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A social experiment is technically just an experiment run on people, to study how groups relate and react to things. The term is also used more informally to mean a poorly-thought-out, self-serving conceit that gets pushed onto an unwitting and unknowing group to enact. Typically the idea is that the conceit in question will succeed despite there being no evidence whatsoever backing it up.

Today we’re going to talk about one of Christianity’s biggest social experiments: its conceptualization of the perfect husband and wife.

The Courtship
The Courtship (Photo credit: Ephemeral Scraps). Yeah, I’ve had that evening.

I can see why Christian leaders are desperate to find some way of making marriages bulletproof. The Bible is pretty explicit about not liking divorce in almost all circumstances. Picking a marriage partner is touted as the end-all be-all most important decision Christians can make. After all, each and every Christian had some completely unique part in our god’s great, ineffable plan, and it’d be tough to hit our goals if we didn’t have the correct partner at our sides. It might even be completely impossible. So we had to pick very carefully indeed.

Just as our roles in our god’s plan were divinely-mandated and so unique that only we could possibly fulfill those roles, our marriages were divinely-mandated and only one was the “perfect” one our god had designed. When I was a Christian, I learned that our god had personally selected our mates for us from the very beginning of time–and would ensure we all met those mates during our lifetimes so we could fulfill his plans for our lives; I see that teaching continuing even today, as we’re about to see.

Christians genuinely believe that if someone marries the “right” person–the person their god personally hand-picked for them eons and eons ago–then obviously they’ll never need to divorce, because only imperfect failed marriages end that way. Obviously a perfect god wouldn’t pick a mate who wasn’t going to be perfect for his precious little angel-babies. So we end up with a perniciously self-fulfilling prophecy in a way, don’t we? If the marriage seems to be going poorly, that obviously means that this person wasn’t really the Christian’s perfect mate chosen by a divine hand–which means the real mate is out there somewhere, wondering where his or her divinely-chosen mate is.

The problem, of course, is how to identify this divinely-chosen mate.

You’d think it’d be super-easy to identify someone that important to one’s life goals. I mean, if a god had chosen one particular person for his precious child and that person was that supremely important to his child’s goals, you’d kind of think that god would be better at communicating something that important, wouldn’t you? But no, it’s insanely difficult. Christians generally rely upon gut feelings after some unspecified amount of prayer, excepting the weird “courtship” fundies who let move the task of praying about mates one step down the line and introduce parents as creepy divine middlemen, and nowhere does the process of prayer seem more self-serving to me than it does when applied to figuring out the answer to a difficult personal question. I always thought it was kind of weird that the answers Biff and I got after fervent prayer generally were the sort of answers we’d each get after just consulting our own selves, and those answers were generally in diametric opposition to each other–but we were both convinced we were hearing from our god even when obviously one of us was not (for example, my god fully approved of my decision to remain childfree, but Biff’s god regularly told him I’d be changing my mind any day now). You may be certain of this: I see the exact same stuff happening with Christians today.

And Christians have a lot of reasons to fear their own self-serving bias when praying about a mate. Clearly something ain’t working, because Christians get divorced and have affairs and get into miserable marriages–and they may be doing so at higher rates than those who are not nearly as “saved.” Who would ever have thought that a relationship model built around “separate but equal,” infantilization, codependence, shame, lockstep, groupthink, and Penis Power might have some problems surviving in an age of equality, personal responsibility, and diminished privilege? I’m shocked, truly. Aren’t you?

Now, what do these Christians do when it becomes obvious that their marriage model (which I’m calling the Happy Christian Marriage illusion) isn’t quite working out? Do they start looking at the model itself and wondering if it’s a valid model that actually works for everybody? Do they start working on a model of marriage that shows respect for both partners and recognizes that many couples will have different relational styles that make the old model impossible to maintain happily for everyone?

Oh no.

That’d be too easy.

