Who Is the Focus of Marriage Teaching?

by | Sep 13, 2022 | Resolving Conflict | 30 comments

Why is Most Marriage Advice Given to Women?

Who is the person who is most likely to read a marriage book and try to get help with their marriage?

Someone whose marriage is a source of strain. If you’re in a great marriage, you don’t need to read a marriage book. You might read one if you’re part of a small group who is studying it, or if you’re just getting married and want to get started on the right track, but on the whole, the people who are reading marriage books are those who are looking for help.

We’re in the middle of our Marriage Misdiagnosis series, where we’re looking at how so much marriage advice in evangelical churches went off track. We’ve already looked at how we often focus on the wrong thing–commitment over intimacy; surface-level over substance.

But there’s another side of the story.

Marriage advice often goes off track if it’s aimed at the wrong person.

And that’s often what’s happening in evangelical circles too!

The people reading marriage books are often the people having issues with their marriage. 

But they’re also women. Overwhelmingly.

One study that I’ve heard quoted frequently is that 74% of relationship self-help books are read by women. I would think it’s even higher than that in the church given how many women attend women’s Bible studies and are encouraged to read such books.

But let’s go with the number of 3/4 of marriage books are read by women.

Now, I’ve quoted Marshall McLuhan on the podcast recently for this one phrase, and I’ll do it again. McLuhan was a famous Canadian sociologist, and he qiupped, “the medium is the message.” By that he meant that the medium actually transforms the message so that the message becomes something else than was originally intended. The average newspaper article contains far more words than the average TV segment. TV lives by soundbites, and if you have to tell a complex story in a soundbite, you will end up losing much of that story and transforming it into a caricature of what it is.

Okay, now let’s apply this to marriage books. If marriage books are primarily written to women in dysfunctional marriages–since that is the primary audience–and the advice given on how to fix the marriage is primarily for the wife to change (since that is who is reading the book), then what will the takeaway be? If your average couple reads the book, what will they internalize about marriage problems?

It’s up to women to fix them, because the vast majority of advice is aimed at women. So people reading assume–this is her problem to fix.

We were talking about this in our Patreon Facebook group (it’s so much fun! You can help support us for as little as $5 a month and join our Patreon group as well!), and we thought of highlighting marriage books to show the discrepancy. One patron highlighted the Eldredge’s book Love & War in pink if the advice was given to women on how they could fix the marriage, or the example was of a wife fixing the marriage, and blue if the advice or example pertained to a man. Here was the result:

 

The woman who made this also said that it was a little misleading, since a lot of the “blue” material was more backhanded jabs at women–look what he has to put up with. 

Here’s another example that a reader sent me yesterday, this time from Focus on the Family. Here’s the situation: a man is ignoring his wife, throwing himself into his hobbies, never talking, never connecting. She begs him to connect; he won’t. And finally she figures out how to get through to him using a “word picture”. So the article focuses on teaching people the rather complicated art of finally figuring out how to say what you need to say in a way that your spouse will understand.

All the examples given are of men being bad, and women finally figuring out that magic bullet that will help him “get it” and change!

Now, I have no doubt that this technique may actually be effective in a few cases, and it’s likely a really good one to use with children, or in a work situation.

But can you see how giving this as marriage advice actually changes the very nature of the problem?

Until now, the problem has been that he is emotionally neglecting her. But after reading the article the problem becomes, “she isn’t communicating it to him in a way that he will understand.”

I don’t actually have a problem writing articles or advice to the person who is being mistreated in marriage. But when we do so, we need to make it very clear that they are actually being mistreated, and the other spouse is the one in the wrong. And we need to give them tools to process that and deal with that. But too often we don’t do that. We focus our energy on making the spouse who has been hurt tie themselves into knots so that maybe now the other spouse will finally “get it.”

Passion 4 Dancing

We see this especially when it comes to healing from major betrayals, like affairs or porn use.

Typically it’s portrayed as the husband who has had the affair or used porn. And yet what is the focus of the teaching on how the marriage is saved? That she learns to forgive, trust, and put it behind her. The focus is not on anecdotes showing how he learned to rebuild trust, to completely own his mistakes, to do work on himself to show why he had been so selfish and immature. Instead, the focus is on how she dealt with it.

