The Purity Culture’s Mangled Relationship Advice

Some time ago a reader of this site asked if I could address a concern in his life. He had been pursuing a young lady and beginning to think about marriage, but rather suddenly found that he was no longer attracted to her. She was a godly person and just the kind of woman he could see himself settling down with. But then he looked at her and saw that the physical attracted had just plain disappeared. What could he do? What had gone wrong?

So begins a post by evangelical blogger Tim Challies. I must admit, I have had mixed feelings about Challies in the past. On the one hand, he wrote that if you find the idea of God punishing people with eternal torture morally reprehensible, it is your moral qualms that are the problem. On the other hand, he has written rather scathingly against the fundamentalist discipline manual To Train Up a Child and its attendant marriage manual for women, Created To Be His Help Meet. So I was willing to give him at least a little bit of a benefit of a doubt as I began reading his response to this young man’s query.

I want to encourage this young man to do three things:

Look in the Mirror. Start by taking a look in the mirror. “It’s unlikely that the paunch hanging over the waistband of your cargo shorts represents her idea of masculine perfection. And even if women are less hung up on physical appearances, you’re probably not the romantic and emotional connection she’s been dreaming of her whole life either.” Exactly so. It smacks of pride to look at this woman, created by God in his image, and to determine that she is not up to your standards. Men are often looking for an ideal of physical perfection even though they are far from the male equivalent. Why begin with a mirror? Because, as Michael points out, we’re all making compromises. That complete package who is perfect in every way—from the physical to the spiritual to the realm of character—that person doesn’t exist; and if she did, you’d drag her down in no time.

Challies here ignores his reader’s actual question and focuses on the question he wants to answer. Challies wants to talk about young men who hold impossible standards of beauty when looking for a mate. His reader, on contrast, is concerned not because he doesn’t think his love interest is attractive enough but rather because he literally is no longer physically attracted to her. There is a huge, colossal difference there.

Look at Your Character. I have written regularly and as forthrightly as I know about young men and their dedication to pornography. Porn is giving young men a completely unrealistic view of women, elevating the physical and completely ignoring all matters of character. Have you ever watched a pornographic video that emphasized beautiful character? Exactly. It’s ridiculous to even imagine it. Five or ten or twenty years of dedication to pornography will go a long way to convincing you that only beauty and sexiness will maintain your interest in the long run. Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. Need proof? Just look to Hollywood and these ugly old men who marry the beautiful starlets, only to grow tired of them a few months later. No amount of beauty can overcome sour character.

Challies continues answering a question that was not asked. His young reader was not complaining that his love interest isn’t sexy enough. He wasn’t saying that he thought sexiness was the only thing that would hold his interest in a woman. What he said was that he feels no sexual attraction to the young woman in question. None. He wasn’t assuming that sexiness was all that mattered. Instead, he was wondering if it, well, actually matters at all.

[But do let me briefly address pornography here. See, despite what Challies says, essentially no one thinks that pornography is a substitute for a relationship. When someone looks at porn they are interested in the physical. In contrast, they know that relationships are about both the physical aspect and the emotional connection. In other words, it's not just about finding a sex partner, it's also about finding a best friend and life partner. In other words, I think Challies is dead wrong in saying that regular viewing of porn will necessarily lead someone to think that beauty and sexiness are all that matters in the long run. In generally, people are smarter than that. What I mean is that while, yes, porn focuses on beauty and sexiness, it doesn't somehow turn off the part of people's brains that desires companionship, friendship, and support.]

Look at the Bible. Best of all, look to the Bible. Read the book of Proverbs three or four times. Here is a whole book dedicated to young men, so read it and see what it says about choosing a wife. From beginning to end it will contrast the wise woman with the foolish woman, showing how the ideal wife is marked not by physical perfection but by the unfading beauty of godly character. Eventually you’ll find your way to Proverbs 31:30 and read “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Our God is a God of beauty and he rates physical attractiveness far, far below what Peter refers to as “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:4). If you choose beauty over character, you are a fool.

