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How Christian Marriage Advice Stimulates Abuse

Updated on January 15, 2021
Joy At Home profile image

Joy has had a love relationship with Jesus since she was 14, and has taught Christian religious classes to various ages since she was 16.

Is This You? Now? Later?

An abusive person often believes that the only emotions which are valid (or even allowed) are their own. Yours won't count.
An abusive person often believes that the only emotions which are valid (or even allowed) are their own. Yours won't count. | Source

Why Marriage Advice Often Fails

Narcissism. Selfish behavior. Chauvinistic tendencies. These are a few of the traits and behaviors that are encouraged or exacerbated by common Christian marriage advice.

Healthy or Horrible?

This advice is often well meaning, but applies best to reasonably healthy marriage relationships, since it assumes both partners are mature and willing to work on their own shortcomings. It assumes, too, that partners already want to work at recognising, encouraging, and appreciating their spouse’s efforts.

Since the majority of people who are seeking marriage advice do not have healthy relationships, this is a horrifying situation.

If someone grows up in a home that displays good relationships, they already know what to do to build productive marriages. More is caught than is taught. But it is those who do not know how to build healthy relationships who are seeking advice--buying books, listening to audios, going to seminars, and asking older Christian couples what they should do to make their marriages healthy, functional, and happy.

Submission Explained

Female Responsibility?

Women are often told that it is their responsibility (or “privilege”) to hold their marriages together. They are led to believe that if their marriage fails, or is dysfunctional, that it is their fault. They didn't do something they should have done, or they didn't try hard enough. Perhaps they weren’t giving enough, or they didn't submit to their husband’s wishes completely enough to win his approbation and “grace”.

A Roman Military Concept

“Submission”, as used in the Bible, is a grossly misunderstood term.

It is intended as a beautiful word picture, which had its origins in the Roman military hierarchy. It was understood in that context to mean that a soldier should willingly follow his superior officer’s position and orders, for the sake of smooth functioning and accountability.

I believe that Saint Paul chose to use this term not only because many of his readers would have been familiar with military procedure, but because such submission is a sign of trust and relationship. A soldier expects his superior officer to be responsible, and the superior officer needs to be responsible, or he is likely to lose his position and jeopardize the wellbeing of any below him.

Twisted Views

However, in many circles, this term has been twisted to mean that one spouse has the right to expect complete subjection of the other. Often, it is the man who thinks he is entitled to wield this utter authority over his wife, using, if necessary, abuse or threats to accomplish this aim.

These men often have dark hearts full of self-loathing and violence, and long to control their women and children in order to inflate their own sense of self-importance. They will try almost any manipulative tactic in irder to try to build an acceptance of themselves. They refuse to acknowledge that submission needs to be earned, and that their own irresponsibility is often standing between them and the respect and recognition they crave.

Longterm Results

When a girl grows up under this kind of control, or sees this behavior exhibited by her father, this sets her up for failure in marriage. She believes that “relationship” is characterized by her doing exactly what she is told, when she is told, and never asking questions or trying to change anything. She is duped into believing that she is (or should be) powerless. She has been led to believe that her opinion has no value, nor do her emotions. Her desires do not matter. Her pain does not matter. Submission (subjection) is the answer to everything. No matter what the question, submission is the answer.

All problems are therefore her fault. She comes to feel that if her husband treats her unkindly, it is because she has not pleased him. If her husband hits her (physically or verbally), she has been bad for wanting or feeling something of which he did not approve. If she dislikes sex, she is definitely not submissive enough, and if her disinterest in it leads to coercion or marital rape, it is because she did not submit enough for her husband to “love [her] even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it"--Ephesians 5:25.

Submission is intended as a beautiful word picture, which had its origins in the Roman military hierarchy. It was understood in that context to mean that a soldier should willingly follow his superior officer’s position and orders, for the sake of smooth functioning and accountability.

Learn to Identify Abuse

Children who grow up watching their parents function this way, whether boys or girls, are set up to be either abusive, or trained recipients of abuse.

So how can you avoid falling into this trap? Set aside your idealizations, fantasies, or hopes of Prince Charming, and learn first what Prince Charming is not. For starters, he’s probably not incredibly charming.

“Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain…” - Proverbs 31:30.

Learn all you can about narcissism and cluster B personalities. Did you know that most actual narcissists are initially very charming--and remain so until you get alone with them on their own turf, and test in private their ability to sympathise and empathize?