So then, when a couple is talking about how to get over an affair, the person who committed the affair can say, “see, it’s your problem for not forgiving!” Because the bulk of the teaching and the bulk of the anecdotes are about forgiving and reconciling, not about rebuilding trust.

Why? Because the person who had the affair isn’t desperate for help nearly as much as the person who has been cheated on. It makes sense, in a way, that the advice is lopsided.

But the fact that we are writing more to the betrayed spouse than to the betrayer actually changes the narrative. It puts the onus on reconciling on the wrong person.

 

And that’s true for almost all marriage issues. The person being sinned against who wants to save the marriage is more likely to read a book than the person who is cavalierly wrecking their marriage. And so the advice being given will be aimed at the person who is not primarily responsible for saving the marriage.

When our aim is to keep marriages together at all costs, then the emphasis has to be at making the spouse who is miserable and being sinned against bear responsibility for the problem.

If the spouse had a full picture of what was really happening, and realized that they were not to blame, then there is a greater chance that he or she will leave.

But when our advice centers on the spouse who was sinned against, then we turn the one sinned against into the perpetrator. They are now to blame for not forgiving. For expecting too much. For not practising gratitude. For not drawing the right word pictures! For not embracing their role as helper and finding contentment in that–or whatever the message may be.

And suddenly the person who is feeling miserable now blames themselves and adds guilt and shame to the message as well.

How do we solve this problem? Give a clear picture of what the journey to intimacy looks like.

Instead of merely telling people what they need to do to keep the marriage together, let’s start talking more about what health looks like.

Let’s teach people to recognize healthy marriage patterns! Let’s teach people to recognize what healthy conflict resolution looks like. And let’s teach people what boundaries look like.

So let me recommend a great resource today.

I would absolutely love it if every Christian, and especially ever pastor, read John Gottman’s book The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.

 

7 Principles for Making Marriage Work

Why? Because I want us to see what a healthy advice book looks like. 

A few years ago I was talking with a man who frequently taught the marriage session at a men’s conference. He had always used Love & Respect, but after reading our critiques he was reluctant to. But he didn’t know what else to use.

He was very well educated, very well read, and very intellectual. I told him to read Gottman and then teach on Gottman’s concepts of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in marriage. He did, and his reply to me was, “I can’t believe how helpful and well-written this book is. It’s so different than any Christian book I’ve ever read!”

Yes. Because it’s based on research; it uses evidence-based advice; it doesn’t use gendered stereotypes; and it suggests things that will actually work to fix the issue, rather than just convincing someone it’s really not that bad.

I think if we could all see what marriage books should be, we would start expecting more from authors in church. There is no reason that Gottman’s book should be so good, when our books are often so off. We’re Christians! We have access to the Truth. We have the Holy Spirit. So let’s do this better. And I hope we can start by seeing what health actually looks like.

Why is Most Marriage Advice Aimed at Women

The Marriage Misdiagnosis Series

 

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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30 Comments

  1. Mara R

    From the article: “We focus our energy on making the spouse who has been hurt tie themselves into knots so that maybe now the other spouse will finally ‘get it.'”

    Can’t tell you how many times I’ve used this phrase “Turning myself into a pretzel” in order to get along with ex.

    A lot of my healing after our separation was me untying all the knots living with a Narcissist forced me to make in myself. Fortunately I didn’t read very many marriage books. They would have added to the knot tying.

    Reply
  2. Laura

    I read the article about creating emotional word pictures. That sounds like too much work when you can simply TALK to each other. When the author suggested to his wife that if she rode with him to his game, she could talk all she wanted. If I had been the wife in that situation, maybe I would try that. However, she was already mad and I cannot blame her for refusing to go to HIS thing even when he promised she could talk. I think two-way communication would be a bit hard especially when one person is doing the driving and has to concentrate. Not exactly sure what to think about that.

    I just think the husband wanted an excuse to NOT have to talk and that might be why he suggested word pictures.

