I love bad advice. I admit it. I’ve always had a huge affection for bad advice snark. I mean, bad advice is engineered to cause maximum grief, drama, and division, especially when you know the original advice-seeker actually wanted to hear that bad advice, and that’s all part of the fun. But oh the trouble that results when people take that bad advice seriously. We see the very worst of the bad advice when it comes to Christian marriage. I am constantly amazed by how seriously people take what I can tell at first glance is the worst possible advice ever upon which to base any kind of decision. So I thought we’d talk a bit about some of the bad advice I’ve seen and why I think it’s so bad.
First we’re going to look at 3 Things I Wish I Knew Before We Got Married (sic), written by someone who has no idea how to grammar (sic), much less conduct a marriage. Going purely by the photo of the person who wrote it, he’s quite young, and based on the childish points he’s making, he doesn’t sound like he’s been married very long at all, which means he’s yet another Christian newlywed who is totally convinced he’s got this whole Relationship Thang sewn up and is now fully and totally qualified to tell everybody else how to live and conduct their own relationships.
If you couldn’t guess, I find this trend of bright-eyed young Christian newlywed men pontificating about how to have a good marriage to be beyond insufferable, pretentious, and offensive. I’ve seen a few of these floating around lately; this piece isn’t the only one of its kind by any stretch. It horrifies me to think that some poor unfortunate souls are going to take these newbies seriously.
I realize that “3 Things” is geared toward Christians in Christian-centric marriages, but the reason it’s going into the UYC series is because first, it deals with marriage, and second, it talks about some of the misconceptions that go into a Christian marriage that have to be dealt with after a deconversion. These misconceptions are largely why I think mixed-religion marriages tend to carry so much drama. If we could get past these “3 Things,” maybe there wouldn’t be so many problems between Christian and ex-Christian spouses.
These “3 Things” are really deepity-derpity-deep “things” all right. With breathless earnestness, the author informs us that Marriage can change the world! Oh really? Well, nobody in Christianity ever guessed that. Ever. The world-changing nature of marriage is only the central focus of how churches engage with young people and the main focus of a young person’s life, couched as the most important decision that person will ever make, ever, so I can see how this blogger somehow missed that idea. And, too, he didn’t realize that marriage is important to a lot of people, not just Christians. The other “things” are either patently designed to victimize people (“marriage is not about living happily ever after,” which sounds an awful lot like “stay in marriages that make you miserable and take one for the team!” to me, and, uh, not to put too fine a point on it, but he himself got married because he was passionately in love and wanted to spend the rest of his life living “happily ever after” with his beloved) or to discourage healthy boundaries (“the more you give to marriage, the more it gives back“–no, you twitwhiffle, the more you give to your spouse, provided your spouse believes in showing you respect and in not taking advantage of your good nature, the more your spouse might reciprocate; marriage itself can’t give you jack shit because the institution of marriage is–newsflash!–not a living person). It kind of sounds like he got married not knowing a damned thing about how to conduct himself in a living-together relationship or how to evaluate another person’s suitability for living with him in one, and he has been floundering ever since–not surprising, given his religion’s condemnation of such an arrangement. Christians get married all the time not knowing anything about those practical matters, convinced that their imaginary friend and shared hobby will keep them together by magic.
These “things” aren’t actually solid advice about anything, either. They’re not helpful. They’re actually the opposite of helpful. They’re quite literally just feel-good sentiments that make this guy feel like he’s got his act together. It sounds like he’s writing this whole piece to teach people some truth he knows that they do not, a sort of warning bell, a plea that others not make the same mistakes he made in his vast ignorance oh so long ago (go ahead, make a guess about just how long we’re talking about here–I’ll reveal the answer at the end of this post). But like most Christians, he talks in vague generalities and gives absolutely no inkling of how his ideas look in practice. For people who are really trying to make their marriages work–like I was, after my deconversion–this article is worse than useless.
May I gently suggest three real things that I wish I’d known before getting married when I was a Christian? Three actual, real things that actually would have helped me a lot beyond utterly meaningless platitudes and unhealthy advice that doesn’t work for anybody in the real world?
