Christian marriage books should not harm people.
That seems to me to be a no-brainer, but often in discussions about books that I believe spread a toxic teaching, people will say something like:
Well, I got a lot of out of it. I didn’t agree with all of it, and I can see how it can be harmful for certain people, but it’s helped a lot, too.
I’d like to address this line of thinking today.
Christian marriage books can be harmful in one of two ways: They can spread teaching that is toxic, or they can give advice which would be harmful for people in certain situations without warning.
Let’s take them one at a time.
Christian marriage books should not share toxic teaching
As I’ve talked about on the blog at length, Love & Respect’s teaching on sex is toxic. It frames sex as only being about a man’s sexual release; does not address women’s pleasure whatsoever; and talks about sex as something that a woman owes a man, rather than as a vehicle to intimacy and greater oneness.
Why is this toxic? It spreads a lie about sex to both men and women, similar to what I was talking about on my first Start Your Engines podcast for men. It tells us that sex is only about men, which can cause a man to ignore his wife’s sexuality, and can cause women to believe that they don’t have sexual needs or that they’re not sexual beings.
There’s a whole lot more wrong, but that’s it in a nutshell.
Here’s another example: The Every Man’s Battle series is also toxic teaching, because it frames lust as a problem which all men have and which men can’t really defeat (they have to go through life bouncing their eyes, rather than treating women as whole people). The tactics that it describes for getting over lust don’t work, but they also reinforce the same view of women that porn does: by always talking about avoiding women, it objectifies women and sees them merely as sexual objects, and not as people. That, too, is toxic.
However, we don’t always realize that these things are toxic because they’re so widespread in the Christian community (something which I’m doing my darndest to fight against). Pastors tend to talk about how one of the main reasons for having sex is so that the man isn’t tempted to watch pornography or have an affair. We start thinking that this is normal. But teaching this normalizes men’s sexual sin and kills a woman’s libido, because she hears that he doesn’t want HER, he only wants sex. And if she doesn’t give it, he’ll betray her. This harms a woman’s soul. And yet, because it’s so prevalent, we often don’t even see the harm in it.
Here’s a much better post on how to talk about men’s sexual needs in a healthy way, which acknowledges BOTH spouse’s experiences and needs.
Christian marriage books should not harm people and definitely should not harm a marriage.
Like this post so far? You should also check out:
Christian marriage books give advice that can be toxic
Then there’s the other way that Christian marriage books can harm: they can give advice which may work for marriages where both people have goodwill towards one another. However, that same advice, if used by someone married to a spouse with deep character flaws, will only make their marriage worse. There is no one-size-fits-all marriage advice, and yet many books portray their method as being the one thing that, if you just do it right, will save every marriage.
This was my point when I looked at the topic of unconditional respect in Love & Respect. If you’re married to a good guy, then the book likely wouldn’t harm. But if a woman is married to a selfish person; a lazy person; a man who watches porn or is an alcoholic or a workaholic or any other vice, it’s going to make her marriage worse. It tells her that to confront him or draw boundaries is disrespectful, and that if he’s not acting properly, it’s her fault for not being respectful enough.
Church, this should matter to us.
If a book is harming people, even if it didn’t harm you, it should matter. As Jesus said,
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
It is those in difficult marriages who tend to buy Christian marriage books, so how these books handle these issues is of grave importance, because it is these vulnerable people who will bear the brunt if something goes wrong.
But if there’s no one-size-fits-all marriage advice, then wouldn’t all books be guilty of this?
Well, actually, no. Here’s why: though no book can cover advice for all situations, and though most books are meant for “normal” marriages where both spouses have goodwill, what all books should do is help people recognize when their situation is NOT normal, and then point them to other resources.
For instance, in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, I was sharing in my “being one is more important than being right” section about how sharing your emotional needs can help reframe a conflict and help you brainstorm to find a new resolution and overcome a stalemate. And I showed how this practically could work. However, I also spent a few pages showing that certain needs are NOT legitimate, and then told readers that if their marriage was facing this, they needed to get help.
I helped people see when their marriage was in danger, and when they didn’t need advice for resolving conflict, but they needed much deeper intervention.
Giving general caveats about abuse is not enough
I see this in marriage books quite a bit–the book will say something like, “Now, of course, if you’re being abused, please remove yourself from this situation and call the police.” Love & Respect even does that! Created To Be His Helpmeet even did this. I think just about every book I’ve read does that. But here’s the problem: You can’t give that caveat, but then at the same time give anecdotes of people who are obviously in that situation, but not label those things as abusive.
