Anna Duggar and the Impossible Decision: Why They Stay.

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Josh Duggar’s scandals have not erupted in a vacuum. He is a married man with a wife and kids who utterly depend on him for their income and sustenance–and no small amount of astonishment about the freshest scandal has centered around why his wife Anna has not ditched him yet.

I know that it’s tempting to view her decision to stand by Josh Duggar with confusion and to wonder openly why she hasn’t packed her bags and left yet–or to view her decision with some measure of concern for letting her children be anywhere near someone who once opportunistically preyed upon children–or even to see her as pitiable for lacking the self-love and self-respect necessary to leave someone who is categorically not a good mate for her.

There are reasons why women in her position don’t leave husbands like Josh Duggar. Today I want to talk about some of those reasons.

There's no way this could ever go wrong. ("Sarcophagus with the Abduction of Persephone by Hades (detail)" by Anonymous (Roman). - Own work by Ad Meskens.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -
Nope, there’s no way this relationship could ever go wrong. (“Sarcophagus with the Abduction of Persephone by Hades (detail)” by Anonymous (Roman). – Own work by Ad Meskens.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – #/media/File:Sarcophagus_with_the_Abduction_of_Persephone_by_Hades_(detail).JPG)

When I was Christian, I was married to a man who didn’t do anything like Josh Duggar has been doing, but damn, it felt like we lurched from one error in judgment to the next. Because of the enmeshment we (mistakenly) thought Christian couples should cultivate to maintain and demonstrate the strength and “godliness” of our bond, Biff’s reputation was totally bound up in my own and vice versa. What he did reflected on me, and what I did reflected on him. If he did something ridiculously stupid like try to invade a dying man’s bedside to anoint him and pray for his healing, well, that was embarrassing for me, too. And if I were to become “rebellious” then obviously that reflected on his ability to lead anyone. We were “one flesh,” which meant that when someone messed with one of us, they were messing with the other too.

Many Christians also believe that their shared and fervent belief in Jesus must be the central focus of their marriage, which means that shared religious observances and vocal belief in the same thing is necessary for any couple to marry and remain married. Hell, some of these folks don’t even believe that atheists even know what love is (ETA: And yes, that’s satire – but I’m betting it sounds really familiar to a lot of folks!), much less know how to show it (oh and how very loving and compassionate of that blogger to dehumanize and negate people like that!). Without Jesus Power, these Christians believe, marriage is simply impossible; with it, any couple can make a relationship work–and even when half most almost every single one of the commenters on these sorts of glurge posts concede that their marriages are failing or failed, they’ll all still repeat that mantra and maintain their belief that Jesus can fix absolutely any marriage* even in the face of glaring evidence that this belief is not supported by reality. Don’t even get them started on the idea of mixed-faith marriages frequently doing just fine, or make them aware that atheists can and do have great marriages too.

Worse, the Christians who buy into teachings like that one also usually think that a god ordered them to get married and that their marriage is part of a divine and ineffable plan somehow. I often heard–and still hear–such Christians describe themselves as little children whose parents might order them to do stuff they don’t like or understand, which means that even if they’re not totally sure what business they have being married, even if they fight constantly or have no relevant skills in maintaining a close-quarters relationship with another person, that “God” obviously knows what he’s doing and they can’t second-guess or backtalk “his” decisions.**

Beliefs like these make it almost impossible for Christians to figure out how to pick a good mate. Because their belief is not grounded in reality, and because there’s no real way to find out objectively what their god wants or doesn’t want (before you ask, no, they don’t wonder why), there’s no real way to evaluate a mate’s suitability. A mate who seems patently unsuitable might well be “God’s” will for a Christian to marry. On that note, I’ve never even heard of a Christian couple that didn’t claim divine approval for their desire to marry.

Of course, such beliefs also give Christians a great “out” should they eventually realize that a marriage is totally impossible to salvage: they just heard “God” wrong, obviously, and need to divorce that mate to find the one “God” really meant for them to have. Beliefs in a “soulmate” model of marriage are linked to a much higher divorce rate, so that might be why, despite a firm belief in “God” arranging their unions and a firm belief that the Bible, which condemns divorce in no uncertain terms, is an inerrant guidebook to life in the modern age, Christians divorce so often anyway.