    Reply
    • NM

      I read the article too, and even though he technically offered to listen on the drive, his whole attitude made it pretty clear that he thought she was being ridiculous. He was not humbling himself and listening to her at all. The difference between, “you wanna talk? Fine then, talk!” and “I’m so sorry I’ve been distant lately. I really want to hear what you’re saying. Let’s schedule some time together,” is night and day and wives know the difference!

      Reply
    • Lisa Johns

      Not to mention that by confining the conversation to the car ride on the way to the game put a definite time limit on it!
      That said, I’m glad the woman finally got through to her husband. But what needs to be VERY plain is, that does NOT work in all situations!
      I think an additional problem with so much marriage advice is the subtle claim that any little trick will work for *your* situation too! (And if it didn’t, well, you just need to try it again, harder.)
      It’s rank superstition!

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        It really is! And again–this is a LOT to ask of someone. Think of an amazing word picture? so then you feel like, I guess I just didn’t think of an amazing enough word picture. I guess I just didn’t do it right. As opposed to–my spouse actually doesn’t want to hear it.

        Reply
  3. CMT

    You know, it never occurred to me to wonder before, but are there evangelical books out there aimed at teaching men to be good Christian heads of the household? Since complementarians believe that men should be leading in this area, you would expect the Christian publishing market to be bursting with in-depth marriage content intended for men, even more so than all the teaching to women about how to be submissive respectful wives. I don’t think it is. What’s up with that?

    Reply
    • Mara R

      I guess it depends on what you mean by good.

      There are books.

      I never read the resolution for men, but I was made aware of it and what it said on a couple pages.
      It just made me mad.

      So I wrote a three parter blog series starting with this one:
      http://frombitterwaterstosweet.blogspot.com/2013/07/resolution-writing-persuasive-but-wrong.html

      I think the book was really trying. But it couldn’t do it without insulting all women. At least that is how I felt at the time.

      Reply
      • CMT

        Pfft! The wife can’t steer from the passenger seat if the husband falls asleep behind the wheel? Obviously he’s a man’s man and would never tell her he’s tired and needed pull over and switch drivers!

        Yeah, there are books out there, but the ones for men never seemed to take off like the women’s stuff did. There was no “power of a praying husband” or “created to be her leader.” There was every man’s battle and wild at heart, but those are the only big name ones I can think of and they aren’t really the same, I don’t think. I’m not paying much attention to that space these days, though. Maybe it’s just because I didn’t notice the mens stuff as much, but it feels like the books for women are more numerous, and assume we’re defined around our marriages a lot more than the writing for men does.

        Reply
        • Mara R

          Yes, to your first paragraph, CMT.

          And I said as much in part two of the series:
          https://frombitterwaterstosweet.blogspot.com/2013/07/resolution-writing-persuasive-but-wrong_15.html

          And yes, also to your second paragraph.
          It’s kind of crazy how many books women will buy to try to help there marriage vs. men. It really is.
          Glad Sheila’s got her books out now so we can keep pointing people to what will really heal their relationships rather than books with trite and shallow answers passed off as deep and spiritual.

          Reply
    • exwifeofasexaddict

      I have a theory about the glut of books for women.

      In a complementarian framework, women can only teach children or other women. And the only thing women are formally instructed in the Bible to teach other women is to love their husbands and be keepers at home. On top of that, women aren’t allowed to do deep, thorough seminary or other Bible programs at many “Christian” schools. So we have a situation where lots of women have the gift of teaching, but they are shoved into this small box by complementarianism. And so they end up teaching marriage advice based mostly on their own experience because that gift of teaching has to go somewhere, but they don’t have education or “permission” to talk about any other subject.

      Of course, this only accounts for the books written by women, but I think that many, if not all of them fit into this category.

      Reply
      • CMT

        That would make sense. Men in the evangelical sphere can address a general audience much more easily than women can.

        Also, if women buy a lot more self help books in general, then those aimed at men won’t sell as well. Even if the theology would suggest men should be clamoring for this content, if the demand isn’t really there, the books won’t get published.

