Hi gang! Hope your Valentine’s Day was fun. Last time we talked, I shared Five Things Christianity Gets Wrong About Love. I had to un-learn those things after deconversion. Today, I want to talk about two things that my religious leaders were right about concerning love. But their other teachings rendered it impossible for believers to put these two good teachings into practice. Let me show you what they are, and why Christians can’t actually practice them.
Truth 1: Love is an Action Word.
The one thing I think my church taught that I didn’t hear much elsewhere was that love was something people should do, not just something they say. Loving deeds go a long way toward keeping the fires of passion stoked; little thoughtful gestures can add up very quickly.
It’s bizarre for me to consider how poorly Christians, especially the Christian men I’ve known, seem to take this teaching to heart when it’s one of the very few relationship ideas they have that work, and how often leaders have to tell Christians–who, remember, think they have a monopoly on love–to behave in loving ways to their own spouses.
Every single man I’ve ever been with since deconverting has remarked upon how well I demonstrate my love for them through my behavior and words, while the one partner who was indoctrinated in the same way I was didn’t appreciate it at all and took me completely for granted. To me, these gestures are just part of how I relate, but they’ve all acted like I’m some rare and precious gemstone they ran across while on a nature hike one day. (Not that I mind.)
I wish that Christians cared more about showing their love in ways that feel actually loving toward others. They’re so panicky about appearing to “condone sin” that they’ve entirely lost their ability to do all that love stuff they clearly find boring or irritating.
Truth 2: Couples Should Work Together.
When I was Christian, I bought into the idea of the Happy Christian Marriage. This illusion can be idyllic and seductive, especially to someone like me who came from a really fractured, conflict-rich home environment. Just imagine: Jesus Power inhabits both partners and makes them desire to fulfill their “god-given” roles in marriage. As the husband works to provide and lead the family, the wife works to make their home happy and welcoming and their children properly raised. Both spouses work together in their different spheres, coming together to make a harmonious and fulfilling whole. And this harmony can only happen if both spouses know their roles and perform their tasks wholeheartedly and without reservations. If one partner suffers, then they both suffer because they are “one flesh.” Just as you wouldn’t hurt your own hand, you would never want to hurt your spouse.
It’s a beautiful illusion if you’re into that kind of thing (now I find it unhealthy, but to each their own), but it’s only an illusion for the vast majority of Christian couples. The few people it works for are paraded around like show-dogs to dazzle the eyes of all the other spouses who are struggling to put their indoctrination into practice.
The idea of both partners wholeheartedly working together is one that I’ve kept with me. It’s not a bad ideal, just one that is all but impossible to put into practice in the misogynistic framework of Christianity.
I take pride in working with my partner rather than against him. He can trust me not to spend our shared money without talking to him first, or to make unreasonable demands upon him. I can trust him to have my back and not take advantage of me. Instead of arguing, we discuss. Instead of giving each other the silent treatment, we work out our problems when we notice something’s wrong. We both think of each other and remember each other in ways both large and small.
I do this without enmeshing in an unhealthy way. We’re not halves of a whole; we’re two wholes coming together. If someone needs alone-time, it’s not a personal insult. And we’re both big kids so we can fight our own battles and get our own needs met if the other person is busy with something else.
Does it work? Stunningly, I’d reckon, going by how every single partner I’ve ever had since rejecting my indoctrination has made a point of telling me that he’s never had a partner he could trust before, one who pulled her own weight and supported him emotionally, who didn’t make unreasonable demands, or make him doubt himself. This is stuff I was always doing, I just didn’t have partners who appreciated it or were able to shine it back to me.
You can probably guess that I find it absolutely hilarious when Christians (almost always men!) tell me that my husband must be miserable. Yeah, he’s over in the corner right now crying himself to sleep, totally. They called it. Poor guy.
It’s a Shame Christians Can’t Seem to Put Their Few Good Ideas Into Practice.
Christians might learn these things and even parrot them on command, but they’re definitely not consistently doing them.
Google “how should a Christian man treat his wife”. You’ll get tons of hits like this one that starts off by retelling a story about a man who purchases a wife with livestock as an example of the ideal love that he thinks should exist between a man and woman. The author of that page is only one of a vast many that all say the same things: Be respectful. Try not to abuse your power over your wife. Communicate often and deeply. Don’t take her for granted. The list just goes on and on and on, all full of stuff that really should be on the level of “don’t stick forks in the electrical outlets” to people who think they are infilled, inhabited, and possessed by a god of love.
