I thought about the evangelical Christian marriage market as I read Lori Alexander’s viral blog post, Men Prefer Debt-Free Virgins Without Tattoos, last week. I thought about my own approach to marriage, as an evangelical teen and young adult growing up in a conservative homeschool community. And most of all, perhaps, I thought about lists.
- No tattoos
After all, what is that but a list? And what else is on that list? After reading the rest of Lori’s post, I can add at least two:
- Able to cook large meals
- Able to garden
I remember thinking this way. I remember approaching marriage preparation as a giant checklist. Did I meet all of the qualifications a godly man would be looking for in a wife? I can add a few items that I set for myself as well:
- Able to cook egg noodles from scratch
- Able to cook pie crust from scratch
- Able to can vegetables
- Able to sew baby clothes
This may all seem oddly specific, but this is how I experienced the evangelical homeschool marriage market. I needed to achieve these skills, I believed, to be marriageable—to be sought after, to be courted, to be wanted by a godly man.
Oh and by the way—despite what Lori Alexander says above, being able to cook large meals helped me diddly after I got married. It took years for me to learn how to cook appropriately sized meals. Just how many people does Lori think are in a family when a couple marry? Clearly not two. What, are the newlyweds supposed to go on living with their parents or something? (I very much doubt it—I’m pretty sure Lori would say something about leaving and cleaving.)
Still, I approached marriage this way—as a checklist I had to meet.
I had a checklist of sorts for my future husband—he had to be able to provide for me financially, he had to be a Bible believing Christian, he had to spend time reading his Bible and in prayer every morning—but the checklist I had for myself was somehow more detailed. My husband should be able to do the handyman projects around the house, yes—but I was the one who would need to be able to cook and clean and sew, and all while making it look easy.
There were longer checklists for potential husbands, to be sure. I just wasn’t their keeper. I remember a long list of questions floating around, either from Vision Forum or No Greater Joy, when I was a teen. I looked for it just now but couldn’t find it. It was list of questions for fathers to ask a potential son-in-law, and boy was it detailed. It included questions about theology, questions about family, and about life goals. Literally dozens of questions.
While looking for that list from my teen years—the list of questions for a father to ask a potential son-in-law—I found one that is very similar to what I remember. (I think it may be a bit shorter than the original list, however.)
You can read this list here:
- Share your salvation testimony.
- What is the Gospel?
- Share the most recent Bible verse you have memorized.
- Can you recite all 66 books of the Bible in order? Try.
- How often do you read your Bible?
- When was the last time you read your Bible?
- Tell me about your participation in your local church.
- Can you recite the Nicene Creed for me?
- If you are a virgin, why? If you are not a virgin, tell me what you have learned.
- Tell me everything you know about the Protestant Reformation.
- What is your approach to protect your sexual purity as well as my child’s?
- What Scripture verses guide your interactions with the opposite sex?
- Explain your doctrinal views on the Bible, the Trinity, salvation, the Church.
- What Bible verses are presently the most challenging in your personal walk with Christ?
- Where is he convicting you now?
- How has God grown you as a Christian over the last year?
- Do you agree with that plan? Are you following that plan?
- What do you believe is God’s plan for premarital relationships with the opposite sex?
- Is your conscience clean before the Lord in your dealing with my child?
- Have you crossed those boundaries in your relationship with my child?
- What are the boundaries that you have set in order to maintain purity?
- How would you describe the role of the husband in marital relationships?
- Do you see issues or concerns in this area?
- What is the role of your parents after marriage?
- Have you discussed this area with my child?
- What are your thoughts regarding children?
- When was the last time you looked at pornography?
- Do you have the ability to provide for my daughter? If not, what is your plan?
- What is your theology of financial stewardship?
- Tell me about your little brothers and sisters.
This list is about what I expected my father to ask any suitors interested in my hand. Theology, goals and life plans, the ways theology affects family subjects such as childrearing or male headship and female submission—and that’s about it. I was onboard with this completely, in my checklist approach to the marriage market. I wanted a husband who could care for me financially, and a husband with the correct theological positions, including in the area of family.There are at least two problems with this approach. First, creating universal checklists ignores personality and personal preference. Second, these checklists are missing something very, very important.
I suppose I assumed, in my naiveté, that any two people who met these the qualifications on these checklists ought to be able to have a happy, god-centered marriage. I read courtship novels—yes, those are a thing—and that’s how they typically turned out. You put together two people who meet each other’s checklists, with lots of chaperoning and involvement from mom and dad, and bingo! You have a wedding, and a baby nine months later.
There was one courtship novel I read where the first match didn’t work out. The families thought the qualifications were met, but when the girl came to live with her potential husband’s family for a while for them to get to know her, she started lying about something. It was those lies that ended things. Character did matter, in other words, but primarily in rooting out lies—did the young man actually spend time in Bible reading and prayer every morning?
My own courtship ended up being as far removed from all of this as you can imagine. I met a young man in college. We clicked. We were very different in some ways, but in other ways we just fit. We fell in love. While my parents were initially okay with the relationship, they ultimately ordered us to break up out of concern about some theological differences that were manifesting. We refused. We’ve been happily married for a decade or so now.
But there is a second problem with the checklist-driven approach to marriage I experienced growing up, and it’s one that didn’t fully hit me until some years later, when I was speaking with a relative a decade or so older than I. I told her about my family situation. She told me that when she and her husband were moving toward marriage years before, her father had asked her only three questions: Do you love him? Does he love you? Does he treat you right?
That is when it hit me. The checklist-driven approach to marriage that I experienced growing up not only fails to recognize the importance of individual personality, it also leaves some of the most important questions out entirely. Look at the list above again and note what’s missing. There is nothing in there that covers warning signs of abuse. There are, in contrast, a million questions about whether the pair has had sex yet.
When it comes to the actual relationship, the most important question for a father to ask a male suitor, within the evangelical Christian conservative homeschool world, is do you believe in male headship and female submission? Are you prepared to be my daughter’s spiritual head? Are you prepared to be the head of the new family you will create, and to make the important decisions for that family? Not, do you respect my daughter? Or, how do you treat my daughter?
A line of questioning focused on male headship and female submission as the ideal to be obtained isn’t going to separate kind, gentle, caring men from abusive narcissistic control freaks. In fact, to the extent that it does separate the two, this line of questioning is going to come down on the side of the abusive narcissistic control freaks. And that’s a problem.
Does he treat you right?
Of course, even that question is going to be at least partially dependent on what a person means by “right.” And even there, you could argue that the parent should be asking any questions regarding a potential marriage partner at all—that the parent should prepare their child to evaluate and weigh healthy relationships themselves before they reach adulthood, and leave it at that. Still, that question completely upended how I thought about relationships.
I shouldn’t have been so focused on checklists—so used to seeing that as the norm, whether I ultimately followed it or not—that the idea that we should think about how one partner treats the other was a shock to my system. Of course, I was a teen, and then a young adult. It’s my community of origin, with its checklists and numbered questions about faith and proper traditional gender relations, as though that is all that mattered, that merits the criticism.
This system is not a recipe for keeping your daughter safe. It’s a recipe for handing your daughter over to a narcissistic control freak and calling it godly. And if she happens to get a guy who respects her, and listens to her, and treats her right, she got lucky—because the system is not designed to select for those characteristics. To the contrary.
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