Shut up and smile

Via Jesus Needs New PR, a video from a Baptist marriage retreat originally posted at Christian Nightmares:

Notice how only the husbands are interviewed about the retreat, while the wives say not a word? And that none of the women even have microphones on, kind of like it never even occurred to the powers that be that wives might have opinions on a marriage retreat, and/or that they might be interesting or relevant? And that every single married woman just stands by as smiling support? It’s a little creepy.

Of course, we can’t know what these couples’ marriages are like just from a few seconds of video. But I think this clip – with the each husband speaking exclusively for each couple, each wife standing in silent agreement with and adoration of her husband – illustrates attitudes and expectations about gender roles in marriage that I’ve seen so often in evangelical complementarian marriages.

When Mr. G and I were engaged, we had premarital counseling with a couple from my family’s SGM church. And by “counseling with a couple,” I mean counseling with a guy whose wife would say nothing until the very end of our meetings, when the husband would turn to her and ask if she had anything to add. She never did. Her husband had said it all, apparently. At our first meeting, she deliberately avoided shaking Mr. G’s hand until he had shaken her husband’s hand first.

At the time I was totally oblivious to what was going on – her husband was closest to me, so I naturally I shook his hand first, unaware of the maneuverings going on behind me. This was one of her ways, I guess, of respecting her husband’s authority over her; the chain of command had to be upheld by having our male leaders acknowledge each other first, before the ladies could be involved or acknowledged. I realized later that she probably considered me to be wildly insubordinate, or some such nonsense, because I had the audacity to shake her husband’s hand without waiting for my fiancé’s go-ahead, without acknowledging him as my “head” and above me.

And then there’s the fact that I’m much more talkative than my husband in unfamiliar company, which meant that I did the vast majority of the talking during our counseling meetings. We both noticed that counselor dude was irritated and offended by the fact that Mr. G wasn’t more forthcoming. I eventually pieced together that our counselor’s problem wasn’t simply that Mr. G didn’t say very much, it was also that I said so much more than he did. I wasn’t being properly submissive and letting my future husband take the lead that was rightfully his.

It perhaps doesn’t need to be said that our counseling meetings weren’t terribly useful or pleasant for anyone involved.

Bizarre as her behavior was, our counselor’s wife was just trying to show respect to her husband (whose behavior, it must be added, was no less strange – a story for another day). And of course, respect between partners is a vital part of a healthy relationship. But in complementarianism, respect is understood as being primarily the wife’s responsibility. This is based on gender essentialist assumptions that men need respect while women need love, and that women find it easy to love but difficult to show respect, especially to men, while men have an easy time treating people with respect but a hard time showing love, especially in the way women need (this is code for “men should treat women as delicate, hyper-emotional creatures incapable of logic and reason”). The complementarian notion of respect is perverted at its root by an insistence that only one gender needs respect in a relationship.

What respect is supposed to look like for a married woman is also quite strange. As our counselor told us, being a respectful, properly submissive wife means “affirming” the husband’s leadership in every. single. aspect. of the marriage. Naturally that includes conversations in public. For a lot of married women I knew at church, that meant they were expected to never contradict their husbands in public, much less argue with them; to never interrupt; to let them “take the lead” in mixed conversation, which meant speaking a good deal less than their husbands, often not until their husbands spoke to them first.

It also meant that women were expected to never complain about their husbands – and more than that, to constantly talk up their husbands as the best and most considerate spouses ever, no matter what. I can begin to count how many times I’ve heard women from church effusively praising their husbands for doing things that should have just been routine. For “releasing” them to go on a trip with friends. For maybe making one measly meal every few months, when their wives are expected to have homemade food on the table for their husbands and many children every night. For “letting” them sleep in or giving them the “morning off” from domestic and childcare duties (even when the reason for this is that the wife is laid up with an illness, or dealing with pregnancy nausea, or has a small infant).

I’ve seen women berate themselves for being justifiably angry with their husbands – for example, for putting their family in danger by repeatedly delaying getting a failing car checked out  – because well, nothing serious happened and a wife should focus on their husbands’ strengths and her own sin, not his failings. And if there are few or no good things they can think of, it’s because they, the wives, have a sinful attitude, never because the husband might have any real failings. They are the ones who need adjustment; it could never be that a husband is neglecting or mistreating his wife so much that little positive can be said about his behavior or attributes.