What they’ve done instead of make lists of things that Christians can watch out for, so when they meet the person who fits all the stuff on that list, they will have found their perfect, god-given mate, because obviously someone who fits all the stuff on their lists will be someone who fits the old relational model perfectly! It’s genius in its way, as a coping method of dealing with an obviously flawed and failed concept. The model gets to stay perfect, idealized, and idolized, and the people themselves are the ones who get the blame for not living up to that model.

The Husband List: 12 Non-Negotiables is one of those lists. There’s a “Wife List” too, if you’re curious, but we’re just going to look at the Husband List because it’s the one I see the most often currently (I guess qualities for wives in the Happy Christian Marriage illusion are pretty easy to guess, while women seem totally mystified about how to pick a good husband?). The writer of this list considers these “non-negotiables,” and delineates her 12 attributes from simple preferences, likes, and dislikes. It doesn’t matter what else there is about a man to make him appealing–if he doesn’t have these 12 things, he’s not husband material, period! And she’s thoughtfully presenting them here so you, you silly, feeble-minded, fluffy-pink-brained little girls who are so easily swayed by “yummy, fluttery words,” won’t “have to second-guess anymore.” Aw, isn’t she nice.

By the way, the writer of this list is strikingly young (27, according to her Wikipedia page) and probably hasn’t been married long, so we’re seeing yet another barely-out-of-her-wedding-outfit chirpy Christian telling us alllllll about how we should be conducting our marriages. At least this one’s female. (Her husband’s matching “Wife List,” incidentally, makes special mention of attractiveness as an ideal wifely trait–he may dress it up as inner beauty, but the guy married a former Miss USA, so the advice rings somewhat hollow, I’m afraid.)

So let’s take a look at this list she thinks is so important, shall we?

1. He is a practicing believer. Along with #2, “God is the center of his life,” these two really should be one item, shouldn’t they? Would a practicing believer not have his god at the center of his life? How do you evaluate that? Does he act really pious and sanctimonious? Let’s not forget that faking this stuff is crazy easy. All it takes is church attendance, a good command of Christianese, and the ability to pull a convincing “believe me, love me” Jesus smile. Biff kept up his act for years and nobody even suspected he wasn’t nearly as “godly” as he acted–not even me, for a long time. It’s not like you pray a lot and get a softly glowing halo around your body for 24 hours like in Sims Medieval. So how would you tell someone’s a sincere Christian? And that’s not even getting into how stupid it is to base your marriage on a shared hobby. There’s not much chance that both Christians at their wedding will be Christians ten years later–by age 30, most previously-active Christians are “disengaged,” which means they’re not going to church, reading the Bible, or doing Christian stuff like witnessing or praying anymore (though that doesn’t mean they’re fully deconverted). And Barna’s discovered that some 80% of young-adult Christians don’t maintain the same level of fervency as 20somethings that they had as teens.

These two items, therefore, are both the most foolish and the most harmful things on this entire list. They encourage Christians to base their entire futures on religious fervor in the present, and that fervor is not guaranteed to last–for either of them, come to that. So once those religious feelings are gone, upon what are the shiny little Christians going to base their marriage? Answer me that, and then make that answer #1 and #2 on this list instead of this weak, junk-food pablum.

3. He has integrity and does not put himself in tempting situations. Duh. But the writer of this list doesn’t name any specific examples of this trait, just names a Bible verse like that explains everything. It does not. Here’s a better “flavor text” for this item than a Bible verse: “He knows he has problems with alcohol, so he never goes to bars.” Or “She knows she still has a soft spot for her ex-boyfriend, so she never lets herself be alone in a room with him.” Without knowing how something looks in action, how are you going to tell if someone’s doing it or not? Incidentally, I’ve known so many Christians with substance abuse problems and serious difficulty with impulse control that it’s almost a joke by now to me to see the astronomical DUI rates of my small, super-religious little town and the constant stream of scandals coming out of Christian churches across the world, so clearly this ideal is vanishingly rare to see in action–it seems to me a serious danger for Christians, who might not realize how very sneaky and good at hiding vice their potential mates may be. Oh hey, and why not be looking for a man who has so much integrity that he isn’t actually tempted and can manage his impulses like a grown-ass adult?

