The Magical Marriage Switch

The Magical Marriage Switch December 7, 2013

[Content Note: Marital Sexual Coercion]

This is a picture from Abe and my wedding. I took it.

Purity culture Christians like to think of marriage as  something almost magical. It’s like flipping a magical switch where all the rules, standards, and beliefs about reality change. It’s as if saying “I do” plummets you into an entirely new universe. Looking at how things change after the flipping of the magical marriage switch reveals some gaping holes in purity culture thinking.

One of the most integral moments in my decision to say “screw it” to purity culture was noticing this type of thinking in a Relevant Magazine piece by Allison Vesterfelt. The gave a list of “reasons God asks us to wait for marriage for sex,” and it was a game changer for me because it helped me start to see the inconsistencies within purity culture clearly.

For instance, one of the reasons for waiting on the list was “It Builds Friendship.” The author claims people should wait until marriage to have sex because they need a period of friendship-building before they start focusing on sex. I’ve heard others make this same claim. But should people’s friendship stop growing once they are married? Does anyone in purity culture even claim such a thing? If sex before marriage hinders friendship, what changes after marriage?

In fact, Christian marriage books will claim that after marriage, sex is necessary if marital friendship is going to grow. The book Love and Respect even tells wives (pg. 248 and on) that if they feel distant and unconnected from their spouses, it is immature to wait until the friendship has been restored to have sex. This book claims that marital sex is to be about meeting the husband’s needs, not just something that flows out of friendship and emotional intimacy. It claims if the woman who doesn’t want to have sex just gets over it and does it anyway, sex will lead to friendship.

Flip the magical marriage switch and you’re in a new universe with new rules. This happens again, and again, and again. Let’s look at some other ways in which this is played out:


Another item on the list is “You Are Valuable.” It argues that setting physical boundaries before marriage means that you are asserting your value. This is a popular one in purity culture. I’ve written before about how purity culture co-opts the language of women’s empowerment–authors like Justin Lookadoo and Hayley DiMarco tell young women the only way that they can truly have “girl power” is if they wait until marriage to have sex.

But what happens when you flip the magical marriage switch?

Suddenly, your way of “protecting your value” is obsolete. Before marriage, you abstained so you wouldn’t end up like chewed up bubble gum. Now, you’re supposed to let yourself get “chewed up” (don’t purity culture metaphors for sex make it sound awful?), and if you don’t, you are selfish. Your right to assert your self-worth through boundaries is gone.

On Twitter, Kirby M. pointed out that, before marriage, we’re told that sex “blinds you from faults in your relationship.” Purity culture says that great sex will keep you in a bad relationship, and you’ll be so focused on the sex that you won’t work out problems in other areas.

But after the magical marriage switch has been flipped?

As Kirby continues, purity culture believes that after marriage, sex “is essential for oneness.” Mark Driscoll’s Real Marriage,  Emerson’s Love and Respect, and other marriage books tell women that sex with their spouses will fix a myriad in the marriage, even a husband who is mean and unloving.

A phrase you hear often in purity culture is that “sex won’t keep him/her, and sex won’t make him/her love you.” That’s not bad advice, actually, and can help arm unmarried women and men against coercion tactics, e.g. “If you loved me you’d do it,” or “If you won’t, I’ll have to cheat on you. However, the way the conversation changes after marriage shows that purity culture proponents aren’t actually interested in arming people against coercion.

Just flip that switch…

As Jael stated on Twitter, purity culture tells married women, “if you don’t respond to coercion YOU are in the wrong.” Christian marriage book authors will use the same coercion tactics that they warn young people against in dating books. Married (straight) women, are told that the only way to keep their spouses is sex. Love and Respect tells them that, actually, sex will make him love you, and that:

A man who strays is usually given total blame for his  affair, but in many cases he is the victim of temptation that his wife helped bring upon him. (pg. 253)

These are just a few examples. This line of thinking isn’t limited to conservative Christians like Mark Driscoll and Dr. Emerson Eggerichs either. There are even remnants of it in so-called progressive Christianity (indeed, Relevant Magazine calls itself “progressive”), and a lot of anti-purity culture bloggers fall into the same traps.

