Emotional Incest: The Bottom Line

My last two posts, and indeed all my thinking on the subject has led me to some conclusions about the ways that Christian Patriarchy and purity culture enable and even celebrate emotional incest. The following are the cliff notes:

Christian patriarchy turns marriage from a relationship to an institution, effectively reversing the historical trend from business partnerships and heir insurance to bonds between two free agents based on love. Evangelical culture says that marriage takes three: you, your spouse, and God. It also promotes self-denial and the sublimation of one’s own desires to those of Christ. Therefore, any two evangelical Christians should be able to marry each other and have a godly, fulfilling marriage, given enough work and prayer. Purity culture says that chemistry and personality don’t matter. What matters is following the Word of God. Husbands and wives should love each other because it’s commanded in God’s Word to do so; loving his wife is a husband’s “first ministry.” Similarly, a wife “ministers” to her husband by submission and love. The core of marriage in Christian patriarchy is the commitment to be loyal to God and to the marriage, not attachment to the person of the spouse. This is why evangelical courtships are more focused on purity than the prospective partners getting to know each other personally; what matters is getting to the altar without regrets. The love in marriage flows from commitment rather than the other way around, mirroring the logic of arranged marriage.(Note: Most evangelical Christians do acknowledge the importance of an emotional bond between the bride and groom that develops before the wedding day. Most evangelical Christians do want their children to marry people whom they find attractive, companionable and fun. If you are one of these Christians, you’re not the one I’m critiquing. (Congratulations! You’re normal!) What I do find problematic is the branch of evangelical-fundamentalist Christianity led by people like Bill Gothard, Matthew Chapman (who famously didn’t ask his wife to marry him), Doug Wilson, Jonathan Lindvall, et al. who expect young people to marry with hardly any knowledge of each other, rigid parental oversight and laundry lists of abstract virtues rather than personality traits in mind.)

The institutionalization of marriage in Christian patriarchy leads to relationships based on order, hierarchy and duty rather than affection. Husbands are commanded to be leaders of their wives. Wives are commanded to submit. Husbands are commanded to love. Wives are commanded to reverence. Marriage is reduced to performance of a gender role. Although individuals frequently subvert this, the ideal is that husband and wife will relate to one another as master and subordinate, with two distinct spheres of duty.

Women who must obey their husbands turn to their sons for more equal partnerships. Most evangelical-fundamentalists do not place the son’s authority higher than the mother’s, though some do. A mother can share interests with her son, disagree with him, choose their mutual activities and challenge her son in ways that she cannot challenge her husband. This promotes emotionally incestuous mother-son relationships in which the son becomes his mother’s main source of emotional support.

Husbands whose wives are constrained with childbearing and homemaking turn to their daughters for emotional affirmation. Wives are required to respect, obey, and love their husbands. Daughters are, too, but their devotion and admiration are more often the natural results of kind parenting than coercion or dogmatic instruction. (I fully acknowledge that many daughters don’t love their fathers, because their fathers are distant, abusive, etc. I am one of those daughters. However, a daughter whose father raises her kindly will usually love him without hesitation.) A daughter’s love is more spontaneous, and hence may feel more genuine than a wife’s love. A daughter is also less inhibited by years of conflicts, submission and moral instruction. She is simply younger and (usually) more enthusiastic. As a child, she is also more inclined to want to please her father – especially as that trait is cultivated in girls. As Libby Anne also points out, a daughter is more susceptible to her father’s influence, and has the potential to be molded into the ideal partner.

Christian patriarchy cultivates father-daughter emotional incest through purity pledges and purity balls, father-daughter dating, stay-at-home daughterhood, “practice” homemaking and the courtship process that gives fathers veto power over a girl’s relationships. Daughters are explicitly taught that they should submit to their fathers as their “heads” until they marry, that the father-daughter relationship is practice for marriage, that fathers should treat their daughters the way they want their future husbands to treat them (as opposed to being an example by treating their wives the way they want their daughters treated). With your father “guarding your heart,” you can hardly form relationships that don’t include, or indeed center on, him.