Challies is right, of course, about what Proverbs says, but he still seems to be missing the point of the question. The question was not whether beauty was all that mattered – in fact, the young man emphasized that his love interest is a “godly person” whom he could see himself settling down with, and that he placed a great deal of importance on this. The question, instead, was whether physical attraction mattered at all.

The reality is that physical beauty is attractive and wonderful and a reflection of God’s character, but in this world it is also fleeting and fading. You may marry a woman who is physically perfect in every way, be she is only ever one illness or disease or accident away from disfigurement. Then only character will remain—character that may be sweet and joyful, or character that may grow bitter and resentful.

Does physical attractiveness have any function in marriage? Sure it does. It matters. But it matters very, very little in comparison to character. Here’s the rub: If you cannot be attracted to beautiful character, you won’t remain attracted to physical beauty. So should you keep pursuing that godly young woman who just isn’t attractive enough for you? My concern isn’t for you, it’s for her. I wouldn’t advise you to stop pursuing her, but I might advise her to run away from you!

In the end, Challies’ message is clear. When compared to the importance of character, physical attraction pales to the point of irrelevance. Physical attraction? Irrelevant! Unimportant! Character is what matters. And more than that, Challies suggests that because the young man was concerned that his lack of physical attraction to his love interest, he isn’t a man worth marrying. Challies completely devalues the young man’s feelings, playing up his desire to be physically attracted to his life partner as a character flaw.

I honestly would be slightly less concerned if it stopped here, but it doesn’t. Here’s an excerpt from an article on the evangelical website Boundless:

The fundamental theological problem with the “attraction-as-foundation” approach to dating and marriage is that the approach grossly distorts the biblical definitions of “love” and “marriage.” What’s the big question most people agonize over with regard to finding a spouse: “How do I know if I’ve found the one?” As my friend Michael Lawrence pointed out in his article “Stop Test-Driving Your Girlfriend,” “the unstated goal of the question is ‘How do I know if she’s the one … for me.’”

And that’s essentially selfish. I don’t mean that such an approach involves malice or the intent to hurt anyone. I simply mean that such an approach is self-centered. It conceives of finding a spouse from the standpoint of what will be most enjoyable for me based on my tastes and desires. What will I receive from marriage to this or that person?

In Scripture, love is described not as a mere emotion based on personal desire (i.e., “attraction”), but as an act of the will that leads to selfless actions toward others.

In other words, evangelicals like Challies or the writers behind Boundless don’t simply deride the importance of physical attraction, they also deride the importance of, well, attraction in general.

What then? Am I saying that attraction and chemistry have no place in your consideration of whom to marry? No. Does biblical faithfulness require that we all run out and marry the godliest, most personally grating person we can find? Of course not.

In God’s kindness to us, He doesn’t just nourish us, He has provided an infinite variety of foods that not only keep us alive, but that also taste good to us. In the same way, God has graciously given us physical attraction, chemistry and pleasure to make marriage and its unique intimacy that much sweeter to us. That’s good and right.

Enjoy those things, but don’t be a slave to them. Desire them, but have a realistic idea of what those words mean in a fallen world and the limited role they should play in one of the most important decisions of your Christian life. Remember, “the movies” aren’t real, and they aren’t the standard. It’s not that attraction makes no difference, but it shouldn’t make the difference.

Notice that both Challies and this Boundless writer are careful to leave themselves “outs.” If pressed, they can insist that they didn’t say physical and emotional attraction don’t matter at all. They just said those things should play only a limited role. But how do these qualifications jibe with Challies writing that a man is unfit for marriage if he is concerned the he should be physically attracted to his wife, or with the Boundless author writing that being concerned about things like attraction is selfish?  Challies and the Boudless writer may think that they are covering their trails well, but the message they are sending is clear – physical attraction and love don’t matter when choosing a spouse. What does matter? Let’s look:

What should make the difference? Well, the Bible talks about the characteristics of godly men and women. These are the things that the Lord himself considers to be good attributes or, to use a different word, “attractive.”