Learn what a dysfunctional family is, and is not.

  • Learn to recognize the symptoms of borderline personality disorder, and of dissociative identity disorder.

  • Learn what abuse entails, including emotional, psychological, and spiritual abuse. (Your church probably won't know, or have a clear answer on this.)

  • Learn what it means to love yourself. The essence of loving yourself is to have a good relationship with yourself. God has a good relationship with Himself (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), and He expects us to learn to do likewise.

Self Love Is Scriptural

If we do not have a good relationship with ourselves, how can we have any kind of relationship with anybody else? If we do not love ourselves--if our hearts are full of self-loathing, doubt, hatred, and unforgiveness--how can we possibly have any love to give to anyone else? So learn and practice all you can about forgiveness, especially of yourself and of those closest to you.

First Impressions Are Tricky

Learn what to look for while you are dating or checking out prospective spouses, and be aware that if someone seems too good to be true, they probably are. Often the most selfish people are those who come across as the most generous or perfect, while the relationship is still new or remains mostly public.

About YouTube Selections

The above are some YouTube channels I have found helpful while researching narcissism and similar disorders. All of these are by women. I am researching further channels, including some by men, and will be adding to this list as seems appropriate.

A Test for Narcissism

A common piece of advice is to smile and be happy in yourself, before you hook up seriously with someone else. This is good advice.

But those who are broken, or who have been abused, frequently cannot do this. They are looking for someone who can stand by them while they learn to heal.

Traps Set for Empaths

This is why empaths and those who are broken so often fall back into abusive relationships. Abusive people at first seem to be attentive and hopeful, and so very, very charming. They want you to feel that you are their sunshine.

An abusive person will frequently pretend to be interested in the very things that interest you in order to reel you in, but once you are in their grip, they will throw you under foot and trample you.

Be on the Offensive

One defense is to be a smiling, seemingly hard to ruffle person.

This can be an excellent defense against abusive people, because they usually do not like happy people. (It makes them feel inadequate.)

Does Your Pain Matter to Them?

Meanwhile, between the time when you learn to be happy and stable, and now--when you may feel crumbled--you can test whether a person is abusive by noticing how they react when you are hurt. If you are obviously hurting--whether physically or emotionally--and they don't seem to care, steer clear--they will only add to your misery.

Examples of Typical Advice

Now I want to discuss some common advice given in Christian marriage materials, and how this advice often tips women and children right onto the back burner, where they sometimes stay for the duration of the marriage or relationship.

This advice typically covers a number of areas, including but not limited to:

  • child care and training (devote yourself to your little ones, not counting the cost socially or financially; learn to love being pregnant; be an ultra-involved and exciting mother . . . but never let your child-care responsibilities get in the way of your being a 5-star spouse)

  • meal planning, and cooking a decent dinner (learn what your husband likes, and cook to satisfy his whims, using whatever budget he sets for you; keep dinners quiet and well-behaved, even if you have to provide an earlier supper for the kids, then get them out of the way)

  • dress codes and preferences (provocative vs. appropriate . . . but dress to please him, so long as you don’t excite any church members standing near you on Sunday morning)

  • sexual relationship with your spouse (striving for 100% non combativeness, appropriate desires and play, male vs. female mindsets; never withhold sex from your partner because of anger, or physical and emotional exhaustion)

  • how to behave when going out shopping by yourself (keep touch with Hubby, check unplanned purchases with him . . . as it is generally assumed that he holds the financial reins, regardless which of you is bringing home the bacon, or who may have better financial sense and skills)

  • handling disagreements or changes in viewpoint with spouse (let the husband have the final say, never shout or act emotionally messy, don’t the exit room until differences are resolved or under control, never go to bed angry, don’t let emotions affect sexual actions)

  • encouraging the husband to be the leader, or head of the family, waiting for him to call the shots on matters both large and small (and if he’s not ready or doesn’t want to be, act as if he is trustworthy and responsible, anyway--he’ll probably come round when he sees your deference).

Demigods or Men?

Did you notice the common thread running through these topics?--please the man at nearly all costs. Give him whatever he wants, even if you have to consistently put yourself (and your children) aside in order not to offend him. Keep him happy, in and out of the bedroom, and keep him feeling like a god.