But marriage isn’t a magical switch that you flip and everything changes. Married people occupy the same universe as unmarried people, and so many purity culture arguments fall flat.

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  • pibaba


    so. very. true. I love reading your posts for your excellent articulation of things that I’ve felt or wondered, but never could clarify for myself. Thanks for digging through all these books and bringing these issues to the surface.

  • Kristen Rosser

    This is interesting. I think the main reason I wanted to wait until marriage was because I needed to know my boundaries would be respected– so that I would be safe being married to this guy. In other words, if he wasn’t going to pressure me for sex before marriage, he was the kind of person who would respect “no” after marriage– and not just when it came to sex. For me with my background, this is what I needed. But I never read all those after-marriage books telling me I wasn’t supposed to have a “no.” We never really felt we needed books, and I’m glad we didn’t read them!

    • sarahoverthemoon

      I definitely think that sounds like a good reason to personally make the decision to wait. I think there are lots of reasons why someone might personally choose to wait until marriage, but they just don’t work when we try to demand that everyone in every life situation follow them.

  • One of my older friends, I think that she was sitting at your table at my wedding reception, kept telling me that living together before we got married would result in us not staying together very long. I found it deliciously ironic that she’s a hardcore conservative Catholic and divorce while telling me this.
    I chose to not wait until marriage because I didn’t want my wedding night to be associated with horrific amounts of blood, pain and a hotel cleaning deposit that I couldn’t get back. Also because virginity is a social construct that doesn’t really matter…

    • sarahoverthemoon

      I’m glad, that although things never worked out for us to live together before we got married (because of school and jobs and such), we spent a lot of time at each others’ houses doing normal life things together–everything from sex to taking out the garbage. Made the transition to marriage much less drastic and sudden. I’m glad I made that choice.

  • I think for me (and I didn’t wait by any stretch of the imagination to have sex) I just wish someone would have told me how vulnerable sex would make me feel to my partner. I really loved my last boyfriend and we didn’t end up together and it has caused a lot of heartache and sadness and depression that I know I would have been able to avoid if we had never lived together and had, well, a ton of sex. There would have been more boundaries. It would have been easier to untangle myself from him when we parted. That is something I really struggled with, even now, in my wonderful marriage to a wonderful man who loves and respects me so much more then any of my partners ever did!

    After I met my husband who was a virgin, and we married, it wasn’t like some magic switch suddenly came on and we had sex all the time. It was slow. It was our own pace. His pace. My pace. Even with his “purity” we went slow after we were married. And he does not hold my past over my head. When I express regret or pain over it, he looks shocked that I would even think that and always responds positively. He says, I love you. I don’t care about your past. It always floors me.

    The reason I think the bible says to wait until you get married is because of how much potential there is for pain if you don’t end up together. Because of the bond it creates. Sex creates a lot of intimacy. Oh, I know, it does not do that for everyone, but for most people I’ve talked to it does. And I think it would be nice if that was created with only one person. Oh, I know I’m not any less of a person for the choices I made, but I know that I still love my previous partner and sometimes I still miss him. While I’m okay with living with that feeling, but I do wish I had made better choices for myself and for him, because I know our break up hurt him too! Hope this makes sense!

    • I never slept with my main boyfriend before my husband, and breaking up with him was still probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. It hurt for YEARS after the fact.

      Not having sex does not save you from that heartbreak.
      This is where the purity culture ideal of not even *dating* before you get married comes from – they dont want you to risk falling in love, even if you dont have sex, with someone who is not your future spouse.

  • Churches inculcate neurotic insecurity.

    “A competent and self confident person is incapable of jealousy in anything. Jealousy is invariably a symptom of neurotic insecurity.” ~Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

    • Christopher R Weiss

      To be fair, Heinlein believed in open relationships without constraints, which we see consistently throughout many of his books. This is a difficult thing for most people to grasp or accept. We seem to be hardwired to form pair bonds at least at some level. My wife and I are not religious, and I don’t think either of us would be happy, confident, or capable of living in an open relationship.

