Friday, July 19, 2013

Marriage Under Reconstruction

The 1950s imaginary sentimental love man as protein-carbs winner (bring home the bacon & breadwinner) marriage has ended for most people in most Western cultures. Some folks retain that image, or some photoshopped version of it, as the ideal traditional marriage. 

Picture the happy couple at church with King James Bibles under their arms and you get the Protestant Christian version of this traditional marriage.

Changes are a constant

The changes in marriage and romantic relationships in the last few decades are staggering for anyone alive before the 1960s. Human behavior is my business. I am a psychologist. The counseling advice offered to couples seems to reflect the mythology of the decade rather than recommendations sourced in science. I would like to say that the nature and extent of the changes in marriage and romantic relationships have never been seen before in human history. But I am no historian. Nevertheless, the changes call for some considerable effort at adaptation that was not required when the religious and social norms for marriage were stable for decades or perhaps centuries.

What’s different?

Age. The life expectancy of men and women continues to grow. For most of human history, people lived shorter lives than they do now. Many women died during childbirth. Many men died during war. Many diseases that ended lives can now be treated and some are eradicated. People live longer and for that reason, people who remain married have marriages that last longer than ever. Even those who divorce and remarry may have two marriages each one of which is longer than one marriage in olden days. There’s another age factor. People used to marry at younger ages than they do now. For several reasons related to independence, people now defer marriage until later in life. The length of marriage poses a challenge.

Discrimination. Prejudice against unmarried persons has declined-- faster in some cultures than others. Marital status is rarely a condition of employment or obtaining a loan. You don't have to marry to have respect.

Education. For millennia, only wealthy men from ruling families had a shot at a good education. Many factors changed that, including the action of women to gain social independence. Now, more women earn college degrees than do men. And more women are earning advanced degrees than ever before. Theoretically at least, education leads to better paying jobs and economic status leads to independence. And independent people don't want to live in dependent relationships.

Emotion. Love stories are entertaining but for most of recorded history, marriages were not love-based. Parents arranged marriages in most cultures. In more recent centuries, it seems children could influence their parents about potential partners. But love-- that smarmy, sentimental, transient feeling kind of love that sells summer books—that was not part of the traditional marriage contract. Love-based marriages seem to have begun 2-3 centuries ago—depends on who you read. Now, marriage is all about love. In the best sense, at least for successful marriages, mature adults have a broader understanding of love than transient feelings.

Sex. Changes in sexual relationships are hardly any surprise to contemporary readers. Even those who have only lived a few decades have witnessed changes in attitudes toward sex. The penalties for sex outside of marriage were not just forms of social disapproval. People –mostly women--suffered. If a woman became pregnant she could hardly find employment of any kind --let alone employment that would be sufficient to care for herself and her child. In many cases, men were coerced into doing the honorable thing- marry the woman they got pregnant. Great start for a happy marriage! What changed? Contraception became widely available. Sexually transmitted diseases could be prevented or treated.

People did not talk about sexual abuse even though it occurred in sacred and secular places for millennia. People often did not believe reports that women were raped and did not believe in the concept of rape within a marriage. Some still don’t. The changing views on sex is probably one of the biggest challenges to contemporary conservative views on marriage.

Gender roles. For millennia only men could hold certain social and employment positions. Women could not vote, attend college, hold certain jobs, join civic groups, get elected, get a loan, get a credit card, or wear the clothes of her choice. She was not allowed to make decisions under what conditions she would have sex or children. Laws have changed. Women have more freedom than ever in recent decades- maybe in all of history. Both men and women need to adjust to contemporary realities. Like the proverbial joke about ordering a cup of coffee, there are many options now... more socially acceptable options than ever before. Gender roles within conservative churches haven't changed much. That's a big challenge.

Divorce. As divorce laws changed, common people – not just royals—were able to get official permission to end painful relationships. At first, it was easier for the common man (i.e., not an aristocrat or powerful king) to obtain a divorce. As women approached equality with men, they too could seek divorce and escape the tragedy of abuse. Divorce rates rose and caused considerable alarm. Was it the end of marriage? Yes. Many forms of previous marriage patterns have declined in frequency. Divorce literally saved the lives of some who only saw suicide or homicide as a way out-- seriously, till death do you part. Children suffered when their married parents fought and when they divorced. This is a significant change for all- including churches.

