What “Love and Respect” and “Fireproof” Teach Abusers and their Victims

Poster from the movie “Fireproof” (click for source)

Content Note: Descriptions of Abuse, Abuse Apologism

Ever since we started dating, my husband Abe has been trying to talk me into watching the movie Fireproof with him. No, not because he thought it would help our relationship, but because he insisted that it was one of the funniest movies I’d ever see. A couple of weeks ago, we finally rented the DVD at Family Video (yes, those still exist), and he was right. It was pretty hilarious–in the same way that Troll 2 and Jaws The Revenge are hilarious. It was awful.

Even though Abe and I found ourselves laughing throughout the entire movie, there were a few scenes that forced me to stop and think, “Wait, people actually take this seriously.” As funny as the cheesy lines and awful acting are, the messages this movie sends are dangerous. 

I’ve also been reading through the Christian marriage book Love and Respect. I’d meant to include this book in my “You Are Not Your Own” project, but my professor suggested I drop a book or two from my list as it would be too much work to complete in just a few months, and that was the one to go. A conversation on Facebook promoted me to pick it up and read through it.

I don’t know this for sure, but I would not be surprised if the movie Fireproof was created by a huge Love and Respect fan. Both contain the same harmful messages.

What are these harmful messages? 

The central message in Love and Respect is that men need unconditional respect, and women need unconditional  love. When heterosexual husbands (there are no other types of husbands in this movies/books) do not get respect from their wives, they react unlovingly, which causes wives to respect them even less, which causes husbands to love their wives even less, and the cycle goes on and on. To break the cycle, one spouse must decide to either love or respect the other unconditionally, no matter what the risk.

In the movie Fireproof, we see this cycle that Love and Respect talks about. The idea of men needing respect is presented from the beginning, when Caleb (Kirk Cameron) is talking to his friend and says, “How is it that I get respect everywhere I go, except in my own house?”

Later, Caleb goes home and gets into a fight his wife Catherine (Erin Bethea). He starts screaming at her, and backs her into a wall yelling, “Shut up! I’m sick of you! You disrespectful, ungrateful, selfish woman! You constantly nag me and you drain the life out of me. If you can’t give me the respect I deserve [she turns away]–Look at me!–then what’s the point of this marriage?”

After the fight, he goes outside and throws the trash can against the wall in anger. Later, when his wife turns down his romantic advances, he takes out his anger at her on this same trash can using a baseball bat.

Remember, Caleb is the protagonist here. We learn later that the movie wants to show his tactics as wrong (the screaming and shouting–the movie is less clear on his destruction of family property as a response to anger, as he destroys the family computer when he gets a pop-up for pornography and we’re meant to see that act as honorable). But even as he is screaming and shouting at his wife, we’re supposed to empathize with his manly man need for respect. He is never told to give up on his desire for respect from his wife, but is told to draw respect (Respect here seems to mean the honoring of male “headship/leadership,” as it does in Love and Respect) out in a benevolent way, by treating his wife with love.

Though Fireproof focuses mainly on husbands, telling them if they want respect from their wives, they should draw it out with benevolent sexism love, Love and Respect puts more responsibility on women. Love and Respect asserts that all men need respect, and that godly wives give their husbands respect whether their husbands deserve it or not. The author says he understands why women might be afraid to do that, acknowledging that some husbands are abusive, but he believes that if wives respect their husbands, it will convince even abusers to love. 

Love and Respect gives one example of a husband who throws a dish at his wife, cutting her face open. The husband spent a few days in jail for this, but the wife’s response to this situation was to contact Dr. Emerson Eggerichs (the author of Love and Respect) for materials “about unconditionally respecting her husband.” She told Eggerichs that she was “mightily convicted about my need for learning this vital aspect of my wifely role.”

Neither the wife who took a dish to the face nor Catherine from Fireproof are given the option for leaving their abusers. The movie Fireproof shows Catherine talking to her friends. These friends are portrayed as catty, gossipy, worldly (and, not surprisingly, half of her friends are black women–the only significant black women in the movie), and they offer Catherine a place to stay should she choose to leave her husband.

We’re supposed to see them as bad friends. For offering her help if she leaves her verbally abusive, threatening husband. 

These are the messages that Love and Respect and Fireproof send to abusers and abuse victims:

Abusers have bad tactics but good motives. Abusers should (unless they are women) expect unconditional respect from their spouses, and they should expect that their spouses will follow their leadership. Abusers just need to be taking the “kinder, gentler” approach.

