How Non-Christians’ Marriages Work (Um, Right?)

How Non-Christians’ Marriages Work (Um, Right?) August 8, 2015

We’ve been talking about Fireproof lately (here’s the mega-review of the movie itself and the posts about it so far). Last time, I was talking about how massively unqualified the makers of the movie are to dispense relationship advice–and how utterly inane the advice itself was.

Considering the overweening and galactic-level hubris they’re displaying by daring to offer serious advice to people in real need of real help, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that they’re just as misguided and erroneous in their presentation of a typical non-Christian marriage as they are in how Christians should conduct their marriages. Today I want to talk about what the movie’s creators think they’re saying about how non-Christians’ marriages work.

The game of Life. (Credit: Will Folsom, CC license.)
The game of Life. (Credit: Will Folsom, CC license.)

 

Here is Totally How Non-Christians’ Marriages Totally Really Work.

1. Porn is a serious problem for non-Christians in non-Christian marriages.

Meet Kirk’s character, who we will call Kirk even though the actual name of this character is Caleb; the character is his Mary Sue wish-fulfillment more than anything else and one would be hard-pressed to see any aspect of Caleb that differs overmuch with Kirk Cameron himself–he isn’t a good enough actor to differentiate his character that much. Kirk is apparently addicted to pornography, meaning he looks at it sometimes. His wife, Kat, is devastated by this addiction; she tells her near-catatonic mother that she feels inadequate and like she’s competing with the women he’s staring at.

The porn addiction isn’t given a lot of time in the movie. Kirk is seen fully dressed and viewing it on the couple’s shared computer in a shared and easily-viewable living space in their home, and certainly he’s not foregoing sex with his wife to look at it or seeing any problems in his work life because he’s looking at it. But we know that JESUS POWER is flowing through him when he is able to resist a porn pop-up and then destroys the computer in a largely symbolic and violent gesture of defiance that obviously means he will never look at porn again. It is a plot point that exists only to be resolved.

BUT. Porn is actually a big problem for Christian marriages, not sort-of-atheist marriages.

In my whole life, I have met exactly two people who weren’t Christians who had any emotional objections to porn in the main–and both of them were ex-Christian women. Some feminists oppose pornography on ideological grounds, yes, but they don’t use language like “inadequate” and “competition” to describe why they don’t like it; mostly their objections revolve around how people in the sex industry are treated and how they think porn conditions men about how to behave around women, which is not what you hear out of Christians unless they’re using those expressions of concern to try to control other people’s lives. Most non-Christians have at least a live-and-let-live attitude toward porn; they leave those control attempts to the Christians. And many non-Christians not only use porn unapologetically but even view it with their own partners as part of their bedroom life.

In my direct experience, the more gung-ho and hardcore a Christian is, the more likely he or she is to buy into the Christian party line about porn: that it is humiliating for women to endure their mates’ use of it, and that it is somehow denigrating to men’s spirits to view it at all. And also in my direct experience, the more gung-ho and hardcore a Christian man is, the more likely he is to view pornography. Amusingly, I’ve had several male partners who weren’t really interested in porn–but they were non-Christians.

Nor do I believe that I am lessened by my partner’s actions. If my partner wanted to look at porn, then I wouldn’t care as long as he was still holding up his end of the relationship blanket. I can’t be “humiliated” by someone else because I am my own person. If I were to think that a partner was viewing so much porn that he’d dropped his end of the blanket, that’d be its own separate problem–I would be more concerned than humiliated, and certainly more annoyed that he was abdicating his end of our relationship than anguished by the fact that he was getting off to porn.

So porn isn’t really a non-Christian problem. It’s a Christian one. Well, heck. Let’s move on.

2. Sex is doled out infrequently and used as a bargaining chip by non-Christians. Women are the gatekeepers, and they withhold sex any time they’re piqued or upset at their mates. Sexual release is only allowed within the bounds of intercourse.

One of Kirk and Kat’s arguments revolves around Kirk’s masturbatory habits. He angrily hurls in her face that he jerks off to porn because she’s not providing him her body often enough. She indicates in turn that the situation won’t be changing anytime soon–as a punishment for his transgressions.

Consent is a really big deal (one might even say the most important deal of all in a relationship) and of course Kat has the right to decide she doesn’t want sex for any reason whatsoever, even for no reason at all. She doesn’t have to get anyone’s permission to decide she doesn’t want to have sex with anyone at any time. They both have that right. In this particular case, it sounds like her withholding of sex is happening as punishment, however–not because it’s what she really wants, but because she wants to control her husband and this is the only way she can do it. If Kirk were being a good boy, she makes perfectly clear, then he’d get more nookie. But in the meantime, he is not only not getting nookie from her–his legally-sanctioned “penis home” and semen receptacle–but he is also not allowed to seek his own release because then Kat will feel “humiliated” (see above item 1) and in “competition” with those porn star ladies–but the only reason he says he uses porn is because she isn’t fucking him. The punishment isn’t just the withholding of sex from Kirk; it’s that he’s being punished with no sexual release whatsoever. If he’s getting off in other ways than in sex with her, then her punishment paradigm doesn’t really have the same impact she wants it to have, now does it?

I find this entire mindset repulsive. And while obviously non-Christian marriages also feature this kind of sex-as-bartering-tool and the withholding of it as punishment, you don’t often run across non-Christians who have serious objections to masturbation as long as it’s not being done to the extent that it interferes with the couple’s own sex life. That’s not the only serious problem I’ve got with this aspect of Kirk and Kat’s relationship as presented in Fireproof. In the movie, it takes for granted that men are the seekers of sex while women are the ones grudgingly giving in to the sex act, doling it out as a reward for good behavior. But out in the real world, sometimes men are the ones withholding sex. And guess what? A lot of women love sex and would regard a semiprivate room at a hospital as one hell of a wasted opportunity. Hell, some couples incorporate various forms of masturbation into their sex lives together. I’m not saying all non-Christian couples are adventurous and have healthy boundaries around sexuality, nor that all Christian couples are like Kirk and Kat, but in my own direct experience I’ve formed some distinct impressions regarding both types of couples.

As for a husband hurling the accusation at his wife that he jerks off because she isn’t fucking him enough, I can’t even imagine a better way for him to tell her that she’s basically an ambulatory Tenga egg (link might be NSFW). The goal as far as he’s concerned is blowing his load; where he blows it is really the only question as far as he’s concerned.

And gang, that is not exactly something unfamiliar to any Christian woman.

So much for non-Christians not understanding the gravity and beautiful seriousness of the sex act, or being able to appreciate the joy and majesty of the union of human bodies, or comprehending how astounding and awe-inspiring it is that two sacks of meat can produce such astonishing sensations together and that over time and with nurturing care that communion only becomes better and more meaningful. The best sex I have ever had has come from the most wicked heathens, while the worst? Well, if you haven’t gotten to those blog posts, then you can probably guess.

It seems to me that the attitude of considering a woman’s body as just a slightly less messy destination for ejaculate, and treating women as nothing more than a “penis home” that dispenses sex when their partners are good boys who have done all their chores, is a Christian one, not a non-Christian one. This movie assumes women would never want to have sex unless they were talked into it and that men would never pass it up if offered. That is a Christian idea as well, not a non-Christian one.

Well, heckies. Let’s move on again.

3. Kirk and Kat fall into distinctly gender-stereotypical lines regarding their attitudes toward work both inside and outside the home.

I want to remind you here that Kirk and Kat are both sort-of-atheists, raised by parents who appear to have also been sort-of-atheists. In their mythical corner of Albany, Georgia, there are tons of other sort-of-atheists all around these two numnuts. I’d like to mention here that according to a church directory site, there are 135 Christian churches in a town with roughly 75,000 people–and of those 135 churches, about 75 are either Baptist or some permutation of it. By contrast, there is one atheist organization there that I could find–Albany Georgia Atheists–with about 65 people in it. The sort-of-atheists in this movie are probably about half the atheist population in the city. I’m guessing Albany isn’t a hotbed of freethinking and rationalism.

With that in mind, I’d like to ask why every single marriage depicted in this movie seems to feature rigidly fundagelical party-line gender roles for husbands and wives.

Kirk works one day on, two days off at the firehouse. Kat works every single weekday, full time, at the hospital. In two weeks, she works about 80 hours. He works about 120–but he’s allowed to sleep for some of those in the firehouse’s dorm, so it probably works out about the same for them both. He doesn’t dispute that her rough time-spent-at-work is probably about the same as his or try to claim that his hours are significantly greater (though he does push in her face that he does more dangerous and physically demanding work than she does–because competitions like that are so distinctly non-Christian, right? Oh wait). Certainly he doesn’t deny that he has more free time, though he clearly values his free time far more than he values hers.

When Kat is home, she does the bulk of the housework, while he clearly does absolutely nothing but dick around watching porn, jogging, and hanging out with friends (the movie is very clear about this point–when he begins picking up his end of the load, it’s a genuine shock to Kat). When we see Kat at home, she is usually doing some kind of housework, while Kirk is always seen dicking around. The two of them don’t even talk about it; they just assume–both of them–that Kat does all the cooking, cleaning, resupplying, and tending, and his petulant, childish outrage that she isn’t fulfilling her “second shift” work forms the bulk of the fights he picks with her.

In their arguments, it becomes clear that the main problem as Kirk sees it is that Kat works at all, much less full-time. A part-time job is kind of a cute little hobby, something he could easily stomach, but a full-time wife is one who won’t be there to massage his feet and make him meals upon demand. That she clearly finds her work challenging and rewarding doesn’t matter to him at all. What matters is that the cereal ran out and she didn’t find time to go to the store to buy more–even though, again, he’s got more free time than she does.

Kirk throws in her face that she doesn’t “need” to work outside the home, especially not full-time, but she reminds him quietly that they need the income. He thinks he’s being magnanimous in offering her the remarkable gift of being his full-time nanny, housekeeper, and sex doll. He gets outraged and indignant when his princely gift is cast away–not realizing that the coin he’s offering her is not a currency she recognizes, much less a coin she is physically capable of accepting because–again–they need her income. And rather than figure out what coin is important to her, Fireproof tells Kirk to shower her in coins in hopes that one of them will be one she recognizes and accepts. Rather than communicate with Kat and work out something that fits both of their needs and personalities in way that honors them both, Kirk–like fundagelical Christianity itself–fixes problems by drilling down on its core assumptions about how men and women work.

I’ve met plenty of atheist men–real atheists, not sort-of-atheists like Kirk and Kat–who could be really misogynistic. I’ve met plenty of non-Christians besides who could, as well, fall into those old gender role norms. That a man is not religious is no indication that he’s going to actively seek and desire a fair division of labor around the home, or guarantee that he’s not going to be sullen if his partner works outside the home. (As I’ve said, that kind of programming far transcends Christianity’s indoctrination, which simply uses and perpetuates those norms for its own purposes.) And some Christian men reject those gender roles within their own marriages.

But there are trends one can observe on the ground, differences in the main between Christian and non-Christian men and differences between Christian and non-Christian marriages, and those trends are clear:

If you’re looking for rigid gender roles, then a Christian marriage is for you.* Studies have shown us repeatedly that religious couples are much more likely to fall into those patterns of behavior than non-religious couples are. Even men who would at least like to pursue parity in home labor have trouble achieving that ideal–but a fundagelical man doesn’t usually even have the desire to do so. Some even regard the idea of non-stereotypical gender roles as sinful, a rejection of what they conceptualize as their god’s commands for men and women.**

The movie makes it clear as well that when Kirk takes up his end of the housework, he’s not doing it because that’s what he should have been doing all along. That Kirk is flat-out in the wrong in every single one of the arguments he picks with Kat is never even addressed–not before his conversion, nor after it. And he doesn’t just pick up the slack–he actually does Kat’s share too, leaving her nothing at all to worry about housework-wise.

How long do you suppose that situation is going to last past their rededication ceremony? I’ve known several men who ended up doing way more than their fair share of housework and didn’t feel they were allowed to say anything about it. It was almost humiliating to them that they not only provided the income for the family but also did the bulk of childcare and home-care tasks. And that is either where Kirk is heading, or else he’s going to hand off all the housework back to Kat once she’s been reeled in again–because by the end of the movie, he still doesn’t have the faintest idea how to conduct a fair and egalitarian marriage; at no point does he sit down with her and say “Gosh, I’ve been such a dickbag sticking you with all the work. I’d really like to make this fair for us both. Let’s work this out.” He decided pre-conversion that it was her job to take care of the home and tend him like he was a whiny little babybutt, and he decides post-conversion to take on all the housework. Her input is irrelevant to this process. As far as the movie is concerned, all that’s needed to totally fix all their relationship-dynamic issues is Jesus and sacrificial love–not communication.

For her part, too, Kat doesn’t exactly tell Kirk not to shoulder more than his fair share. Just as Kirk was happy to coast on her goodwill pre-conversion, she lets him handle all the housework without a peep post-conversion. In their arguments, her comments regarding his lack of fairness are restricted to sniping, biting muttering; it seems like long ago she realized how futile those discussions were, and exactly like I did long ago, struck a terrible bargain: she sacrificed her dignity and sense of justice and fairness to maintain the peace, and only now is she realizing what a dreadful price she paid. But in the movie, she’s content to let Kirk pay that price now instead of her.

And not to belabor the point, but that’s an attitude that is a lot more common in Christian marriages than in non-Christian ones.

I’m talking here about a tendency that Christians have to think everyone does things the way they do them–and to accuse others of their own shortcomings.

Certainly we could talk about other ways in which pre-conversion Kirk is exactly like many fundagelical men. I got particularly unsettled by his screaming in Kat’s face over her supposed lack of “respect” for him–which was something I myself got screamed at over by Christian men. Obedience, subservience, and shows of docile submission and “respect” are things that fundagelical men get deeply interested in seeing–and deeply upset at not seeing. You can probably think of some other ways in which this sort-of-atheist couple is a lot more Christian than non-. But I think I’ve made my point.

In every single way that matters, these two are a typical fundagelical marriage. From their foundational assumptions about division of labor and women’s work to their violent arguments about her lack of “respect” for him to their reductionistic and transaction-oriented view of sexuality, there is not one single aspect of their lives that I didn’t find completely familiar from my own time married to a fundagelical man. Every single one of their fights was a fight I had; every single facet of their sex lives was something I myself had to deal with–or saw my friends dealing with.

I’m just going to float this right now: I don’t think the makers of Fireproof have the faintest idea what a non-Christian marriage looks like. For their movie, they took a typical fundagelical couple–like ones they probably saw countless times in their own churches–and stripped out the obviously Christian elements of their daily lives. I guess that’s why Kirk’s conversion doesn’t seem very realistic to me; he just didn’t sell himself as much of a sort-of-atheist. The movie is about how different a sort-of-atheist is from a Christian, so you’d think they’d have made him dramatically different. And I suppose the movie-makers would like audiences to think that he was really non-Christian before because he fought with his wife over their division of labor, looked at porn, and didn’t do housework. But to me, those are such intrinsically Christian problems in marriages that I can’t buy them as being sort-of-atheist problems unique to the unwashed heathenry of America.

And, too, the movie tries to make the case that becoming Christian makes those ickie sort-of-atheist problems vanish in the washing light of Jesus’ love–but since I know already that those problems are very much endemic among those who are the loudest about being thus washed, the movie fails there too.

Worse, their post-conversion Christian husband doesn’t seem to be much better anyway than the pre-conversion one. It’s a best-case scenario of harmony and working together for the common good, but it’s a false one: it’s still very unfair, but this time it’s the husband doing all the work, not the wife. That shift doesn’t make their marriage more harmonious; it just makes it unfair in a new and different direction. He got told “do a bunch of the housework and you’ll make your wife happier,” so he’s doing it for that reason. He’s not doing it because he came to a deep understanding of how motherfucking UNFAIR the old division of labor was.

So fixing the problem won’t be that easy for Kirk. But because he never actually fixes the problem in himself that led him to taking advantage of Kat that way, it’s going to crop up again. Becoming Christian doesn’t actually change anybody at all–only hard work and introspection does that. He’s done neither of those things. And that’s just their fighting over division of labor! Let’s not even talk about the sex part of their marriage. Does anybody seriously think that now that he’s converted, Kirk will never look at porn again ever?

One wonders how long it took after their gauzy, perfect little rededication ceremony for him to feel provoked and push Kat up against a wall again and scream right in her face to look at him–or for her to come home early only to find him, rod in hand, staring goggle-eyed at German bondage. Or for her to once again decide to use sex as currency (just like many Christian leaders like Tim Keller recommend!). I’m guessing a couple of weeks, personally.

And at that point, Kirk and Kat will still be perfect representatives of a fundagelical Christian marriage–just as they were at the movie’s beginning.

This post is making me even happier that I don’t have a Christian marriage. I wouldn’t want that experience again for all the world. I’m so glad I escaped that pit of slime.


* I once knew an atheist man who was actively seeking a fundamentalist preacher’s daughter to woo and marry because he really wanted a 1950s-style marriage where he would be the provider and “leader” and she’d be the happy, docile sex-doll, housekeeper, and brood mare (he reminded me very powerfully of Gaston: “We’ll have six or seven.” — “…Dogs?” — “No, Belle! Strapping boys, like me!” — “Imagine that.”) Last I heard, he hadn’t located one yet.

** Amazing, isn’t it? The men who didn’t want to do housework in the first place found a “Biblical” reason not to do the housework and stick women with it. It’s not loving at all to take advantage of another person and stick them with an unfair burden, but since when did Christians care about love or justice?

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