The Kodak Marriage

The Kodak Marriage November 8, 2013

For a religion that should be focused on a bachelor savior who died for their sins, Christianity sure seems focused on sex and marriage lately. Christians’ laser focus on marriage unfortunately highlights the sheer inadequacy of their rules about relationships themselves. Those rules encourage spouses to create what is, at its heart, an illusion that cannot be reached. Let me show you what I mean today.

All aboard the fail train! (Barry Lewis, CC.)

The Kodak Moment.

I use the term “Kodak moment” to denote one of those situations you see on commercials and in photographs to convey how wonderful something is. Many people have kids expecting one Kodak moment after another–the happy gurgling baby in the bathtub pawing at bubbles, the delighted toddler in the bumblebee Halloween costume, the child tearing boxes open at Christmas.

The reality of parenthood is obviously 99% not Kodak moments at all, but still, when you talk to especially young and inexperienced people, they don’t know that. They’ve been fed Kodak moments their entire lives, and the reality of parenting often hits them especially hard–all those times they’ll feel totally hopeless, incompetent, and inadequate, the lack of bonding, the white-knuckle flop-sweat terrifying moments when the kid chokes or is feverish or falls, the strings of “NO!” and the tantrums, none of this stuff seems to filter through to many new parents till it’s way too late.

In the same way, I think that especially Christians are fed strings of Kodak moments about marriage–starting with the proposal and the happy wedding, be it traditional or quirky, all the way through to the unpacking of wedding presents and toasting of the anniversaries. They’re not told about some of the livelier and less pleasant realities of marriage, so they often find those things out way too late. Unfortunately, the Christian world seems to hunger for these glurge-filled snapshots.

Relax, Everyone! This Christian Knows How to Properly Marriage!

About a year ago the world encountered Getting Married the Right Way, wherein a newlywed Christian man informed us that anybody who doesn’t wait to spend his or her virginity at the marriage bed is a lesser human being. He was quite smug about that point:

Feeling judged? I couldn’t care less. You know why? Because my wife and I were judged all throughout our relationship.

Because, you know, Jesus said it’s totally fine to judge people as long as you got judged first. Right? He goes on, though:

Looking back, I think that the women saying those things felt like the floozies they ultimately were, and the men, with their fickle manhood tied to their pathetic sexual conquests, felt threatened.

Wow. Where do you even go with something this blatantly offensive? I mean look, obviously it’s not okay to judge someone for waiting till their wedding night any more than it’s okay to judge someone for having sex before marriage, but I have a tough time believing that anybody but other Christians would even care about his private life. I’ve never once heard anybody non-Christian judge someone for being a virgin. We usually say “If it’s what feels right to you, then fly that flag high!” or something like that.

But: even if someone had judged him, though, or joked at his expense or criticized him, it’s not okay for him to call women “floozies” or for him to say that men felt “threatened” because their own histories were nothing but “pathetic sexual conquests” (btw, threatened by what? By this braying jackass and his zinging wit? He really thinks other men will feel threatened by his personal decision not to boink his partner before marriage? Is he seriously that insecure?).

He went on to continue to insult, belittle, and taunt people who simply don’t agree with him or his mewling, immature assessment of what makes a woman or man valuable to a partner–which is surprising considering you’d think he knows exactly what it feels like to be insulted, belittled, and taunted for the private choices he makes that are none of anybody else’s damned business. I guess it’s okay if it’s a “floozie” that’s being targeted, as long as it isn’t a good Christian man with his preening display of Christian “values.”

I had kind of hoped he was just an anomaly, but I should have known better. I really should have. I lived the reality of Christian conceptualizations of marriage. I know first-hand what a recipe for disaster those conceptualizations are.

The Sad Reality of Christianity.