4. Seeks mentorship and counsel. Now, this seems pretty straightforward, but remember that you’re dealing with fundagelical Christians–so it’s a little more thorny than it sounds. Most of us know that if we need advice, we should seek it. But this item just advises surrounding one’s husband with older men “who can offer advice, prayer and mentorship”–but again, what does that look like? And what if these men–who are probably not qualified professionals but just older guys from church–don’t know what they’re doing, or they’re just as immersed in the groupthink as the husband is so won’t realize that the problem is the entire relationship model? I had this problem with Biff many times–I’d get upset or angry or hurt over some slight he’d given me, and our pastor or some other older guy from church would usually blame me for being rebellious or “out of the Spirit” rather than confront the simple fact that I was not doing well in a “separate but equal” marriage. Missing from this list is some idea of when professional counsel might be required and a requirement that a mate be willing to explore such aid.

5. He is slow to anger. This one shows the poor understanding of the list’s writer like few other items on the list could. Christians are terrified of strong emotions like anger. Often this manifests in Christians bottling up their justified hurt and disappointment until it absolutely explodes in an uncontrollable wave of rage and sometimes violence. Christianity itself does not usually teach Christians how to show respect to their own emotions or how to maturely manage them. I don’t think the person who wrote this list really understands how to identify someone who has anger management problems. By contrast, I know exactly how to identify someone like that now, but I sure didn’t back in my Christian days, and nobody else knew how to advise me that I was about to marry the Lizard King of anger management problems. Being slow to anger does nobody any good if the anger isn’t getting dealt with somehow. I’d ten times rather be with someone who can manage his emotions and harness them in a productive manner than someone who hews to this “slow to anger” model and then lashes out. On that note, I’ll just mention that I’ve only rarely run across a Christian man who didn’t have a serious problem with anger.

6. He holds strong conviction on the sacredness of fidelity. Uh huh. Sure. And that’s going to stop him from cheating? My my, we’re optimistic today, aren’t we? Convictions are not an adequate substitute for fulfillment of basic human needs. The list writer chirps that “a man is wise when he understands that infidelity and looking for pleasure outside of the marriage only brings strife.” But there’s nothing here about the practical matter of maintaining passion throughout a marriage. “Convictions” are Christianese for “strong opinions.” They think these “convictions” are given by their god or inspired by him. But really they’re just opinions. And if the marriage is failing somehow, then even knowing infidelity is strife-causing won’t stop someone from doing it. (PS: Women cheat too.)

7. He is honorable of your heart and emotional well-being. This could be reworded: “He recognizes that you are a human being who deserves respect and courtesy.” Or even: “He’s not a jackass who emotionally or verbally abuses you.” This isn’t bad advice at all but I’d rather see it worded in a way that brings the woman into the role of guarding her own emotional well-being, cuz honey, ain’t nobody going to guard your emotional well-being like you can, and if you abdicate that responsibility, ain’t nobody going to do it for you.

8. He is disciplined in living a life of integrity. This is a reword of the earlier thing about temptation. We can ignore this as more or less irrelevant; a Christian who really wants to look like he or she’s doing the right thing “even when no one is watching” can easily make it look that way. Strangely missing from this list is how to know when someone’s doing that for real.

9. Has solid work ethic. Again, no actual modeling, just another pithy proverb. How do we know what a “solid work ethic” looks like? Does it mean ambition, and if so, what will that look like? Does it mean not loafing around the house while he’s unemployed? If so, how much unemployment is acceptable, particularly in a global economy where joblessness is disproportionately hitting men for a variety of reasons unrelated to EEBIL FEMINAZIS? I’m not sure why, but this phrase “has solid work ethic” sounds like a dogwhistle, especially since it’s got the shortest “flavor text” of anything else on her list. Is it some kind of newfangled code for “makes enough money to maintain a stay-at-home wife and as many kids as she wants in the manner to which she would like to become accustomed”? I bet it is.

