CTBHHM: Don’t Sympathize with Your Husband

Created To Be His Help Meet, pp. 240—241

In this passage we learn that being sympathetic is a bad thing. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

The Wife Does Make a Difference

I once knew a young man who was well respected in the community, a strong leader both in his family and in the church. His young wife died and left him with several small children. In time, he married a very nice widow lady. By all appearances, they were happily married, but in a short time, the man began to demonstrate a weaker and withdrawn personality. He became defensive and took offense where there was none intended. He lacked the attitude of authority he once had and was never again a leader. More and more, he separated himself and his children from people and eventually from the church, although he never did leave the faith. In fact, he thought himself more righteous than others. I think the thing that shocked me the most was the difference in his posture and walk. During his first marriage, he had a cocky walk—almost arrogant. After he married the second wife, his walk became hesitant and uncertain. He kept his shoulders down and never looked challenging. He seemed withdrawn. With the first lady, he was always early to church and took charge; with his second wife, he showed up late and left early.

So here’s what disturbs me here. It’s true that people do influence those around them, and can do so for good or for ill, but there seems to be a lot of determinism going on here. A man is what his wife makes him, Debi seems to be saying. But if that is true, wouldn’t a wife be what her husband makes her? And if so, what’s the point of this book, which treats women as though they have some form of agency in how they act? And what about the fact that men supposedly have fixed types while women are more fluid?

I would be lying if I said Sean hasn’t some influence, over the past half decade, on who I am today. And of course, I have had some hand in shaping the man Sean is today. But both he and I are at least somewhat cognizant of the effect we have had on each other. Now perhaps we are more cognizant than average because both of us have at some point seen therapists, who help us talk through relationships and such and give us skills for understanding these sorts of things. But I suppose what I’m saying is that I would like to think that the man in this example of Debi’s would be able to recognize bad patterns, or at least different patterns, and that he isn’t quite the lamb being led to the slaughter that Debi makes him out to be.

Although I must say this is actually very convenient for Debi. If a man goes wrong, she can simply blame his wife. His responsibility in it is rendered completely invisible. Quite convenient indeed.

Encouragement Versus Sympathy

Could a woman make that kind of a difference? From my perspective, both ladies were as good as gold. It was clear that the first wife was an encourager. I can almost hear her say, when he felt knocked down or offended, “Get up, you can do it. It doesn’t matter what they say. You’re the man.” The second wife was gentle, loving, tender, and sympathetic. She would have responded, “Sweetheart, you know I love you, and I am so sorry those awful people treated you so badly. You come over here, and let me hold you. I just want you to be happy.”

And here we once again see an ongoing theme for Debi—it’s like she thinks she can read minds or hear private conversations she’s not actually there for. If this man and his wives were all good friends of Debi’s, close friends, I could see this. But it sounds to me like they were simply other people who attended the same church, whom she observed but didn’t become close friends with.

It reminds me of how Ahab lay on his bed and put his face to the wall when he was upset because he could not have the vineyard he wanted. Jezebel was full of sympathy, too. This second wife meant well. She found comfort and fulfillment in comforting. She likely nursed her husband into infantile responses. They drew close together and shut out the cruel world. He stopped being “the man.” It was an amazing example of the power a woman has to be the wrong kind of help to her husband.

Can a person influence a partner in negative ways? Absolutely. I am, however, bothered by Debi’s use of the word “sympathetic.” It is possible to show sympathy without treating them like, well, like Lysa Arryn treated her son Robin. In other words, the problem here is not simply being sympathetic. You can be sympathetic without creating toxic patterns that keep people demobilized and unable to work through their pain or find a way to right the wrongs they have experienced. But being sympathetict, as we are about to see, is precisely what Debi thinks is the problem.

If you see her husband moving in the direction of taking offense or being suspicious of the motives of those around you, never be sympathetic and supportive of his hurts. Make your life’s verse Philippians 4:8.

Never be sympathetic and supportive of his hurts? Never?

As for the verse Debi mentions, it’s this:

Philippians 4:8: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

As we saw last week, this verse is used to keep people from focusing on problems long enough to actually try to solve them. If you’re thinking about, say, those rumors about Gothard behaving improperly toward the young teen who is currently serving as his personal secretary, you’re not following Philippians 4:8 and thinking about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure,” etc. So stop it already.

Here, Debi applies the verse to wives’ responses to their husbands’ hurts—if you focus on something hurtful someone at church said about your husband, or something hurtful his boss did, you’re not following Philippians 4:8. If you sympathize with your husband, or are supportive of his hurt (i.e., “you’re right to feel the way you do,” or “the feelings you have are only natural”), you are failing the Philippians 4:8 test.

Except that actually, Jesus himself did quite a bit of things that would fail this interpretation of Philippians 4:8. It’s doubtful that that verse’s author intended it to mean anything like this—and if he did, well, he was very much in the wrong. Thinking only about things that are good prevents us from acting to right wrongs we see around us. In this particular instance, it also prevents us from being able to be sympathetic and supportive of our loved ones when they are hurt—which is not synonymous with calling up disabling self-pity.

And remember, I Peter 3 says we can even win our lost husbands with our chaste conversation. A chaste conversation has greater power with a man than does sympathy.

In her chapter on being “chaste,” Debi defined it as being pure in thought, word, and act, and pointed readers to, yes, Philippians 4:8. So her argument here is that conversation focused on what is good and pure has the potential to win lost husbands to Christ, while conversation that focuses on other things, such as pain or hurt, does not.

You know, this is one reason I have so many problems with the argument that the older Duggar girls must be happy because they look happy. This entire worldview is set up such that you are only allowed to think happy thoughts. Thinking less-than-happy thoughts, or expressing them in words, is wrong and sinful. It reminds me of the FLDS line: “keep sweet.” It’s also  ripe for abuse. Gothard taught that people should only ever give a “good report” about those around them, and not a bad one. This protects abusers as it prevents those around them from calling them out on their abuse—that would not be a “good report,” and it would involve dwelling on things that are not at all pure or good.

And of course, this emphasis on only every focusing on the good, pure, and praiseworthy also prevents sympathizing with or supporting those who are in pain or who have been hurt. And that’s not a good thing, not one little bit.

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.


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