This is one of my favorite words in the realm of reflection on sexual difference because it reminds me that human being have limits that we must simply accept. Another term that is used to say the same thing is “insuperable.” One of the greatest lessons that we learn over and over again in relationships is: “other people are not me.” While this is certainly true in every case, between any two people, it is a particularly striking fact in the relationship between a man and a woman.
Taking the word in itself, irreducible denotes that a given thing is not-able-to-be-diminished. So not only can the thing not go away, it can’t even be lessened. We say sexual difference, then, is an irreducible difference. It cannot be any less than it is. A man cannot become somehow less a man in order to satisfy his wife, and a woman cannot be made somehow less a woman for her husband. In fact, in the union of marriage, each spouse will most likely find out for the first time just how different a man and woman are. Pope Francis preached in a homily for a celebration of Matrimony at the Vatican, “This is what marriage is all about: man and woman walking together, wherein the husband helps his wife to become ever more a woman, and wherein the woman has the task of helping her husband to become ever more a man.” Cardinal Scola of Milan writes, “You, woman, are as fully person as I, man. Yet you are this in a way that is radically different from my own, so decisive and so inaccessible. You are, precisely, other. Here we see all the force of the originality of man and woman.”[i] Thinking this way about sexual difference—as irreducible—can be a great help to the marital relationship, especially when it comes to expectations of understanding and agreement.
In Arabic, the word for “husband,” “wife” and “married couple” is one and the same: zawj.[ii] The language thus recognizes the mutual dependence and relationality of a man and woman in marriage, because it means “two persons, different from one another, bound together, who cannot manage without each other.”[iii] It highlights that the difference does not disappear in the unity.
In Chinese culture, the yin and the yang are symbols used to communicate a similar idea. “Though yin and yang look like opposites, they can’t exist independently. They embrace and coordinate each other, and also facilitate each other. One cannot exist or be defined without the other.”[iv] This Eastern concept can be helpful when thinking about the irreducible nature of the difference between the sexes: if the other is not, and never will be, you, only then can you be really tied to them in an inextricable way. Mirror images of ourselves cannot last.
[i] Angelo Cardinal Scola, The Nuptial Mystery (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), p. 281.
[ii] Wael Farouq, “We Exist in Relationship,” Not Just Good, but Beautiful: The Complementary Relationship between Man and Woman, eds. Steven Lopes and Helen Alvare (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2015), p. 46.
[iii] Ibid, p. 46.
[iv] Tsui-Ying Sheng, “The Union of Yin and Yang,” Not Just Good, but Beautiful, p. 141.