Social role of marriage. Older forms of marriage are no longer the basic social units of western cultures. People continue to marry in the sense of obtaining a license for a relationship, which entitles them to many benefits. Couples of all ages continue to pursue a wedding blessed within their religious tradition. But marriages are no longer the factor they once were in employment, benefits, or commerce. Nor do marriages create a barrier when unmarried people wish to be parents. There are many ways for an individual or a couple to become a parent outside of marriage. An increasing range of safe and effective medical technologies improve the chances for a successful pregnancy. One child may have five parents—an egg donor, a sperm donor, a surrogate mother, and a different couple who raises the child.  Laws have changed that allow individuals and couples to adopt children regardless of marital status or sexual orientation.

Independence is not just for nations or churches anymore. In the western political revolutions, people were promised liberty. Cries for freedom and the right to pursue happiness took hold. As countries broke away from empires and as religious leaders rose up to challenge empire-like churches, so too have individuals gained independence from governments, churches, parental controls, and in terms of marriage, from each other.

The existence of dependency-based marriages is officially over.

Marriage and Religion

The primary but by no means exclusive religion in western cultures continues to be Christianity. Christianity of course comes in many forms. Church leaders have had much to say about marriage in the past two thousand years. Most if not all point to the Genesis verses to illustrate, as did Jesus, Paul, and Peter, that God brought the first couple together and blessed them with the task of having children. Since that glorious beginning many rules governed the relationships of men and women. Sometimes those old Hebrew Laws got pretty detailed about when you could and could not have sex. Christians of course point to New Testament teaching—primarily that of the Apostle Paul.

But Christians are divided in their interpretation of matters related to marriage – including matters of sex partners, sex outside of marriage, contraception, abortion, divorce, and so forth. Most churches have posted their official positions on their website. It’s good to know what a particular group believes before you enter the doors.

The official positions of churches only tell part of the story. People behave differently than what they say they believe they should do. Most churches offer forgiveness and encourage people to turn from their old ways. When it comes to conservative interpretations of scripture, more and more people are out-of-step with official teaching. Like Tevye in the classic musical, Fiddler on the Roof, many churches seem to have reached their breaking point when it comes to adapting to new ways. Not surprisingly, younger people make up a large portion of those who identify as progressive. The problem for the faithful: How much can they change before they reach the point that they no longer endorse a Christian marriage?

What does a conservative view of Christian marriage look like?

Well, here’s the feature list. You probably already know these items. Some churches will vary in their official teaching. I may have left off some items. Feel free to offer informative comments so I can correct outright mistakes.
  • A marriage is between one man and one woman.
                       …Who never had sex until they got married.
  • The wedding ceremony should take place in a church.
…And the ceremony includes a sermon, prayer, rings, candles, communion, and religious songs (along with various items from pop culture).
  • They commit before God and man that they will be faithful to God and each other as long as they live.
  • They work out their problems rather than get divorced.
  • They only divorce if one spouse committed adultery.
  • They only remarry after divorce if the divorce was based on adultery.
  • Unofficially but felt--They want to have children. If they do not want children or do not have children, then something is wrong.
  • The man is the head of the home. Mutual submission and love are encouraged but, when push comes to shove, the man rules.

Here’s a few unwritten rules related to relationships. You are part of a lower class of Christian if:
  • You are an unmarried woman. Something’s wrong… unless you devoted yourself to care for starving children in Africa.
  • You are a single mother.
  • You are a career woman and your husband has no real job because he cares for your children.

Unless you are willing to change your ways, you are not welcome in a conservative Christian church if:
  • You are unmarried and in a relationship that includes sex.
  • You are living with someone as if you were married.
  • You are in a same sex relationship.

God loves you so the Christians will love you too
… but God hates your lifestyle so you must change.

What can be done? This blog post is long enough so I shall continue another day.  I hope to offer some ideas for change. You probably have some too.

I welcome thoughtful and considerate comments. I welcome disagreement as long as you are polite.

For more stories on psychology and religion see

Relevant to this discussion---  AMAZON

Sources (Click on links in the text for web articles)

American Society for Reproductive Medicine (2012). Third-party reproduction. Retrieved June 11, 2013 from _Resources/Fact_Sheets_and_Info_Booklets/thirdparty.pdf

Baptist faith and message (2013). Retrieved from
Bell, R. (2007). Sex God: Exploring the endless connections between sexuality and spirituality. New York: Harper One.

Coontz, S. (2005). Marriage, a history: From obedience to intimacy or how love conquered marriage. New York: Penguin Group. One of my primary sources see her web page for more

Duinn, J. (2008). Quitting church: Why are the faithful fleeing and what to do about it. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

Friedman, R. E. & Dolansky, S. (2012). The bible now. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kluger, J. & Park, A. (2013, June 10). Frontiers of fertility. Time. 181, (22), 50-54.