Now, let’s get this on the table: Most Christians, and this includes evangelical Christians, aren’t waiting till marriage to have sex. We know that abstinence-only education, in which schoolchildren and teens get told to just not have sex and are taught techniques to avoid sex (as well as a lot of myths, nonsense, and flat-out lies to scare them away from having sex), is not only laughably ineffective, giving us stats like the one about states with abstinence-only education continuing to lead the country in teen pregnancies, but may also, through convincing kids of the pernicious lie that contraceptives aren’t effective or are dangerous and thereby increasing the chance of having unprotected sex, raise kids’ risk of sexually-transmitted diseases.

In every single conceivable way, abstinence-only education is an utter failure.

None of this is a shock to people who actually follow non-faux news, but we still see Christians insisting up and down that it’ll work if they keep inflicting it on kids. Any day now. They promise. That not a single study supports its efficacy is certainly no reason for them to stop pushing abstinence education and look at other methods that we know actually work to lower teen pregnancy and STD transmission rates.

Spitting in the Wind.

So when you hear about movements like “True Love Waits” or “courtship,” know that these movements are nothing more than pissing on a brush fire to put it out. Will it work to piss on a brush fire? Sometimes, but usually it’s not even close to adequate!

Not even the Christians listening to these other Christians are doing what they’re advising. They can’t even get their own people to pay attention to them. They’re not seeing reality here–they’re just seeing what they want to see, that perfect Kodak moment. When it works for a few folks here and there, they think it works awesomely for everybody. They ignore the multitudes for whom such advice doesn’t work and only brings pain and misery. If they keep pushing the illusion, it’ll become reality. Right? Right?

With that kind of warped foundation, I don’t see how they expect kids to magically morph into sex-positive adults who handle relationships responsibly. Instead, they’re taught that sex is shameful, that men aren’t really responsible for themselves and their behavior and responses, that women’s bodies are scary and must be covered up, that sex is a weapon and a bartering tool, and most importantly, that sex is the scariest, most horrifying, most damaging “gift” their god ever gave them.

Hard to imagine a loving god giving such a loaded pistol to the toddlers under his care. Hard to wonder why so many women don’t magically turn into sex fiends on their wedding nights, after they’ve had a couple decades’ worth of demonization and oppression pounded into their heads. Oh wait–no, it isn’t hard to wonder about at all. I lived it.

Purity Culture.

For every decent Christian who realizes that the crazier elements of the religion are barking up the wrong tree by concentrating on sex and “purity,” there are dozens if not hundreds more Christians like this good Christian woman we talked about recently with her big ole Jesus smile whose “FYI (if you’re a teenage girl)” went viral a couple of months ago due to its shockingly misogynistic treatment of young women and its propagation of rape culture.

It’s not hard to see why there’s so much controversy around stuff like what she wrote. Christianity is not in an easy position right now. Its generally unfair and sexist treatment of women is jostling up against women’s rightful desire to be equal partners and have fair treatment in bed and out of it.

When I was a Christian, I could easily see where the illusion was going wrong, but it was hard to articulate just what I was perceiving. It would take many years before everything clicked. But for those still in the religion, the only “click” they’re hearing is of the camera taking the Kodak picture they think is the perfect marriage–and such a marriage is often nothing more than a Potemkin Village, a facade just for show, not a really good or truly satisfying union of two people.

This vision suffers from some glaring problems. However, it’s the only model of marriage many Christians know, teach, understand–and accept.

A Barter Economy.

Sex becomes a bartering point in such a marriage. Instead of men and women both wanting it because they like it and need it and enjoy it, Christian culture sees it as something men endlessly demand and women grudgingly allow. Women must stay “pure” so that men will want to marry them; “damaged goods” are not attractive. Being treated like farm animals can’t possibly make most women anything but resentful, which doesn’t seem like a good way to start off a marriage or get someone into bed, but there you go.

Men, of course, aren’t under nearly as much pressure to stay virgins; even so, a man who stays a virgin all the way to his wedding night is quite the hero. Once married, men know that they’re in for a lifetime of begging, guilting, pleading, whining, cajoling, and perhaps even flat-out forcing their wives to give in to sex.

