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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Thoughts on Christian Marriage Teachings, Part 1

“God needs to be the center of your marriage or it will fall apart.

“Marriage takes three to work well.”

“A good husband is one who helps his wife fall more in love with God than with him.”

“The most important thing in marriage is for both to have faith in God.”

“Without God, marriage cannot work well. We are two selfish to accomplish a good marriage on our own without his sanctification and redemption.”

“A husband must be completely surrendered to God in order for his wife to completely surrender to him.”

“The closer you move toward God, the closer you move toward each other.”

“God ordained marriage and God sustains marriage.”

If you look up “Christian marriage quotes”, you’ll find thousands of pages and tens of thousands of quotes like the ones above. Some of us don’t have to Google, these things were drilled into us from babyhood. We heard them from our parents, the pulpit, pre-marital pastoral counseling, Christian marriage books, our own wedding ceremonies, and marriage seminars and conferences.

The closest concept I can think of for this type of thinking is “ethnocentric thinking”. I know that’s not quite right, but I’m not sure there is a better word to describe this type of religious-centrism, or the idea that your perspective based on your religion is a universal truth, when in reality the world around you is a much bigger place with broader views that don’t follow your rules or operate within your paradigm.

I’d like to talk a little more thoughtfully about the idea that “having a relationship with God and God as the center” is not necessary for having a wonderful marriage and how dependence on this concept can be damaging. 

But first, a story. My story, and what led to the broadening of my own views on healthy marriage.

These teachings about having God at the center of your marriage, almost tanked my own marriage. Along with the erroneous teachings of Complementarianism, the idea that God had to be the center of my marriage, and all that entails, was disastrous for my marriage.

I came into marriage with a lot of funny ideas on what a Godly marriage was supposed to look like. I’d been raised a good little female homeschooler and read all the right books, including Created to Be HisHelpmeet. I knew that in order to have a godly marriage that lasts a lifetime, I had to learn submission to my husband, he had to be in tune with God in order to lead correctly, we had to both be in daily communication with God, prayer together daily, discuss our faith, be part of Bible studies that would encourage us in our personal faith and our godly marriage, and be sure to “keep God at the center” of our marriage. We could only love each other well if we loved God more. Every church we were part of reinforced these teachings. Every couple we talked to in the church declared them to be true.

But nothing worked out like it was supposed to. As my husband said to me just last night, “Doing marriage the Christian way almost killed our marriage”. The more I tried to respectfully get him to lead prayer with me, or to go to men’s retreats where he’d learn to be a more godly leader, the more he resisted and the more distant he got. He’d cave and go to a retreat where, in his words, “they’d spend the whole time telling us how we weren’t good enough men and needed to repent and get closer to God and we’d come home feeling both dejected and on a repentance high.” (He likes to refer to the emotional upswing that happens after a spiritual encounter as a “spiritual high”.) We had quite a few of those experiences in the first 5 years of trying to be a godly couple. There seemed to always be something to repent of, something we weren’t doing quite right, something we needed to do better in order to obtain what we were supposedly missing: connection with God and therefore each other and therefore God’s blessing on our marriage.

Somewhere along the line, we both gave up. We loved each other, had great chemistry, were committed for life. But we were tired. So tired of trying to fit into boxes we didn’t fit in. Trying to pursue the elusive spiritual connection that would finally help us obtain “godly marriage”. We never fought, we just disconnected. I was sure it was over because we never prayed together and he was sullen because I lived in fear that we’d messed up, that God wasn’t the center of our marriage, that we could never have what all those smiling couples on the marriage books had. And we were both miserable.

Giving up saved our marriage.

When we were both able to give up on expectations of each other and ourselves, expectations we were told came straight from God, we were finally able to see the people we were and the relationship we had. We were able to appreciate the uniqueness that was us instead of forcing something that wasn’t us and was killing our hearts and souls and relationship. We gave up the idea that either of us had to be close to God to be close to each other and started connecting based on who we were as people, not as Christians. We stopped sharing our personal faith journeys with each other in a forced “we have to share because it’s what we’re supposed to do” way, which was really me trying to pry his thoughts out of his head in order to feel some sort of spiritual connection to him. We stopped trying to model the male headship structure and decided that Egalitarianism was more true to who we were and made more sense for a healthy relationship between adults. I started to blossom as my own person, an independent individual, something I had never done before as a conservative homeschooled female. I no longer needed him to shape up spiritually in order to lead me. I didn’t need a leader, I needed a partner, a companion. He didn’t need me to be another child that needed leading, he needed and wanted a partner in life.

We stopped asking “what are we supposed to do? What are we supposed to get out of this relationship? How can we glorify God with our marriage?” and started asking “what do we want to do? What do we want from this relationship? How can we live a fulfilled, healthy life within our marriage?” We threw out the books, stopped going to conferences, and completely gave up any spiritual and religious aspect of our marriage. We didn’t talk about God with each other for *years* and just let the other person have their own faith and do whatever they liked with it. We stripped it all down to two people, madly in love, who like each other and want to do life together, and now what?