1. Marriage is about building a future with someone you care about, so it helps if you both have the same sort of goals and values–and if you don’t share the same goals and values, it’s better to avoid chaining yourselves together. Had I realized that my preacherboy ex, Biff, really seriously wanted kids, we would not have gotten married. Had he realized I was 100% serious about not having kids when I said I was 100% serious about the same, he might have made different choices of his own. Had I actually clearly perceived that he was a lying, manipulative man-child who thought I was a surrogate mommy he could fondle and that these traits were not going to change, you can bet we wouldn’t have gotten married. Had he realized I was a feminist and not a pretty Pentecostal doormat–or for that matter his spiritual DIY project meant to turn a person from a feminist into a pretty Pentecostal doormat–he might have chosen to share his life with someone who was more amenable to his worldview. A lot of Christians seem like they get married convinced that their partners are just like extras in the movie of their lives and just expect Jesus to smooth everything over (alas, I was one of these), and it doesn’t work that way in reality. And I would say that most Christians don’t seem to understand their spouses very well or see them clearly for who and what they truly are before marriage–the idea of the “whirlwind Pentecostal courtship” was a joke even in my day, but even longer engagements like mine can result in two people getting married who are fundamentally incompatible. I’m not saying you have to live with your partner before marriage, but you do need to know if your partner’s view of housework and attitudes about the big important questions match your own, and you need to understand that these views and attitudes won’t be changing after marriage and that Jesus isn’t going to magically change your partner into the perfect mate for you.
2. You need to have some kind of relationship outside of religion, because if it is based solely on religion or any other one shared interest rather than on you two yourselves as people, it will likely shatter if and when one of you changes his or her mind about that interest. The chances of both parties in a Christian wedding being hardcore Christians forever are vanishingly rare nowadays–2/3 of young adults deconvert from evangelicalism by age 30, and the defections are just getting more numerous with the social penalties around deconversion lowering like they are. And Christians tend to marry young, so their risk for deconversion is much higher than older folks’ would be. I know it’s trendy for young Christians to say they’re basing their marriages on Jesus, oh how wonderfully hardcore and oh how ON FIRE that is, I know, I get it, but that’s as ridiculous as basing a lifelong marriage on a shared fanatical love of Star Wars. Sooner or later someone’s going to lose interest to some extent. It’s a good idea to cultivate other interests together or at least have other things to talk about and share, so when someone deconverts, you’ve got something else there holding you two together. It should be obvious by now that Jesus does not hold two people together–Christians divorce about as often as anybody else does if not more often, depending on the study you’re looking at. Christianity’s social experiment of how to make a marriage last should be considered an abject failure. None of your interests are what will hold you together over the long haul. Interests change too much to risk basing a relationship on them. Your personalities and behaviors are what will keep you together no matter what interests the two of you pursue alone or together.
3. You need to know how to disagree civilly, set healthy boundaries, stand up for yourself in a civil manner, speak honestly about your needs and–in turn–receive the honesty of your partner in a loving and accepting way, and treat your mate with respect and courtesy. If you are totally incapable of doing that stuff and not interested in learning, then you have no business inflicting yourself on another human being. This young puppy who wrote the original “3 Things” piece says:
I’m intensely certain that nothing in life has ever made me more angry, frustrated or annoyed than my wife. Inevitably, just when I think I’ve given all I can possibly give, she somehow finds a way to ask for more. The worst part of it all is that her demands aren’t unreasonable.
So she’s being completely reasonable, but he’s getting angry, frustrated, and annoyed by what he describes as completely reasonable requests? For reference, we’re talking about requests like “stay emotionally engaged” and “validate the way she feels.” She’s not asking for a three-way with him and Robert Downey, Jr., or for him to go to Dubai just to get her a souvenir snow globe. And he’s getting angry, frustrated, and annoyed? What, is she supposed to be a china doll that never ever has human needs or a desire to connect with the man she married? How dare she want an emotionally-engaged husband!
This guy doesn’t need a wife. He needs to take kindergarten over again.
And here are some freebies too, that I’ve learned:
4. Do not expect your marriage to “fix” either one of you or to help you “grow.” You are adults, not children. You are not your mate’s DIY project, and your mate is not your DIY project. Yes, you will probably grow as a person in your marriage, but you’d grow regardless of your marital status, one hopes. Marriage is not some magical panacea. There are lots of totally immature people in totally dysfunctional marriages. And there are lots of really awesome single people who are growing as people just fine, thanks. There isn’t some magical external event like marriage or having kids that intrinsically makes you grow. You should be able to grow without going through those events. So that’s your business. Don’t hold another human being responsible for your growth or let yourself get held accountable for another adult’s growth.