        Reply
  4. Joy

    Another thing this reveals–a lot of these books are written to make money. It kind of goes along with the recent celebrity pastor discussions, only these people gain fame by marketing book deals. They are targeted towards women because they will either buy them for individual use or they can market the books to the plethora of women’s groups that meet during the week. I have never been to a church that didn’t have at least one women’s only meeting during some morning on a weekday. Sometimes they will have two mornings or add an evening for working women. Setups vary, but one common one is to offer two to four different studies for women to choose from, and you can buy the book for the study you chose during the first meeting. Women’s ministry leaders need to be extremely aware of what material they are offering as a study for these meetings. As leaders of women they have some power in terms of culling the materials of bad messages. This is an area in which women can be activated, vigilant and make a difference. It’s not that it’s “their fault” for supporting these materials, but as has been revealed there are people who find these resources helpful who do not consider how they can be used against or destroy those in bad situations. There are also women’s coordinators who kind of go with the flow with whatever resources or topics are trending because there is interest. With a little more vigilance these sorts of “ins” for unhelpful messages can be eliminated.

    Reply
  5. exwifeofasexaddict

    “Instead of merely telling people what they need to do to keep the marriage together, let’s start talking more about what health looks like.” Yes. And in so doing, we will have to realize that some people are not willing/able to be healthy partners. And some marriages might need to end. Tragic? Yes, but ultimately the best, healthiest choice. And, frankly, the best choice for Christianity as a whole. When we are honest about pains and struggles like this, instead of papering over and telling people to be content with abuse when they have a way out, instead of making marriage a prison for some people, people can see God’s goodness. What we are doing now makes God out to be a prison guard.

    Reply
  6. Jane Eyre

    Great post, Sheila.

    As usual, I’m going to go on tangent. The article from Focus on the Family is written by Dr. John Trent. He has been married for forty years. The incident in this story – him thinking his wife is irrational and her “proving” her point with a “word story” – happened in the 1980s. “I was convinced she was just emotional.”

    I’m sorry Dr. Trent, but the world has changed a LOT since then. In 2022, if you treat your new bride like an emotional girl and think you are entitled to ignore her because she has a vagina and isn’t a big strong rational man, she’s gonna march straight into divorce court. The “word picture” that gets through to you will be service of process.

    These days, women are quite comfortable defending their dissertations, presenting to a Board of Directors, giving technical speeches at conferences, etc. I’m not going to give strategic guidance to the C-suite at a 2 pm meeting and then be treated like a whiny emotional birdbrain at home.

    Huh, maybe that’s why the sexist men don’t like women in the workforce.

    Reply
  7. Melissa W

    I think that, up until recently, Christian self-help books have been the biggest ponzi scheme ever. Especially Christian marriage self-help books. I truly hope it wasn’t intentional but it makes you wonder. Let’s give marriage advice that actually makes the marriage worse, not better, (as proven by research and sources outside of the Christian circle) and then they will have keep coming back to us and buy more books and go to our conferences in order to improve their marriages. They are laughing all the way to the bank. Makes me so incredibly angry and sad! And like you said in the article, healthy marriages don’t seek out self help books. My 25 year marriage has been healthy and happy in every way for the entire 25 years and I have read exactly 1 marriage self help book since I got married and that was only because I loved the non-self help books from that author, not because my marriage needed help in any way. So glad to see the tide changing and the sheep standing up for what is right and true instead of blindly following very misguided and down right harmful shepherds!

    Reply
  8. Viva

    While John and Julie Gotmman’s research seems solid, and they are well respected, I believe that it is important to ask not only whether they have research that supports their arguments, but what questions are they asking and attempting to answer with their research.
    As far as I can tell, they have done very little work with domestic abuse victims. Also, it appears that John Gottman is very careful to use the word “batterer” when categorizing abuse, and steers away from recognizing and validating emotional and psychological abuse and the tactics of control employed by abusers who use their intelligence to destroy others while avoiding offending in a way that is easily identified and prosecutable through the legal system.
    He identifies physical violence and categorizes it as “Characterological” and all other domestic violence as “Situational” and solvable by mutually focusing on conflict management skills. His equating of domestic violence as a mutual problem is very unsettling.
    As an abuse survivor and advocate, I have serious concerns regarding the Gottmans as a safe resource for people in relationships where there is any power imbalance.

