Rome, around 49 A.C.E.
Paul's letter to the Colossians is dated somewhere around 50 A.C.E., a couple of decades past the death of Jesus. In his letters we find the admonishment for men to be the spiritual leader in their homes, and for women to submit to their husbands. Children are to submit to their parents, and slaves to their masters. This 'family codex' is also found, in varying degrees, in his letters to Timothy and to the Ephesians. Rome was an advanced civilization, and for all that it is flogged as being a cruel empire, many of our modern ideals, such as democracy, find at least some of their basis in Roman society. Rome, unlike its neighbours to the East, believed in the equality of its citizens. And while there was still the sharp distinction between the rich and the poor, the concept of fairness had never before so permeated a great society. In the east, in countries like Egypt, caste ruled, and to whom you were born mattered more than your abilities or temperament. Rome's failing, in regards to its democracy, was in its patriarchal nature. (Unlike Egypt, where caste actually mattered more than sex) Its ideas about a republic mattered only if you were a man. Women had set roles. They were property. To be loved and cherished, yes, but as a woman you were not considered a full member of society. The concept of a woman with power was held only in the matriarchal nature of the home, and the mother's influence over her son or the wife's influence over her husband. (Caesar Augustus, in fact, created quite a stir by including his second wife, in some of his councils)
Back then, Christianity was still little more than a new Jewish sect, and highly misunderstood. Christians, those who claimed to follow the dead rabbi, Yeshua, were thought to be cannibals and worse. The Near East was a bubbling cauldron, for the Jews had never accepted Roman rule easily. Romans allowed people to worship whatever gods they wanted, Romans themselves held to a vast number of them, but some things were inviolate, the family code being one of them. They would not tolerate a new religion that sought to upset the balance of pax romana. Paul's inclusion of the 'family codex', according to many scholars, was as much to prevent the Romans (who saw the letters as they were passed from church to church) from persecuting this new religion as it was to instruct how families were to be construed.
Regardless, when Christianity was adopted as the state religion by Constantine, the family/slave codex remained in place. For nearly 1400 years, the idea of family, of slaves, and of a person's place in the world went without any great challenge. Three things happened however, that completely changed the way civilization was constructed. The first was the Protestant reformation, which was as political as it was religious. Martin Luther's idea that individuals did not need an intermediary between themselves and God was revelatory, and set in motion the concept of individualism something the world had never seen, at least, not in any great measure. It also signaled the continued fragmentation of Christendom, when the German church sided with Luther (or used him, depending on who you read) to establish their independence. As change swept across Europe, an important distinction between laws and customs was born. Feudalism and the old forms of governing shattered. Aided by the steady migration to cities, the ideals of Christian perfectionism were replaced by the dual forces of industrialization and capitalism. There is some argument as to when the Industrial Revolution began, but most historians' credit it to the textile innovations in the British textile industry in the 1760's. The Industrial Revolution changed everything, in that it replaced people with machines, and production increased so greatly it would lead to something else the world had never seen, the individual consumer. In the 1770's, the "fashion craze" made its first appearance (to the masses). In 1776, for example, the "in" color in London was something called couleur de noisette. Everyone who was anyone was wearing dove gray.
Capitalism proved to be a universal solvent, eating away at the social bonds between people in a given society as well as cultural barriers that once served to separate one society for another. In place of codes and doctrines, family or feudal ties, religious or caste codes, there was nothing left but the understanding of earned (not inherited) wealth that was available to all.
What does this have to do with gender roles? How does this affect my relationship?
Gender roles in our society are largely determined by our continuing commitment to pre-modern ideas, those that existed in both the time of Christendom, and before. This is true regardless of your religious affiliation. The idea that a man or a woman has a certain role to play was created in cultures where the roles were not only protected by custom, but by law. Whether you believe the apostle Paul was including a codex to protect the young sect from Roman persecution or not is irrelevant. How could Paul instruct equality, such as we understand it, in a time where women were neither allowed to engage in the political process or hold lands in their own name? And certainly the understanding that slavery is wrong is equally at play here, since it is included in the codex. And yet, while we have (largely) rejected slavery as immoral, we continue to define a woman's role by the same text of Scripture. And to do so now, in a culture that praises and promises individualism, we are destined to create havoc in relationships.
It is one of the greatest follies of our culture. From the time little girls and boys go to school, we define them by their own consequences, by what they do and what they become. And yet, when they enter into relationships as adults, we look to books regarding gender to better understand them! Why? Because we lack the surety of having our role dictated to us. Freedom is nice, but often it is easier to accept "my place" than to fight for a place of our own design. The other aspect, of course, is that men like the authourity that it gives them, which often makes their commitment to "individualism – equal rights for all" – less than enthusiastic.
Individualism is not perfect. I hate feeling as though everything I see is a commodity. That everything, including my faith and friends, are all for sale. Such is the destruction of capitalist individualism. However, it has brought some good things with it. And the greatest of these lie in our personal relationships. Why, for example, would we continue to choose "GENDER" as a dividing line on which to base our relational questions, when we have learned that INDIVIDUAL PERSONALITY is a far better tool for getting to know our partner. And why do we insist on divisive language? "Different" is a word we use easily, but it is nearly always used pejoratively when it comes to relationships. Women and men are not different, people are different. So long as we think of our partner as being "different" simply because of their gender, we will continue to miss opportunities to get to know them better. (A great help is for both of you to take a personality test, which you can find here.)
There are some things that I'm not good at. Like cars. Yes, I'm male, but I've never quite understood the fascination with cars and trucks. My wife, however loves them. She's also more adept at fixing things around the house and understanding finances. Me? Well, I tend to be a good communicator, and I am inordinately empathetic. I am not less of a man, nor is my wife less of a woman, but by the standards set in most 'relational' books, we would fail most "relational" tests. And so I did, many times, and almost always because I insisted on identifying myself as a man, and not as an individual. Not as someone unique and special and loved by God, but as someone born with certain physical attributes. So long as we hold to the myth, long developed and still powerful, that men and women are different, we will continue to have difficulties in our relationships.
People are people. Change your language. Stop thinking in terms of gender. ("Oh, you know those boys!" or "You can't figure women!") Find out who your teammate is as an individual, and focus on those things. You'll notice the difference, and wonder why you hadn't seen it before.
Authour's Note: I know that I am guilty of what historians call reductionism, but in light of the vast amount of material that I was wading through and the space on a site like this, I did the best I could. That said, the historical material is there to simply give you a better arc, a bridge, if you like, between ancient and modern culture and the role it still plays in how we determine gender roles.