CTBHHM: In Which Debi Almost Gets Something Right

Created To Be His Help Meet, pp. 26-27

It is possible to find a worthwhile message in an otherwise atrocious book. I read Debi Pearl when I was first married – it was a wedding gift – and while I thought it was hogwash from start to finish (I had started questioning everything over a year before this, remember), I did take one thing away from it and apply it to my life: the power of a cheerful spirit. No one likes a continually sour attitude or pessimistic outlook. A cheerful spirit is uplifting to everyone, including the person putting it on. I just happened to find a reminder of this in Debi’s book at a time in my life when I really needed a reminder. I can’t say how many times this simple idea – the power of cheerfulness – has proven helpful. After all, there’s two ways to face a bad day – with a smile or with a frown – and one is decidedly better for the spirit, and for all those around as well.

Of course, is a message I could have found many, many other places. Debi’s book isn’t worth reading for the one thing it does get right. Or, almost right, because Debi’s reminder about the power of cheerfulness is not without tremendous problems. Let’s jump right in and see Debi’s words for themselves and I’ll show you what I mean. We’re now starting Debi’s second chapter, “A Merry Heart.”

The Bible tells us that the Joy of the Lord is our strength.

I want to pause right here and say that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians make a distinction between joy and happiness. Or at least, the ones I grew up among did. I was taught that even when you didn’t feel happy, you should still be joyful. Like, always. Joy was from God and was a sort of symbol of salvation. If you didn’t have a deep abiding joy, even in bad situations, you clearly had some sort of spiritual problem. This message discourages seeking help for depression, incidentally, because it ends up portraying depression – i.e. a lack of God’s abiding joy – as a spiritual problem. And since one of the definitions of joy is “a state of happiness or felicity,” well, the distinction between “joy” and “happiness” that I was taught growing up really doesn’t make any sense at all.

God says in Proverbs 17:22, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” A merry heart is the foundation of health and happiness. And the day you have a merry heart will be the first day of rebuilding your marriage into the heavenly gift it was meant to be.

Make a mental note there. How should a woman go about rebuilding her marriage? What is the key? A merry heart. And then there’s this weird bit:

The last part of the verse above says, “but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” How are your bones doing? I mean your bones. The bible is far more literal than you may think.

Um, what? That’s … random.

A merry heart is very good medicine. It is a love potion.

When he first fell in love with you, you were a sweet little thing, full of laughter and fun. From the bottom of your soul you were thrilled with him. … Is he still married to the same sweet little thing, or have you become a long-faced, sickly complainer?

This is a common narrative. And really, it’s a common pattern, too. People act differently around each other when they first meet than when they’ve been married for years. I think what Debi misses is that that’s not a bad thing. Relationships mature. The question should not be “do you two still act like you did when you were dating” but rather “do you have a healthy, mature relationship in the here and now.” In fact, if a couple only ever acted like they were dating, I’d be worried.

But let me get to the real problem here. A cheerful heart is called “a love potion.” I get that when you smile it’s contagious, and that everyone loves a happy person. This is an awesome message. But being cheerful and wearing a smile does not replace things like communication. Debi seems to think that women can solve their relationships by being cheerful alone. She indicates that the problems in any marriage stem from the wife being a “long-faced, sickly complainer” rather than a “sweet little thing.” Yes, you read that right, and that’s actually a fairly common narrative in evangelical and fundamentalist circles. When a man leaves his wife, it’s not uncommon to hear people say that “she drove him away” with her constant complaining and negative attitude.

Debi’s solution to a woman being unhappy or a “complainer” is not to look for the causes of the unhappiness or work to solve the things a woman has complaints about. No. Instead Debi does what she does best – she blames the woman. If a woman is unhappy or complains about something, the problem is the woman’s negative attitude and complaining spirit. The solution is to have a cheerful spirit. Just, you know, put it on. Even if that means faking it. Evangelical and fundamentalist culture is chock full of this idea that if you fake something long enough, it’ll become real. Women who no longer feel in love with their husbands are told to act like they’re in love, to pretend they’re in love, and the feelings will come later. Now there is indeed something to this. If you reverse course and put a smile on instead of a frown, it will make you feel better. But the idea that the way to fix problems is to fake they’re not there is bizarre. If a woman complains it’s not that “out there” to think that maybe there is actually something she is complaining about that should be fixed. But that’s too deep a thought for Debi. Instead, if a woman complains, well, she’s a “long-faced, sickly complainer.” Legitimate complaints? Nah.

