TTUAC: Find a Wife Who’s Always Smiling

To Train Up A Child, chapter 20, part 1

Toward the end of To Train Up a Child, Michael writes a letter to his sons (in the next section, Debi writes a letter to her daughters). Michael says that he is writing this letter to his sons because “there is always the possibility that I could be gone by the time they have children of their own” and “there is so much I would like to see them keep in mind.”

Gabriel and Nathan Pearl,

I cannot imagine the kind of world tomorrow will bring, but unless it is the Millennium it will be even more hostile to the family. If the Lord should tarry long enough for you to marry and begin rearing children, your Daddy has a few words of advice.

Notice how much depends on how one defines “the family.”

In the first part of his letter, Michael tells his sons how to pick a wife.

First, know that the woman you marry will be the lifelong mother of your children. All that she is in the accumulation of past experiences will be present as the mother of your children. There is not a more major decision affecting the future of your children than the choice of your life’s partner. The relationship between a man and his wife has more effect on the children than any other factor. A couple may express their differences only in private, but they cannot hide the effects from their children. Remember, your family will be no better than the relationship you have with your wife–their mother.

I’ve noted before that one reason the Pearls have as many followers as they do is that combined with all of the terrible, horrible things they write are a smattering of things that are reasonable, or even good. This bit classifies as the former—it’s mostly reasonable. One thing I liked about the man who is now my husband, back when we were dating, was that he was good with kids. I knew I wanted kids, and I didn’t want to parent alone—I wanted my children to have an involved father who enjoyed spending time with them.

That said, there’s an aspect of the way Michael lays this out that makes me nervous. “A couple may express their differences only in private,” he says, “but they cannot hide the effects from their children.” The import—knowing that this is coming from Michael—is that you should marry someone with whom you have no differences. The problem is that I don’t think that exists. Every couple will have their disagreements from time to time. That, also, is one thing I liked about my now husband, when we were dating—he was good at resolving conflict. When a disagreement came up, didn’t get angry, he didn’t yell or give me the silent treatment, he talked through it.

From where I’m standing, how one’s partner handles differences is far more important than whether there are differences—because there will be differences. But from the Pearls’ perspective, a woman is to mold herself to the man she marries—to adopt his religious beliefs, his political beliefs, his views on life. If she molds herself to him, there won’t be difference. Of course, she will also be surrendering her mind.

In his next paragraph, Michael again gives fuel to those who would argue that his teachings really aren’t that bad—that they’re misrepresented by dissenters:

Be sure to cultivate your relationship with your wife. Meet her needs. Make her happy. Her state of mind is going to be 50% of your children’s example, 100% when you are not there. If you will love and cherish your wife, the children will love and cherish her also. If you are a servant to her, the example will translate to their experience.

There is nothing in Created To Be His Help Meet, the marriage manual written by Michael’s wife Debi, to suggest that he is a servant to her. Nothing. And that book is chock full of anecdotes from Debi’s life, the main thrust of which is that Michael demands to be served, and that Debi learned to be happy when she learned to cheerfully serve him no matter how ridiculous his demands.

When you look for a wife, and mother for your children, the first qualification is that she love the Lord and be His disciple. Nothing else will keep her for the duration. She will need to know how to pray. A girl who takes Christ for granted will do the same with her family. A man and his wife are “heirs together of the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7).” It takes two, equally yoked, to pull the family wagon safely through the hostile deserts of this life.

If your religion is as important to you as Michael’s is to him, yes, marrying someone who shares your religious beliefs will likely make your life smoothest. Mixed religion marriages absolutely can work out, but they are definitely more work.

The second thing to look for in a prospective wife is cheerfulness. Now, some might ignore this qualification altogether; but I can’t emphasize too forcefully the value and practicality of this quality. A girl who is unhappy and discontent before marriage is NOT suddenly changed afterward. Everyone has trials and adversities. The happy, cheerful girl has learned to deal with them and still enjoys life. No man can make a discontented woman happy. A woman who does not find joy from a wellspring within will not find it in the difficulties and trials of marriage and motherhood.