By contrast, women know they’ll have to develop a small arsenal of tricks and deceptions to avoid the whole messy situation. I knew more than a few women who were hoping their husbands’ libidos would eventually calm down and lead to a nice sexless marriage.

Escaping Unpleasant Chores.

I was definitely one of those women. Biff, for example, was sure that I had a two-week-long period. I’m not kidding. When sex didn’t actively hurt me, it was dull as anything, nothing I enjoyed or even looked forward to having. The weird thing is, I’d compartmentalized my beliefs away from my experience in the religion so much by the time I was married that when I told people that Christian sex was great and sooooo worth the wait and soooo blessed and satisfying, I genuinely meant it–even while my own sex life was horrifyingly bad and I was doing exactly what I saw women around me doing to avoid it every chance I could.

(Pro-tip: when something is fun and awesomely enjoyable, most folks want to do that thing at any chance they get.)

Husbands’ jobs were to somehow coax us wives into spreading our legs by offering us “romance” or presents or dates or whatever it was we craved. Weirdly, none of the advice offered centered around being less of a jerk or treating wives less like sex slaves and chattel and more like equal partners with equal investment in the sex act. Even the advice books all took for granted that women didn’t want or enjoy sex and only very grudgingly allowed it so their husbands wouldn’t stray, so advice centered around temporarily lessening their blazing resentment long enough to let their libidos take charge.

“Do the dishes sometimes,” they advised men. “Tell her she’s beautiful,” many suggested. Biff tried these off and on, but all these tactics did was repulse me–I knew he was just doing it to get sex, but neither of us were addressing the fundamental issues leading me to not want sex with him: my deep and abiding resentment of how he treated me, not to mention our respective lack of mechanical skills and experience.

A Cottage Industry of Terrible Advice.

Indeed, read the comments on advice sites about sex. “I tried that and it just didn’t work” is the gist of most of them.

Men are taught to look at women–and sex–as a sort of vending machine or video-game quest: do these actions in this order, and you’ll get the prize! Women know when they’re being treated like a mechanical sex-dispensing machine, though, and the illusion doesn’t work in real life.

The heartbreaking–and palpable–confusion of the men sharing how these sites’ awful advice played out only throws more light on the dysfunction of the Happy Christian Marriage ideal. They know it isn’t working, but they don’t know what else to try.

The idea of a woman loving sex and enjoying it just didn’t ping anybody’s radar when I was a Christian. And why should it have? Given how most Christian men think marriage works, is it any surprise they really don’t run into a lot of women who are different from the norm?

“Nice Guys” think that all women “only” like assholes because all the women they’re attracted to seem to prefer men the “Nice Guys” consider to be assholes. In similar fashion, many Christian men start thinking that all women look at sex the way their women look at sex. They internalize this stuff and think it’s perfectly normal for everybody.

And it isn’t. There are huge swathes of women out there who love sex and enjoy it! There are lots of people having non-marital sex and not being destroyed emotionally at all! But Christian men won’t ever see these examples.

Just the WORST Advice.

So when one of these Christian men decide to give advice, the results can be absolutely excruciating–the ignorant leading the ignorant (bonus: the person writing that blog seeks to point out how horrible an advice site is, but I found it painful to see how much horrible advice the writer makes in doing it).

The comments are painful too–so many of these men get married expecting the string of Kodak moments they were promised, but discover what happens to a woman’s mind when she is trained for her entire life to think of sex as a bargaining chip and her sexuality as something wicked and shameful to be avoided at all costs–and what happens when two people who don’t know much about their own bodies, much less about the bodies belonging to their partners, get thrown together.

Our newest entry to that excruciating list of Christian men who have taken it upon themselves to educate us poor deluded heathens about Just How We’re Supposed To Be Doing This Thang is Seth Adams Smith, who wrote a piece running around the blogosphere called “Marriage Isn’t for You.” I literally cringed reading it. I want to share why.