But beyond all that, being cheerful does not automatically fix all of a marriage’s problems. There have to be other things. Things like communication, common interests, a meaningful connection. But Debi doesn’t see it that way. Here’s an example of how Debi sees this merry heart “love potion”:

Does your husband see you as a happy thankful woman? Does he smile when he looks at you, amused at the cheerful little grin on your face and the totally delightful things you think and say – even the dumb things? Learn to charm him with your mischievous “only for him” grin.

No. Just, no. What she’s describing there sounds like the things a little kid would do. No, strike that, what she is describing there is exactly what goes on between Sally and I. I love Sally’s cheerful little grin. I totally delight in the “dumb” little things she says – although I would never actually call her little sayings “dumb.” And of course, Sally knows exactly how to charm me with her mischievous grin. And maybe that’s what is bothering me here. Debi tells women to fix their marriages by acting like three-year-olds, not by acting like, you know, adults. To Debi, marriages aren’t meant to be between two equals. They’re meant to be between a strong, decisive man and his simpering child-wife. The more I think about it, and the more I reread the above passage, the more bizarre it all seems.

And that’s it. I was going to get to the next section, titled “one ugly hillbilly,” but I can’t. Realizing that the dynamic Debi suggests women have with their husbands is exactly the dynamic a parent has with a preschooler just made my brain shut down. To bring this back to what I said at the beginning: a cheerful heart is a good thing for anyone to have, regardless of gender, but it shouldn’t replace fixing actual problems, and when Debi describes what it looks like for a woman to have a cheerful heart, she gets her wires crossed and describes a preschooler, not a grown woman.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Lainey

    “cheerful little grin”, “sweet little thing”, this (and other parts you’ve discussed) suggest that the most virtuous way a woman can behave towards her husband is acting like a child – sometimes a pre-schooler, sometimes a giggling schoolgirl . Debi’s insistence that what makes husbands happy is their wives infantilising themselves is not only insulting (to husband and wife), its frankly creepy.

  • Anonymouse

    What’s also missing is this: the husband meets a happy, sweet little thing, but after making her his slave, she becomes tired and sickly. That’s a problem. Instead of looking at what’s causing a previously-happy, contented person such sorrow and agony, the blame falls right to the victim to pretend everything is happy-happy-joy-joy.

  • Karen

    I can’t find the precise link this morning, but I have seen a Fascinating Womanhood website that openly states that wives should be “childlike” with their husbands. This specific blog entry recommended that in cases where husbands are “cruel,” wives should say something like “I’m gonna tell your mommy on you.”

    As for the cheerful spirit thing, I tell my sons constantly that even complaints can be made graciously, and that a certain amount of frustration is simply part of life. Dealing with the crud of existence in a pleasant manner does not mean avoid dealing at all; simply find the least unpleasant solution, and when all options stink, bear it graciously. Think abou how your behavior affects others and how you would want to be treated and do that thing. This is not all Debi Pearl’s method.

    • http://eschaton2012.ca Eamon Knight

      It’s well-known that courtship behaviours across many species often resemble juvenile behaviours, and humans are no exception — eg. customary terms of endearment like “babe”, or indulging in “baby talk”. It’s not surprising that romance taps into that same oxytocin-inducing psychology. But it’s usually 1) mutual, 2) situational, and 3) not taken literally. Making it SOP (and only for the wife) is cloying and, yes, creepy.

      We were probably lucky that the (Christian) advice my fiance and I got, back in the day, was about honesty and open communication. When we encountered Fascinating Womanhood, we thought it was silly. I thought then — and Debi continues down this same path — that the ideal recommended here is dishonest: it’s playing a role, putting up a facade. And that can’t turn out well in the long run.