5. Sexual compatibility really does matter. When I was a Christian, the thinking was that any sexual incompatibility could be smoothed over by praying a lot and being obedient to the Bible and loving Jesus extra. This is untrue. Christians don’t have less sex outside of marriage than non-Christians, but their “purity culture” emphasis and virginity fetish means that sexual compatibility is relegated to the “it’ll work itself out” corner. When I was a Christian, our sexuality was a part of ourselves that we barely tolerated as a necessary evil in a lot of ways. We were supposed to be “above” all that “worldly” “fleshly” stuff. But you know what? Aside from asexual people, most of us are wired to want sex and need sex and yes–love sex. We’ve got some organs that don’t even seem to have functions outside of feeling awesome during sex. So if one person can only get off to anal sex and the other finds it absolutely gross to have anal sex, then you, my sweet little baby Christian newlyweds, have a big issue. If one person has always had a huge fantasy around threeways or polyamory and the other person is absolutely horrified by those ideas, then it’s Ouchtown: population YOU, bro. If one person thinks masturbation is a sickening betrayal and the other needs that release regularly, then it’s cruel to demand the other person “starve” just to make that first person feel more comfy. What I’m saying is that some sexual incompatibilities can be worked around and resolved, but many cannot. I didn’t know that.
If someone really doesn’t want to have sex before marriage and that’s just something this person chooses freely, then I’m not going to criticize, but it’s wise to explore this stuff as much as possible before you hop into a lifelong monogamous relationship that might make you miserable. Life’s short, and sex is one of the things that, for many of us, makes a short life worthwhile and enjoyable; it’s one of the deepest and most amazing connections most of us will ever make with another human being. One of the worst abuses Christian writers and leaders commit against their people is making them think that any sexual incompatibility can be fixed–when they’re not trying to persuade people (mostly women, let’s face it) that sex isn’t really supposed to be fun after all, or otherwise totally ignoring and glossing over this hugely important facet of marriage.
6. It’s okay to put yourself ahead of your spouse sometimes, and unhealthy to always make another human being your (as the “3 Things” writer puts it) “priority number one.” It doesn’t matter how many times you repeat this platitude; it’s still really damaging for most folks to make themselves into a doormat–and anybody who’d allow such a self-negation is not someone you’d be wise to trust anyway. There’s a balance involved in maintaining your boundaries and caring for another person, and it can be a delicate balance. As with most things that evangelicals especially get wrong, like, well, everything, they tend to suffer from imbalance here as well. Biff was one of those men who talked a big game about putting me first and foremost, but I can tell you that no, he really didn’t most of the time. If he wanted sex or to strong-arm me into agreeing with something idiotic he wanted to do or buy, suddenly I’d be under the laserlike focus of his sacrifice and suddenly I’d get treated like Mayda Munny at her Sweet 16. Unfortunately, I’d internalized this programming myself, which led to a string of really one-sided relationships after I fled from Biff; I had no idea how to assert myself or live for myself, and felt terribly guilty for saying “no” to anything a partner wanted or for valuing myself over a relationship. Sometimes you have to do both those things, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or that the relationship is doomed. The best relationships I’ve ever had and ever seen were ones in which both people acted like adults and forged a partnership based on mutually agreeable goals rather than pretending to put each other on pedestals.
It’s not that I didn’t try to put this concept into practice. I’m sure Biff and I both meant it when we said we’d always put our partner first. But the idea just doesn’t play out well against the backdrop of human needs and dignity. And because one of us was, ahem, not quite as honest and as unselfish as the paradigm requires, there’s no way it could succeed. So basically, this idea is like Communism: it’s a very nice idea, but human nature more or less precludes its success on any but the smallest scale among the best possible groups. Christianity is doing its people a huge disservice by making this flawed idea one of marriage’s central tenets. The simple truth is that there’s no magic invisible friend magically making Christians less selfish or more sacrificially giving than anybody else. Most Christians are simply not going to be able to put this idea into practice. So why not build a marriage around a far healthier idea like joint cooperation instead of insisting on the dogmatic ideal of self-sacrifice and stigmatizing those who can’t make the fantasy work?