    https://www.gottman.com/blog/a-review-of-the-research-on-domestic-violence/

    Reply
    • Cynthia Lauer

      I read the linked article.
      As a family and child protection lawyer who has dealt with domestic violence cases for 26 years, I do think that some categorization is useful. I’ve seen some cases which were mutually combative, or due to someone escalating and finding it hard to stop (sometimes with trauma, substance abuse or mental health issues involved). It’s possible that in these situations, addressing some root causes and learning skills for anger management could make a difference.

      Other cases involve coercive control. As you correctly point out, coercive control doesn’t need to be physical, and even when physical violence occurs, it is just one piece of a larger picture. While I don’t think Gottman was saying that only physical violence falls into this category, this article didn’t do a great job of explaining what coercive control looks like. Coercive control isn’t really addressed by anger management classes or conflict resolution, because it isn’t about someone losing control in the moment. Rather, it is about someone desperate to exert control over someone else, and prepared to do so in a pretty deliberate way. I’ve had cases where someone doesn’t see themselves as abusive because they haven’t actually hit anyone, but they will look for ways to track and monitor a spouse, sabotage their business or employment, report them to authorities (tax, immigration, getting benefits cancelled, etc.), go to family members or members of the religious community to turn them against the spouse, label a spouse as “crazy” and attempt to get them committed, constantly tell a spouse that they are stupid, crazy, worthless, etc., make false complaints to try to get the children taken away, take away any access to funds, threaten a pet, deprive them of the ability to freely speak to family and friends or even therapists, and basically take actions for the purpose of stopping a spouse from leaving or punishing them for doing so. The system hasn’t always done a great job of identifying this sort of abuse, and many of these abusers can present as perfectly calm and in control.

      Reply
    • CMT

      Hi Viva,

      You make a really good point, we need to know what kinds of questions researchers were trying to answer and what populations they studied to draw their conclusions.

      I have heard the Gottmans highly recommended by many sources, and I’ve read some of their material, but I don’t know much about their take on domestic violence. If they don’t take it seriously enough, that’s really concerning. But I’m not sure that the piece you linked says what you were suggesting it does. In that post they seem to be talking solely about physical violence, and making a distinction between the type of perpetrators who are very dangerous and unlikely to change, and those who are less dangerous and can learn better. Emotional abuse isn’t mentioned that I saw, much less lumped in with situational violence. If they do that elsewhere that would seem pretty questionable, I agree. Do you have an example of that that would make your point more clearly? If they really don’t “get” this, that would be important to know.

      Reply
      • Viva

        From the Gottman article I linked previously, “Our nine years of research and that of others has confirmed that there are two types of domestic violence: situational and characterological.”
        Two types.
        And they define them.
        No mention of coercive control or emotional manipulation or psychological abuse or other types of violence.
        I would have to do more research on all of their statements and interview them in order to attempt to discover their stance on whether their definition of domestic violence only includes physical violence as their descriptions of both situational and characterological domestic violence seem to indicate.

        Research elsewhere argues that violating a person’s mind is very damaging to their human experience and can take much longer to heal than physical injuries.
        And, as I am attempting to point out, if domestic violence is a violation or abuse of one’s partner, it cannot be mutual by definition.

        Since the overall discussion is regarding material which harms the vulnerable, I believe it is important to question those who appear to mutualize abuse which is my reading of the category of situational domestic violence as described.
        Doing so only empowers abusers and further disempowers the oppressed.
        Also, I’m curious about this statement from the Gottman article: “Eighty percent of U.S. domestic violence is situational.”

        Reply
        • CMT

          A couple of things:

          The Gottman piece you linked is critiquing someone else’s work, so it focuses on what that work apparently focused on (interventions for couples where there is an issue with physical aggression). Psychological abuse doesn’t appear to be the focus here.

