two rings together in the rain
Reading Time: 10 minutes (Zoriana Stakhniv.)
Reading Time: 10 minutes

As we hurtle our way into the umpteenth week of quarantine and isolation, people cope with it however they can. However, one group seems to be coping with it very poorly. I’m talking about married evangelicals, and I seriously don’t think they’re okay. People don’t know the grim reality of evangelicals’ marriages, much less why this whole pandemic situation is tearing apart the already-shaky foundation of those marriages. So today, let me show you why evangelical marriages face challenges right out of the gate — and why lately, their facade is crashing right down to the ground.

two rings together in the rain
(Zoriana Stakhniv.)

(Some related posts about marriage in evangelicalism: More Terrible Christian Marriage Advice; Josh Harris is Kissing His Marriage Goodbye; The Worst Advice Biff Got; The Kodak Marriage; Achieving a Happy Family; Mark Driscoll’s Earth-Shattering Marriage Advice; How Fundagelicals Think Non-Christians’ Marriages Work; How Fundagelicals Imagine ‘Soulmates’ Work; The One Pillar (Ain’t Jesus); That Awful Love/Life Seminar I Attended; Fundagelicals Are In Fact the Biggest Threat to Traditional Marriage; The Heartbreak of the Second Fiddle.)

Are the Straights OK?

One of the most eye-opening subreddits on Reddit is “Are the Straights OK?” In it, members of the LGBT+ community marvel over how much straight people seem to despise marriage as a concept and their partners in particular. Their self-description: “Is someone holding these poor souls hostage and forcing them to be together?” Members marvel at just how bad married couples seem to be doing these days.

Here’s the current top entry in the subreddit:

everyone's getting divorced after quarantine

When the quarantine first started, the sub’s moderators had to specifically ask members to please quit sharing posts from men “discovering” their wives’ presence for the first time. That was a hoot.

The posters providing these quotes — like the one who gave us the above “Divorce Court” image — often tell us the images come from the social-media feeds of Christians, especially the sort who still condemn equal marriage.

I can easily imagine that, because hey, I was evangelical myself once and I know exactly what marriage is like in that world. It’s really awful, and I think things are only deteriorating further with the isolation orders in effect.

Had social media existed when I was married to Biff, I’ve no doubt we both would have been saying, sharing, and doing exactly the same things as the couples in these images. In that world, marriage was a living hell — and it came with a lot of baggage.

Back in my day, evangelical spouses pretended to be happier and better-adjusted than “worldly” spouses, but behind closed doors, reality looked very, very different.

A Gothic Horror Story.

It starts innocuously, like most Gothic horror stories do.

From the first moments they can understand the words being used, evangelicals get sold a bill of goods about how relationships work and what they should expect from marriage.

On the one side, women get told that if they just Jesus really hard and cultivate certain qualities (meekness, obedience, etc), then they’ll find great husbands who’ll provide for them and cherish them forever.

On the other, men get told about the qualities they need to cultivate (religiosity, machismo, stoicism, assertiveness, etc), and assured that if they marry women with the correlating attributes then they’ll be adored and cherished forever.

In practice, this hunt generally concludes with men marrying the youngest and prettiest woman who’ll have them.

But neither spouse learns anything about consent, healthy boundaries, or communication. Often, they barely even know themselves, much less each other.

Worse, though, is this: both spouses probably grew up in authoritarian families. Thus, their life goal is to dominate whoever else they can. Whoever dies with the most personal power and leisure time wins!

Everyone else in their world is an opponent in this game. And that most definitely includes their spouses.

The Game Was Rigged From the Start.

YouTube video

“Sorry you got twisted up in this scene. From where you’re kneeling, it must seem like an 18-karat run of bad luck. Truth is, the game was rigged from the start.”

The nitwits at The Gospel Coalition blame Satan for “tempting us to frantically grasp for control over each other.” I guess it’s easier to invoke imaginary boogeymen than to question the game their tribe has set up for couples to play.

See, neither spouse in an evangelical marriage really wants a mutually-satisfying relationship. What they want is maximized leisure time and personal power — even (and maybe especially) if it comes at the expense of the person they married. Men in that culture are much better-positioned to win the game, but women definitely play too — and often, they win over their husbands.