These beliefs do not demonstrably strengthen Christians’ marriages. Their religion might officially condemn divorce and admit few approved escape clauses from bad marriages, but it seems custom-designed from the ground up to produce divorces. Christians have demonstrated that they have no trouble whatsoever escaping from bad marriages–with the initiators of these divorces rationalizing their decisions as divinely-approved.

Those Christians indoctrinated into the more extreme flavors of the religion have even more unsupported beliefs about marriage, worse struggles with it–and even fewer approved escape routes.

The Duggars’ brand of Christianity is often called “patriarchy.” This type of Christianity is marked by rigid adherence to gender roles best characterized as Mad Men-meets-Mayberry. The leaders of patriarchy, like Bill Gothard and Doug Phillips, might fall left and right to bizarre sex-abuse and harassment scandals, but still spin a very sweet and gauzy vision of a Happy Christian Marriage and Happy Christian Society where men are manly-men who support families, women are sweet and docile sex-slaves and housekeepers, children are quiet, hardworking, and obedient, and nobody ever questions a man’s authority or power.

Daughters especially are indoctrinated into an extremely rigid mindset of obedience and docility. They are taught not only to obey instantly and fully any authority figure’s commands, but to do so with a big toothy smile plastered on their faces at all times–because obedience without cheerfulness and joy might as well be disobedience. They are given as shitty an education as their parents dare to provide, specifically denied higher educations unless they can prove their “motive” is acceptable (meaning: they’re not trying to achieve independence or autonomy in any way at all), specifically denied any way of learning job skills to support themselves in any meaningful way, and kept busy raising their own younger siblings because their parents had more kids than they can possibly raise themselves.

Women in this culture, especially young unmarried women, are valued according to their “purity,” meaning their abstention from all forms of unapproved sexuality. They are handed from father to husband like livestock in (frequently) arranged marriages after highly ritualized engagements referred to as “courtship,” with only lip service–if that–paid to what the young woman herself wants. It is distressingly common for the brides in such marriages to be considerably younger than their new husbands–possibly barely old enough to consent to the matches their fathers have decided upon, since many extremist patriarchal Christians advise that girls be married by 15 or 16 if at all possible to avoid them growing up enough to get silly ideas before they’re burdened with the busywork of motherhood and domesticity.

Wives are judged not only by their purity but also by their cheerful obedience to their husbands. They are not allowed to override their husbands’ judgment or to challenge them. They are to submit to sex whether or not they want it, obey whether or not they agree with his decisions, and keep their homes spotless and inviting. More than even that extreme version of obedience, however, a proper wife in that culture must completely negate herself and center her entire life around pleasing her husband.

This model of marriage is also called “complementarianism,” which in Christianese means “separate but equal”–which you might recall worked out so very well for black people. The idea is that sure, there isn’t “male or female” in “Jesus,” but there are entire libraries’ worth of rationalizations for why Christians don’t listen to that Bible verse; rather, in their ideology men and women have very specific roles and duties and can’t possibly do anything different. By the wildest of all wild coincidences, men just happen to have been divinely-appointed to be leaders (I know, right? It’s just soooo harrrrd – the very worst!), and women just happened to have been divinely-appointed to be followers (which we know because the men say that “God” told them this is how it simply must be).*** So a man who doesn’t take a very firm hand in his family’s leadership–or, far more commonly, a woman who doesn’t instantly obey her husband in all particulars with a big ol’ smile–is not just out of compliance with their religious leaders’ ideology, but also actively violating the will and desire of their very god.

In other words, they are sinning.

And there is only one penalty for sinning.

Women get taught that conforming to a complementarian model of marriage will grant them protection, security, and a happy marriage to a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ man who will cherish, protect, nurture, love, and honor her–or at least a man who her god will mold into that ideal figure as a reward for her obedience. Women who do not “giggle, smile, and simper” will ruin their marriages and end up divorced and alone, probably turning into lesbians and living in trailer-park duplexes in utter misery and poverty (a view that Libby Anne delights in lampooning on the regular), while their husbands run off with prettier younger women who will obey a lot better than their predecessors did.