That was the first 5 years of our marriage. The last 5 years have been truly phenomenal. Real connection, mutual respect, freeing each other to be individuals, talking til 2 AM about everything and nothing, sexual fulfillment, laughter, partners in crime, best friends, each on our own spiritual journey and not threatened by the others’, doing life together in an easy, non-forced way. According to every sermon, every book, every conference, every meme and internet quote passed around Facebook, our marriage should be falling apart without God. But without God and the expectations that came with the idea of him, our marriage is thriving, as are many others in the same place as we are. I am sometimes angered by the fact that something that started out so good was almost destroyed because we submitted to teachings of men in the name of their god. I'll talk a little more about those teachings and the problems inherent in them in Part 2. 


  1. I'm going to come out and say that, as a man who is still in the Christian faith, married to a woman in the Christian faith, you are ABSOLUTELY correct.

    The last thing our marriage needed was a spiritual burden in addition to the normal ones that it has. I consciously chose to "despiritualize" (for lack of a better term) our marriage, because the expectations that you detail nearly derailed my own parents' relationship, and I knew that the last thing my wife needed (after her experience in a cult-like group) was more spiritual pressure. Do we talk about spiritual things? Sure. Like we talk about other things. When we want, and how we want. And we do not expect the other person to share or to perform. Ever.

    Furthermore, we have chosen to NEVER participate in a church-based marriage anything. EVER. Because I agree with you. There is nothing that the church is bringing to marriage right now that is helpful - and much that is damaging. I have never regretted this decision.

    If I were to give one bit of advice (and I occasionally have, when pressed), I would say that the two most vital practices to our marriage are: 1. Actually listen to each other. 2. Make sure the other is getting enough sleep. Particularly during the years with small children, because no amount of spiritualization will help the way a good nap will.

    1. You give excellent advice. Especially about sleep, lol. You know, your comment made me realize that we have talked more about spiritual matters in the past few months than in the past 10 years. Weird. I suppose though that honestly searching out our beliefs and working through them without any expectations is more conducive to discussion than what we've previously tried to do.

      And we always hated church-related marriage stuff. We'd get talked into doing something by friends and were always annoyed, disappointed, and flat-out angered by the advice encountered.

    2. It's interesting that the thing that kills a spiritual discussion more than anything is giving it an agenda. I remembered after making my previous comment that the premarital "counseling" done by the man who married us included the nice little Christianese statement that "you are marrying for the wrong reason unless your reason is to help your spouse become a better Christian." Sure, because there's nothing like a "spousal improvement project" to make a happy marriage, right? (We treated this particular counseling as something to be endured rather than as likely to be legitimately helpful. The secular-based counseling we did on our own initiative was much more useful. It confirmed, for example, that my wife is further to the "masculine" side on certain measures than I am - an insight that has really helped us through the years.)

      So, as you note, you really end up having more discussion when you aren't trying to "fix" or "improve" the other. But, maybe marriage isn't meant to be that, anyway. Maybe we are to be each other's companion on the journey and help each other with life's burdens.

  2. I found your blog through homeschooler's anonymous and this post made me want to stand up and cheer. You are so dead on. I grew up in a stereotypical, conservative homeschool family with all the usual beliefs. My mom was forever grieving my dad's lack of spiritual leadership which prohibited her from submitting to the level she felt she should.
    I heard these sorts of sermons and comments all my life (don't forget the pyramid illustration that shows just how impossible it is to be close to one another without first being close to God.) I always agreed with them in that casual way you agree with cultural beliefs you have never thought through for yourself. Then I met my husband and fell in love and while he was a Christian he was not part of the home school-y group of Christianity I grew up with. Being married quickly showed me that all of those spiritual sounding cliches and vague "rules" of a Christian marriage were in a practical sense either completely meaningless (spiritual leader? What even is that?) Or counter productive (complementarinism). Having a great marriage (granted I'm only 5 years in, but great so far) isn't as complicated as Christians make it sound. It really comes down to mutual respect, trust, and making an effort now and then.

    1. Ah yes, the pyramid, in which we must always be sure to have a three-way with the Almighty. LOL

  3. In a marriage for 25 years. I left these teachings behind, my husband hasn't. You are totally correct. Run, run like the wind from any of this stuff.

    1. That's so difficult. :/ I'm glad you got out though.

  4. Love this! It's bizarre reading your story because it sounds so identical to mine. I always felt all this pressure to perform and frustration with my husband's "lack of spiritual leadership". Luckily we crashed and burned in a year, thank god (lol to the spiritual reference) and it's been so much better!

    I always felt like the teachings I grew up hearing was bullshit since my father left my mom and was abusive so based on the teachings I grew up hearing I was bound to be "screwed up" since there was no spiritual leader in my home, even ppl in the church talked about me. Anytime I did anything remotely close to wrong they'd judge and remind me that if I had a dad around I'd be better; and I was a goody two shoes! I'm so glad I'm done trying so hard and I'm just myself :)