And still we hear horror story after horror story of women who are hurt, victimized, and abused by their oh-so-Christian mates. I didn’t know a single fundagelical man when I was Christian who didn’t have serious problems with anger–and I still run into tons of Christian men today who turn into bellowing, chest-thumping barbarians when they start feeling challenged.1
The more right-wing the denomination or group, the less able it is to follow its own advice about relationships, and the worse the abuses seem to be and the less the group is capable of reining in its abusive members or recognizing that abuse is even taking place. The more right-wing the Christian man, the less happy his marriage looks–and if he’s not married, the more obvious the reason for his single status becomes. By the same token, when I hear a very right-wing Christian wife gloating about how wonderful her marriage is, I flat-out don’t believe her. I don’t think love–real love, the kind even Christians yearn for–can exist in such swampy ground.
Neither Good Idea Is Unique to Christianity, Of Course.
These two lessons are things I could have learned without having had to endure all the other wrong lessons I absorbed, and without having to waste the time, money, and emotional energy I spent on Christianity.
Both of those ideals are ones that flow out of compassion, empathy, and respect. I don’t need a marriage manual or a religion to tell me how to conduct myself in a marriage, or a minister to preach at me about it. I respect and love my husband, so I behave in ways that show him that and avoid doing stuff that wouldn’t be loving or respectful. He does the same. It’s amazing how well that works out.
I’ve met plenty of people who’ve never tangled with Christianity who still figured out these ideals and put them into practice, and plenty more Christians who were very indoctrinated but couldn’t practice their own ideals. As usual, the religion is totally superfluous to becoming and being a good person.
Christianity Might Even Hinder Spouses Who Have Good Intentions.
Unless both people are sincerely committed to working together and actively demonstrating love, the results will be searing resentment on the side of the person who is doing everything right but not seeing the other return their effort. I simply don’t think Christianity is set up to teach its adherents the worldview that leads to both partners thinking of reciprocation as important, and there’s a reason for that.
Because the religion is based around uneven power structures and hierarchical thinking, relationships can easily devolve into pissing matches as each partner jockeys for what they need at the expense of the other person. Usually it’s the wife who finds herself facing the short end of the stick; I wasn’t the only woman who discovers that she’s struck an age-old and terrible bargain. When she realizes what she’s signed up for, she’ll have no way of addressing this systemic injustice. All she can do at that point is fight within the rules she thinks bind her life.
Christian leaders admonish Christians (wives especially!) to perform their roles even though they don’t see any reciprocation. Apologetics website Covenant Eyes advises Christians that it’s actually a sin to expect anything like that from their spouses. Why, it isn’t even really love at all to expect one’s partner to reciprocate! That’s how the world does marriage, not how Jesus does it! Spouses should give up all expectation of returned love and effort, and instead just pray a lot. Once they’ve figured out how to get their primary need for love filled by talking to the ceiling, then everything will be totally fine. Right?
So basically, married Christians should lower their expectations to the point where they can’t help but be met.
(What a dismal, depressing, and hostile view of marriage. If that kind of relationship is a mirror of what they think “Christ and the church” looks like, I’m nothing but glad to be out of their tribe.)
Christian leaders are teaching spouses that it’s okay to grow apart as long as they talk a lot to their imaginary friend. And what is the spouse of this person going to be doing while all this praying is going on? Growing further and further away, that’s what. But both spouses will blame themselves when the marriage fails, rather than the marriage advice, so their leaders sure don’t care about the damage they are doing; the checks will keep flowing and the butts will stay parked in pews. Divorce isn’t a great crime in almost all Christian churches, so spouses who find they can’t make the advice work can decide they heard “God’s” will wrong and can break up to find the person their god “really” wants them to marry, at which point the ride begins again–same advice, same paradigm, same worldview, and unfortunately the same results.