While there is nothing wrong with making your man feel special, and you should . . . this is not a one-way street. He should also make you feel special. If your relationship is one-sided--if you are always giving and giving, and he is always taking and taking--this is a sign of an abusive relationship.

Is He a Taker?

In order to notice whether he is a taker, see how he responds to something that is important to you, but does not directly benefit or excite him. For example, are you attending an event in which you play an important role? See how he responds when you let him know you want him to attend with you. Does he want to support you? Is he pleased and excited for you? Or does he attend grudgingly, or not all all? Does he appear happy at first, but make efforts on the way to upset, accuse, or humiliate you? Even if the drive to the event is peaceful, does he take it as an opportunity to draw attention to himself?

My Personal Experience

Based on my experience and the experiences of others, I have compiled a list of questions which might have saved me much grief, had they been presented to me prior to marriage.

Rage and Hatred

Like many of us, I grew up in a dysfunctional home, but figured since my parents hadn’t split, and I never got smacked across the room, everything was OK. The fact that my parents were completely miserable people seemed normal.

We were never taught how to effectively forgive, and the atmosphere of our home was one of rage, peevishness, and hatred. The way to get on was to learn the emotional equivalent of the Three S’s: Shoot, Shovel, and Shut Up.

Searching for Healthy Ideals

I knew I wanted something better for my future family and children, but didn’t know what that was supposed to look like, or how to achieve it. I figured it was probably a pipe dream anyway.

When I was 14, I read the Bible book Song of Songs. It struck me that here was a picture of an engaging, happy couple who knew how to resolve issues. I determined to go and do likewise.

From that point on, I absorbed everything I could from authors and teachers who claimed to have workable solutions to marital frustrations. I knew what I wanted, defined what attitude and work ethic I was seeking in a spouse, worked on my own preparations for being a super-wife and -mother, and did everything I could . . . besides that I neglected to learn about how people manipulate each other.

Manipulative Relationship

For 18+ years, from the age of 19, I have been in a relationship that has been characterized by frustrations, financial and emotional humiliations, and setbacks of every kind. These years have been salted with just enough good times to keep me hoping that things will permanently improve. But I have had to swim against a strong current in order to grow as a person, and mature spiritually.

I have gradually learned concepts most marriage books don’t tell you, like:

  • how to stand my ground and fight productively, vs. rolling over and taking it
  • protect the home and my children against the spiritual fall-out of a spouse’s rage and unforgiveness
  • forgive my husband, but remember never to trust him with my emotional well-being (trust is not a Biblical requirement for marriage)
  • make, manage, and hide my own money, while expecting (and often getting) nothing from him
  • work up to 18 hour days with zero appreciation or assistance, in order to subsist
  • deal with the effects of extreme dissociation, exacerbated for three consecutive years by aggression and fear in the bedroom and elsewhere
  • and much more . . . .

Using My Experience

It is therefore with a heart full of compassion for you, Dear One, who may be struggling similarly, that I prepared several batteries of questions which are placed in three following articles, in hopes that you may be saved from further unnecessary pain.

And if you have not yet entered on your marriage or serious relationship journey, then may you receive wisdom to know that which is good, from that which will do you lasting harm.

On Total “Biblical” Submission

If the Scriptures indicate that a wife ought to follow her husband’s every order, consider the following:

Would you do what your husband said to do if he told you to:

  1. Hit the kids in the face every time you felt annoyed?
  2. Shoot or kill someone without known provocation?
  3. Light yourself on fire?

Probably not.

Can You Trust Him?

If you cannot trust a man to have your best interests--and those of your children--at heart, then you cannot trust him to give you valid advice. Better move on up the line to his superior officer--Jesus. His advice, if followed faithfully, will always give you good results in your inner life.

My Experience With Created To Be His Helpmeet

My experience with the book Created to Be His Helpmeet took me through several phases. At the time I first read it (about 2004), I didn't recognize any big problems in my marriage, but wanted to keep it that way.

I had been a marriage book collector before this, as I had been a student of relationship improvement since I was 14. This book seemed inviting and different, and I had already received sound advice and wisdom from the Pearl’s child training materials.

Good News

Much of the advice was indeed atypical, focusing on being a woman of action and compassion, rather than merely of submission. The advice was designed to make life flow easier, so there was more time for building relationships. Much of the writing was lighthearted and inspiring, giving actions and attitude adjustments that seemed doable. The sections were practical and obviously came from experience.

