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Friday, January 27, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Woman Overboard

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Last week we discussed the “new normal” — that almost 70% of divorces are now initiated by unhappy wives — and suggested a number of possible reasons for a phenomenon that is growing not just in the world but in our churches: young women brought up in Christian homes, most or all of whom have made professions of faith, seem increasingly able to walk away not just from their husbands but from their families, often to raise the children of their new partner.

Tom: We talked about the Internet and the work environment, IC, and the family-associated problems of over-protection and legalism.

But let’s leave the family for a moment.

The Death of Shame

You made reference in passing to the fact that our society no longer stigmatizes those who divorce. Now, it’s not our business to pass judgment on those outside our churches, but it’s hard to avoid the obvious: ridding our society of the concept of shame has not done the institution of marriage any favors.

IC: True. It’s not that shame can fix a bad marriage, or even that it should hold a bad marriage together … I wouldn’t look for that. The problem, it seems to me, is that there isn’t even enough shame to cause a person who’s perhaps having adulterous thoughts about leaving a marriage that’s going through ordinary rough spots to feel ashamed, or to make such a person hesitate and think about what his or her choice could entail. And that might be just a little too shameless.

Tom: You’re inadvertently reminding me of another common element in these situations, and it’s related to the loss of shame as a motivating force in our society: many of the departing spouses seem to have no end of enablers who rationalize their conduct for them and justify them to others. Some of these folks are even professing Christians. I’m pretty sure that’s not something one had to worry about in 1940.

IC: Quite so. But our society’s view of the highest value is “personal fulfillment”, or “happiness”, whatever that might mean. So our heroes are people who are pursuing those in a confident and unrestrained way, and on their own terms. Thus there are any number of cheerleaders for persons who are crossing boundaries, so long as they are in pursuit of obtaining that.

Two Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Tom: Well, let’s go on to that then. We’ve talked about where the family and society might fail a young woman, but let’s talk about her expectations. It’s my conviction that the deification of romantic love in the media has created impossible expectations for young Christian women of what their marriage should be like, and later, equally impossible expectations of what a fling and a divorce might bring to their lives. In both cases, they’re in for a bit of a shock.

IC: Oh, my dear sir … if ONLY it were just “romance” that is the problem today. How easy life would be …

It’s the pornographication of relationships: that’s what I’m seeing in the next generation. Both the expectations of young men of what will be involved in “romancing” a woman, and the expectations of a young woman as to how she must behave in order to be “romantically desirable”, and how she may recognize herself as the recipient of a “romantic” intention, are being reconstructed by the kinds of media they are ingesting. I’ll leave you to imagine just how bad that is, because the Word says it’s not good even to speak of what that entails.

Tom: [sigh] Admittedly, IC, I am using the word “romance” as a convenient euphemism for exactly the sort of thing you suggest, but I recognize we have some older readers, as you do. I concede that what women are looking for today is markedly different from what they sought in the days of our dear Queen Elizabeth. I wish it were not so.

Great Expectations

Can we agree, for starters, that there is a significant difference between what a young modern Christian woman expects of her husband in marriage and what is possible to actually deliver?

IC: Yes. And there’s a significant difference between what many modern men expect and what a wife can deliver as well. Both sides have become very unrealistic about how complicated and challenging marriage really is. That older generation you mention generally stuck it out through some very difficult times, and learned a lot more about it; I think we jump in and out of relationships too soon to let the Lord refine us in them the way that he did that generation.

Tom: Agreed. There is no green grass on the other side of the fence, either in marriage or out of marriage. And this is what moderns don’t grasp. They expect that in marrying or remarrying, their partner is somehow going to “fix” their problems.

Uh … no. Not happening. “Romantic love” is an interval, if we’re lucky. It is not a lifestyle. No real relationship can sustain it.

Something More Than Romantic Love

IC: No. I remember my English teacher years ago asking our class why Romeo and Juliet had to die. (We couldn’t think of an answer.) He said, “Because, can you imagine them as old people?” Well, none of us could. They work well as romantic models precisely because they die young … that kind of passion is neither plausible nor healthy for the long haul. Something else is needed.

Tom: Yes. This is the problem. The media is lying to us, and unfortunately young women are the biggest victims of their lies. It’s lying to us that marriage should be a non-stop exercise in fulfilling our desires, and it’s lying to us that leaving marriage for some internet flame will do the job that marriage didn’t do. Neither is true. Marriage is hard work, and your spouse will not always be the person you want him to be, even if he’s a sincere, devoted Christian.

And an affair is never painless, or fulfilling, or a long-term solution. Rather, it’s a recipe for growing old as a Cat Lady while someone else raises your kids. Not, I hasten to add, that there’s anything wrong with cats or Cat Ladies: I’m fond of both. But it’s probably not the final chapter a woman leaving a Christian marriage in mid-life is anticipating when she leaves it. Those few that make a second relationship last have frequently traded down, whether they realize it or not.

IC: Well, men have been sold a bill of goods on desire for a long time already. So maybe it’s just women’s turn to find out indulging one’s passions doesn’t actually work. But surely, none of this is genuinely a Christian way to behave, Tom. So where do we go from here?

Pushing the Stop Button

Tom: Well, at some point we need to push the button marked “stop”, don’t we? I mean, there are a million reasons to leave that guy you married. He probably will never amount to what you hoped, either in the church or in the home. He almost surely will fall short of your expectations in one way or another.

But nobody could meet those expectations. Nobody. They are a fantasy concocted by Hollywood. Forget Eat Pray Love: that one’s obvious. Even in the Kendrick Brothers movies that Christians love, the ending is always that the prayerful wisdom of the poor, loving wife eventually turns the husband into what she’s always wanted by the final scene. And that’s simply not realistic.

IC: Yep. There’s a certain rough reality to marriage. I think I wrote about how I talk to my students about this in an earlier post. It is a solemn contract because — it’s very, very, very, very hard! Yes, there are good times; but anyone who can stick out a marriage over the long haul deserves special respect … because a thousand times the heart gets restless, and something stronger than a feeling of romance is always needed to preserve the bond.

Tom: Well, we’re coming back to commitment here, aren’t we? Not so much a commitment to the marriage, but a commitment to the Lord.

IC: That’s the thing. If we look in ourselves for the faithfulness to get the really tough jobs done — jobs such as loving people when we are not feeling it, raising difficult children, being truly sacrificial financially, or sticking out a tough domestic situation — we’re likely to be disappointed. Not many of us have the virtue to see such things through, especially over the long haul. It takes the situation-transcending power of Christ to keep us faithful. It’s not about how much we like our circumstances, it’s about how much we love him … and always, of course, because he loves us first.

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