Without Knowing It,”; Kaylene Yoder, “Proverbs 27 ‘Quarrelsome Wife'”; and just about anything written by Lori Alexander, aka The Transformed Wife.

[3] Proverbs does allow that men may be contentious but this idea is not applied to a man’s marriage. Rather, it pertains to his general behavior within society. See Prov. 26:21.

[4] Bruce Waltke explains: “The book consistently evaluates woman through a man’s eyes and never a man through a woman’s eyes.” The Book of Proverbs, Chapters 1-15 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), location 3376 (Kindle version).

[5] See also Prov. 1:15; 3:11, 21; 4:10; 5:7; 6:1, 3, 20; 7:1; 10:1; 13:1; 23:15, 19, 26; 24:13, 21; 27:11; 31:2.

[6] “Mothers would no doubt have corresponding comments to daughters regarding husbands, had the opportunity to express them been offered, and modern women might well interpret the contentious behavior of these Old Testament wives as having a potentially direct correlation with their husbands’ treatment of them.” Alison Le Cornu, “Proverbs,” in The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Catherine Clark Kroeger and Mary J. Evans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 334.

[7] Tremper Longman III states: “As pointed out earlier in the commentary, Proverbs discusses women and wives and not men and husbands because in its original setting the book was addressed to young men. However, modern women can certainly read the proverbs and apply them to their relationships with men.” Proverbs (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), location 12509 (Kindle version).

[8] See Prov. 26:21 on quarrelsome (contentious) men.

[10] Longman (location 1390): “Women may not be directly addressed by a proverb like 21:9… but it is appropriate and not difficult for the woman to apply the proverb to her own situation: ‘It is better to live in the corner of a roof than with a contentious man in a shared house.’” And (location 8478): “The principle is that it is difficult to live with those who are constantly looking for a fight.”

[11] Gary Thomas, “One of the Most Miserable Marriages Imaginable.” See also Susan Krauss Whitbourne at Psychology Today, “Why Do We Say Women Nag but Men Request? Why are there no nagging husbands?” ; and the fact that WebMD’s article “How to Stop Nagging” is filed under Women’s Health. As a contrast see Regi Campbell, “Are You Contentious?” who acknowledges that husbands may be contentious toward their wives.

[12] Longman (location 1390) that it is not “difficult to think of a male sexual predator rather than a female one as a woman appropriates chapters 5-7 to her situation.”

[13] Longman (location 1035-42) notes that there are two main themes found in all Ancient Near East wisdom traditions: 1) “The Wise and the Foolish”; and 2) “The Dangerous Woman.” This includes not only Hebrew writings but also Babylonian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Palestinian.

[14] Interview with John Piper, “How Should a Husband Treat His Quarrelsome Wife?”

[15] Piper does acknowledge that a husband could be contentious but he doesn’t develop the idea.

[16] No doubt truly difficult, abusive wives exist. This article is not meant to deny that fact but simply to move us beyond stereotypical assumptions.

[17] It seems that many times pastors do not have the training needed to discern the underlying sources of conflict in a marriage so instead fall back on quoting scriptures like the ones we discussed today as the solution to the couple’s difficulties.

[18] Longman (location 510) warns, “One must not only know the proverbs but also be able to read the people and the circumstances to know which applies. Proverbs are otherwise useless and even dangerous.”

%d bloggers like this: