Last time we met up, we talked about why Christians have such a bizarrely-regressive view of marriage. In essence, rigidly codified relationships help keep their authoritarian vision alive. Today, let’s dive into the rules that get that rigid view ensconced in people’s everyday realities.
Marriage Advice That Isn’t Really “Advice.”
In choosing sources for these sets of rules, I had to laugh. Initially, I simply searched for generic Christian sites. I planned to winnow them down to fundagelicalism. But almost all of the sites that turned up were already fundagelical. So I double-checked my results with DuckDuckGo.
Nope, I was seeing the results correctly. Toxic Christians just have a lot to say about How to Marriage Properly!
And their leaders’ marriage advice wasn’t particularly advice. These writers’ suggestions aren’t actually suggestions. They all hint that their rules are divinely-mandated.
Authoritarians gonna authoritarian, I guess.
Our Would-Be Advisors.
Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Not quite as wingnutty as World
Nut Net Daily, but about as consistently reminiscent of a hundred angry loons locked in a hogshead of moonshine. They generously provide “Ten Biblical Rules for a Happy Marriage.”
Crosswalk. A hit or miss fundagelical-leaning site. Sometimes they feature progressive Christians’ work. And then sometimes they run pearl-clutching howlers like “5 Signs Your Church Might Be Heading Toward Progressive Christianity.” (OH NOES!) Their contribution today is a Jim Daly piece, “6 Things That Make for a Healthy Marriage.” This Focus on the Family tin-pot dictator extensively borrows here from the ideas of a twice-divorced marriage and family therapist whose work has been devastatingly drubbed by independent research and review. I’m sure it’ll be great. (/s)
The Gospel Coalition (TGC). This ultra-fundagelical TRUE CHRISTIAN™ site never fails to deliver cray-cray to huge crowds of Christians who lost their discernment ages ago. Unsurprisingly, they had a lot to say about marriage. I went with three of their posts, in the end: “Pursue Complementarity, Not Compatibility,” “Marriage Isn’t Meant to Meet Your Needs,” and “Six Things You Can Do to Grow (or Save) Your Marriage.”
Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk. Yes, this leader of Focus on the Family still boasts a big following–for a reason that will be immediately clear. He’s a big guy, a tough ol’ manly-man who advises his fellow men to physically torture animals and small children to gain dominance over them. Even other evangelicals call him “callous.” And he’s got “10 Rules In Creating A Win-Win Marriage.”
Rule: Don’t Go to Bed Angry.
Mr. Captain and I both have special cause to hate this one–and he’s never been married to a Christian. This rule shows up everywhere in marriage advice lists. The idea is that couples should not go to sleep while a conflict simmers between them. They must instead stay awake and fighting–all the way till dawn if need be–to resolve the conflict somehow.
What Christians Want to Know and CBN both link this bad advice to Ephesians 4:26: “Do not let the sun go down while you are angry.”
Christians often talk about the Bible being obviously divinely-inspired (or -written!). But this verse is a great contradiction to that claim. It is absolutely horrible advice for most people. As a writer for Slate points out, super-tired, super-stressed people aren’t exactly operating on all thrusters. And if the fight happens to take place on a work or school night, then they’ll be operating at a serious deficit the next day.
Psychologists often classify sleep deprivation as a form of torture. No wonder toxic Christians like it.
Biff and I both got this advice and thought it was grand. In reality, it was not grand. Biff had a habit of saying whatever he needed to say to end a conflict. He was a grandmaster at apologizing without follow-through. So no matter how bad our fights got–and friends, those fights got baaaaaad–what might seem like a resolution really wasn’t.
GRADE: D-. For a few couples that tend to sit on conflicts indefinitely until they boil over, this advice might give them the kick in the pants they need to handle problems before they escalate too far to fix. But for most people, all this advice ensures is that they’ll be having some very bad fights while they are at their absolute worst. Some conflicts need resolution now. Many others can and should be postponed until this platoon is better rested.
Rule: Men Must Dominate, Always, Mostly.
Obviously, toxic Christians can’t even conceive of an egalitarian marriage. All of the sites demonized the idea, at least indirectly. TGC even linked egalitarian marriage to the same-sex marriage rights, implying that none of this human-rights stuff would have happened if the Christian Right were still in control of marriage. Their notion of marriage is typically described as complementarian, which we’ve already discovered is simply Jesus-flavored sexism.
What Christians Want to Know cites Bible verses to support their contention that anybody who views marriage as a “50-50 agreement” will fail. In the complementarian view, husbands must be 100% dominant, and wives must be 100% submissive.
However, women must obey their husbands’ demands regardless. (I’ve seen other Christian advice before that suggests that if a husband orders a wife to do something totally out-of-bounds, then she can refuse safely. Alas, the listed sources don’t allow for that.)
TGC goes the same route. They offer up even more Bible verses designed to slam women for daring to want decent treatment even when their husbands’ “leadership” is admittedly “imperfect.” Crosswalk and a few others soften that demand somewhat. They suggest that sometimes it might be okay if “husbands accept influence from their wives.” But they offer no mechanisms for how that might be done or what this influencing might look like (aside from one weird anecdote about a wife criticizing her husband’s unsafe driving).
I’ll simply note here that the harder my ex Biff tried to apply this advice to our marriage, the faster it deteriorated.
GRADE: F. Husbands get all the power in the relationship and no concrete responsibilities. By contrast, wives get ordered to serve and obey, with exceedingly numerous and concrete responsibilities that cannot be cast aside. Husbands face no penalties for abrogating their responsibilities. Wives face innumerable penalties for the same “sin.” Yeah, there is no way this is going to turn out well.
Rule: Be Nice To Each Other, Jesus Edition.
It amazed me to see how often Christian leaders felt the need to remind their followers to be nice to their spouses. These people are supposed to be inhabited by a real live god of infinite love and mercy. And yet for some reason, Christians must be reminded–with examples!–to treat each other with graciousness, patience, and compassion.
CBN tells readers that every day, they should say at least one nice thing to their spouses. They must also “never meet without an affectionate welcome.” What Christians Want to Know went the same route.
Crosswalk suggested a specific ratio of positive-to-negative interactions: 5:1 at a “minimum.” For every hostile or angry thing they said or did, they should balance it with at least 5 nice and loving things. They then suggest that when a husband is busy on Facebook or whatever and his wife wants his attention, maybe he should “lift his eyes from the sports page for a second or two.” They breathlessly continue that if he then “actually listens to what she has to say, that’s a real connection!” (I CAN’T EVEN.)
Most of this advice centers around trying to drag husbands, kicking and screaming, toward treating their wives with the barest modicum of civility and friendliness. Mostly it sounds like husbands routinely regard their wives as ornaments, live-in housekeepers, and sex dolls, not true partners. And in that sense, yeah, Christians haven’t changed at all–except to get worse–since I was one of them. Biff had no idea how to relate to me, and our culture told him such a task was impossible anyway.
GRADE: C. I guess if someone just has no idea how to interact with other human beings, some of this wouldn’t be terrible advice. And that’s the intended audience for Christian marriage advice, so in that sense it’s kind of okay. It’s just hard to read any of it without forming a firm opinion about fundagelical men needing to take kindergarten over again before being allowed to propose to anybody.
Quick Aside: Why TRUE CHRISTIANS™ Fight.
If they’re breathing, your mate will eventually offend you.
—CBN, apparently sharing a newsflash
Naturally, in a complementarian marriage a couple is going to see a lot of conflicts. Those conflicts will be constant, daily, and largely-unresolvable. They will typically center around two general and related areas.
- Fights for dominance. One spouse will be seeking power over the other. The other spouse won’t appreciate the grab at their expense. To gain that dominance, partners deploy deception, hostility, mistreatment, shows of blitheringly-obvious thoughtlessness, and emotional manipulation. As a result, seething resentment and frustration can easily bubble up into searing aggression. Spouses also retaliate against each other for already-seized dominance.
- Disagreements about resource allocation. The resources include money, time, and emotional energy. They’re all finite. Dominance enters into these discussions as well. Really, dominance ultimately threads its way into everything toxic Christians do. Even partners who don’t have a lot of conflicts might have trouble reaching agreement about resource expenditure.
So Christian leaders must address this dragon in the garage. They can’t pretend otherwise: even the truest of all TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are going to have fights. The TRUE-est Christians just about always have interpersonal drama going on that can be seen from outer orbit.
Rule: How to Fight, Jesus Style.
James Dobson teaches Christian married couples not to “control [the other person] with sarcasm, rage, threats, manipulation, shame, jealousy or silence.” When those couples fight anyway, they should seek forgiveness whenever they do something wrong, and extend forgiveness whenever it’s asked for.
In Reality-Land, though, I’ve never encountered a group of people more purely terrified of being wrong than toxic Christians. Dobson’s lofty advice is impossible for them to follow.
TGC suggests make-up sex. I’m not kidding: “Sex is therapy. Be generous in your application.” In their complementarian post, they also instruct women to “honor” their husbands instead of “lashing out or undermining” them. Crosswalk tells spouses to start disagreements “softly, without critical, contemptuous remarks about the other person.” (Remember the Duggar women?)