Purity culture limits young people’s access to one another through courtship and sex-segregated activities.This means that contact between the sexes is extremely formal, and many children of large families form their deepest bonds with their parents and siblings. This can stunt their ability to make friends or find partners on their own, further cementing parental control over spousal choices. It also limits children’s access to other families that could show them alternatives to the kinds of relationships that exist within their own families, leading them to think that their own family dynamic is “normal” even if it isn’t.

Quiverfull families normally rely on the eldest children (usually daughters) to parent younger siblingsThis can artificially elevate the eldest children to the status of co-parents or partners for their parents. Normally, emotional incest occurs between a parent and his or her eldest child (though there are undoubtedly exceptions).

This is not to say that only patriarchal Christians are vulnerable to emotional incest. It is, however, to point out that some central tenets of Christian patriarchy and quiverfull enable those relationships to flourish unchecked. The results, when they are terminated, can be devastating for both parents and children. These relationships can have ripple effects that prevent children from forming healthy bonds with their own partners in adulthood. In the case of stay-at-home daughterhood, however, this flaw is considered a benefit. If daughters remain at home, serving their fathers, well into their own adulthood, they are treated as success stories. They shouldn’t be.

  • Lively Granddad

    Wow. This is a major undertaking on your part and shows a lot of thought, but then, you have lived through it and understand how to communicate its perversity. Whenever I had heard of purity balls, father-daughter dating, or purity rings, it saw it as an immoral sickness masquerading as a moral high ground. It is a sickness. I’ve forwarded your blog and especially these 3 entries to several family counselors I know who see the really messed-up results of these actions in young adults’ lives as they struggle to free themselves from its moral perverseness. Thanks for sharing this perspective.

  • Carl Reese

    I fascinated by your blog. This post in particular but others as well. I was raised as a Mormon and everything you say hits home. My marriage was a three way story with God, me and my wife. We have had to work quite a bit to divorce God without divorcing each other.

    I recall being taught before marriage that sex even after marriage should be of the type of “purity” that God would approve. Yep, God watches everything and I mean everything. So we were taught.

  • Mandy

    I was raised much like you; however, I pushed away my Dad’s emotional advances for the most part and was called “rebellious” by both of my parents, because my Mom was equally dependent on me and my siblings for emotional support. I’m fortunate to have a great husband who I only have because I “rebelled” and didn’t follow my Dad’s courtship model. I do love God, and know God in Scriptures isn’t who my parents or church back then told me He is. They made God in their own image overlaying these wierd fundy ideas over what Scriptures say, and conveniently leaving out many things Scriptures DO say. I used to be taught the marriage triangle, too. I don’t live that way. It’s my husband and God, and me and God. There is no triangle. We both have vertical lines. My husband could have taken advantage of my brokenness but he helped open the doors to freedom. I’ll tell you (as your probably know) that the whole patriarchal model while it puts too much physical work on the woman, it also takes away her spiritual freedom AND responsibility. Taking away that responsibility of a person for their OWN emotional, physical, and spiritual health can be appealing and I think is maybe what keeps some women trapped, because if the have freedom, they’ll be responsible. I can say this because I caught myself thinking like that occasionally. My husband did too, and he would remind me the door to freedom was open, and sometimes give me a nudge. We’re best friends, lovers, sounding boards for one another, challenge one another’s thoughts, and other things life partners should do. I’m saying this to say it’s possible to break free from the crap of people’s selfishness and sin and be so freakin’ happy it’s unbelievable.
    One of my sisters is still wrapped up in the whole “because you’re a female you’re less of a human created in the image of God and have to have a male head” mentality. I don’t even know how to approach the subject.
    When I read Scriptures, I see a God who pushes fear away with love, who gives freedom, who loves unconditionally and gives me worth.