Is your potential spouse clearly a believer in Jesus (2 Corinthians 6:14)? Does he/she exhibit the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5)? Does he/she show clear regard and care for others? Does he/she show evident love for God in how he/she spends time and money, how he/she interacts with others?

Women, is this a man you respect? Could you envision yourself submitting to and following him over the course of your lives together? Do you believe he will care well for you and your children? Will he serve you above himself and encourage your spiritual growth, as he is called to do in Ephesians 5? Is he growing in the characteristics of biblical manhood (1 Timothy 3Titus 1 and 1 Peter 3)?

Men, do you believe this woman will care for you well and be a good mother and discipler to your children? Is she growing in the characteristics of biblical womanhood and what the Bible calls “true beauty” (Proverbs 311 Peter 3Titus 2)? Do you envision her being supportive of you in whatever ministry God may call you to?

Character and godly characteristics, according to both Challies and this Boundless writer, are what actually matter when choosing a spouse.

Now it’s true that people sometimes get too caught up in whether they feel some specific romantic feeling, and it’s true that people sometimes place their physical standards impossibly high. But the purity culture’s solution to problems always seems to be to run from them instead of actually working to solve them. Instead of discussing things like communication, compromise, cooperation, and how to both build healthy relationships that foster both intimacy and a sense of self and know when to leave a relationship that is broken or stagnated, the purity culture’s answer is to simply dump physical and emotional attraction entirely. Their answer is to make marriage about choosing someone who fits a checklist of godly character qualities and assuming that that’s all that’s needed to make things work.

It’s also true that the way we approach marriage today is radically different from the way people in this country approached marriage centuries ago. There was a time when marriage was predominantly an economic partnership entered into out of necessity. But then, as Stephanie Coontz so aptly explained, love conquered marriage. Around a century ago marriage underwent a fundamental transformation. Writers like Challies seem to want to undo that transformation. I’ve written about this before, about how conservative Christians often seem to want to solve modern problems by turning back the clock. What they usually forget is that cultural change generally occurs because people’s needs change.

Now I want to pause for a moment to point out that this idea – the idea that physical and emotional attractiveness don’t matter in choosing a marriage partner, and indeed are actually selfish concerns – is not something that exists only on the margins of evangelicalism. No. Tim Challies writes for Answers in Genesis magazine, and Boundless, an online webzine, is a project of Focus on the Family. These people aren’t a few crazies that no one listens to.

The ideas presented here are, of course, simply one more part of the “purity culture” so prevalent in evangelicalism and fundamentalism today. Holding true to much of what I’ve written here before, the evangelical leaders quoted in this post ignore the importance – or even existence – of sexual or emotional compatibility. As I’ve pointed out before, they act as if any man can make it work with any woman – as though people are no more than puzzle pieces. And on some level, though, these leaders do see people as puzzle pieces. There are men, and there are women, and they fit neatly together. When looking for a spouse, just make sure to find someone with the proper list of gendered qualifications (as in the list above). Individualism disappears. Individualism becomes irrelevant – nay, dangerous. Marriage is no longer about forming a lifelong friendship but rather about sacrifice. Love becomes “an act of the will” rather than an actual feeling of attraction.

In the end, these are the ideas that I wrote about several weeks ago when I penned a post called “The Real World Damage of the Purity Culture.” In that post I shared the stories of two young women who have reached out to me concerning their problems. The first married a man who did not love her but married her anyway because he was told that love would come later. The second married a man for whom she felt no physical attraction – she was told that would all come later, but it didn’t. Both marriages are on the rocks. Both ended up in the situations they are in today – broken hearts and deteriorating marriages – because of the teachings of men like Challies. These ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. These ideas have consequences. These ideas destroy people, blight relationships, and rip apart marriages.

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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.