I’m so thrilled to have my kindred spirit marriage blogger Ngina Otiende from Intentional Today join us to talk about how those who talk and write about marriage can make sure they’re helping those in destructive marriages–rather than saying, “this only applies to good-willed people.”
After all, doctors know that the first rule is “do no harm.”
Shouldn’t Christian marriage teachers have that as the first rule, too?
And then let’s take it a step further, and make sure you help those in destructive marriages realize it.
Ngina’s been super fired up on social media lately (you really need to follow her on Facebook!), and so I’m happy to share this with you. I think it’s an important message as Domestic Violence Awareness Month winds down.
“This marriage advice is meant for good-willed couples.”
When Sheila and other trauma-aware marriage authors discuss the importance of teaching in a way that does not cause harm to some marriages, some authors push back with, “but my material is meant for healthy marriages only.”
Which is a comeback of the century.
Because individuals in hard, corrosive marriages do indeed consume “material meant for healthy marriages only.” (And we’ll talk about why shortly.)
So I want Christian marriage authors and influencers to consider the impact their messages are having and what they can do to ensure they don’t cause or perpetuate harm in some marriages.
Supporting Spouses in Difficult Marriages
Christian marriage educators can help all marriages (vs. harming some) by developing a new target audience within their existing audience.
A quick note: This post is for anyone desiring to be a safe place for those in hurting marriages, not just for those who write or teach. It’s for anyone interested in understanding how teachers and preachers can improve their messages. Think of it as a practical walk-through of how we can be inclusive.
Okay, back to creating a new audience.
Imagine with me for a moment.
You’re teaching a room where you know that one person in the audience is married to a difficult spouse. The husband seldom takes responsibility for any of the problems in their marriage. And if he does, he always has something to say about where she’s wrong. A lot of deflection, justification, minimization in that marriage. She’s read all the books you’ve recommended, she’s done some counseling, and she’s really doing her best.
You know all this because she is your sister.
And she’s attending your seminar (or watching your video or reading your blog), hoping she’ll find a fix or encouragement for her marriage. She trusts you to tell her truth.
So as the speaker, how would you teach with this sibling, whom you love dearly, sitting in your audience? You know she’s desperate for advice.
In your message:
- what language would you use or not use?
- How would you phrase your thoughts?
- What popular Christian platitudes would you leave out because you don’t want her confused or shamed?
- What caveats would you issue?
- What conclusions would you draw?
- What would you emphasize?
- What research would you do to gather more information and address your blind spots?
What will you do to ensure that whatever takeaways your loved one grabs does not sink her further into darkness but encourages her towards the light?
As you sit with these questions, also consider the following statistics.
1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men experience sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime.
(from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.)
These numbers do not include emotional and spiritual abuse. And if you add these and other types of violence, the numbers go up.
1 in 4 highly religious men report committing intimate partner violence against their partner.
(From the Institute for Family Studies. )
Please note: In the study, those who believed in hierarchical marriage were far more likely to commit such violence than those who believed in gender equality.
Domestic violence is the #2 cause of death for Black women, #3 cause of death for Indigenous women, and #7 cause of death for Caucasian women.
(From No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us, by Rachel Louise Snyder
How Christian Teachers Fail Spouses in Difficult Marriages
People in harmful marriages are drawn to “regular marriage” material because
- They don’t consider their marriages harmful. Just hard. Nobody tells them their relationship issues are outside the “normal human struggles” spectrum. In the Christian world, we approach all marriage problems as redeemable. We don’t teach that some marriages are meant to be exited, not saved.
- Individuals in harmful marriages want their marriages to work out. They are not looking for an exit. They did not walk into the marriage headed for the back door. Like any empathetic, long-suffering, patient, and loving human being, they are looking for ideas and strategies to fix what is broken. They just want to know what to do to make the marriage work.
Enter our content.
The books, blogs, videos, courses, freebies, social media.
We line up perfectly.
We are the ones to tell the truth about betrayal, unrepentant porn use, chronic abandonment, lies and deceit, control and entitlement in marriage. We are the ones to clarify that perpetual immaturity and shirking responsibility do not actually fall within the “normal marriage struggles.”
We are the ones positioned to slow the tailspin, to be a tiny flicker of clarity in our sister’s universe that something’s wrong with her marriage and there isn’t a pretzeling position left to fix it.
If we keep quiet, if the material we put out ignores her needs, then we must ask ourselves some tough questions.
- Are we okay being part of the system and culture that ignores and upholds entitlement, abuse, and trauma?
- Or do we want to be different?
You may also enjoy:
- 20 Things We Should Never Say to People in Destructive Marriages (from Ngina)
- How Pastors Enable Domestic Violence From the Pulpit (from Ngina)
- Why We Should Expect Christian Books Not To Do Harm
- An Open Letter to Evangelical Influencers about Toxic Marriage Teaching
- The DIY Test to See if Marriage Books Are Harmful (podcast)
Christian Teachers Don’t Have All the Answers
Spouses in difficult and harmful marriages are not asking or expecting us to be experts. It’s okay to stay in our lane.
However, “staying in our lane” does not include ignoring one part of the room. We must decide if we will be a part of the solution. Or remain a part of the problem.
Here are two ways we can be a part of the solution:
1. We can choose not to put out content that is unclear about the specifics.
Being nuanced will take a little bit more effort. But don’t we owe this to our audience?
Again, think about a sibling married to a difficult man. If they are watching and reading, what wouldn’t you do for them? You have many “siblings” in your audience already. They just don’t know it yet. Your words can begin to switch on the light for them. Or keep them in bondage.
2. If we speak about regular marriage issues, we can be clear that that’s who we’re addressing, but also write a line or two about what a “non-regular” scenario might look like.
Here’s an example from a recent blog post on my site:
Married individuals are encouraged to sacrifice in marriage. And in a healthy marriage, spouses can indeed cultivate a tender and compassionate awareness of each other’s needs.
They can talk about seasons, their varying pulls, and how they can support each other. If each person maintains autonomy, and the sacrificial love goes both ways (i.e., both spouses are open-hearted and self-giving, not just one spouse), and “sacrifice” is not the default relational dynamic, then temporarily suspending some immediate comfort or preference for the sake of the other is healthy.
It is when sacrifice in marriage is positioned as a default relational style that things get wonky. When it’s presented as the way to live in a controlling, abusive, neglectful, betraying, overall corrosive relationship, when one spouse is asked to permanently forfeit their own needs so their marriage can survive, then we have a huge problem.
In the first part, I introduce a typical marriage concept. Then I follow by how that concept looks in a typical marriage experiencing some growth-related issues. Finally, I pivot to how “sacrifice in marriage thought” is misused.
So with just a few lines, you cover both audiences.
Will you be able to tease out your thoughts every single time? Perhaps not. Particularly if you don’t have space/time to articulate (short-form media comes to mind.) However, you can use this level of clarity as a baseline for how you create and launch out content, whether short or long form.
I’ve had plenty of instances where I didn’t put out certain thoughts because I didn’t have space to articulate them in a way that covers everyone watching and listening.
You too can develop your style and method.
If your content is primarily growth-related challenges between two empathetic, compassionate good-willed spouses, just make it easy for people who are not the intended target of your message but who think they are, to find clarity and hope.
You don’t have to harm some marriages to build up others.
Do you find too much advice assumes “good-willed spouses”? How do we stop this? Let’s talk in the comments!