To sum up, it’s not really surprising that my marriage foundered after I deconverted. It was in trouble even beforehand, of course, for the same reasons that Christians everywhere have trouble in their marriages: I had put dogma ahead of reality, and when the two collided, I just couldn’t keep up the act any more than Biff could. After I discarded those zealous ideas as harmful to my dignity and sanity, we didn’t have anything gluing us together, and without either of us knowing the basic skills involved in maintaining a relationship–and without shared goals and better-matching attitudes about sex, kids, and a host of other things–there just wasn’t much left. I mean seriously, folks, I hadn’t left a single thing to chance here. If I had set out to try to make a doomed marriage, I’m not sure how much better I could have done than this. And mine was just one of many, many thousands of marriages across the broken landscape of modern Christianity that did not succeed.
It took many years to figure stuff out. Church sure never taught me how to handle a real relationship. It was all platitudes, all the time, nothing substantive, nothing real about how to go about sharing my life with another human being on a daily basis. The only really good advice I ever got was “love is a verb, not just a noun: show it, don’t just say it.”
And that’s good to know, but there’s a bit more to marriage than that or the “3 Things” this Christian says he’s learned. If that’s all he’s learned after his short time as a husband, and those things are so flawed in and of themselves, then I don’t hold a lot of hope out that he’ll beat the odds. I hope he will. I hope he and his wife are just naturally lucky enough to be the type of people who work well together. But something tells me that if he’s getting angry and frustrated with perfectly reasonable requests, if he seriously thinks his wife is that demanding and that tough to be patient with, that there is trouble in paradise. The way he’s worded the “3 Things” piece makes me think that a lot of this stuff is him trying to convince himself of this stuff, not so much to give advice to others.
Look, marriage isn’t some mystic thing. It’s about two people working together to make something bigger than they could make on their own. It’s about finding someone you love and who loves you back and learning how to live together in a friendly and respectful way. It’s about maintaining as much passion and affection as you can so you can both get through your lives with more happiness and joy. I like how we’re starting to see a backlash against that “THE ONE” culture that pieces like “3 Things” seem to embody–like this one, which talks about how look, dating isn’t about “the One” and maybe Christians shouldn’t be totally hyper about finding “the One” because that fear of marrying the wrong person will make it a lot harder to find a good person (it doesn’t mention that this attitude leads to more divorces too, as one study’s found). I like that some Christians are abandoning this fear-based model.
By the way, did you make a guess about how long the “3 Things” writer’s been married? Here’s where you find out if you won the Kewpie doll. According to his bio page, here is how long this guy’s been married:
Four whole years.
Oh wow, what an amazing level of experience that is–and yes, of course he’s written a book about how to have a good marriage because he’s such an astounding expert on the subject. At least he admits that he got married “with suitcases full of misconceptions and bad theology,” which he has exchanged successfully for even worse misconceptions and bad theology, but man do I ever wish I could tell Christians to shut the hell up about how to have a good marriage until they’ve actually been down the road more than a few inches.
Don’t you kind of wonder why more long-married couples aren’t speaking up? Can Christianity find no old-timers to teach young people how to keep a marriage alive and happy? Am I the only person who finds this whole thing a tad suspicious? I’m left to speculate that it’s only the newbies who are foolish enough to think that this daft “advice” is workable, while older people’s experience wouldn’t sound nearly as Jesus-y and pie-in-the-sky. Maybe Christianity needs bright-eyed optimistic newlyweds to make marriage sound happy and exciting and to sell its more onerous aspects to those who don’t know any better. Just think: there are millions of Christians, and most of ’em probably think this is actually a great advice piece and something to really strive to emulate or aspire to gain in their own lives.
And then when these optimistic young newlyweds become a tiny part of the 50% of marriages that end, they’re going to blame themselves (or their spouses) and say that someone just didn’t do something right–rather than blaming the fatally flawed system. They’re not going to realize the system they got taught is the problem, not themselves. They’re going to keep thinking that this model of marriage they idealize is perfect, so if their marriage failed, they just didn’t try hard enough to follow the model–rather than examine just what about the model is so worthy of their idolatry.
That’s a depressing thought.
Think this was the only horrible advice I’ve seen? Tomorrow we’re going to tackle some more of it: namely, how to (better) handle a disagreement in a mixed-religion marriage. Apparently it involves taking off your clothes, so things ought to get interesting. I’ll bring the Twister board, you bring the vegetable oil, and we’ll have a party.