1. Why do you think this passage is such a incendiary one for women and men?
It is incendiary because it calls for specific behaviours and attitudes that are counter-cultural. In our time, the counter-cultural part is that the wife submits her will to her husband's - in other times the counter-cultural commandment was that the husband be willing to sacrifice his very life for the sake of his wife.
1 1/2. Was it ever that way for you? If so, how was your heart changed?
I was unwilling to have this passage read at our wedding, and my dear husband was willing to have an alternate Epistle read. I was raised as a liberal feminist of the Ms. magazine and gender neutral sort, and even though I became Catholic at a fairly young age (late teens) it took decades for my heart to become softened and healed. I confused the idea of submission with the concept of being an abused doormat (because that is what I saw around me and what I was taught to expect if I didn't 'stick up for myself').
My heart was changed slowly and through love and patience. There was not a single 'aha' moment but eventually I was able to see the truth without being blinded by my experience of abuse of trust. When every first marriage in one's family, for 3 generations, has ended in divorce, one tends to have a deep distrust of marriage. When one's childhood experience watching marriage is that infidelity and betrayal is the norm, one is deeply wounded - as I was. So I think that ultimately my ability to trust even a little bit and to be able to submit, even reluctantly, is a miracle and a divine gift.
I guess that the big thing for me was realizing that my husband eventually did reach the point where he was willing to climb on that cross for me if that is what it would take. We are both called to be obedient to the Lord - the only real question is what form that obedience will take.
2. What is God trying to tell us through St. Paul in this scripture reading?
Men and women, husbands and wives, are different. But both are called to obedience to the will of God. That obedience takes different forms as suits our different natures.
3. How does a misunderstanding or lack of understanding of God's plan for marriage revealed through this scripture damage marriages?
The damage is incalculable. When both partners are jockeying for power there is not the chance to support each other through the trials that life sends, and it makes it more likely that the marriage will founder upon those trials. Marriage isn't 50-50 - it's more that both need to be willing to give 100% and also willing to accept the gifts offered from the other.
4. How can men and women come to understand it better?
Prayer, penance, child-raising. Lather, rinse, repeat. If for some reason children are not a part of the marriage, then there should still be some kind of jointly enacted spiritual parenthood. The rearing of children is incredibly humbling and is a lesson in tolerating uncertainty and working jointly. Not to be forgotten also is the need for frequenting the Sacraments to renew the graces given in Matrimony.
For those single persons who need to understand this, I suggest a close study of a successful marriage in your family or friends.