  • Saraquill

    So Debi is saying that being unhappy causes osteoporosis?

    • http://thaliasmusingsnovels.com/ Amethyst

      I have seriously heard fundamentalists say that osteoporosis is caused by women not being loving and submissive enough to the men in their lives. I wish I was exaggerating.

      • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

        That is flabbergasting.

      • Carys Birch

        My fundamentalist grandmother says bitterness “eats away at your bones” but I don’t think she means it literally. She was always mailing me bottles of calcium supplements in college. :P

  • plch

    The whole thing is even worse if one thinks about how the Pearls treat and consider children. Time to reread Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’, just to understand that the Pearls’ views on marriages were already stale 130 years ago! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Doll%27s_House

  • victoria

    I’ll have to call my mom and tell her her almost-50-year-long marriage isn’t a happy one, because her broken ankle obviously means her spirit is broken.

  • JennyE

    I found the Fascinating Womanhood blog entry about “childlike anger”, I think. Weird. You can read it here:
    http://fascinatingwomanhoodak.com/2012/09/12/fw-near-daily-encouragement-expressing-anger-in-a-childlike-way/

    • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

      This is… bizarre.

    • chervil

      I don’t get it. You mean, instead of acting like a rational adult, you have to say “neener neener” or “I know you are but what am I?”

      I would be really, really bad at this. But then again, my husband doesn’t criticize me so I don’t need to act this way. I don’t get angry a lot, I basically get angry over 2 things, when I’m frustrated with myself I lash out and when I feel that my family is retreating to deeply into World of Warcraft. That’s pretty much it. Am I supposed to just dance around the house or something when I feel that way? Why can’t I just feel that way? We just talk it through, and then it’s done. It’s not like my kids picked up on my feelings, for whatever reason, they never get angry or sulky, ever, they are so not like me in that way. It seems like these women are experiencing way more anger towards their husbands than I am, who wouldn’t be if you’re living under a microscope. Guess sticking their tongues out is a pretty good coping skill, I guess. What’re you supposed to do when you’re not allowed to answer back.

      • JennyE

        I know, right? If I read it in the most charitable and vague way possible, it seems like a bizarre variation on the (mostly good) idea of diffusing tense situations with humor. But 1) why would acting like a little kid be the preferred method of doing this- it would just make me angrier! and 2) if it’s a real disagreement, doesn’t this seem dismissive? How do you then actually resolve the conflict? It seems demeaning and counterproductive.

    • mary

      http://fascinatingwomanhoodak.com/2012/04/24/fwa-near-daily-encouragement-my-hairy-beast-a-fw-success-story/#comment-4064

      Here’s another example. I wonder debbie pearl and fascinating womanhood aren’t partnering already. Seriously, I couldn’t make this crap up. Oh- also, I’m married to my best friend, not some domineering, hairy beast, and I’m fundamentally ok with that.

  • smrnda

    I actually tend to be pretty deadpan, and having someone tell me to ‘act cheerful’ is near the top of my list of annoying things I hate to hear. Seriously, why is my mood anyone’s business anyway?

    There’s also something creepy about encouraging childish behaviors in women as if it’s some kind of love potion. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but a man who prefers a child-like woman to an adult woman seems kind of like a sicko creep to me, or just a jerk who can’t be bothered with another adult with her own feelings, thoughts and opinions but would prefer a giggly, flirty little girl.

    I actually think positive thinking is overrated. Things cannot improve without criticism or complaint – there’s a right way and a wrong way, but if you can’t be open about what you’re dissatisfied with, the only option is living a lie, and that’s never going to work out in the long run.

    The other thing is, why isn’t there any blame attached to the man if his wife isn’t happy?

    • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

      Yeah, the cheerful thing rubs me the wrong way. I’m a reserved, introverted person. Even when I’m perfectly content and happy, I’m not necessarily outwardly cheerful. I don’t like putting on a performance of extraversion.

      • smrnda

        Perhaps even worse are people’s (usually strangers) obnoxious attempts to try to *make* a woman they don’t know smile. I once did a visit to a church and the pastor (trying to be a good guy I’m sure) talked about how if he went through the checkout lane and noticed the cashier was ‘having a bad day’ he’d try extra hard to get her to smile or laugh. (Though men are cashiers as well, his example clearly focused on women only.)