Lang, J. (2013, June 12). What happens to women who are denied abortions? New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from

Manning, C. & Zuckerman, P. (2005). Sex and religion. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

McLeland, K. C., & Sutton, G. W. (2008). Spirituality, mental health, sexual orientation, and gender: An experimental study of attitudes and social influence. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 36, 104-113

National Association of Evangelicals. (2012). Theology of sex: Honoring God’s good gift. Author. Retrieved from

Pargament. K. I. (1997). The psychology of religion and coping: Theory, research, practice. New York: Guilford.

USCCB (2009, November 17). Marriage: Love and life in the divine plan. A Pastoral Letter of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Retrieved from http://www. 


  1. It saddens me that in 2013 the conservative church will not accept violence against a partner as "grounds for divorce". How many conservative Christian women (and men) remain in an abusive marriage because their divorce will not be seen as "acceptable"?
    Excellent and very thought provoking article! Two thumbs up.

  2. We're between the proverbial rock and a hard place—those of us who take following Jesus seriously—the Rock being the truth of the Gospel and the fidelity of the Bible. Jesus himself said that the Scriptures cannot be broken. What did he mean by that exactly? The Hard Place is the overwhelming pressure of society to conform—the "way that seems right to a man" as Jesus put it. But which of those ways "lead to destruction" as his statement concluded?

    Those of us who take Jesus seriously also have been "baptized by his Spirit." That is, we love. We love people. If they come to our church (or if we meet them on the street) we love them. It doesn't matter what label they wear or what they've done. Of course, and admittedly, this is the ideal. This is what we want. We realize there are prejudices in us and we pray that God will work in us to remove them; this is part of the Fruit of the Spirit in our lives known as humility and clear evidence that we belong to God and that he is indeed indwelling us and that we are seeing the world, at least in part, through his eyes.

    But if the Scriptures cannot be broken, we Christians will be in conflict with the world. Jesus said it himself, that if the world hated him—which it most certainly did and still does today—it will hate those who follow him also, and following him means to revere what he revered. What does it mean that the Scriptures cannot be broken? I believe that honest Bible study, following rules of careful and logical exegesis gives us the answer. The answers aren't popular. That's the "hard place" we're in the middle of. There are many, many scripture passages that speak of being "in the world but not of it," thus describing our situation.

    To be a follower of Christ and to be a lover of man--that's the great challenge and calling. To take the Bible seriously and honestly without being swayed by any current "pop theology"—that too is honoring him. Lest I be misunderstood, this way of taking up the Cross would not be popular in many conservative church assemblies where everything is "black and white" "cut and dried" and roles are established and "don't question it." And neither would it find favor with those who adapt their "christianity" to fit the times they live in. Maybe they're Christians—maybe not—but the kind of honest looking into the Word of God that I'm suggesting, wouldn't fit in well with their worldview or preconceived notions either.

    All of the above is to say…what? That answers aren't simple. Yes. But also that we do have a guide to Truth with a capital T, if we really believe in divine revelation. (There's another "guide" out there, I'd suggest. Look around. See what happens when the teachings in God's word are not followed—when greed, hypocrisy, lust—are allowed to reign largely unchecked. It's not a pretty picture. Jesus said we are to be "lights in the world." With his help and strength, we are to brighten that picture.) There will always be the Rock. Jesus promised us that he would always be with us. And as long as there is human society, there will be that Hard Place. But if I may extend the metaphor a bit, the Rock will break down the hard place and we will be free to show the world the true love of Christ the Lord and Savior.

  3. As your blog points out, the practical reasons for marriage are waning. In response, western society endorses “love” as the reason for marriage. From years of working with highly distressed marriages, the term love really means “happiness”. When the cost is greater than the benefit, most individuals are no longer happy. The most common tactic to rectify this problem is blame, criticize, or force one’s way. This might work temporarily but it is neither loving nor effective. In addition, happiness is temporary. What makes me happy today may be very different tomorrow. As I listen to painful marriage stories, I hear a deep common desire to be valued. Here is where the power of John 3:16 and other scriptures comes alive. The good news (gospel) says in our sin and failure, God loves us, values us. It is not a cost benefit proposition for God. He loved us from the start. While my spouse can contribute to my sense of being loved, valued and happiness, God is my ultimate source. Christian marriage is an opportunity to reflect and live out what I experience in my relationship with God. What this looks like in real time may require a much lengthier post or even a book.  However, as an alternative approach it has provided perspective throughout the ups and downs of married life.

  4. Some people write (and talk) only about the ideals of what should be, with little mention of the way things are. Others write only about the way things are with no regard for transcendent principles. Seems to me that your approach is to acknowledge where things are and looking for ways to make it better. I'm looking forward to more of what you have to say.