Even many Christians reading about these relationships will find themselves recoiling from the Stepford Wife-level obedience demanded by Quiverfull culture–and with good reason.

When abuse inevitably erupts in a Quiverfull family or community’s ranks, the women abused are almost always blamed for their own abuse because despite their utter lack of personal power and even when they are 100% obedient and docile, they are still considered so powerful sexually that they can provoke a boy or man beyond all self-control.

Women in these relationships have absolutely no recourse if their mates turn out to be totally abusive assholes. They can’t go home, because their parents will blame them for their failure to be good enough wives to turn their husbands around–and for their obvious disobedience to “Jesus.” They have no appreciable job skills whatsoever. Their utter dependence is exploited by their fathers and husbands–with abandonment and ostracism used as leverage to force their compliance. While many non-patriarchal women who leave their marriages expect at least shared custody of any children between the couple, Quiverfull women don’t have anything close to that assurance.

Women in these communities and marriages stand to lose EVERYTHING if they rebel.

So a woman who discovers that her husband has one scandal after the next dogging his heels finds herself in an absolutely untenable position, and having to make an absolutely impossible decision.

Don’t be surprised at all that Anna Duggar is drilling down all the harder on remaining faithful and loyal to her husband. From the very beginning, when she declared her intention to stand by the serial child-abuser, nothing she’s done is shocking or unexpected to anybody who knows anything about her culture.

Does she love him? Maybe, maybe not–she might not actually understand the word in the same way we outsiders do, given that she subscribes to a culture that believes people can force themselves to love their spouses (which we’ll talk about next time). But her husband is a child-abuser with a history of opportunistically preying upon children; it’s hard to fathom how a loving parent could possibly allow such a person near his or her kids. And now he’s demonstrated that he’s incapable of being faithful to her through a long history and pattern of sketchy perving all over the Deep South. Though she might not have understood exactly what the “sins” were that her husband has committed, or even how serious sex abuse is for children, or the full extent of Josh Duggar’s deceptions and hypocrisy, most women would have DTMFA.

But Anna Duggar isn’t most women.

People have been advising her to leave him for a while now, but honestly, how the Hell could she, given what I’ve just outlined about her culture’s teachings about marriage and the risk she’d be taking in doing something like that?

I don’t see stories like this linked one and think “Wow, what a wonderfully loving, faithful, godly Christian wife that lady is.”

I see these stories and wonder what kind of never-ending emotional torture Anna must be feeling right now, and if, how, and when she’ll finally escape her prison.

I hope she does.

I really do.

If she ever does, it’ll be in total defiance of everything her culture has ever taught women about marriage.

Until then, all we can do is encourage her to find her freedom if she wants it and if she dares–and to ensure that her children are safe regardless.

We’re going back to Fireproof next and talking about that stupid “Love Dares” book, especially regarding how it intersects with the latest Duggar scandal, and I do hope you’ll join me.

* I’m going to warn you right now: the comments on that post are a) totally par for the course for these kinds of shitty-advice Christian-party-line posts, and b) seriously depressing to read, especially the blogger’s rather ineffectual-sounding  party-line responses to the people suffering genuine pain and heartbreak.

** Even worse, I’ve heard Christians describe non-Christians in the same exact way, casting themselves as the “parents” in that metaphor to imply that they know oh so much better than the savage heathens do and should therefore be allowed to run those heathens’ lives for them–and the children will thank their parents in the end. Christians: I’m not kidding. Stop that. NOW. It’s absolutely grotesque.

*** Feminism, which has brought so many people to an understanding of how untenable and victimizing such self-negation often is, has been blamed for years as the cause of divorces and lack of marriageable partners–rather than the untenable and abuse-prone complementarian marriage model itself. It’s less “cherchez la femme” and more “there is always a way to blame a woman somehow for something.”

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