First, it is painfully obvious that this guy is a newlywed. Yet here he is telling us how we should conduct our marriages via his father, who apparently gave him what has to be the worst advice I’ve ever heard.

World Authorities on Relationships–Not.

Look, I get it.

When a lot of folks are first married, everything is so awesome that it feels like nobody in human history ever had these feelings before themselves.

It’s hard not to pontificate about the experience, just as Prince Arthur back in the Tudor era came back from his first night in bed with his wife, Katherine (yes, the Spanish queen from the divorce from Henry VIII; Arthur was Henry’s rather sickly older brother, who died not long after their wedding, and she was declared still a virgin so she could marry Henry instead, and holy cow this sounds like a soap opera). The kid told his courtiers that he was thirsty because he’d just that night “been in Spain” and gloated and crowed about having had sex and about how awesome it was to have a wife.

I think people have always been this way. Anybody who’s just gotten into a new love relationship knows how irritating they are to their friends, who put up with the constant cooing and preening because one day they’ll be irritating in turn. Every single thing is new and unique, happening for the first time. I’m not going to spoil it with too much science, but there’s a good reason why we get like that when we fall in love and why that situation is so nearly universal.

There’s Not Really a Secret To It.

So it’s kind of cute when a newlywed decides what the “secret” to marriage is before he’s actually even experienced its full range of emotions and stresses. It’s like watching five-year-olds decide how adult relationships work.

But look, it’s also kind of arrogant and presumptuous, too. It’s surprising nobody told any of these kids writing blog entries about their ineffable wisdom gained over their month or year or so of wedlock, “Dude, wait a few years and then you can tell us all about what you think the secret is. This is a bit early.”

Why aren’t we hearing from people who’ve gone the distance?

Why aren’t we reading more blog pieces from the folks who’ve been married 50 years? 20? 10? Are they, perhaps, aware that there isn’t really some catch-all secret that works for everyone? Are they, perhaps, aware that sometimes there’s just not one formula that works for everybody but rather a series of courtesies, shows of respect, and custom-designed acts of tenderness and mercy that cannot be summed up by one pat phrase?

There’s probably a damn fine reason that we’re hearing mostly from newlywed Christian men here and not older folks of either gender who know better than to try to give advice to others.

The Impossible Command.

Second, the advice is so tiresomely and obviously unworkable.

“Die to yourself” and “serve your wife” are not only ridiculous but also can be emotionally dangerous when applied to a partner who lacks human empathy or who is incapable of communicating.

And how does “dying to yourself” look? Why, by making her happy at your own expense. But that’s not very healthy to do all the time, is it? Not many people can keep that up for long–that’s the “terrible bargain” I talked about last time.

And even if the husband could do this, two things are working against him: we don’t tend to value what is given to us for free, and also it’s going to be painfully obvious to the wife involved that this self-serving “dying” act is happening because her husband wants sex. I sure wasn’t fooled, and I don’t think many other women will be fooled either. That “serving” business only lasted as long as it took to see if I wanted sex or not; after that, we went back to normal mode where I was a second-class citizen.

This Ain’t New, Baby.

Third, advice like this isn’t new at all.

In “Marriage Isn’t For You,” Seth Adam Smith writes of his father’s advice to him:

It went against the grain of today’s “Walmart philosophy,” which is if it doesn’t make you happy, you can take it back and get a new one.

Let’s forget that Wal-Mart is very Christian-oriented for a second, because this guy clearly has. Exactly how do Christians not follow exactly this philosophy already? They get divorced just as often as anybody else, maybe more often (depending on the study you look at).

But you can’t blame their divorce rate on not knowing Smith’s amazing bit of wisdom. Churches I attended my entire life fed me this same line–that marriage was about my future family, that it wasn’t about me but about the couple that’d be formed thereby, that marriage was about wanting what was best for my partner over what I wanted for myself.