Victims, on the other hand, have actually had the power to end abuse this whole time. Instead of thinking about divorce, they should stay and commit to either unconditionally respecting (this is what abused women are to do) their spouse, or unconditionally loving (this is what verbally abused men are to do–Love and Respect frequently describes the verbal abuse of men as something men just need to put up with for awhile) their spouse.

Don’t leave–it’s a sin. Abusers, you can get the power and control you need by being “nice!” Abuse is partially your fault for failing to love or respect.  –This is what we learn from Fireproof and Love and Respect. 

For more on how movies like Fireproof keep victims in abusive relationships, read this excellent post at Defeating the Dragons. 

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  • Stephanie Kocher

    Fascinating! I’d love to hear Dr. Eggerich’s (sure it wasn’t Robotnik’s? lol I couldn’t resist) take on how I could have earned my ex’s love if I just continued my 10+ years of unconditional respect a wee bit longer. I’m sure he’d have a lot to say about homosexuality though, when he learns that my ex was sleeping around with guys behind my back. Nothing I did was going to earn love, ever. Maybe a sex-change, but I wasn’t going that far. I don’t believe it would have even if he wasn’t into guys, though; because his heroin addiction was his first and foremost and all-consuming love, and that is what I see as the major obstacle in his relationships of all kinds. A wife cannot compete with an addiction any more than she can compete with a same-sex attraction; and there are some guys out there who are just plain addicted to themselves. It’s called narcissism. Or more recently, sociopathy. Such generalizations about marital relationships are bound to do more harm than good.

  • Meghan Garcia

    “An old man and an old woman who had been married for more than 60 years were asked ‘How have you survived that many years of marriage to the same flawed person?’ They answered: ‘In our day, when something was broken, you fixed it.’”

    While obviously, true abuse shouldn’t be tolerated and women (or men) suffering abuse should remove themselves and any children from the situation right away, the kind of broken marriages that are in stories like Fireproof (and that other one, I can’t remember the name but it’s a very similar premise) need fixing, not destroying/leaving. I’m not the director, so I can’t speak infallibly about the literal intended message of Fireproof, but I don’t think that we’re meant to empathize with the protagonist’s violence/potential abuse patterns, but rather with the fact that their marriage is lacking the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that would allow them to love and respect one another in Christ. His anger or emotional reaction is a symptom of the deeper problem, not the problem itself, like it would be in an abusive situation.

    NOT that I’m advocating remaining living with abuse in the name of vocation or because it’s ‘just a symptom’. But I think modern culture tends to hyper-extend what constitutes ‘abuse’ and what constitutes grounds for abandoning a marriage.

    They’re cheesetastic films though, I agree, holy cow. :-p

    • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

      The couple in the film portrayed quite accurately what its like yo be in a. emotionally and verbally abusive relationship. And trust me, one being a Christian does not prevent one from being an abuser. in fact, statistics show that it is more conservative Christians regions in the US that have higher DA rates. My state leads the nation for women murdered by romantic partners…a staunchly conservative state religiously.

      Being a Christian is not a guarantee for a healthy marriage, no more so than the adherents of any other faiths…

    • Matt

      Modern culture doesn’t “hyper-extend what constitutes abuse.” We actually have lots and lots and lots of practice defending the numerous ways we cause pain to those more vulnerable than us.

      You just demonstrated one way we defend it.

      • http://www.forgettingthecat.blogspot.com/ Meghan Garcia

        Accepting that sometimes part of life is suffering isn’t defending abuse. Or, put another way, not every instance of suffering is abuse. We are far too hung up on thinking that we are supposed to be comfortable/experiencing pleasure and fulfillment all of the time, no matter what, and that’s definitely evident in modern marriage.

        • Matt

          I would never assert that we are supposed to feel pleasure and fulfillment all of the time. Pain can sometimes be our greatest teacher.

          However, abuse is not the opposite of pleasure, or simple suffering. Abuse between people is a systematic way that one person hurts/degrades another. In other words, it’s deliberate. And one of the ways that abuse is justified is through circular reasoning; in other words, you begin with the conclusion you’d like to end with.

          Thus: “We think we’re supposed to feel pleasure all of the time” can easily be twisted on itself into: “…So why are you upset that your husband screamed insults at you? You can’t be happy all the time!”