The central problem is that both spouses in a fundagelical marriage generally view power as the ultimate goal. When we talk about give-and-take in relationships, they learn that it means that sometimes they tread on their partner, and sometimes they get trod upon in turn. Whoever does more treading-on and endures less getting-trod-upon wins the game that day, that year, and that lifetime.
It wasn’t till I lost the idea of power being a focus in relationships that I was able to learn to fight fair. Neither Biff nor I possessed that skill during our marriage.
GRADE: F. Christian leaders really can’t engage with the basic reasons why Christian couples fight, so their advice about how to fight falls flat. Their advice sounds like a suggestion to focus on splinting an accident victim’s broken ankle when there’s a sucking chest wound going on.
Rule: Nobody’s Allowed to Remember Past Problems.
Christian leaders think that all fights can be overcome with Jesus Power. Once they are, then couples must then “forget the past,” as What Christians Want to Know put it. They think it’s “amazing” that people can remember wrongs committed against them for years. (Space aliens invented Christianity, right? Except they didn’t much like humans?)
CBN admonishes readers to “never bring up mistakes of the past.” TGC’s writer teaches that inevitable crises in marriage only point to how totally “sinful” people are. Just as their god forgives everything upon demand, people must forgive each other upon demand. And then, once one spouse has forgiven the other, that person must forget about the offense. “Forgiving isn’t forgiving unless it is forgetting.” James Dobson appears to concur.
By this advice, Christian leaders mean that wronged spouses should never bring up the offense again. For example, Dobson tell us that we must not keep “a short laundry list of offenses” or “scroll them out in front of our spouse during times of conflict or disagreement.”
In reality, though, spouses trapped in toxic Christianity can’t ever really come to a fair resolution of conflicts. I knew a lot of women while I was Christian who resembled simmering cauldrons of barely-controlled rage. Because spouses never reach true resolution, they can’t find a place of true forgiveness. And without that forgiveness, it’s really hard to let go of an offense. The offense classifies in our minds as still ongoing.
Worse yet, sometimes it’s actually better for someone wronged not to forget about an offense.
GRADE: D. If Christians could actually forgive each other and move past wrongs committed against each other, then yes, part of fair fighting is not bringing up old offenses. Absolutely yes. But generally what’s happening here is that spouses get told to forgive upon command, and then told they must never ever talk about the offense again. It’s forgiven and more importantly forgotten. Why are you still harping about this? JEEZ.
RULE: Always Be Jesus-ing.
Christian marriage advice-givers often decide that happiness and fulfillment are completely out of reach. Instead, they drill down harder on the idea that marriage isn’t about happiness anyway. I find this attitude suspiciously self-serving.
As we saw last time we met up, many Christians view marriage as an expression of their religion’s ideals rather than a partnership between two people. That viewpoint makes happiness almost a sinful expression of selfishness.
TGC’s writer tells us that if someone wants marriage to make them happy or meet their needs, that’s not even “real love.” Instead, it’s “a respectable form of selfishness.” Couples who seek that kind of fulfillment will destroy not only their own marriage, but society itself.
A strikingly-young TGC writer tells us that couples should stop worrying even about whether or not they’re compatible. He thinks that gosh, nobody is compatible. Instead, people should concentrate on finding a partner who can Jesus super-hard and fulfill the role that their god totally allocated to that person. Another similarly young TGC author sets up accountabilibuddies for married couples. What Christians Want to Know also insists that Christians should put their religion ahead of their spouses.
GRADE: F. I doubt we could find a more nonsensical, irrelevant teaching in Christianity than this one.
The Cruel Dilemma.
So the rules for marriage, for Christians, range from sorta no-brainers to dear god you two are going to destroy yourselves this way. The situation can’t improve, however.
You see, Christians find themselves in an untenable quandary regarding marriage.
On one hand, their marriages function as living advertisements for their religion. So they must always appear to be happy and in love. Indeed, most denominations teach their congregations from early childhood that their god richly blesses TRUE CHRISTIAN™ marriages.
But on the other hand, if two spouses discover that they are simply incompatible and deeply unhappy, then they can’t show it or end the marriage. Instead, they must endure each other’s company forever–because happiness isn’t the point and they were wrong to want that anyway, jeez, where’d they even hear such nonsense?
I struggle to find words adequate to the task of describing how incredibly lonely it can be, for those stuck in such a sham relationship. Even if Christians marry while feeling deep love for each other, the ruleset they receive can destroy that emotion. Their leaders set them up to fail from the get-go. When, not if the couple crashes and burns on the rocks, those leaders stand by to drag the pair over the gravel even more.
NEXT UP: I’ll show you how terrible Christian marriage advice plays out in the real world. See you soon!
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