Watching the clip above gave me same tight, sinking feeling I always get when I think about the girls I grew up with in church who are now married. It’s so emblematic of how so many complementarian women experience marriage: as cheerleaders expected to hang on their husband’s arms and words, silencing themselves and suppressing all authentic expression of emotions. When I think of people I used to be friends with living a life like that, so completely muzzled, I feel sick with worry and despair for them.

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28 Comments on “Shut up and smile”

  1. preachersdaughter69 says:

    This post just blew my mind. I grew up watching women like that in church and it never occurred to me how blind I was to the underlying truths here until I read your post and watched the video. I have been through two failed marriages and I know that it was probably because the men that I married wanted me to be the submissive little preacher’s daughter and that just wasn’t who I really was. I never felt like they really listened to me and I was treated more like an accessory than a partner in life. I’m too stubborn, open-minded and outspoken to be an accessory. LOL

    Thank you for shedding light on this subject! I can’t wait to read more of your writing. :)

    • Grace says:

      Thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog! I certainly felt out of place when I was still in this culture as a very opinionated and argumentative woman :p

  2. Ugh, it’s disgusting how the church treats women… It’s obvious to be against Islam because of the fact that they go so far as to compel their women to wear tents but Christian misogyny is just as much of a burden on a woman’s life. I can’t understand why women put up with bullshit like complementarianism or Quiverfull.

    • Grace says:

      It’s obvious to be against Islam because of the fact that they go so far as to compel their women to wear tents

      Well, they use a particular kind of Islam as a caricature of the entire religion (with a billion people!) to excuse their anti-Muslim sentiments. Just like in Christianity, views on female dress and “modesty” cover a wide spectrum. I noticed in this video that many of the women seemed to be wearing awkwardly long skirts for bowling…

  3. atimetorend says:

    That dynamic was difficult for us in SGM. I will say, that while I understood why the women were being creepily quiet in the video, it was much more extreme than what we experienced in SGM.

    As you note, in some couples the woman is more inclined to be talkative. Which puts the husband in a bad spot too, because he is supposed to be leading and guiding the conversation.

    As an example of the difficult dynamic this can produce:
    When my wife and I would get together with another couple, where the wife was more talkative than the husband, my wife would be frustrated with me for not leading the conversation more. But it was because she expected me to force my way into their conversation, where I felt if they wanted male leadership in the converstation they would invite it, not demand that it intrude.

    Totally get your awkward conversations in pre-marital counseling. I remember how uncomfortable that time was, being around pastors and their wives with huge expectations placed on how you relate to one-another, supposedly modeling complementarianism, but not really knowing how it should work, and having it feel so unnatural. So glad to be free of that.

    • Grace says:

      The dynamic in the video is more extreme than the norm in SGM – but I think SGM has also been getting more extreme on gender issues in recent years, from what I hear. Some families are starting to be more explicitly into the stay-at-home-daughters nonsense, for example.

      Re “not really knowing how it should work” – one of the more awkward moments in our counseling was when the dude insisted that Mr. G should be leading me through working through and resolving conflicts. I kept asking what this could possibly mean and he kept giving answers that made no sense – like the man should be more concerned with why the woman is upset than with his grievances, and that he should lead them in prayer after resolving a conflict. I pointed out that it didn’t make sense from a Christian perspective to say it’s ok for a wife to be more focused on her grievances in a marital conflict, and that seemed to confuse him. So did my question about whether he meant a woman shouldn’t pray after a marital conflict. Poor guy. After a series of questions from me trying to deduce what he could possibly mean, he ended up just concluding with, “Leading is just, y’know…it’s leading!” Right.

      • atimetorend says:

        I pointed out that it didn’t make sense from a Christian perspective to say it’s ok for a wife to be more focused on her grievances in a marital conflict..”

        Good point! Of course they would say that it is not OK for the wife to be more focused on her grievances, but their *emphasis* on the importance of male leadership rather than on providing adequate conflict resolution skills is telling.

        And the response, “Leading is just…leading,” is typical. In other words, we are not willing to step outside of our own paradigm to even *consider* the validity of what you are saying, and therefore it is too confusing to answer intelligently.

        And I agree with the shift to a more extreme position on gender roles. Their shift in a conservative/fundamentalist direction greatly contributed to our exodus from their family.

  4. Yikes. Glad I was well away from the complementarian camp when I got married. Christian counseling wasn’t even an option for me because I wasn’t going to do premarital counseling with someone who thought women should submit in all ways to their husbands or that my career should subsumed under his. Plus I was ordained at the time, and I wasn’t going to have a counselor making snide comments about that if he didn’t believe in women in ministry.