      • While Heinlein did explore polygamous relationships in his novels, he didn’t necessarily “believe in open relationships.” He also wrote tenderly of purely monogamous marriage, such as his “Tale of the Adopted Daughter” in Time Enough for Love, an exclusive love until death did they part:

        She closed her eyes again, so he sang the other verses very softly. But when he finished, she smiled at him. “Thank you, darling; that was lovely. It‟s always been lovely. But I‟m a little tired-if I drop off to sleep, will you still be here?”

        “I‟ll always be here, dearest. You sleep now.” She smiled again, and her eyes closed. Presently her breathing grew slower as she slept.

        Her breathing stopped. Lazarus waited a long time before he called in Ginny and Elf.

        Thus, the Heinlein aphorism applies to any relationship, traditional or not. My wife and I have been married for 20+ years, and I think part of the success has been that I’ve said: “If you can find a better deal than me, go for it. Just let me know.” Of course, I work to be the better deal, because she’s quite a good deal herself.

        That’s a completely different attitude than the neurotic insecurity that the church teaches (we both were rolling our eyes at the mandatory marriage counseling before our wedding,) with wives still being taught to submit to being treated as a man’s property in more conservative circles. (We were married in a Conservative Mennonite church.)

        If You Love Somebody Set Them Free ♪ ~Sting

        Which reminds me…. 😉

        • Christopher R Weiss

          Heinlein actually lived in an open marriage. I have never read how his wife dealt with this wrinkle. I have known a few couples who experimented with open marriages, and none of these people are still together.

          I couldn’t agree more on your critique of the traditional male dominated form of marriage pushed by many religious institutions. My wife and I work as partners in our relationship and in supporting our family. We joke about the other finding a better deal. After nearly 30 years together, we would have moved on a long time ago if we weren’t happy.

          For family reasons, my wife and I were married in a Catholic church (our parents were/are Catholic). Fortunately, we had a very understanding priest who bypassed all of the traditional nonsense about pre-marriage counseling, submissions, obey, etc., and he modified his traditional vows and prayers to reflect our egalitarian wishes. I told him when we started the process that I was an atheist, and the only reason I agreed to a Catholic service was to respect the wishes of our parents. The priest was surprisingly understanding. This has not been the experience of friends of mine in similar situations.

          • > the traditional male dominated form of marriage pushed by many religious institutions

            And in a long enough time line, 10,000 years or so, male-dominated marriage is not even traditional; rather, it’s a recent phenomenon. My hobby is reading anthropology. All the ethnographic studies I’ve perused show the increased hierarchy in marriage coincided with the Neolithic Revolution. John Zerzan has summarized from anthropology a view I share in his essay Agriculture: The Demon Engine of Civilization:

            Male violence toward women originated with agriculture, which transmuted women into beasts of burden and breeders of children. Before farming, the egalitarianism of foraging life “applied as fully to women as to men,” judged Eleanor Leacock, owing to the autonomy of tasks and the fact that decisions were made by those who carried them out. In the absence of production and with no drudge work suitable for child labor such as weeding, women were not consigned to onerous chores or the constant supply of babies. Along with the curse of perpetual work, via agriculture, in the expulsion from Eden, God told woman, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and that desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Similarly, the first known codified laws, those of the Sumerian king Ur-Namu, prescribed death to any woman satisfying desires outside of marriage. Thus Whyte referred to the ground women “lost relative to men when humans first abandoned a simple hunting and gathering way of life,” and Simone de Beauvoir saw in the cultural equation of plow and phallus a fitting symbol of the oppression of women.

            I must admit that my line of thinking is somewhat self-effacing, since I have a degree in Agriculture, and own a farm. But I’m changing it to more natural methods, and no tilling, which I consider to be Plowman’s Folly. (Faulkner, 1943) 🙂

            P.S. Heinlein did live an open relationship with his second wife Leslyn — which ended in the usual results that you’ve observed. Then he married “a rock-ribbed far-right conservative woman, Virginia,” As Issac Asimov recalls in his I, Asimov. That one was definitely not “open.”

          • Christopher R Weiss

            Thanks for the additional data on Heinlein…. very interesting considering his writings.