Once a married evangelical realizes what the game is and what the stakes are, resentment sets in. The couple starts sniping at each other, each taking passive-aggressive potshots at every opportunity. I’m cringing right now, physically cringing, to remember my experiences there. I don’t mean just my experiences with Biff, though I’m sure people found us excruciating when we got going.

No, I also mean all the evangelical couples I knew, who were all playing the same rigged game we were.

From the very start, from the very beginning of their association, evangelical couples wrestle for control over each other.

Playing the Game.

This was their thirty-third spat of the day–this was long after spats–and he was behind, thirteen to twenty, but he had made up a lot of distance since lunch, when it was seventeen to two against him.

— The Princess Bride

Looking back at my Christian days, I can only remember like two or maybe three couples who seemed genuinely happy together. Two couples were still newlyweds. The third was a very elderly pair from Ireland.

I did not number myself among these happy couples.

Every other couple seemed locked in the game I’ve described. All of them sought any opportunity to score points against their spouses, often through passive-aggressive “jokes.”

Women “joked” about what immature man-babies their husbands were, how they demanded sex without a care for their wives’ needs and feelings, how they misused money and authority, how lazy they were, all the tricks they played to avoid doing their share of anything (chores, emotional connection, you name it).

Men “joked” about their wives starting arguments and having to be right all the time, demanding their money and time, throwing fits and refusing to have sex, putting the children before them, and always whining about all the stuff the husbands hadn’t done that they’d promised to do.

Everyone acted this way. People from other churches, even other denominations, made the same “jokes.” Even women married to pastors and evangelists weren’t safe. From the safety of the pulpit, their husbands constantly lobbed emotional grenades their way.

Yes, this sounds exactly like an omnibenevolent god’s plan for marriage. Deffo. Fer shurrrr.

The Big Problem Here, Obviously.

Evangelical men, of course, have spent time thinking with their big strong manly man-brains about what The Big Problem Here might be. And one group has figured it out! They’ve cracked the code!

Yes! Are husbands really “assholes,” the Good Men Project asks, or is The Big Problem Here really just their mean, ungrateful wives? Gosh, it’s a stumper for sure! They ask:

Why do some men report that even the attempt to be a good husband is a soul-crushing experience?

I wonder too! Gosh, it’s so hard to be a complementarian tin-pot dictator when one’s paid live-in bang mommy doesn’t want to cooperate. Maybe it wouldn’t be so “soul-crushing” to be married if these men questioned, really questioned the paradigm they’ve adopted as their life-model.

They can’t, though. Changing anything would require them to give up what little power and leisure time they have now, and oh, they worked so hard for just that little bit they still have. They’ll die clutching it to their big manly man-chests. If they stopped playing now, they fear their wives would destroy them.

And in evangelical terms, they’d be right to fear that.

In their world, kindness translates to weakness. Weakness is nothing but an invitation to attack. It’s blood in the waters of a very shark-infested sea. Spouses navigate that sea with a speargun always in hand.

Another Christian Claim Blown Out of the Water.

Evangelicals often claim that their marriages are stronger and happier than those of non-Christians and non-evangelicals. They claim that the complementarian structure they idolize creates strong and lasting marriages, while a more egalitarian structure destroys the bonds of love. Feminism? OMG! Might as well pre-plan your divorce, layyydeeeez!

However, their divorce rates tell us the truth.

Evangelicals divorce more than people of other religious persuasions. Just living in an evangelical-dominated area can increase a couple’s chance of divorcing. Evangelical leaders have railed against the scandal of divorce in their ranks for years without any marked success at lowering the rate at which it occurs. (One idly wonders how much worse that rate would be if evangelicals weren’t constantly screeching against it.)

And now American society has been turned upside-down.

The Usual Tidal Wave of Bad Advice.

I’ve seen a glut of Christian leaders writing worried-sounding blog posts (like this one and this one) about keeping one’s marriage intact during the pandemic and its associated lockdowns. Focus on the Family flat-out demanded: “Don’t Divorce Because of the Coronavirus Quarantine.”

I don’t think those cautions, demands, and words of advice will help much. The “Divorce Court” image I posted near the beginning of today’s post may well be evangelicals’ reality once things settle down.

In all the Christian advice posts I’ve seen so far, these leaders’ suggestions can’t work for spouses locked into the dominance game. You can’t follow this advice and play the game at the same time.

So these leaders will only hurry along the earth-shattering fights evangelical couples have that will, guaranteed, get spouses thinking about divorce.