    We lived in different cities and went to different churches, so we weren’t going to choose between pastors. We found this great counselor (non-Christian) who specialized in couples in long-distance relationships getting married. He was great.

    But even growing up in the Southern Baptist Church this kind of complementarianism wasn’t normal. The rural church I grew up in gave lip service to the man being head of the home, but none of them lived it. And if it would’ve been left up to the men to get the conversation going, no one in that church would’ve talked. I’m very glad I grew up before this extreme form complementarianism became so mainstream in evangelical circles.

    • Grace says:

      It’s a long story, but let’s just say getting counseling at my family’s church was not really our first choice :p

      My feeling is that evangelicalism (including the SBC) has in recent years been increasingly conservative on gender roles. That’s certainly been the case in SGM and the other church groups they associate with. It seems to be reflective of a new wave of white male resentment and backlash against feminism in American culture in general.

  5. I can so relate to what you wrote, and it makes my skin crawl.

    It’s amazing to me that their attempts at relationships is so grounded in selfishness. The rules of conduct isn’t based in capability, communication, proper resolution, etc.

    Men tell women how they are to feel, act, and be. lol maybe that is why they say they don’t understand women! They never asked – they told!

    They know how women are to be, etc. because they are MEN – the leaders there to teach. Then turn around and tell the women – this is how it is now. Since we are to sacrifice for each other make sure you keep to the ground rules okay?

    They are so busy telling women they are NOT to feel ‘this way’ when we speak of submission, headship, etc. Its NOT a cut down, or make you ‘less than’. Again since they decide what the ground rules are – if you disagree? There is something seriously wrong with you. You forgot THEY tell you how you are suppose to feel after all.

    They should be ‘listening’ instead of teaching. That is where you will find the heart of your wife. You don’t find it while dictating to her how she should be and feel.

    The arrogance just blows my mind!

    • Grace says:

      Yes, that’s one of the really amazing things about complementarianism – the unbelievable arrogance of male theologians and pastors going on about godly femininity as if they have no self-interest whatsoever in telling women they have to respect and submit to men.

  6. dsholland says:

    I am at a loss to understand how either partner in a situation like you describe could live that way.

    To be clear I understand why people try to live up to standards they believe in (some better than others). What I wonder is how two people can sustain those roles when it is abundantly clear that it is NOT God’s will that a man should lord over his wife or that a woman should be a doormat for her husband. God commands us to love one another and NEITHER of those behaviors is very loving.

    I’ve failed at marriage and I’ve succeeded (well for 27 years anyway). Marriage takes two people, nobody does it alone. Both partners are responsible for what happens in their lives. If they manage to stay married then whatever it is they are doing must work for both of them in some way.

    That said the video IS creepy, someone should tell them ;-)

    • Hun, the movie “Jesus Camp” is creepy, especially to ex-believers like me who were raised in the church and know first hand that this is 100% true. There are so many weird and disturbing things about the church, you can write tomes and tomes.

      Who is to say what God’s will is or isn’t? The Bible clearly says it is the will of God that men be controlling dickheads towards their wives but the Bible reads like the work of someone with serious mental issues. Which is why people who believe in the Bible PERFECTLY exhibit mental illness.

      • Grace says:

        Definitely agree that the Bible is not nearly as clear on what God’s will is as some people would like to claim. There’s no clear teaching on marriage in the Bible; and quite a lot of what it says, when read from a literalist perspective, is more supportive of sexist, patriarchal philosophies of marriage than of egalitarian ones. It’s not a reliable text. At the same time, I think conflating mental illness with being unreliable, or supporting oppressive beliefs, should be avoided. There are many people, myself included, who have chronic mental illnesses who do not believe this BS.

  7. prairienymph says:

    This is so familiar. I went through marriage counselling where the husband blamed the wife for his total ignorance of her major depressive episodes in which she was suicidal.
    I watched her get angry as he blamed her some more. She stayed silent, but left the room. For which she got into trouble for later.

  8. gendernos says:

    First, I echo pretty much everything that’s been said in the comments… I remember watching my parents struggle through their marriage, mom despairing that her husband just wouldn’t lead her, dad despairing that mom was always questioning him, on and on. This false expectation of what a healthy relationship dynamic *must always look like*, no exceptions, no variance, has put so many couples through hell.

    Regarding the video, two things particularly struck me with the creepy factor.

    First, the music choice was just so… Well, funereal. Honestly, it seemed more appropriate to a memorial service than a retreat designed to help nurture your loving, joyful relationship with your life partner!