  • Robert Shaver

    These are good questions and challenging comments. I do believe however that the premise is a bit lacking.
    1) What is marriage – how do we define it? If it is a honored, committed relationship in which two people really do keep their vows that changes the conversation from what the US has made marriage out to be.
    In its ideal form, marriage definitely changes a lot. No, it is not a magical switch, but the context of a lifelong commitment in which you agree to put someone else’s needs before your own. If there are issues before marriage, putting rings on your fingers and saying “I do” will not fix those problems. But commitment in a relationship, especially as serious as marriage has to change some things. I can even think of middle school relationships that were drastically changed once the labels “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” were officially accepted. Some youngsters just couldn’t handle the pressure and then never talked to their “friend” any longer…
    2) What is sex for? From a scientific point of view, sex is for making babies. People have sex and then they get pregnant and have babies. How can this be prevented? Other than strategic timing and , all of our other methods are UNNATURAL (condoms, pills, abortion). Men and women even secrete powerful hormones (oxytocin, vasopressin) that bond the man and woman to each other subconsciously during intercourse. It also creates a bond to the eventual offspring. So mother nature is telling us that human babies are gonna do best when they have a mom and a dad looking after them (not all male mammals have vasopressin) (oh yeah, enter disclaimers here – not trying to offend anyone – I know lots of great single parents who are doing a great job and have terrific kids). Back to the main subject – if sex is really for making babies, then maybe it is for relationships that are ready to support and raise babies.
    That is not a religious observation or a political one, that is a scientific evaluation of the subject.
    3) Re: value and power. Women can definitely use sex as a tool or a weapon to leverage power in a relationship. A woman can increase her influence over a man by giving or withholding sex. I do not know of all of these authors, but I think comments about value and power are directed more at a stereotypical teenage girl figure who is looking for love and affection and attention and so gives sex to people hoping she’ll find it. Most would agree that kind of behavior is risky and that she will likely not find what she is looking for by taking this approach. Someone once observed that women tend to give sex to get love while men tend to give love to get sex. Perhaps these people are encouraging young people to wait for marriage because sex in a loving relationship is better than sex without love. Not everyone gives it up because they are insecure or needy, but if that is the reason, is that a good reason?
    4) Christian values are for Christians. God has given people a good way to live that will result in a blessed life. The people who commit to following God agree to follow those commands. They are never commanded to impose those rules and regulations on the rest of the world. Though if a Christian thinks that their way of life is better, happier or whatever, they should definitely share those ideas with others. Relevant is a magazine aimed at Christians, Mark Driscol is a pastor and Eggerichs a Christian therapist. If you are a Christian, what Biblical evidence or examples do you have to say that sex outside of marriage is blessed by God? If you are not a Christian, why are you reading all of this Christian literature? These people are not “demanding that everyone in every life situation follow them,” you had to consciously decide to buy that book or magazine and read it.

    • Christyinlosangeles

      “Someone once observed that women tend to give sex to get love while men tend to give love to get sex.”

      I REALLY hate that statement (which you hear a LOT in conservative Christian circles). It makes sex (and love) into a consumeristic transaction, ignores the fact that women might have sex just because they want to have sex, and diminishes men by talking about them as if all they want is sex and are uninterested in love and commitment. It’s very toxic on a number of levels. Healthy sex should never be a weapon or a commodity.

      Your point about why read or listen to Christian stuff if you’re not a Christian is valid, (although frankly, evangelical and Catholic notions about sexual ethics are pretty visible in our current political discourse, so its hard to avoid, even if you want to) but if you were born into a conservative evangelical environment, you grew up hearing this stuff over and over again – which means that you have to do a LOT of deconstruction in order to figure out what healthy sexuality looks like. It takes a while to unpack all of that, and you have to consciously push back on this stuff to do it.

      And as I say this – I’m fairly certain that you and I have very different perspectives on sexual ethics and very different opinions on the validity of evangelical teachings about sex, and I’m not trying to change your mind. I just know that for me, what I was taught and internalized about sex in my evangelical upbringing was really destructive and took a good decade as an adult to work through.