The Only Moral Divorce Is Their Divorce.

A while ago, I wrote about how complementarians despise no-fault divorce. But plenty of them sound grateful for these laws nowadays.

Heck, even the so-called self-proclaimed “Activist Mommy,” evangelical hardliner Elizabeth Johnston, announced a month ago that she had decided to divorce her husband. In that announcement, she described him as “repeatedly unfaithful” as well as “psychologically and emotionally abusive.”

Good thing women like Johnston can access divorce, despite her tribe’s vehement opposition to it! I’m not mad, of course; I’m glad that she can escape what sounds like a terrible situation, and also I’m glad that her tribe couldn’t stop her. I just hope she remembers her difficulties and her escape when she decides to resume giving advice about How to Marriage the Jesus Way.

Her impending divorce just reminds us anew that evangelicals can’t live according to their own rules, which is why a secular government had to provide people with an escape from the horrific relationships that result from people trying to live according to unworkable rules.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.

For years, the Christians bellowing the loudest about “God’s Plan for Marriage” have ignored their own teachings whenever their rules become inconvenient to themselves. A long time ago, one of them wrote a book about it, now a classic: The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Don’t Christians Live What They Preach? (The title riffs that of an earlier book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.)

This lengthy review of it contains nothing that will be new to regulars here; we’ve often discussed the sorry state of evangelical marriage.

But it’s eye-opening to see it all in one place, even for me. This bit stood out to me:

If Christians do not live what they preach, the whole thing is a farce. “American Christianity has largely failed since the middle of the twentieth century,” Barna concludes, “because Jesus’ modern-day disciples do not act like Jesus.”

It’s so weird when Christians get one thing absolutely correct, and then veer totally off-course in interpreting that thing — as happens here.

I mean, yes, I do totally agree that American Christianity has gone straight down the toilet since the 1950s-ish. Yes. It has. No doubt.

But I don’t think that happened because American Christians “do not act like Jesus.” They never did. No, something else happened to cause that dramatic drop in credibility.

The Culture-War Model of Christianity.

I think American Christianity began to fall apart in the 1950s because Christian leaders stopped being able to force their flocks — and everyone else for that matter — to follow their rules.

Starting in the 1950s, Christian leaders lost control of the people they’d once dominated with iron fists. They lost their stranglehold of American culture. And they’ve been trying to get back that control ever since.

To get back that lost power, they began waging culture wars — instigating moral panics, then ginning up the anger, rage, and fear of their flocks to fight these imaginary wars against very real people.

The leaders starting those moral panics and culture wars idolized the culture and mores of the late 1940s/early 1950s. They ached to return to the time before all those big cultural changes, before feminism, before hippies and the New Age and free love, before everyone realized just how racist evangelicals truly are, before heretic Christians began to push back against evangelicals…

And it all stumbled along, more or less okay, until very recently.

The Mayberry Marriage.

Evangelicals want Mayberry. They want Leave It to Beaver marriages, women in pearl necklaces vacuuming in high heels, homemade bread every day, a pack of sweet, obedient children, dogs, picket fences, and the whole nine yards.

But real people don’t operate well under the contrived, made-up rules evangelical men made up to get themselves that fantasy. These rules don’t even work well for those evangelical men! When people try to live this way, institutionalized injustices cause resentment. That resentment boils up on both sides before exploding outward to scald the spouses and anybody else within hitting distance, and the injuries caused and sustained just never get healed.

Being in close quarters will only bring out all the cracks in the foundation of all the various facades evangelicals hide behind. Marriage represents only one of those facades, but in my opinion it’s one of the biggest ones.

Just You Watch.

In a year, we’ll be seeing the first peer-reviewed papers analyzing WTF happened with the right-wing Christian divorce rate. We could tell them already what the problem is:

The straight bigots-for-Jesus are not OK. And they never have been.

And yes, I think that the way evangelical couples behave toward each other in these days will eventually become a sort of anti-witness for their tribe. We’ll remember it. And it will hurt their sales. Maybe that’s why their Dear Leaders hammer harder than ever at the necessity of the flocks keeping their marriages together.

It won’t work, but hey, what else they gonna do? Make meaningful changes to the game now?

Ha! Never! To be evangelical is to live in mortal fear of change. Don’t hold your breath there.

NEXT UP: LSP! Then, we explore some more news about evangelical churn rates. See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...