    Second, the pastor’s quote about the two essential elements of a successful marriage. Did anyone else notice this? This pastor feels that the two penultimate requirements for a happy marriage are “mercy” and “forgiveness”. We know that fundamentalists aren’t big on things like compatability being a requirement… But are those really the two biggest, most vital, indispensable factors? Above all else? What about respect? Or joy? Fun?

    Or even just “love”?

    • Grace says:

      At least in SGM there were a lot of mixed messages about the relationship between love and marriage. There was also a real suspicion of love matches that undermined the credibility of all the talk of marrying someone you loved. Between all the cases of controlling parents forcing couples to break up, and all the teaching on distrusting your heart and focusing on who God wants you to marry instead of who you think you want… yea, not so big on love.

      It seems what they really believe marriage is about is following all the right steps and doing all the right things. ‘Do things right’ in matters of the heart by courting or purposeful dating. Do things right by getting parental approval. Do things right by submitting to your husband and always being pleasant and respectful, or leading your wife well, by raising your kids in x way, etc., etc. Nothing to do with love, just following the right formula.

  9. […] If we did, we would be harming children and humanity. We would be selling out our daughters and elevating our sons to a status that they do not deserve, leading them into a delusional mindset that women are incubators for their sperm and their only purpose is to produce progeny. This hurts any potential for a real relationship but hey, we know that there are Christians that don’t value egalitarian marriages. […]

  10. Wow, this is extreme. What’s shocking isn’t the dynamic itself, but the relentlessness of it. Old, young, middle-aged, different ethnicities, both very stereotypical forms of complementarian dress and less stereotypical: with all that variation, there is only one mode of interaction. The man has the mic clipped on, and he gets to talk, while the woman pastes on her smile and leans in toward him. It’s brutal.

    I also grew up in a Southern Baptist church and, while I haven’t been a member there for years, things weren’t to this degree. Women couldn’t be reverends or deacons, but that aside, women weren’t expected to be silent while men expressed their views. I still doubt something to this extreme has taken over, but towards the end of my time at the church, Joshua Harris’s “And I Kissed Dating Goodbye” started to creep in, as did other noxious political and social affiliations and positions. So it wouldn’t surprise me if you’d see more of this there now.

    • Grace says:

      It is very extreme. More extreme than Joshua Harris/SGM, even – I can’t think of a video they’ve made like this. More likely the women do talk, but what they say is very scripted and limited (true for the men, too, but with different kinds of limits). But I do think SGM and parts of the SBC are moving in this direction. For example the SBC seminary that fired a professor of biblical languages a few years back because she’s female and Paul doesn’t permit a woman to teach in a place of authority over a man. Same SBC seminary that has a degree program in homemaking. Le sigh.

      • yeah, funny story about that seminary. One of the pastors of my old church (back in the 80s/90s) became the president of the seminary. I know nothing about how he ran it (although he did not institute a homemaking degree), but I remember hearing about the current president and being very disappointed. My old pastor? Had a doctoral degree from Cambridge. It’s not like that means a ton, but it’s certainly a reminder of the days when conservative evangelicalism wasn’t so hostile to education.

  11. dsholland says:

    Ok, looked it up – SGM is Southern Grace Ministries. Read their beliefs statement and except for the hard sell on infallibility it doesn’t seem too far into left field.

    A little sanity please. The bible does not say men should be controlling dickheads, read it, did not see it. The bible does say men should lay down their lives for their wives. The bible also clearly says we are to love one another (lots of places). There can be no serious argument about that.

    Do some religious people exhibit mental illness? Absolutely. A friend of mine used to work for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health ( in the institutions). Lots of religious crazies but these are crazy people who exhibit religion not religious people who exhibit crazy. Yes there is an affinity of crazy to religion, but that does not negate the value or validity of religion. Keep the baby and the wash-water separate please.

    What do you people smoke out there? Hello! Marriage is a team sport. You succeed or fail as a team. Does anyone not get that?

    I know about Ephesians 5. Never had a satisfactory answer for that (I think I do now though). Never worked for me either so I just figured I didn’t really understand it. I always thought people would do what worked for them (its what I did). And that brings me back to my original question – Who could stand to be “Moses” and who could stand to be a doormat?

    Does everyone just lie about their lives? Help me out here.

    • Grace says:

      As atimetorend says below, it’s Sovereign Grace Ministries. What religious groups are willing to go on the record about re: their beliefs is far from a complete representation of what it’s actually like to be a member.