      • Robert Shaver

        I agree that the statement you quoted from my post is not a good one. I will point out that I was using it to say that this is a stereotype. That means that sometimes it is true but yes, there are many instances in which it is not. As a grown man, it is insulting to me that I would “give love to get sex.”
        What if someone was writing against gambling? Maybe they give reasons why one should not gamble before reaching the age of 21. One reason they give is because gambling is addictive. That is true. It is not true for me, but it can be addictive. How should I react to this person’s writing?
        There is a ton of dysfunction in churches all over the world. Unfortunately people have misused God’s Word and hurt people with words that are supposed to be life-giving. Another person commented earlier about the idea of insecurity and the church. That is probably pretty accurate. People stop worrying about God’s opinion and are much more concerned with what other people will think about them and then they create rules and regulations to follow out of fear that their kids will shame them. Jesus speaks harshly to people (the Pharisees) who did this kind of thing in his time.
        I reject labels (for myself), even terms like “evangelical” because too often they imply life and/or beliefs that simply are not Biblical.
        Regarding statements that we hate, I hate that someone can read 4 paragraphs of my opinions in which I purposefully tried to stay away from religiosity (I thought I was scientific, philosophical and logical), and form the opinion that they know where I am coming from or what my positions would be on certain topics. I don’t write that to be contentious. It really just makes me sad a little. I feel like I am trying to be a different kind of person, one who listens and is open minded then when I open my mouth, do I get thrown into the pigeon holes because some of the conclusions look like someone else’s? I would love to continue the conversation with everyone here who is interested. I believe these things are so important and relevant to our society today. What if together, we stripped away all the things we were taught and went with curious hearts and minds to the Bible to see what it had to say on certain matters. I know this, there are not a lot of specifics when it comes to sex. I know that a lot of the relationships I the Old Testament were sexually really messed up. There is definitely a place for dialogue and I would love to hear people’s takes on Scripture and the reasons behind their interpretations.

    • gimpi1

      Unfortunately, Robert, a few Christians are demanding that others follow their rules. Witness the restrictions being imposed on abortion and birth-control, and the objection to marriage equity.

      • Robert Shaver

        It is unfortunate. I will go one step further, I believe that the way our current society and political structure is set up is unfortunate because either way, which ever “side of the aisle” you are on, you are going to feel like the other side is trying to force you into believing some way or living some way. Take abortion for example, what if someone morally objects to abortion? That is their right, correct? They can hold that position. Someone who believes it is OK or who even wants to go get an abortion may feel that the “pro-lifer” is judging them or even trying to force their views on them. In today’s society however, that person can still go and get the abortion and, depending on their income level, some of that procedure was just paid for by the tax revenue received from that same pro-life person. Isn’t that ironic? There is not a place on the 1040 or whatever tax form you fill out to say, “I don’t want my tax money to support this that or the other thing.” (except for the fact this would take me even longer to do my taxes, I think it is an interesting idea).
        Now recently, with the Affordable Healthcare Act (Obamacare), provisions have been made to some religious groups who want to opt out of some of the birth control and abortion options. Interestingly, their premiums will still go to pay for these procedures and pills for others, their opting out simply means that they cannot receive the services themselves. So in this case, the new healthcare law is forcing the Catholic church and others to follow their rules.
        Again I think a lot of this is a result of how our society is set up (and so unfortunately there is no quick fix). Everyone feels like they are the victim until they get their way. When they get their way, there is usually little concern over how that may actually hurt or harm whole groups of people. Because “I am right” or “we are right” and the people who disagree with us just need to see the light, get with the times, be enlightened, get over themselves, get their heads out of their rears, be open-minded, you fill in the blanks.
        I will say one more thing. How we frame things is HUGE. I can smack you on the head and you will be irate with me. If I quickly disclose that there was a mosquito on your head about to bite you, you still might not be happy, but my slap makes sense and you might be grateful.
        If a child is playing in the road, they may think that is perfectly fine and safe. If an onlooker sees the danger and calls for the child to get out of the road, have they overstepped their bounds? Should they have kept quiet so people wouldn’t think they were being small-minded and judgmental?
        What if I have a friend who is cheating on his wife? Should I support him? Should I talk to him about it and give my opinion respectfully? Should I reprimand him?
        And if people really see life as beginning at conception and genuinely believe that an abortion is killing a baby, should those people just sit on their hands and not do or say anything?
        What if they really believe that same-sex marriages are wrong? What if they really think that recognizing and legalizing such unions would be detrimental to their society? Should they just not vote on it? Not say a word?
        These are genuine questions. I am not trying to use them to make a point (maybe a little). How should they be answered? How should those people deal with their beliefs?
        Now I know, I am a sad and pathetic man and I live in an ideal world in which we could all talk through issues like mature adults.
        I also know what reality is, the people who speak the loudest and get the most publicity are usually the most moronic, bigoted, self-absorbed people in the world who have “my way or the high-way” mentalities. These are the people who really think they are better then everyone else. The meek and the humble who could probably make it all work out OK, who could converse with reason and sound judgment rather than flared up tempers and emotions. So when I ask the hypothetical questions that I raised earlier, many readers probably got upset. Why? Because we don’t think of rational people we think of groups like the Westboro Baptists and cringe.
        Yes gimip1, it is unfortunate. It makes me mad and sad.
        Jesus didn’t force anyone to live the ways that He taught. Many walked away from his hard teachings and he let them go. I hope more people who claim to be following Christ can learn to actually follow Christ