Bad News

Now for the bad news. I read the book three times, and followed through on everything I could do. I smiled more, I played more, I did things my husband's way, and I worked with him in construction even when our other help quit--meanwhile cooking, cleaning, homeschooling (a joint decision with Hubby), and bringing in my own small income from a second business.

He subsequently informed me that I was a b!tch, a horrible wife, and an incompetent coworker . . . and that he was going to fire me. I didn't let him. I quit, and began laying down much-needed boundaries.

At the time, I didn't understand how obnoxious a person can be for no good reason, and that his response had nothing whatever to do with reality, or with the changes in me. At least, if his reaction traced back to me, it only meant he couldn't stand happy people. So I thought I had missed something vital in my reform process . . . and absolutely believed the line (yes, it's in this book, as in many others) that a woman's response to her man determines his response to her, and, often, to God.

Translation: I believed whatever he said and did toward me was my fault, and was warranted.

I won't say I learned nothing valuable from Created to Be His Helpmeet . . . but in the long run, it damaged me (and my marriage) by helping keep me in a boundaryless prison longer than necessary.

I hear that Debi Pearl added a chapter on submission vs. subjection, and has spelled out the fact that some men are simply vile and violent, and don't change for nobody or nothin’. I have had no chance to read this addition, so can't comment on it . . . but pray it has saved others from further error.

Leaving an Abusive Partner--Why Haven’t I?

My spouse happens to be an alcoholic with some narcissistic traits. FYI, there is quite a bit of overlap between alcoholism, and NPD.

He is a classic childhood abuse case, who has not decided that it is worth his time to fully forgive his mother, etc.

However, he also tries hard to be a good father.

I believe at this time it is worth my while to put up with his foolishness and inconsistencies, so that he can continue his dream of being a semi-successful father, and I can continue mine of being an intact family.

I can’t help but notice that he has done better by his family (our children and myself) than he was done by. I am not ignorant of the fact that the children are being exposed to some negative habits. They will be thus exposed in any relationship. I am also aware that Hubby is a seemingly more gentle and considerate person than he was 3 to 5 years ago. I am curious what he will be like in a few years, without some of the stresses of parenthood, as I never got to know him outside of this context. Our life together from dating onward has been full of tough choices and sleepless nights.

My first pregnancy coincided with commuting to Bible college, 3 hours twice a week. Shortly before the end of the spring semester, I was forced to drop out, because pregnancy made me unbearably sick. Later, the atmosphere of having a son with sociopathic traits who was constantly in trouble, wore at both of us. (That has influenced and changed us irrevocably.)

In any case, I am not sorry that I have been forced to learn and grow because of a difficult marriage and a difficult lufe. Any experience from which I have been able to learn is not a negative experience.

Your Own Marriage or Relationship Experience

What Have Been Your Results While Following Typical Christian Marriage Advice?

See results

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2018 Joilene Rasmussen

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    • Joy At Home profile imageAUTHOR

      Joilene Rasmussen 

      3 years ago from United States

      DS, I fibbed to you, when I said that no one gave me advice in what to look for. My future mother-in-law told me to shop around and try on lots of men before making up my mind (she certainly had), and stressed that being able to communicate (by which she meant dictate) was prime. Clearly I set this advice aside, being pretty sure I could do better. And I have.

    • Joy At Home profile imageAUTHOR

      Joilene Rasmussen 

      3 years ago from United States

      Dashingscorpio, you have made several good points, and I agree with the bottom line that we choose our paths, and so choose our consequences as well. I have made no serious attempt to defend my choices in this article; that is not the point. I am not after sympathy (or a sermon). Rather, I am seeking to put forward some specifics for those who may not know how to tell a good choice from a bad. No one helped me with this in my life, while young or otherwise. In an effort to avoid mistakes, I dated my spouse in a family setting (his and mine), and he was actually the last person I got to know out of his available family, including cousins. All reputation checks I did on him came out clean. I also had not "screwed around", as you imply.