        I thought it was the most patronizing bullshit I’d ever heard. It’s not like a woman who is a cashier can’t have real concerns and real worries in her life, things that actually matter aside from a few moments of cheesy banter from a customer. Way to trivialize a woman’s life – some goofy remarks from a stranger are totally enough to turn a woman’s bad day into a good day. Most people, male or female, would probably prefer to just have other people not in their business.

        Worst was reactions I saw from women who seemed to think that it was cute or nice, but I felt like they’d probably grown up indoctrinated with the idea that as long as men act with proper intentions, they owe it to men to make them think they’re doing the right thing.

      • http://ripeningreason.com/ Bix

        And this is why I don’t thrive in customer service jobs. I actually once had a man lecture me about how “each day is a gift”, presumably because I let a frown cross my face when I saw a disarranged display. Oh, I’m so sorry my facial expression displeases you!

        Seriously, we need to revive the idea that it’s possible to be polite without being relentlessly cheerful. The Brits are pretty good at it.

    • Rosie

      I’m also an introvert, and my experience is similar. Acting cheerful doesn’t make me feel cheerful, it just makes me tired.

      Apparently it works for some people, though. I kinda wish it worked for me.

    • Steve

      @17/Bix
      It’s also silly because everyone knows that the smiles and politeness are just faked. It comes across as very shallow and artificial

      • Richter_DL

        Usually, this is visible to the outside observer too. That makes it repulsive, at least to me. I’d rather see honest happiness in my partner after we work through a problem than endure a porcelain smile with a “help me please” look in their eyes.

  • Katherine

    I was reading this and thinking that, as creepy and awful as it is, this jives with everything else the Pearls are saying. In their universe, the only fully adult people are men, and women exist in a state of permanent-childhood. Considering that they also believe that a happy outlook and joyful spirit are necessary in children, and anything else is an insult to the parents and should be beaten out of them, is it surprising at all that they demand this same sugary demeanor from wives, who are the ultimate children (they can work even harder than the actual children!)? No it is not. I found myself reading this, and every time you say that this attitude is “weird” I cringe and think “you know, I really wish that it WAS weird!”

    There is something else though. Patriarchy, all forms of patriarchy not just the more extreme ones, hurts MEN as well as women. What about the boys who are raised in households that operate like this? So they see their mothers acting like toddlers towards their fathers, they are told again and again that THIS is the healthy and ideal marriage and that THIS is what they should expect for themselves in their futures. What happens to those boys when they DO marry? Will they believe that any unhappiness on the part of their new wives simply means they aren’t hitting them hard enough? Will they be constitutionally unable to have a conversation about anything that isn’t “cheery” in their relationship because they see any negative or even NEUTRAL comment as an insult to their leadership skills? It sounds to me like not only are the Pearls setting women up to be self-blaming victims, they’re setting men up to be abusers. Obviously teenage boys probably aren’t reading “Created to Be His Help Meet” but if they’re mothers do, they still feel the effects.

    • Christine

      Or imagine how annoying it would be to be a man who expected a healthy relationship with his wife, and then have someone following Debi’s advice. You know how annoying it is when you can’t have a conversation with the other person because they won’t actually talk about what’s wrong? Debi thinks that’s the ideal!

      • Katherine

        yes exactly! basically, everyone is hurt by these kinds of teachings!

  • http://beautifuldisarray.wordpress.com Chryssie

    I’ve been really having a problem with how many of marital and relationship and “men’s lust” issues are being blamed on women. This is just another area where Debi is blaming the women for their failure of their marriages. my husband and I don’t act like this, and in fact my husband would think it would be really weird if I acted like Debi says I should act.

  • Pingback: CTBHHM: Contentment Is All That Matters

  • http://www.facebook.com/kelly.crawford.182 Kelly Crawford

    The more I see, the more I think that the only type of relationship you learn to have from the Pearl books is an abusive one. Honestly, she might as well have titled this book “How To Be A Perfect Victim”


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