        • gimpi1

          Robert, you said, “In today’s society however, that person can still go and get the abortion and, depending on their income level, some of that procedure was just paid for by the tax revenue received from that same pro-life person”

          I would respond, I understood early on that the Iraq war was mistaken, yet my taxes still went to fund it. We don’t have veto power over how our taxes are spent.

          You said, “And if people really see life as beginning at conception and genuinely believe that an abortion is killing a baby, should those people just sit on their hands and not do or say anything?What if they really believe that same-sex marriages are wrong? What if they really think that recognizing and legalizing such unions would be detrimental to their society? Should they just not vote on it? Not say a word?”

          I would respond, belief does not give one the right to impose actions on others. Churches are free to preach against, pressure members, and try to convert, but I don’t think they should try to use force of law to compel. As long as there is no direct impact, they should have no right to control others, any more than I should be able to compel them to do what I think is right.

  • Oh, wow! Thank you!

    I really needed to hear this right now, because I’ve been struggling to define WHY sex bothers me in ANY concept of relationship … even marriage. After what I went through, I couldn’t figure out how it could avoid being problematic and burdensome to relationship. Why have sex at all?

    And it was these very points that were creating such a dissonance in my mind that I couldn’t think through the abuse I’d suffered to see any other path than avoidance.

    But it was never the sex that was the problem or the solution.

    It was the abuse … and the abuse was in the “sex” and the “friendship” and the “marriage” … redefining all the words so I couldn’t escape the alternate reality.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Why buy the cow if he gets the milk for free? Because if all he wants is the milk, I want to know that he knows how to take care of the cow other than when he wants a drink.

    Marriage is/was a way to reduce the instability of society without legal obligation toward children. Sex used to lead to a lot of children for whom nobody was willing to take responsibility. There is simply no reason for this to happen in today’s era of birth control and DNA testing. With or without marriage, women can and should decide whether and with whom they want to procreate. If the male doesn’t want to accept his parental responsibility, the woman should feel free to do with the conceptus what will actually be better for her future child and the society in which she/they live.

    Marriage is, first and foremost a legal contract, and should be treated seriously as such. Religion and romance should not have precedence put on them to the exclusion of seriously studying the legal responsibilities of partnership. Untie religion and the civil aspects of marriage, and we may actually have functioning couples and responsible families that improve our society.

  • Michelle M

    I remember grappling with this “flipping the switch” idea when I was in an abusive marriage. I couldn’t understand why my ex was able to be emotionally abusive to me in marriage, and that I had to stay with him and try to work it out, even if it meant I had to be abused the rest of my life (according to my fundy church). But if it was a dating relationship or even just a friendship, he was in sin and I could kick him to the curb for mistreating me. Why did his behavior get a pass just because now he was my husband? A similar thing happened to my friend whose husband was verbally abusive. She told her family about it and they said, too bad, he’s your husband, just submit some more and that will fix it. But her nephew was verbally abusive to his parents (her brother), and they kicked him out of the house, and everyone applauded them.

    Took me a while, but I now believe that abuse ends a relationship. Marriage doesn’t matter when abuse is present; it’s a breaking of the covenant. When it comes to sex, marriage doesn’t matter either. Either you are respectful and loving when it comes to sex, or you’re not. Marriage vows don’t change that.