      FYI, I grew up in a very poor rural area, and had no means of owning a car, holding a traditional job, or of traveling. I had financial help going to a low-cost college, prior to marrying. I grew up in an intact but quite dysfunctional family. To this day, my father neither knows nor cares what my relationships are like, with him or anybody else, though we have minimal contact on an almost weekly basis. I make this point because all the money I had available I had made either while working construction, farming, or training horses...and it was barely enough for me to get out of the State to go to college, in a borrowed car. Incidentally, I was never in debt prior to marrying. I had decent friendships with several people, including some (apparently) very nice young men during this timeframe. But no one even came close to offering more than friendship. I was forced to return home that summer, due to lack of options (all $ had gone toward continuing college), and wound up with back problems so severe I could barely walk, let alone work construction. My father raged at me constantly for being unable to work.

      You can see why it seemed like a miracle when my husband came along, treated me better than I'd ever been treated, and didn't seem to mind the back issues. But as I said, I didn't make a snap decision. I held him off for a year while I explored other options. So yes, you could say that my situation dumped me out of the frying pan and into the fire. But I'm not incredibly sorry - its been a purifying fire, and I have learned to see people more clearly than I otherwise would have.

      I only hope that this article series helps someone else get some perspective.

    • dashingscorpio profile image

      dashingscorpio 

      3 years ago from Chicago

      "This advice is often well meaning, but applies most readily to reasonably healthy marriage relationships, since it assumes both partners are mature and willing to work on their own shortcomings.."

      Truth is there is an (assumption) that couples have done their own due diligence during their "courtship" before deciding they had found their "soulmate" and want to spend the rest of their life with him/her.

      Another assumption is people go to couples therapy because they both want to "make things work". However more often than not one of them is hoping the counselor will take (their side). In other instances therapy is nothing more than a pit stop on the way to getting a divorce.

      At least they can tell outsiders: "We tried therapy."

      Each of us (chooses) our own friends, lovers, and spouse.

      Each of us has our mate selection process/"must haves list".

      Each of us has our boundaries and "deal breakers".

      "For 16 years, from the age of 19, I have been in a relationship that has been characterized by frustrations, financial and emotional humiliations, and setbacks of every kind...."

      In all honesty very few people meet their "soulmate" in their teens!

      Most people would tell you that you were too young to be considering tying yourself down. They would have suggested going to college, establishing a career, traveling, and experiencing living independent for a few years while dating and getting to know what you need in a mate.

      Whatever made for an "ideal mate" at age 19 isn't likely going to be what one wants at age 25 or 30.

      This is especially true in the modern era.

      Too often people use the bible and religion as a scapegoat for why they (chose) to stay in an unhappy relationship or marriage.

      Matthew 19:6

      'What God has joined together let no man put asunder'

      If God really did "play cupid" he certainly would have a better batting average than 50% divorce rate!

      All of our relationships are free will.

      "Narcissism. Selfish behavior. Chauvinistic tendencies. These are a few of the traits and behaviors that are encouraged or exacerbated by common Christian marriage advice."

      The bible is thousands of years old! (Written by old men).

      It shouldn't come as shock that it's not filled with gender equality scriptures. However there are instances where husbands are told to honor their wife/wives such as in Ephesians 5:25

      "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.."

      Romance novels and Hollywood movies are probably more to blame for why young women and teenage girls are more attracted to "bad boys" than "nice guys". They're attracted to Narcissism. Selfish behavior. Chauvinistic tendencies!

      Their motto seems to be:

      "We ignore those who adore us and adore those who ignore us."

      No one has ever heard of a lonely "jerk", "a-hole", "player" or "gangster" because lots of women are attracted to "Alpha Males"

      You could stick such a woman in a room with five guys and have four of them drop to their knees extending their heart out towards her while the 5th guy sits in a corner sipping on cocktail acting as if she does not exist. That will be the guy she wants to get to know!

      He's seen as a "mystery", "challenge", and she has to prove to herself that she can get him. His take charge controlling behavior makes her feel safe. His jealousy and obsessive behavior makes her feel loved. His constant put downs or bad treatment just means (she) has to "improve" herself to (earn) his love.... and so it goes.

      She loves the challenge of "trying to figure out" how he feels about her. She would be bored in a {drama free} relationship with a "nice guy".

      When it comes to the bible people have always "cherry picked" which verses of scripture they will follow. The bible says we shouldn't commit fornication and yet most "Christians" have premarital sex.

      Life is a (personal) journey.

      There are only two ways to experience joy and peace of mind in relationships. We either get what we want or we learn to be happy with what we have. Accept them (as is) or move on.

      We are always where we (choose) to be.

      Suffering is optional.

      "Never love anyone who treats you like you're ordinary."

      - Oscar Wilde

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