Practical Ways Christian Marriage Teachers Can “Do No Harm”

by | Oct 26, 2022 | Abuse | 10 comments

Practical Ways Christian Marriage Teachers Do No Harm
Merchandise is Here!

Sheila here!

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.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

“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 

#SeeYourSister

How Christian Teachers Fail Spouses in Difficult Marriages

People in harmful marriages are drawn to “regular marriage” material because

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Questions like:

  • 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?

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.

Ngina Otiende

Intentional Today, No, God Doesn't Say We Sacrifice Ourselves For Harmful Spouses

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.

Bottom line:

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.

Christian Marriage Teachers Do No Harm

Do you find too much advice assumes “good-willed spouses”? How do we stop this? Let’s talk in the comments!

Ngina Otiende

Author at Bare Marriage

Ngina Otiende is a certified marriage coach, author, and founder of IntentionalToday.com, where she helps spouses find clarity and hope. She examines unhealthy relationship dynamics and how elevating the marriage institution above individual welfare has harmed us. Check out her blog intentionaltoday.com and connect with her on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/IntentionalToday

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10 Comments

  1. redrising

    I have made the mistake too often of saying, “yeah, marriage is hard.” What I meant was, LIFE is hard. NOT my marriage. I have said to sisters/friends/women who are in dangerous marriages without knowing at the time. I have said it to sisters/friends/women who loving correct me, or ask me if my marriage really is hard and if I am safe. I have said it to sisters/friends/women who simply agree because it is our good, Christian women script to recite.
    There is even an implied guilt so that, if you are happily married, you have to be quiet about it! Just go along with the script! Don’t set a standard that other women may want to have their husbands reach for. You aren’t allowed to be “too” happy, and you better not share serious issues either. Just nod and agree, marriage is hard.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      This is so true! I think the script is supposed to be that marriage is hard, because we think life should be about suffering, because that’s how God fixes us.

      Reply
    • Angharad

      “There is even an implied guilt” Oh yes. I’ve seen this. And there really shouldn’t be. Women in good marriages shouldn’t have to keep quiet about it. If they don’t speak up about how good their husbands are, how will women with bad husbands know that what they are experiencing isn’t ‘normal’.

      Reply
    • Ngina Otiende

      “The script” Yup. It’s like an unquestionable fundamental of marriage we’re all supposed to agree to. Which is not the case at all.

      And I like the response by Angharad below about sharing the good things about marriage. I’ve seen that too, where people have picked up on the unhealth in their relationship because they observed the healthy dynamic in ours. When we’re compassionately aware, it makes the world of a difference!

      Reply
  2. Jim

    I think the idea of saying that you are struggling in general is not encouraged in the church.

    We had a men’s conference recently, and our speaker was talking about it was important to be vulnerable and ask for help when you need it. That is a difficult thing for men to do.

    There is this idea that if you go to church that you are perfect and that if you struggle that you do not have enough faith. But that is not what Jesus taught us. He promised us that we will have troubles and difficulties in this life and we are to bear with one another. Church is actually supposed to be like a huge support group for sinners.

    Reply
  3. Laura

    Excellent post as always! What I find very ironic (not sure what word to use here to express this) is that the advice supposedly for “good-willed” spouses does not sound good-willed at all. Good-willed people should recognize how unhealthy the advice from toxic books like L & R is. From reading various comments in other blogs about how L & R harmed marriages, it sounds to me that EE’s advice caused “good-willed” men to turn into jerks. A lot of these “Christian” (if you saw me talking, I’d be using air quotes to indicate there is nothing Christlike about this) authors do not appear to have considered how ill-willed their advice is.

    Another thing here: For a lot of people who read these “Christian” books, many of them probably do not know the Bible well and look to these books as the “gospel truth.” I admit I had been one of these people because I did not refer to my Bible when I read books labeled Christian. I believed that these people who claimed to be Christians must know their Bible well and I trusted them to some extent. Then, when specific content in these books did not sit right with me, I knew I needed to look to the Bible to see if it all lined up. It just never sat right with me that once a woman gets married, she is no longer allowed to make decisions and must defer to her husband in everything. Even though some Bible translations imply this, I just could never believe that God would want a woman to become less so her husband can become more.

    Thank you Ngina and Sheila and Bare Marriage team for your ministries!

    Reply
    • Ngina Otiende

      You’re right, Laura! Some of the advice for good-willed marriages enables immaturity, coercive control, entitlement and all round bad behavior and mindsets in marriage.

      I began to change my mind when I started reading and researching and studying for myself. It definitely makes all the difference when Christians start to study out these beliefs and ideas that have been handed down to them. We all just assumed it was Scripture. It’s surprising what we learn when we take the initiative and stop relying on others to tell us who Jesus is.

      Reply
  4. Jo

    A problem that I found with my sister is that since she was being abused and struggling she couldn’t describe her marriage accurately. All the details made it sound a like a normal marriage. Until my family moved to the same state and began to see interactions ourselves. Then it was clear it was abuse masquerading as normal marital struggles.
    I wonder if the guideline for supporting others comes down to hearing they are struggling and encouraging a sister to seek counseling for support. Then praying the expert can help reveal if it is a normal struggle or abuse.

    Reply
    • Ngina Otiende

      I’m so glad you’re sister had that clarifying support in you guys. I think being able to sit in another person’s pain, without trying to “fix it” and just offering an empathetic ear, at the beginning, can yield much fruit. That ongoing conversation and affirmation and clarifying feedback can set the ball rolling, to where the woman is able to gather enough bandwidth to find the professional licensed help they need.

      Overall, I think Christians need to be more trauma and abuse aware so they can exercise discernment. There’s so much free information out there, including Sheila’s website on what is healthy and what is not.

      Reply
  5. J

    This is a great post – it is so important to talk openly about health vs dysfunction, and I hope by doing so we can help people begin to have words for what dysfunction looks like. I was trapped in a marriage with an incredibly self-deceived man who deceived me as well. No amount of reading or sleuthing helped me discover why I was miserable in my marriage. I was miserable because I was alone, even though he was physically around.

    Covert abuse is next to impossible to root out without the confession of the abuser. My husband professed to being self-controlled, faithful, and invested in our marriage. I trust that he wanted to be those things, but he was not any of those things. And because he had so incredibly deceived himself, there was no way I could discover the truth until he decided to tell me. It took decades for him to be able to see his choices for what they were (infidelity), but it wasn’t until he watched his confession crush me that he understood the depths of his failure as a husband.

    I’m not sure if reading marriage blogs that show both health and unhealth would have helped either of us. Probably not. I’d been suspicious of my husband since the week before our wedding, and I now know I was right to be suspicious. But no amount of questioning him got him to tell me the truth. Jesus had to do that. And my husband’s lies were so thick that he thought he was a good husband, not an abusive, deceptive man who was embroiled in sexual immortality. There is no way a wife can battle through such thick self-deception. So, I kept thinking I was in a healthy marriage and that I was the broken one. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been in that place. That line of thinking kept me reading marriage material trying to find the answer to the problem of my marriage.

    What I’m trying to say is that I believe I could have read a list of covert abuse tactics and not recognized that they were happening in my marriage simply because I believed my husband when he told me he was faithful and honest, so I was doomed to an endless loop of wondering what was broken in me.

    There is nothing teachers and authors can do in situations like mine, but maybe that showing of unhealthy behavior vs healthy behavior will help educate future women, especially if we stop with the male entitlement stuff.

    Thank you for your work.

    Reply

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