Courtship is a garden in Spring–everybody’s looks promising; but marriage is a garden in August, when the quality of the soil and seed and the care to guard against pestilence, blight and weeds begins to manifest itself. The fruit of the womb can be spoiled before germination. Give prayerful care to the choice of a wife and mother. A girl who gets her feelings hurt and cries in order to manipulate you will be a ball and chain after you are married. Cheerfulness shows up best when things are not exactly the way she likes them.

It’s absolutely true that you shouldn’t expect someone to change when you marry them. It’s also true that one of the things that attracted me to my now husband is that he views life as an array of limitless possibilities. Your partner’s temperament is definitely something that should affect your decision, when considering marriage. The trouble is that girls in fundamentalist Christian homeschooling communities are taught to be happy and cheerful no matter what. I remember being punished for frowning. Being in a bad mood could get you sent to your room. The trouble is that none of this actually gave me tools for dealing with my emotions. They just encouraged me to plaster over them.

In other words, the smile was sometimes fake.

But the biggest problem I have with the above section is this sentence: “A girl who gets her feelings hurt and cries in order to manipulate you will be a ball and chain after you are married.” It’s not that I disagree, necessarily! I’m very familiar with this dynamic—I’ve seen it play out in plenty of situations. I saw it play out in the homeschool community I grew up in; there it occurred primarily because women in these situations—women who are expected to submit to and obey their husbands—often have no other way to get what they want. This dynamic is a bad dynamic, but it’s not one that can be fixed, I would argue, until you deal with its root causes.

When women cry to get their way, it is frequently because they don’t believe their partner will listen to their concerns or needs otherwise.

This one line, by the way, is essentially the only hint in Michael’s entire treatment that relationship skills matter. One thing I intend to teach my own children when they are older is that relationship skills matter. How does a partner resolve conflict? Is communication happening? Do both partners listen to each other—really listen? Having good relationship skills is so, so important—but Michael jettisons this completely. Rather than saying a word about good relationship skills, he tells his sons to look for a woman who is cheerful no matter what.

The next quality to took for is thankfulness. When a young girl is unthankful toward her family or her circumstances, a change of environment and relationships is not going to make her thankful. Thankfulness is not a response to one’s environment, rather, an expression of the heart. Avoid a moody, unthankful, unhappy girl. If she is not full of the joy of living before marriage, she surely will not be afterwards. A young lady who had been married less than a month said to Deb, “I have never in my life been one to have my feelings hurt. But, since I got married, I seem to go around with a chip on my shoulder. I guess it is just that I care more than I once did.” Deb told her, “No you don’t care more; you just feel that you have more rights, and therefore expect more.” The thing to remember is that personalities and temperaments do not improve after marriage. When the social restraints are lifted, the freedom that comes from a secure union permits one to express true feelings.

Can I just repeat what I said earlier about cheerfulness? The same thing applies to thankfulness. In the homeschool community I grew up in, girls were taught that we were to be thankful, to be happy, that being moody was sinful. Smile! Count it all joy! This wasn’t exactly a recipe for true and actual happiness. It was a recipe for a facade. It’s true that there are some people who seem to be discontent no matter what, but in most cases unhappiness has a cause. Insisting that someone always be happy and thankful without addressing why they are discontent is papers over the problem whether than addressing it. This whole “pick a happy thankful woman” bit is starting to seriously grate on me.

It’s very true that you can’t expect someone to change upon marriage. It is true, though, that living together is different from dating while living separately (especially while still living with parents, as is likely here). This is one reason it can be helpful to live together before marriage—it gives both partners a chance to move out of the puppy dog phase and see what the other person is like in ordinary life. Michael, of course, is completely against anything of the sort.

There’s another thing. Remember what I said about communication and relationship skills and the expectation, in fundamentalist communities, that women are to obey and submit to their husbands? In the scenario Michael offers, I am curious what was upsetting the newlywed who approached Debi. She tells Debi that she has a “chip on her shoulder”—but does she actually have access to other language to describe her discontent with her marriage, and with her husband? She may be using the only language she has.

And Debi’s response is for her to suck it up.

The story Michael provides here does nothing at all to prove his point—he says that personalities and temperaments do not improve after marriage, but the woman who approached Debi said she had “never in her life been the ones to have [her] feelings hurt.” This wasn’t at all a story about a man marrying an unhappy “moody” woman. It was a story about a cheerful, happy woman who became discontent after marriage. Michael does not give his sons any tools to deal with that. Instead, he gives his sons the idea that if they pick wrong—if they marry a woman and she turns out to be unhappy and moody—there is no way to fix it. A woman’s unhappiness does not have a reason; it is a force of nature. And that means that they definitely won’t be looking for root causes, or trying to learn why their wife is unhappy.