When one partner privileges their free time, recreation, enjoyment, sexual satisfaction, or opinion over their partner’s own, then that person is going to be able to rationalize doing all kinds of shady, dishonest things in order to get what they feel they’re entitled to have. The goal isn’t to build a life together with another person; it’s to find someone who will cooperate, even if grudgingly, with their spoken and unspoken demands. The goal becomes to take advantage of the other spouse so they can do as little of the unpleasant stuff as possible to get to the fun stuff they really want. When I was Christian, “compromise” in a relationship meant to endure whatever awful stuff our spouses wanted, with the understanding that later our spouses would have to endure something we wanted in turn–like a pair of small children in a slap-fight! Biff was really good at making me endure stuff I hated, but he always found a way to avoid enduring the stuff I wanted from him later–and I saw, and see, a lot of Christian marriages in the same boat.
The spouse being taken advantage of in the marriage learns quickly to grab for what they need, to always be on the lookout for unfairness and shadiness from the other person, and to distrust the spouse completely, with the result being blazing resentment. Talking to the ceiling and trying to make a totally one-sided “relationship” with an invisible person who never reciprocates either isn’t going to fix a real-world relationship conflict, and telling Christians that the solution is to stop wanting a fully-committed mate in the first place and that they are wrong even to want such a marriage in the first place is a guarantee of future relationship failure.
But just think what might happen if one of them dares to wonder if the worldview itself is the problem, not how they’re living it.
Oh, The Dramatic Difference One Paradigm Shift Makes!
Considering the irresponsible advice they’re getting (and worse, following), the real surprise is that some Christians stay together, not that so many of them divorce. Now that I’ve discarded the idea that misogyny is some kind of bonus plan and embraced egalitarianism in relationships, I’m so much happier that if I could tell my past self what life is like now, I wouldn’t believe me any more than my current self believes fundagelical women talking about their marriages.
Back when I was Christian, that kind of mature give-and-take that I now consider indispensable in a relationship would have been completely unthinkable. We’d have called such a marriage chaotic and mocked the spouses in it. We’d have felt sorry for the henpecked husbands in them, and angry at the meaniepie feminist wives who were undoubtedly responsible for that couple’s sorry state. We’d have wondered who was in charge and how such a couple ever worked out what to do when they both wanted something totally different when nobody had that penis-derived trump card and veto. We’d have gloated about our Happy Christian Marriages and offered ourselves as an example of how to do marriage correctly.
And almost all of us would have been outright lying–or, as the Christianese puts it, “speaking truth to power” in hopes that maybe our god would make our words come true if we just acted like they already were.
Those two things I’ve mentioned–showing love in active ways, and working together as a committed couple–simply weren’t ideas that worked within an unequal paradigm. There wasn’t a way for me, or really most people in my religion, to put these good ideas into practice without getting taken advantage of and used unfairly. When the whole religion is based around gaining and keeping power at the expense of everyone else, someone is always going to be the dominant person–and that person isn’t going to willingly give up their power for any reason.
Since discarding the idea of complementarianism,2 I can take the two good things I learned while Christian and apply them in ways that actually work–ways that Christianity simply can’t manage while hobbled by its worldview.
Christianity’s ideas about marriage are one of its ideological claims, a concept that we’re on track to examine in more detail later this week. We’ll also be talking about why Christians seem to think non-Christians are idiots, and warning signs I look for when thinking about joining a group. (Talk about having a lot on one’s plate!) See you Thursday!
1 I once outed a troll on YouTube because he wasn’t misogynistic enough. He said all the right things in our comment argument, but he didn’t act condescending and belittling enough to be a true-blue fundagelical. When I called him out as a troll, he laughed and admitted I was right. The world’s got more than enough angry fundagelical misogynists in it, so I hope he didn’t decide to hone his act with that new information. (Back to the post!)
2 Complementarianism is the right-wing Christian relabeling of misogyny to make it sound more Jesus-y. Men and women are spiritually equal but have totally different earthly roles that “God” has set up for them. It’s not men’s fault that “God” decided men should be totally and completely in charge of everything and that women should do all the work around the house and serve men hand and foot! It’s just orders from the top! Women should be grateful they don’t have to do any of that hard ickie stuff like ruling, deciding, and providing. They’d just hate it, and let’s face it, they’d probably do it wrong anyway. Right? /s (Back to the post!)
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(Cas tidied up this post a bit on February 14, 2019.)