I recently came upon a book called Hedges: Loving Your Marriage Enough to Protect It, by Christian author Jerry B. Jenkins.
With the divorce rate steadily climbing and infidelity creeping into even the happiest marriages, in a society that trivializes adultery and its devastating effects, with temptation and opportunity coming at you from all directions – how can you keep your marriage from becoming a statistic?
The advice from best-selling author Jerry B. Jenkins is this: plant preventative hedges around your marriage. These hedges are practical ways to avoid compromising situations and giving temptation a foothold in your life.
Jenkins’s real-life stories of how temptation can slip in undetected and, in a dizzying whirl of deception and betrayal, cause a marriage to crumble are a wake-up call for all married couples. He openly shares insights from his own marriage as well as the hedges he has been using for years.
One of the comments left on the books Amazon page describes Jenkins’ hedges as follows:
1. Not to dine or travel with a woman alone unless an unavoidable complication makes this impractical, and then to tell his wife first
2. To only ever hug another woman in front of others
3. To never compliment another woman on her looks, only her clothes
4. To avoid any kind of flirting except with his wife and to engage in as much flirtation as possible with his wife.
5. To remind his wife often of his wedding vows orally and in writing
6. To get home early and spend time with the children every day before bed
7. To share his story often
I like that Jenkins is taking responsibility for himself and for his actions rather than focusing, like Debi Pearl would, on the idea that women are sluts and home wreckers out to get him, and I like that Jenkins sees spending time with his children as important.
First, nowhere on this list is the importance of connecting with his spouse. Well, except for flirting with her. (Maybe he’s more like Debi Pearl than I thought.) I mean good gracious, his sixth point only mentions spending quality time with his children, but nowhere does he mention the importance of spending quality time with his wife! The only place where his wife really comes into the picture is the part where he constantly reminds his wife that he promised not to cheat on her.
It seems to me that a lot of evangelicals talk about how important it is not to cheat on your spouse in terms of the Bible’s prohibition of adultery. In other words, don’t cheat on your spouse because that would be sinning. I grew up in an evangelical home, and adultery was held up as almost as sinful as homosexuality – though not quite – and that’s saying something. In contrast, when I think about the reasons I don’t go out and cheat on Sean, “sin” doesn’t come into my thought process. I don’t cheat on Sean because I love him and because I want to be with him and because he is my closest friend and confidante and because I would never want to lose what we have together. I am not staying with Sean because some set of rules say I have to. I’m staying with him because I want to.
When he made his list of “hedges,” Jenkins was so very focused on not cheating on his wife that he filled it with rules about his contact with other women rather than focusing it on connecting with the woman he is spending his life with. I would imagine that when he was a newlywed Jenkins didn’t spend much time obsessing over not cheating on his wife. Why? Because, like every other newlywed, he had puppy love shooting out of his ears! The goal should be to keep that love alive and help it become a strong and mature sort of love, not to repeat “I must not cheat, I must not cheat, I must not cheat” over and over again. If you have to erect artificial hedges to keep yourself from cheating on your spouse, well, that’s probably a sign that it’s your marriage that needs help.
A couple of months ago I read a blog post by fellow Patheos blogger JT that really made me think on this point:
So here’s something I want to throw out there: I don’t care if Michaelyn dates or sleeps with other people. Yet, we are monogamous.
How does that happen? Well, she has the green light to do those things, but she doesn’t. One day she might. But what I want is to know that she is with me because she wants to be. If Michaelyn is with me exclusively because she wants to be, we don’t need rules binding her to me in that way. If she doesn’t want to be with me in that way, why would I demand she do so? Love, to me, means wanting someone else to be happy, not just happy in a way that caters to me.
And if I’m to know that she’s with me by choice, I have to allow her other choices. Knowing that she can date others, but still decides to be with me, that’s beautiful. It’s honest. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
After reading JT’s post, I realized that I would never want Sean to stay with me simply because he feels like he has to. I want him to want to stay with me. I don’t want his constantly reminding me that he promised not to cheat on me, I want his delighting in me as his friend and partner.
But the thing is, an evangelical like Jenkins can’t say that. Growing up as an evangelical myself, I was taught that divorce was wrong. (And polyamory, of course, though I don’t think I even knew that was a thing.) I was taught that marriage was forever, and that there are no outs, period. I was taught that marriage is about making a commitment and sticking by it, no matter what, even if the love disappears. I was actually told that it’s not about love. It’s about commitment And if that’s the case, well, I can see why you night need to start throwing up “hedges.”
The second point I want to make has to do with just how paranoid it sounds like Jenkins is around women who aren’t his wife. When I look back at my own experience growing up in an evangelical home, I don’t remember my father ever having any female friends or my mother ever having any male friends. In the evangelical community where I grew up, the men socialized with other men and the women with other women. Women and men related to each other as spouses, or as someone else’s spouse, not as friends.
I honestly think this goes back to the evangelical belief that women and men fill two “complementarian” gender roles. Women and men are different, the belief goes, and are perfectly fitted to come together as wife and husband. If you follow that line of reasoning, any relationship between a woman and a man becomes suspect because the natural way that women and men are to relate to each other is through marriage. Here’s an example of this sort of thinking applied to men and women who work together:
Swanson: It’s one reason why we push the family economic vision, because the family economy is pretty much the way God set things up. The man and the woman come together not just for sexual union but also to be helpmeets and dominion-takers together as a team, as a lean, mean team in the dominion effort. That’s the way it was designed in the garden when the woman came to the man as the helpmeet for the man in the dominion task.
Buehner: And Kevin, I think that’s key. What we have in some of these business workplaces is a woman who’s not the wife being the helper or the helpmeet of the man and she has taken on the role of the helper…
Swanson: …for the man.
Buehner: And the only thing that’s missing in that relationship is the sexual consummation.
Swanson: Or the polygamy.
Buehner: Right. So remember, when God placed Adam in the garden, he gave him a mandate. He said you need a helper. He told Adam to go out and take some dominion, Adam named the animals, He said, ‘Yeah, this is really hard, you’re gonna need yourself a helper.” So He made Eve for him. It does not say that Eve was created because Adam needed to have a sexual outlet, it was created because Adam needed a helper. Now we take a man and we give him a helper out in the marketplace. He’s in a pseudo-marriage.
The way men and women relate to each other, as this line of reasoning goes, is through the complementarian relationship we call marriage. Any relationship between a man and a woman has the natural tendency to take on facets of that marriage relationship, whether there is sexual union or not. As a result of this sort of thinking, I grew up in a world where not only were women and men never friends, but also a world where any friendship between a woman and a man, should such develop, was regarded as highly suspect and potentially scandalous. These things just didn’t happen.
And now, here I am today. And guess what? I have male friends. And Sean has female friends. And it’s not a big deal. It’s funny, we’re really good friends with one couple we’ve known for years. Let’s call them Joe and Natalie. Anyway, when we visited them last month I noticed just how often I ended up talking politics or whatnot with Joe while Sean talked TV shows or whatnot with Natalie. This may seem perfectly normal to many of you, but I never, ever saw this sort of thing growing up. Small talk, sure! But really sitting down and conversing? No.
I don’t think it’s possible to underestimate just how much the complementarian way of viewing gender roles – which is really just another way of saying the patriarchal way – affects how women and men relate to each other. When I see a fellow I’m not married to, I see someone I could see myself being friends with. When Jenkins sees a woman hes not married to, he sees danger signals.
In the end, stumbling upon Jenkins’ book was quite productive, leading as it has to interesting thoughts about both the results of focusing on avoiding sin rather than on forming healthy relationships and the way complementarian gender ideas affect everything about how men and women relate to each other.