See, Smith’s father’s advice isn’t “shocking and revelatory” at all. It’s exactly what Christians have been teaching since at least I was a teenager–remember that seminar? I’ve got this exact same nonsense in a binder. Smith relays it with breathless astonishment though, as if he’d never heard this dreck in his entire life.

Either this guy is blitheringly oblivious, or else he’s being disingenuous. You can’t say this advice is new, weird, or “revelatory” and say it with honesty. This is just a repackaged Kodak illusion straight from the Christian Marketing Machine.

Advice He Couldn’t Take.

Indeed, Smith himself totally ignores that advice within, it sounds like, a couple of months. He treats his wife exactly like a product of a patriarchal and sexist church organization would treat someone he ostensibly loves and cherishes: with what he describes as callous selfishness and a heart hardened with “fear and resentment.” He doesn’t say what over, but it hardly matters; his wife shows him considerable grace considering he’s treating her like that so soon into the marriage.

He realizes he’s not only being a total twit, but that he’s totally forgotten his dad’s oh-so-wise advice–but can we blame him?

The whole “selfless” act is nothing but a facade and a farce that patriarchal men like Smith pretend to play at. It makes him feel like he’s a better human being than those “Wal-Mart” couples who he thinks run off to get divorced over the tiniest little thing. (Of course, non-Christians, who Smith demonizes as taking marriage less seriously than Christians like him take it, don’t divorce more often.)

Remember how I talked about how Christians are giving this crazy advice and ignoring that even their own people aren’t listening to it? This is another of those situations. I don’t think he realizes that he needs to tidy his own house first before he gripes about other people’s cleanliness. But no, it’s much easier to demonize people seeking divorces than to understand what goes into such a big decision.

It’d blow his little mind to find out just how much thought goes into a divorce. I don’t seriously think I’ve ever met a divorced couple who divorced over something minor and trivial. Considering how many people have been divorced, it’s shocking that Smith can hold this kind of attitude when it’d be so easy to disabuse himself of it by just talking to people. Of course, that might challenge his illusion a little and bring him closer to the real world.

Superiority Complex.

And, too, Smith’s sanctimonious preening is so obvious and annoying. He needs to feel superior. It’s the same thing you see some parents do when they chirp that people who don’t have kids are just selfish and can’t understand true compassion or selflessness like parents can. It’s just a grab at superiority and the moral high ground.

So when this young man says he quickly forgot this wonderful advice about being selfless, I believe him completely. Of course he did. It wasn’t something he really wanted to do and it wasn’t part of his operating paradigm, so he let it slide out of his mind.

Worst of all, though, I’m willing to bet this guy goes in for that “complementarianism” sexist stuff that most Christians like him buy into. So the “selfless” thing really isn’t “selfless” at all. Most Christian men think they have the trump card–and by trump card, as always, I mean their penises. That penis means they automatically win every fight and get to make all the big decisions without their wives’ agreement or consent.

So basically, I’m predicting he’s selfless, all right–until the time comes to throw a tantrum or demand his way, which is what it sounds like he did to this poor young woman he persuaded to marry him. Luckily for him, she’s been well-indoctrinated and tolerated his blowup–for now.

Do or Do Not: There Is No Try.

Smith ends by telling his young bride that he will “try to be better.”

Free piece of advice here, folks: when you really intend to change, you don’t “try.” You do it. When he weasels with saying he’ll “try” to improve, he is just leaving the door open for his inevitable failure (“Look! I said I’d try, not that I’d succeed!”). And I’m sure by the time of this evaluation of his blog entry, he’s already seen himself fail.

He just about can’t do anything else at this point. He’s left nothing to chance.

I know this because he still thinks the problem is him, not the system itself. If he blows up at his wife, or he treats her terribly, or he otherwise totally fails to heed that “wise” advice, then clearly the issue is that he’s just weak or something. Just like with the whole religion, it’s considered perfect. So if someone can’t follow it, then since the advice can’t possibly be the problem, then he himself must be the problem.