In Created To Be His Helpmeet, for instance, Debi Pearl says that you should call the police for abuse. But then she gives an anecdote of a husband threatening his pregnant wife with a kitchen knife, and her advice to the wife was to figure out how she had provoked him and stop nagging. Here’s a situation which is obviously abusive, but Pearl does not call it that or treat it like abuse.
In Eggerichs’ case, on the very same page that he tells people to call the police for abuse, he gives an example of a physically abusive husband who repents and is allowed back in the home (ignoring the love bombing cycle), and then talks about how it’s now up to the wife to not react to his anger and provoke fights.
Here’s an analogy: Think about how drug companies handle warnings
Drug companies are required to warn you: “This drug is not meant for people with these conditions.”
What would we think, though, if a drug company said, “This drug is not meant for people with asthma”, but then went on to tell a story about a woman who was having real shortness of breath, and who felt her chest tightening, and who often had trouble catching her breath when it was cold or after exercising, but she used the drug and it was amazing!
Well, you might assume that if you have shortness of breath, and if you have chest tightening, and if you cough a lot after exercise or when it’s cold, then you must not have asthma. You must have something else. And maybe this drug would work!
That’s what going on with too many Christian marriage books.
They’re saying they’re not meant to be used in abusive situations, but then they’re describing abusive situations without naming them as such.
This normalizes abuse. It makes people think that the word “abuse” can only mean something absolutely so horrible that it couldn’t possibly apply to me. After all, a man coming at me with a kitchen knife isn’t abuse. A man who reacts in anger to everything I do isn’t abusive. A man who can’t handle any confrontation at all without getting angry isn’t abusive.
When people brought this to Focus on the Family’s attention about Love & Respect, for instance, they started sending out a form letter, essentially saying that Love & Respect is not meant for people in bad marriages. (You can see that letter here, and I’ll be sharing my response tomorrow).
However, Love & Respect explicitly says in the introduction that his method has helped abusive marriages and marriages with affairs fix themselves. He gives examples in the book of husbands who are addicted to pornography; drinking; straying; and are abusive. As I asked Focus on the Family on Twitter, if adultery, porn use, alcoholism, and abuse do not constitute bad marriages, what, exactly, does?
Do you believe that alcoholism, abuse, porn addiction, & cheating are symptoms of healthy marriages that need fine-tuning? Please clear up this misunderstanding. People listen to your recommendations. Please honor women & stop hurting them like this.— SheilaGregoire (@sheilagregoire) August 21, 2019
A Christian marriage book should not harm a marriage. If it does, it’s not a good book to recommend.
Just because a book helped your marriage does not mean that it’s a good book if it also harms other marriages. We should approach Christian marriage books the same way drug companies do. We should expect warnings that are consistent.
The question I ask myself when I read a book is this:
If a woman with an abusive husband, a husband who won’t get a job, or a husband who is addicted to porn is reading this book, what would she think? If a husband with an emotionally abusive wife, with a wife who has cut him off of sex, or with a wife who is engaged in some major sin were reading this book, what would he think?
If the book does not allow readers to recognize, “there’s something wrong with my marriage, and this isn’t normal”, then that book isn’t safe.
If the book gives anecdotes of people in these horrible situations simply being “nicer” or praying harder, without saying that this is not the norm, and that these people should seek help, then the book is placing the responsibility for fixing a spouse’s deep flaws and sins on the innocent party. That’s wrong.
Now, to be healthy a book doesn’t have to show people how to solve those big problems–no book can address every eventuality. But a book should allow people in bad situations to see, “what I am experiencing goes beyond normal and is actually toxic.”
I don’t think that’s too much to ask.
So I think we should stop saying, “Well, I know the book has hurt some, but it really helped me, so I think it’s still a good book,” and start demanding more from our Christian resources. Frankly, I think the publishing world has not served marriage well in the Christian world. There’s far too many toxic books out there. But this will not end until all of us stop buying harmful books, stop recommending them, stop saying nothing when our churches do yet another small group study or marriage day based on a bad book.
Speak up. Demand more. It matters–maybe not for you personally, but certainly for those who are hurting in your midst.
What do you think? How can we get more helpful resources in our churches? Let’s talk in the comments!