          The only way to break the cycle of “You are bad, so I will punish you to show you how bad you are,” is to be strong and unequivocal in our stance against abuse.

        • tulips

          Interesting assertion. I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard anyone (married or not) suggest anything of the sort outside of religious posturing. I have observed a few “Just follow “X” formula and your marriage will be “Y desirable outcome” adherents work overtime to maintain the appearance of “Y” because failure to produce “Y” means they have failed at “X” and failing at “X” means you lose status points on the social hierarchy.

    • tulips

      I’m confused about what it is exactly you’re trying to say. On the one hand, of course all unhappiness isn’t abusive. Someone isn’t abusing me by having different interests than I do or not intuiting my preferred romantic gestures. Not even by feeling anger and emotional withdrawal. However, backing someone into a wall while yelling a them ~is~ explicitly verbal abuse and intimidation. If you did that to a random person on the street you’d be cooling your heels in jail and probably with a follow up restraining order. No hyper extension necessary. If you’re going to “fix” something the first order of operation is to call things at they are.

  • http://www.bethanysuckrow.com/ Bethany Suckrow

    Got that book as wedding gift from an in-law and still haven’t read it. Had NO IDEA of the horrifying examples it gives. I think it’s sitting in a box in my storage unit. To read it and satisfy my curiosity or to toss it in the trash?! I’m torn. Thanks for drawing this comparison between the book and this movie (also haven’t watched that, but saw the computer-smashing scene in a church service once. So stupid.)

  • http://www.formerlyfundie.com/ Benjamin L. Corey

    Love the piece– really good insight from the movie. I also critiqued Fire Proof and some similar movies in a piece I wrote here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/christian-movies/

    Cheers,
    Ben

  • Michael Mock

    You know what makes me completely crazy about this? Unconditional respect is a contradiction in terms. Respect is, by nature, something that must be earned; it is inherently conditional. So if you demand that someone give you unconditional respect, then what you’re demanding isn’t respect. Deference, maybe, but not respect.

  • CJ99

    Movies like this, there are several show how far evangelical extremism is removed from reality. And what several have said here is correct: it sends the message that spousal abuse is ok and the wife must tolerate it. In reality any man who acts in such a way is not a man.

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

    I watched Fireproof, before my second husband and I married 19 months ago. It was recommended by our pastor, who married us. I thought it was terrible. Cory’s character was an ass, blamed his wife for his attitude, for the problems in their marriage, for their finances, for her spending time taking care of her parents. Then he gets this book of godly magic and proceeds to stalk her, with the creepy romancing stuff. In a real world situation, she would have realized that he was in his get on her good side of abusive relationship cycle and hopefully wouldn’t have bought his self serving act…Yeah, I know from experience, except my ex, never was all that good at the romancing me back into his good graces part.

    I get what the film is trying to say, don’t take your spouse for granted. But they did it horribly, and the overt, “you must be a Christian to make your marriage work” was ridiculous. My husband and I are on opposite spectrums in our faiths. to the point that we are almost an interfaith couple. Respect should be mutual, compassion mutual, allowing room for individuality mutual.

  • Bethanylynn

    Yea just stick it out and stay. And be nice. Because its all your fault anyways. If you had given him the respect in the first place then this never would have happened. Wow. What a dangerous message! Kind of reminds me of Beauty and the Beast. If he yells at you and confines you against your will, just love him and your love will (eventually…hopefully before he hurts or kills you) TRANSFORM him into a perfect man. I call BS.

  • Krista Dalton

    Great post! I remember when I first got married, my dad bought us “Fireproof” for Christmas and said the movie would save our marriage. Instead, all I saw was a harmful missive that my identity as a woman was simply to serve my husband. You are right on!

  • Tom B.

    I actually like Fireproof (despite the acting – Kurt is cute enough he doesn’t have to act [message to Hollywood – good looking is better than able to act: IMHO) Anyway now I’m a gay man so that may have kept me from reading it as – man acts this way woman acts this way. I read it all along as how you should treat your partner . So I didn’t appreciate the significance ( thanks now I finally do), and you must have missed completely the final revelation: it wasn’t as he assumed his father who had worked these steps in his relationship with his mother, RATHER (cue the dramatic pause) his mother who had worked these steps in her relationship to his father. As I said I didn’t get the point of that at all (until now – thanks again) but for you – I’d suggest you find that closing reveal.


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