Boys, take note of a girl’s attitude toward her father. It doesn’t matter what kind of louse he may be, if she is rebellious to him, she will be twice as rebellious to you. If she speaks disrespectfully of or to her father, she will do likewise toward you.

The problem with this argument (and it’s something I’ve seen outside of the Pearls’ fundamentalist circles as well) is that the husband is not meant to fill the same place as the father. A girl’s father, while she is growing up, is an authority figure. Her husband is her equal. That is not the case, of course, for Michael. In the Pearls’ world, a woman’s husband is an authority figure in the same way her father was.

The next quality to look for is a creative hard worker. Don’t marry a lazy, slothful girl. Looks can get mighty old lying up in bed framed in a disheveled, griping, slothful pout. Whatever you do, avoid a lazy girl. If she expects to be waited on, let her marry a waiter. You will have a full job rearing the children without having to rear a wife.

That last line is particularly cringe inducing.

Never marry a girl who feels she is not getting the best man in the world when she gets you. A girl who enters marriage thinking she could have done better will never be satisfied for wondering what it might have been like if….

There are a lot of people out there. You can think the world of a partner without think they’re literally the best man in the world. As I see it, there are any number of men out there that a woman would be compatible with and happy with. The trick isn’t finding the best one of that number, it’s finding one of them. You only need one, after all.

Avoid the girl who is enamored with her own looks. Better to marry a homely girl who is content to love and be loved than one who is going to spend her years trying to maintain her fading beauty. Life is too big and full to be spent waiting on a disappointed woman who is regretfully looking in the mirror.

This is still framed in a way that makes it sound like the homely girl is second-best—or at least, a second choice. Why not instead indict men’s focus on looks? Or perhaps I should add—is there a way to indict the male focus on looks as shallow without treating the homely girl as a second pick who is actually better despite her looks because she is content? I am just really uncomfortable with this framing.

Avoid like the plague the girl who would pursue her own career outside the home. A wife must be your “Help-meet.”

Egads!

But seriously now, who didn’t see this coming.

The last qualification is a love for children. A girl who doesn’t want her life encumbered with children is suffering a deep hurt and is walking a road to misery. One day, the Lord willing, you are going to have children of your own.

I mean yes—if you plan to have children, you should find a partner who also wants children. The assumption here, though, is that having children is a non-negotiable not because you personally want kids but rather because that’s just how things are. There’s no understanding that one of his sons might not want kids—and might be perfectly happy living a childfree life with someone else who doesn’t want kids either. There’s no understanding that a man who ends up married to a woman who doesn’t want kids would have to find some compromise or separate; the assumption is that the kids are given, and a woman who doesn’t want them will just end up being miserable.

And that’s the end of the bit on choosing a wife.

Returning to something I said earlier, when I give my children relationship advice, my focus will be on relationship skills. Michael is all, are they always smiling? Are they always happy? Are they content no matter what? The questions I’ll ask are very different. How do they resolve conflict? Do they listen to you? Do you listen to them? Do they care about your needs, as well as their own? Do you communicate and talk through disagreements? Those are the things that will carry you through a relationship, and through a marriage.

Edit: A reader just pointed out something else about Michael’s approach:

His approach is, unsurprisingly, entirely utilitarian. Get the best slave you can, who will serve you without letting her misery show no matter how badly you treat her, and then enjoy the rewards of having the perfect victim. Which is utterly unsurprising, but important to realize, because even the “reasonable” bits are entirely about picking a wife (who has no options in being selected) who is easiest to control and will do the most work with the least likelihood of escaping. None of this advice applies to finding a partner.

They’re right—there’s nothing in Michael’s treatment about finding someone you work well with, someone you enjoy spending time with, someone you have interesting conversations with, someone who shares your tastes or hobbies, someone who has a similar life vision (where to live, whether to have kids and if so how many, etc.). His letter is not about finding a life partner. It’s about finding a servant who does what you want them to do for you and never upsets you.

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