          Their whole beef with this other writer was apparently that they didn’t account for all the cases where the problem ISN’T shared. The Gottmans are actually saying that it’s very bad to assume that DV always mutual and fixable.

          Again, I don’t know much about the Gottmans overall. I personally am not bothered to hear their opinion that evidence shows some relationships involve violence and/or abuse that is mutual and potentially fixable. That doesn’t negate the fact that some relationships aren’t that way, and that some people are dangerous to their partner no matter what. I don’t have the background you have, so maybe I have a blind spot on this.

          Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Good to know! I do know when I looked at their book that they talked about marital coercion well, but I was only looking at sexual stuff.

      Reply
    • K

      I am sorry that you have suffered. I am glad you are in a better place.

      I have read about studies in other countries that have revealed similar stats. About 20% of abusers have a character problem and can’t be fixed but 80% of cases where they work on skills the problem is improved. In my country getting funding to educate those offenders that will benefit from building skills is an issue.

      I am not sure why you have an issue with this. I can see how it would be difficult to work out which are character and which ones are situational, lacking in skills, is that the problem?

      Another issue could be getting help. As humans we don’t like to think we aren’t performing well so seeking help can be an issue for some. Some plain refuse to admit they have a problem and will blame others. Culture can also reinforce bad behaviors. These would all be hindrances to getting help.

      Reply
  9. Laura

    Sadly, it seems that it’s all on the Christian woman to be the one who is responsible for making her marriage work. 22 years ago when my ex and I were married, he came home with a book by Dr. Phil called The Relationship Rescue and said, “Here, read this book and try to make our marriage work.” It’s funny that this was not a “Christian” book and since my ex never read it, he probably did not know what this book was about anyway. I never got around to reading this book due to time constraints and subconsciously, I knew that working on the marriage should never be my full responsibility. BOTH people need to work on the marriage. If one person is unwilling to put in any work, I think it’s bye-bye.

    Reply
  10. smh

    As another example, for affair recovery, I would think that Shirley Glass’s book Not “Just Friends” would be better than most explicitly Christian sources.

    Reply
  11. Codec

    I am wondering Mrs. Shiela if you could make post about stereotypes and what can be done about them. There are lot of them and there is a grain of truth in them, but I do not think that they are helping people. In fact I think that they are propagating division misunderstanding anger hostility and vitriol between the sexes.

    Reply
    • Jan

      Oooh, yes, the stereotypes. I stop reading at the first whiff of a stereotype. They are everywhere!

      Reply
  12. Tim

    This really resonated. A couple of years ago I was really unhappy in our marriage and desperately looking for something to help. As far as I could find at the time, there’s really nothing written for husbands in that situation. I read so many books whose authors had clearly never even considered a man might read them, which made me feel even more alone.

    I would push back on this though:
    “And that’s true for almost all marriage issues. The person being sinned against who wants to save the marriage is more likely to read a book than the person who is cavalierly wrecking their marriage.”

    Not every struggling marriage involves one spouse sinning against the other – though sadly I’m sure your paragraph accurately describes many cases.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, this is very true! It’s like we talked about in our attachment series–sometimes we honestly aren’t able to open up emotionally or handle vulnerability, which is what it takes for intimacy, because of other things in our lives. And sometimes it’s just different ways of looking at life. But regardless, the one who reads the marriage book is usually someone who is in distress of some sort, unless it’s being read very early in the marriage or for a marriage class.

      Reply
  13. Janey

    I’ve appreciated your writing, Sheila; it has really made me think. Why is marriage teaching aimed at women? Well, I think for one thing, we are always told that we can only change ourselves. So, we read the books looking for ways to change ourselves, knowing that we can’t change our husbands. I know I keep telling our kids that they are responsible for themselves…not their siblings. Hopefully I’m not telling them the wrong things.

    Reply
    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      I think that teaching is true, but we just have to pair it with teaching people how to recognize that they can hold others to the same standards they hold themselves.

      Like, you’re not responsible for making sure another kid is wearing their coat. That’s mom’s job. But you also are allowed to say, “But you’re not allowed to take my coat if you’re cold. Go inside and get your own.”

      Make sense?

      Reply

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