10. He pursues and loves you passionately. Oh, I was wondering when she’d get around to mentioning romantic love. It, along with #11 (“Romances you”), are more or less interchangeable as well, indicating a certain lack of awareness on the list-writer’s part. Of course, her assertion that “the man you marry should make you feel loved like you’ve never felt before,” is pure romance-novel fiction. I hate to tell her this, but chances are she’s going to love a lot of people in her life, and some of those will be romantic partners. I certainly hope that whoever she marries makes her toes curl more than any other partner does currently, but it’s kind of mean-spirited to insist that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to people who’ve, say, been widowed or divorced. I do think it’s wise to choose a partner who pursues you if you happen to like being pursued, but there’s nothing wrong with taking initiative either if that’s your thing.

12. He is humble and can admit when he is wrong. “Isn’t a dumbass whinybutt man-child” might be a bit profane for this shiny bright Christian gal to write, I guess, but I hate to tell her this, but everybody should be like this. Admitting wrong and taking responsibility for errors is something all humans should do. It’s not “the sign of a real man.” It’s the sign of a grown-ass adult.

Notably missing from this list, though, are the things that actually keep a couple together. Nowhere does she mention ascertaining whether or not a potential mate has the same lifetime plans as she does. Nor does she cover the dealbreakers (kids: if, how many, when; stay-at-home wife: if, how long, when to stop; housework: how to divide, how to discuss, how to figure out if a man is a man-child who wants a mommy or if he’s capable of behaving equitably). She doesn’t talk about red flags and how to spot someone manipulative or abusive early on. Nor does she talk about how to handle conflicts and crises–like how to tell if a man will argue fairly and how to conduct a disagreement like an adult. She doesn’t even talk about love till she’s almost done making her list, for chrissakes.

And we’re wondering why Christians divorce as often as they do?

The worst part of this irresponsible blog piece is the comments, though. Take a look at them. It’s instance after instance of Christians pining for a man like this–when it’s not men lamenting that they can’t hit that model for love or money, or women sighing that they keep picking the wrong men and they just know “that there is a man out there that God has for me,” as one commenter there put it. And these poor folks think that they are the problem–not the ridiculous idolatry they’ve built up around this imaginary “godly husband” model.

This is depressing as hell to me. I was a Christian 20-odd years ago, and they’re still parroting the same tired, shopworn bullshit they were parroting back in the 80s and 90s. It’s still not working, which we can tell because of the huge number of Christians still getting divorced, so obviously the answer is to drill down harder on the failed model rather than critically examine why they’re so enslaved to it.

Christians in the Unequally Yoked Club, please know this: most of what you believe about the Happy Christian Marriage is total horsepuckey. Pie in the sky doesn’t ever taste as good as a slice on the plate. Learn to live in the here and now, and learn to recognize what really makes a marriage work. The model you’ve been taught for what’s probably been your entire life is very likely a lie and a sham.

I said “very likely” for a reason, and that reason is that I think some couples do marvelously with this model of marriage. Some, but hardly all. It works for some folks, but not for everybody. If there’s one thing Christianity’s really good at, it’s generalizing a narrow bit of advice to apply to absolutely everybody regardless of personal compatibility with that advice. And if you’re concentrating on stuff like this ridiculous “Husband List,” you’re ignoring your own very real needs and you’re not looking for something that really works for you and your own mate. A lot of the friction I see from mixed-religion marriages seems like it comes from Christians who’ve been inculcated with dumbass advice like this list and think that’s the only valid way to conduct a marriage. It isn’t. There are as many ways to do a marriage as there are people in marriages. Don’t be afraid of exploring one of those other ways. Maybe it’ll be way better. How do you know if you don’t give it a try?

Isn’t love worth being a little flexible?

Next time we’re going to talk about false dichotomies. A lot of times I see this either/or thinking that totally forgets that sometimes neither statement’s true–or maybe there’s a third option entirely. Zealotry often can’t deal with the gripping hand–but we’re going to, next.

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,...

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