We’re talking Marriage Misdiagnosis in the month of September–how all too often the evangelical church especially gets the problem WRONG when it comes to marriage, and then the solutions proposed end up making things worse.
Much of this is a journey that I’ve been through as I’ve been writing and delivering marriage conferences and seeing what else is being said. And as we’ve read more research and listened to thousands of women, we’ve changed how we’re talking about this.
Another blogger who has recently changed quite a bit is Ngina Otiende from Intentional Today. I had Ngina on the podcast a while back, and today I invited her to write her story of the realizations she had when writing about marriage.
So here’s Ngina, with her own story of Marriage Misdiagnosis!
“Perhaps you should stop selling the book?” My husband proposed.
Our late-night conversation was taking an unexpected turn.
We were both born and raised in Kenya. As newlyweds, we jumped into the marriage space, working with dating couples and organizing seminars and retreats for married couples from our local church.
When we moved to the United States three years into our marriage, I started blogging.
And for a long time, I did not realize that some of the things I was saying (what we ourselves were taught) was unhelpful to people in unhealthy marriages.
While well-intentioned, some of my words could blur the lines of individual responsibility in marriage.
About a month after that conversation with my husband – about taking down a book I was completely revamping -, I unpublished all my books and courses (pending complete updates), hundreds of blog posts, and my coaching services.
Today, I want to share why I changed my approach as a marriage author and the four questions marriage teachers should ask themselves.
1. Christian Marriage Teachers Need to Ask: Are Caveats Enough?
For a long time, I thought issuing caveats was enough.
“And I don’t market my work to people in abusive marriages. I’m good.”
When Christian writers and speakers teach about marriage, we like to throw in phrases such as “But this doesn’t apply if you’re being abused” or “This material is not meant for people in abusive marriages.”
Granted, it is better to say something than say nothing at all.
However, many speakers and writers will issue a caveat and then proceed to include harmful or dysfunctional dynamics in the teaching.
An example: We’ll use an illustration with a toxic pattern and then jam it in the “normal marriage happenings” box. A scenario that indicates an individual problem, “Joe often says mean things to his wife when he’s upset,” will be treated like a two-people problem. “So they went for marriage counseling and learned better communication .”
Here’s what I learned and what marriage teachers need to understand: Even if we issued a caveat, the woman married to a mean and unkind man will identify with our illustration.
Consequently, and rather than see the problem in the marriage as individual more than marital (and thus get the abuse and trauma-informed help they need), they’ll go back home and try to work out the “marriage issue” with better communication and more counseling.
Instead of helping them, our teaching keeps them in the dangerous vortex.
So, it’s not enough for writers and speakers to say, “this message is not for people in abusive marriages.”
We must stop winding up illustrations for dramatic effect. We must turn everything right-side up and teach in a way that will not confuse individuals in unhealthy or abusive marriages.
When we use examples with clearly manipulative and exploitative patterns, even if those examples are from our own lives, we must discuss boundaries, individual responsibility, the need for safety, and how a healthy, Jesus-centered marriage actually looks like.
2. Christian Marriage Teachers Need to Encourage Emotional Expression
In 2017, I developed a health condition that has defied clinical diagnosis. I live with chronic pain.
I’ve been told to “pray” and “believe” for healing. Some have insinuated that a lack of faith is why I’m still in pain and all the life limitations that come with it.
In his book, Attached to God, Krispin Mayfield observes that people who have difficulty accessing their emotions find it more challenging to change their ways of thinking when presented with a new perspective.
Research indicates that those who reflexively shut down their emotions are much less likely to change their way of thinking when presented with a new perspective. That’s because information doesn’t change your beliefs, experience does. To see something in a new way, you have to engage emotionally with your own experience and your own memories, harvesting and reorganizing them for a new way of seeing. But if you are always dodging your emotions, you will avoid your own experience, as well as avoiding the experience of others
When we detach from our emotions, we have a harder time changing our perspective.
While Krispin is addressing the “Shutdown” attachment style (and he goes on to explain how people with a “Shutdown” attachment style can begin to connect with their emotions), we can learn a lot from the concept.
I believe the Christian world, particularly the Evangelical, Conservative part, is suffering from an emotions drought.
We’ve been taught to distrust our emotions. We’ve been trained to supress our God-given intuition. We see our bodies and emotions as an adversary to be subdued, conquered, and controlled.
No wonder we struggle to change our minds when presented with new perspectives! We simply don’t connect experientially.
We’re suffocating, and we don’t even know it.
Our Christian world needs more people who can “engage emotionally with (our) own experience and (our) own memories, harvesting and reorganizing them for a new way of seeing.”
We need more people-helpers who can access that human part of themselves, listen and empathize with women and what they say hurts them. More compassion and less “But the Bible says.” More caring and less theological high horses and platforms.
We don’t need a massive crisis or personal pain to begin to feel the pain of others like I did.
