Sweeping Dysfunction Under the Rug

Sweeping Dysfunction Under the Rug January 21, 2020

When patriarchal blogger Lori Alexander titled a recent post The Number One Red Flag for Men, I knew I had to read it. She opens as follows:

Recently, I listened to a man give red flags for men concerning women. According to him, the number one red flag that men should be aware of is a woman who doesn’t have a good relationship with her father or has an absent father due to divorce. I can agree with him on this one. No, it doesn’t mean that every woman who doesn’t have a good relationship with her father can’t have a great marriage but hear me out.

Okay. Go on.

My mom and dad fought all of my growing up years. I was close to my mom and distant from my dad. She shared all of the things with me that made her angry about my dad, so I grew up almost despising him.

I feel the need to pause here to note that this was not okay. No matter how messed up her parents’ relationship was, was inappropriate for her mother to vent to child-sized Lori about her dad. That’s what adult confidants are for. Or, I don’t know, divorce. This was damaging and not okay.

I got married when I was 22 years old. We fought a lot. I was far from being a loving and submissive wife to my husband. I would see other women who were loving and submissive to their husbands and think they just had a better husband.

It wasn’t until I read Debi Pearl’s book Created to Be His Help Meet that my eyes were opened. I then had to go about learning to be a loving and submissive wife and it wasn’t easy. It sure didn’t come naturally to me.

This is interesting, because many patriarchal Christian leaders seem to argue on repeat that women are wired differently from men, and that women are happier and more fulfilled in marriage when they are submissive to their husbands, because in that role that they work with, rather than against, their nature. If being submissive was in our nature, you’d think it would come more, you know, naturally.

Let’s say a man has two choices for a woman to marry. One was raised with a godly mother who lovingly submitted to her husband, and this young woman has a close and loving relationship with her father. The other choice was like me. The woman even felt bitterness towards her father. Which one do you think this man should choose? Of course, he should choose the one who was modeled a godly marriage.

This seems like an odd way to pick a spouse. What about considering which of the two choices you get along with better? Or which has life goals most comparable with yours? Or which you have shared interests with? Marriage is not a formula where you check off boxes.

Also, I know a lot of women who grew up with parents with egalitarian marriages and have very healthy relationships with their fathers. I’m curious what Debi would make of this. These women are not going to be good submissive wives. To the contrary! One thing these women learned from their fathers was to expect men to treat them as equals.

This gets at a dichotomy Lori is setting up, a dichotomy in which there are unhappy, contentious egalitarian marriages, on the one hand, and happy, contented patriarchal marriages on the other. Except that that’s not actually how it works. There are plenty of people who’ve grown up in happy, contented marriages—and I know Lori doesn’t want to hear this, but there are also people who have grown up in unhappy, contentious patriarchal marriages. (Lori would probably their parents just weren’t doing it right.)

Anyway, back to Lori and her dichotomy:

Everything we are taught and modeled as children comes much easier for us as adults. If we were trained/modeled to be submissive, then it’s more natural to do this in marriage. If we were trained/modeled to be contentious/quarrelsome, then it’s more natural to be like this in marriage.

Lori is actually very close to an important truth. She just took the wrong lesson from her own experience. She grew up in a dysfunctional home, and then repeated those same dysfunctional patterns in her own marriage. Rather than actually deal with those patterns, she concluded that her problem was that she was not being submissive. (It wasn’t.)

Let me offer my own experience as a counterpoint.

Early in my marriage, I caused a lot of grief for myself (and my husband) by repeating dysfunctional patterns I’d seen modeled growing up. This had nothing to do with whether I was trying to be a submissive wife or have an egalitarian marriage. In my egalitarian marriage I was repeating toxic patterns I’d seen modeled in a patriarchal marriage growing up. You can have dysfunction in any marriage framework, because people are people.

If you grow up in a household with dysfunction, you will likely repeat that dysfunction unless you consciously decide to repudiate it—and do the work needed to do so. What you see modeled as a child forms your own patterns as an adult. I saw the same thing with my husband, except that in his case he grew up in a family with extremely healthy relationship patterns. That was our saving grace early in our marriage. It carried us through until I was able to identify and unlearn the toxic relationship patterns I was repeating.

Here’s what Lori gets wrong. She correctly recognized that she was repeating toxic relationship patterns she’d seen modeled in her parents’ dysfunctional home. However, rather than identify and unlearn those patterns, Lori let Debi Pearl tell her that the relationship toxicity she was experiencing was the result of her failure to be a submissive wife.

That is bullshit.

I too recognized that I was repeating toxic relationship patterns I’d seen modeled growing up, and that it was needlessly adding tension and drama to my marriage. But I was able to identify and change those patterns without ever giving up egalitarianism. I don’t remember it ever occurring to me that I could, or should, fix these problems by being a submissive wife. Perhaps this was because I knew from my childhood that trying to be a submissive wife didn’t erase bad relationship patterns or toxic interactions.

Let’s look at what Lori says again:

Everything we are taught and modeled as children comes much easier for us as adults. If we were trained/modeled to be submissive, then it’s more natural to do this in marriage. If we were trained/modeled to be contentious/quarrelsome, then it’s more natural to be like this in marriage.

Note the dichotomy she presents. Wives either submissive, or they are contentious and quarrelsome. There is no a third option.

This isn’t really that surprising. Many Christian marriage counselors tell couples experiencing problems in their marriage to hew more closely to a patriarchal form of marriage. Wives are told to be more submissive and obedient, and husbands are told to take leadership and make the decisions. Secular marriage counselors, in contrast, tend to focus on teaching healthy communication strategies and identifying and correcting dysfunctional patterns that are causing problems in the relationship.

In Lori’s world, marriage are either dysfunctional or patriarchal. Well you know what? Patriarchal marriages aren’t functional. They only “work” to the extent that they give couples a framework for ignoring problems. You’re fighting about money? Cool! The husband should get his way, the wife should keep her mouth shut, problem solved! No more fighting. The actual disagreements didn’t go away. They just got ignored.

In the secular world, marriages are either dysfunctional or functional. (Actually, that’s a simplification. Most marriage have elements of function and dysfunction in different amounts. Every marriage has things that could still be worked on, and people are humans, not robots. But anyway!) In this framework, if a couple is fighting over money, the correct solution is to improve communication and listening skills, and to find the root of the disagreement and work out a compromise that works for both parties.

I’ll finish by pointing you to a twitter thread by researcher Nicole Bedera offering parents advice on how they can prepare their daughters for college, in a time when campus sexual assault is so in parents’ consciousness.

I offer this thread in part as a palate cleaner, but also because I suspect that Lori’s idea of a daughter having a good relationship with her father may differ from mine, for the same reason that her idea of a good marriage looks so different from mine. Submissiveness and obedience does not a good relationship make. And that, perhaps, is the central theme here.

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