      The Bible isn’t “absolutely clear.” The very same passages that say husbands should love their wives also tell wives to submit, using the same words that they use to call for obligatory submission from children and slaves. The same New Testament where husbands are told to love their wives as the church also forbids women to have authority over men and says we will be saved through childbirth. And that’s not even getting into what the Old Testament has to say about women and marriage.

      You say you didn’t have a satisfactory answer for Ephesians 5 (only one of several problematic passages about women and marriage, btw) for a long time. I don’t see how that lines up with your claim that the Bible is absolutely clear about marriage. There’s no coherent theology of marriage to be drawn from the Bible – no coherent theology on almost any topic, really – without first having a hermeneutic of interpretation to apply to the texts. It’s as “clear” to John Piper that the bible teaches women need to be submissive even to abusive husbands as it is to you that the Bible doesn’t allow men to be controlling of women.

      I’m not really sure what the rest of your comments mean or to whom they’re directed. But I can assure you that there are complementarian marriages where women are severely oppressed and abused by their husbands, with the complicity of their pastors and churches, and who stay in those marriages in part because they’ve been taught the godly thing is to endure without complaint or real action. Some of the commenters here have had experience. There are many other stories of such marriages at No Longer Quivering, linked on the right.

  12. atimetorend says:

    Yeah, sorry, insider information. It is actually Sovereign Grace Ministries. They might not sound so far in left field either, but my experience is that in practice any group can end up in left field in some ways or another.

    :^)

  13. PamBG says:

    I just saw the video on my feed reader and didn’t even look at the title you gave this post. I was going to say, as my comment, “Shut up and smile”.

  14. dsholland says:

    Grace,

    What I said was:

    “The bible does not say men should be controlling dickheads, read it, did not see it. The bible does say men should lay down their lives for their wives. The bible also clearly says we are to love one another (lots of places). There can be no serious argument about that.”

    and

    “it is abundantly clear that it is NOT God’s will that a man should lord over his wife or that a woman should be a doormat for her husband. God commands us to love one another and NEITHER of those behaviors is very loving.”

    I stand by those statements. I said I didn’t have a good explanation for Ephesians, I did not say it was not clear to me how people should treat their partners. As I said in my post on the subject of Ephesians, the common and repeated exhortation to love one another covers that pretty well.

    I’m not sure that I can agree that “There’s no coherent theology of marriage to be drawn from the Bible[…]”, using the same argument that the overriding theme of the scripture for human behavior is rule #1 & rule #2. If you do that I’m pretty sure you’ll get it right.

    Yes I understand there are other passages that are interpreted to mean women should just lay there and take it in the context of body and mind. My suggestion would be to reread those passages maintaining the context of rule #1 & rule #2. One of the things I like about Zen is that it teaches you to consider how apparent contradictions can be true.

    The rest of the comment, indeed the whole thrust of both comments, is that when marriage works it is because both parties are involved and having (at least some of) their needs met. One sided marriages, or marriages where both parties are pulling in opposite directions don’t work well and going back to rule #2 it seems unlikely that is God’s will. As I said, I didn’t really get Ephesians 5:22, but I understood 5:21 and 5:25. That worked for me because 5:22 wasn’t really my job ;-) (Whenever I tried to use that scripture it was to win an argument. I was already in the weeds. :-) )

    My argument is that if marriages are having problems it isn’t because of these passages. When the marriage is working are you worried about who is not doing their job? gendernos pointed to parents that were frustrated by their expectations of the other. I suspect if they had not been Christians it would have been different expectations that frustrated them (no offense intended).

    Moving on.

    Are there “cultish” practices out there? Absolutely! Those problems (as I mention in my post on Ephesians) are bigger than the relationship between men and women. NLQ has a very good graphic on the post
    http://nolongerquivering.com/2011/03/01/testing-the-spirit-of-quiverfull-perfectionism-elitism/
    and some advice to “try the spirits” (1 John 4:1). May I also suggest Jessica Stern’s Terrorism in the Name of God (my current read) for a revealing look at this kind of behavior, its dangers and its attractiveness.

    Be warned you will need to have a strong foundation in your own faith before picking it up, but if you do it is worth the read.

    I know the title is rhetorical, but Yes, women are human.

    Intimate personal relationships are complex but simple. For the simplicity see rule #1 & rule #2. One bit of insight into the complexity can be found in Leonard Cohen’s lyric, “[…] he taught that the duty of lovers was to tarnish the golden rule.”

    It took me many years to figure out what that meant, but it was worth it.


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