God uses everything, not just the hard.
We can simply learn to lean into the whispers of those around us, those who hurt. We can open our hearts (not just minds) to new evidence, like Sheila + co book, The Great Sex Rescue, and see ourselves and loved ones in those pages.
You may also enjoy:
- What if you don’t have to suffer in marriage to be made holy?
- Why Being a Good Wife Won’t Fix a Bad Husband (by Ngina)
- 40 Things Women Should Say “No” to In Marriage (by Ngina)
- 20 Things You Should Never Say to People in Destructive Marriages (by Ngina)
3. Christian Marriage Authors Need to Ask: Are We Overselling Love?
In my previous life, I made a lot of assumptions. I supposed that everyone who found my blog could read between the lines and know what to apply and what not to.
And there’s a place for individual responsibility.
However, overlooking your needs comes naturally when you’re hammered with weaponized religious text and cultural conditioning.
In general, Christians talk about love too much. We talk about forgiveness, compassion, going the extra mile, patience and gentleness, and all the things that make for decent character.
What we don’t talk about is what to do when you’re on the receiving end of a lack of love.
When impatience, bitterness, dishonor, disloyalty, neglect, wrath, rage, meanness, and roughness are part of your regular relationship experiences.
Many Christians don’t know that God has not ordained we remain tethered to abusive or toxic people.
We need a shift.
When we talk about love, we can’t not talk about what a lack of love looks like. We can’t not share how people can protect themselves when a firehose of unlove is directed at them.
Modern Christianity has made being a Christian all about loving people. And yes, it is good to love others.
However, the type of love many Christians have in mind is boundary-less. And it’s that wide-open-no-boundary “love” that immature and harmful people will take advantage of.
And so we can no longer linger on the responsibility of the victim/target of the negative behavior, to love, be patient with, and pray for the person who hurts them
We can no longer have ideas for self-protection that are cloaked in heavy arguments about how to “keep that window open,” reconciliation, giving the benefit of the doubt or reminding people how “God still loves the difficult individual.”
We must address the fact that people have a right to limit access: That they can walk away from the bad relationship. They can completely cut people off who harm them.
And God won’t be mad at them because He has established our dignity and worth as image bearers. (Matthew 18:15-17, I Cor 5:9-13, Ephesians 5:3-13)
4. We Should Not Just Hear Excuses from Christian Marriage Teachers
I used to think that good intentions were enough.
Now I know it’s not about what we mean but how the intended audience receives our message.
And assuming we had the right intentions, to begin with, but expressed them in such a way that people got hurt, shouldn’t it be the easiest of things to correct what we said so we get our true message across?
When we don’t self-correct and instead say, “people got it wrong, it’s not my fault,” it reveals our lack of awareness.
The burden is on us, as the originators of thought and message, to speak in such a way that our true message gets across (you know, that healthy message we say we have) and people don’t get hurt.
It’s on us to communicate in such a way that the whole room, not just one part, is edified. It’s a sacred duty not to shred one side of the room to pieces “in efforts to build up the other.”
Christian Marriage Teachers: We Can Change
As someone who had to rethink their approach after 10+ years of blogging, I know change is possible. It’s hard, but it’s possible.
That’s all people want from us. To stop saying things that have been proven to harm women (and men) and start sharing the true liberating gospel of Jesus.
I was speaking with a friend the other day, and she said, “One of these days, some speakers will find themselves speaking to empty rooms.”
I agree. The tide is rising. If we don’t listen to people and adjust accordingly, they’ll tune us out and we’ll be left holding our precious thoughts and ideas.
Make no mistake: this is not about us. It never was. The hurricane-force winds we’re feeling right now are wounded people calling us to a higher standard. We are not under attack. We are not the victims. We’re the teachers being held to the Jesus-standard.
What do you think? I really liked #3 especially, how we redefine love to ignore boundaries. What struck you with what Ngina was saying? Let’s talk in the comments!
(And be sure to follow Ngina on Facebook too! She has awesome graphics!)
The Marriage Misdiagnosis Series
- I've Figured Out Why Christian Marriage Advice Can Be So Shallow
- Why Elevating Commitment As the Answer to Everything Misses the Point
- 4 Things Christian Marriage Teachers Need to Stop Saying
- Who is the Focus of Most Marriage Teaching?
- PODCAST with Natalie Hoffman: An example of marriage misdiagnosis in real life
- Are We Putting Reconciliation Before Rebuilding Trust?
- Does It Really Take Two to Tango?
- Should We Always Put the Husband Before the Kids?
- Why Holding Up Radical Stories of Marriage Restoration Can Harm More than Hurt (coming soon)
- If I Pray Hard Enough, Will God Heal My Marriage? (coming soon)
- Does Marriage Need Strict Gender Roles? (coming soon)
- The Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Marriage (coming soon)
- How to Keep Your Identity in Jesus, Not in Being a Wife (coming soon)