Except that’s not true at all.

A Bad Recipe Makes a Bad Cake.

Smith failed because the paradigm he’s using is deeply flawed. It’s like trying to follow a Sandra Lee recipe and being shocked that the results can barely be termed edible, much less “food.” Of course you’re going to get awful results with a bad recipe.

In the case of marriage, way too many Christians start with a foundation of shoddy education and stigmatization, follow it up with a chaser of institutionalized sexism in many denominations’ cases, and end with purely self-serving twaddle about “selflessness” that fools nobody and only stands in place until the husband needs to assert his dominance.

You know what his dad should have told him?

Instead of blathering about stuff that will categorically just hurt his son’s chances of success, he should have told him something useful, like how to resolve conflicts lovingly and how to fight fairly and how to show respect to his partner. I’d even have taken some sage guidelines on the virtues of marriage therapy. Instead, all his son’s got in his toolbox is some nebulous bullshit about being “selfless.”

Shifting the Paradigm.

Shifting such an entrenched paradigm can be exceedingly difficult. I’ve run into plenty of Christians who literally cannot even imagine a marriage that works differently from what they’ve been taught their whole lives. The idea of a passionately-in-love married couple who maintain a torrid and breathless physical relationship year after year, who make sex a priority and do everything they can to keep their flame alive and burning, can be downright intimidating.

You don’t get that kind of head-over-teacup passion by treating your wife like a live-in housekeeper, prostitute, and nanny.

Nor do you get that kind of bliss by making yourself into a doormat or denying your own needs and desires by pretending you’re happy to take one for the team over and over again. Despite what Christians like Smith insist, their marriages are not entered into selflessly. They are entered into just as selfishly as anything else the Christian might do. And that’s okay.

It’s totally okay to get married because you expect the relationship to make you happy. It’s wise to be realistic and know that sometimes you’re not going to be totally on fire with passion, that sometimes you may have conflicts or you may feel unhappy sometimes, but you expect things to average out to happy.

Denial of the Goal: Missing the Goal.

Denying the goal is a good way to not get the goal. You have to name it to claim it, as the saying goes. It ain’t gonna just drop into your lap by some happy coincidence. It’s something you have to work toward. And if you ain’t taking care of yourself and your needs, it’s not fair to expect your partner to do that for you both.

Christians are terrified of doing things for “selfish” reasons, and I think that’s a big part of why the religion is failing. Women, especially, get hit over the heads with this “selflessness” bludgeon as a way to control them and harness their natural desire to be treated fairly.

But as I’ve illustrated here, this is one place where men face the same bludgeoning.

A Dirty Word: Selfish.

It’s okay to be “selfish” sometimes, and when it comes to our personal happiness, that’s one of the times. And most of the stuff Christians tell us is “selfish” isn’t really selfish but rather just a healthy assertion of one’s needs.

A huge difference exists between destructive selfishness from constructive self-assertion. Romantic partners in particular must reject the Happy Christian Marriage illusion that our entire society pushes.

But Christianity can’t admit that. It’s got to continue with the illusion of “selflessness” even long past the point where “selflessness” is known to be a total non-starter, a total lack of a solution.

However, you can bet that “selflessness” is going to continue to be a prescription pushed by Christians who care more about the Kodak moment in their heads of the Perfect Happy Christian Marriage than they do about helping couples actually make their marriages go the distance.

The people pushing these myths have a lot to gain by keeping couples locked in illusions.

Don’t be fooled. Find the path that works, rather than trying to stay on a path that doesn’t just because it seems like it’s more Jesus-y.

Love is worth finding out what works.

And–by the by–you may rest assured

that I didn’t come to these conclusions after

just a month or year into a relationship.

Rembrandt's depiction of Samson's marriage feast
Rembrandt’s depiction of Samson’s marriage feast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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