Category Archives: Marriage

Marriage and Social Justice: Ideas for Churches

Following up on my previous post “Marriage and Social Justice,” what can churches do? While I’m applying for an MS in Marital & Family Therapy, I’m not an expert quite yet. Nevertheless, here are a few preliminary ideas:

Evaluate what you have.
Get the help of those with appropriate training in your church (or bring in experts from outside) to evaluate how your church could improve various structures, programs, etc. to better include people from different kinds of families, as well as to best equip these people to move toward healthy, stable relationships. Be sure to consider lifespan development and what specific age groups, as well as other population groups, may need.

Make marriage a priority in your outreach budget and hiring decisions.
As you reach out into your church’s neighborhood or a low-income neighborhood in your community, consider hiring (alone or with the help of partnering churches) a therapist and/or family life educator to offer services to individuals that otherwise wouldn’t have these resources.

Help families care for their children.
Consider sponsoring a daycare center for low-income families. If subsidized by your church, parents who otherwise would struggle to find affordable childcare will have a quality option—and you have the power to make certain this is a place where children are loved and educated well by intelligent and compassionate caregivers. This helps families (especially single-parent households) economically, but also lets your church be a part of nurturing children whose family life (and world generally) might be pretty unstable.

Be pro-active in caring for teens and young adults.
Consider, especially, the needs of teens and young adults as they try to understand their families of origin and the possibilities for their own relationships. This might include forming a special small group for college students coming from divorced or dysfunctional families or developing new and better ways of talking about sex and relationships with teenagers.

Try to remain flexible and refrain from judgment, even as you advocate against certain behaviors.
Foster an environment of support that challenges people without judging them. This is especially needed for single parents, cohabitating couples, divorced individuals, etc. Do whatever needs to be done to make certain these people are integrated into your church as a whole. For example, consider whether “couples” small groups are really the best way to structure the majority of your adult Bible studies or whether it might be useful to purposely include any cohabitating couples at your church on a marriage retreat (after all, couldn’t their relationship also use some extra investment?). Dealing with the ethics of various situations is always tricky, but whatever you do, be sure you are creating spaces for people to grow in positive directions.

Acknowledge difficult topics.
You may need to offer teaching and resources relating to abuse, rape, infidelity, sexual addiction, and the like. It’s easier to pretend these issues aren’t in our churches, but since they are, to care for people well, we need to help them deal with them spiritually, emotionally, and relationally.

That’s just a start… anyone else have ideas to offer?

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Marriage and Social Justice

Do you ever read statistics about marriage, divorce, cohabitation, and single parenthood and wonder where these changes are taking place? Sure, we know more and more families in our communities who part ways at some point, but it’s not like a whole third of our kids’ friends were born out of wedlock!

Let me suggest (especially if you’re white or fairly well-off) that you are looking in the wrong neighborhood. There is a ridiculous correlation between race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and other such factors and lower rates of stable marriages. Take a break from this blog and catch up with these eighteen quick and easy graphs: http://www.virginia.edu/marriageproject/pdfs/2008update.pdf. Take special note of the various ways in which race, gender, and the like affect results.

It’s clear that practices relating to marriage are changing. Can you believe the number of cohabitating couples has risen over 68% just from 2000 to 2007? That’s crazy! There are certainly larger cultural issues going on here. However, when we note, in particular, the ways in which white families and black families differ, how can we not see marriage as a social justice issue?

I’m not trying to say single parents can’t be good parents. I’m not saying all marriages are worthy of continuing. And I’m certainly not saying that families or individuals from certain ethnic backgrounds should be shamed. I do think, though, that we need to consider the sociological factors that are leading to these differences and the inequalities represented by those factors. (For example, stress about money can put a strain on any relationship.) We also need to consider the various inequalities—especially for children—that these family outcomes create.

I don’t think we often consider marriage and family issues related to social justice. For one, many would see marital status as better able to be controlled than income or neighborhood—so if you’re a single parent, we think that’s your choice (read: fault) and not our problem. Secondly, I think we who care about social justice often shy away from the topic of marriage, due to Focus on the Family connotations. An obsession with marriage seems likely just to alienate people or to connect us with the reactionary sort of conservatives we wish would stop trying to represent Christianity.

I think we’ve got to stop seeing things this way. There are some very destructive cycles going on in our culture at large, but especially within certain communities. We can’t force anyone to get married, stay married, or certainly to have a good marriage. However, we can start learning about the ways in which social inequalities and marriage and family outcomes are linked in a mutual reinforcing cycle, and we can start using our own skills and resources—individually and as churches—to remedy the situation.

I think we need to better educate and counsel on topics relating to sexuality, marriage, and parenting, especially focusing on the neighborhoods and communities hit hardest by family brokenness. There are many people with no or few models of healthy behaviors and relationships, which I think makes it difficult for them to envision possibilities. I think that with more people to walk alongside them, more information, and professional therapy, teens and young adults from all backgrounds can better heal from their own family pain and move towards happy, committed relationships in adulthood.

We absolutely must have a more pro-active stance.

Specific ideas for churches to come. :o)

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Those Sexy Protestants

The other day in class, I was reading Wikipedia articles to refresh my memory on Katharina and Martin Luther. I’m not entirely sure how I got on the topic, besides that I wanted to make certain that Katharina had indeed been a nun prior to marrying Martin, as some of the ex-monk reformers married nuns, while others didn’t. This information is very significant, because Jeremiah and I have discussed being a monk and nun for Halloween, and to make this seem less disrespectful, I wanted to be sure we had a real historical monk-nun couple we could refer to. “See, we’re not just promoting bad behavior among monks and nuns, we’re representing a real monk and nun that had a romance going on!” Who can argue with people trying to teach church history?

This raised, in my mind, for the first time, a deep irony within the Protestant tradition. How odd it is that we are just now beginning (and I mean beginning) to more openly discuss sexuality from a Christian perspective. While sex was certainly not the most important issue for the reformers, it seems the Reformation made a point of saying, “Catholics have got this wrong.” Because they believed sex was a good thing, priests should be allowed to marry. Hence, for the first time in a long while, the theological leaders of this time had wives. While I’ve heard some negative gender-related quotes from Martin, and I’m not trying to lift up his marriage as any sort of modern-day ideal, I do feel like for his time, he and Katharina were in some sense progressive. This seems to be a part of our heritage to celebrate.

We, as Protestants, at once point in time, intentionally embraced sex as something good, the source of differences in Protestant requirements for ministers (marriage is allowed), as well as our openness to birth control today. How ironic that we don’t proudly own that, and how sad that we have made so little progress in developing serious theological reflection on gender and sexuality over the past few centuries.

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How’s married life?

I’ve been getting that question a lot lately. “How’s married life?” I’ve gotten it multiple times even today.

Sometimes it’s from a closer friend with genuine excitement for our marriage—typically someone who has watched our relationship grow from the beginning, whether here in California or long-distance. In this case, it’s less about the question, really, and more a continuing celebration of the fact that Jeremiah and I are together. They like us, they like us together, and thus our marriage is generally a fun topic to bring up, especially for our married friends.

Other times, “How’s married life?” is a substitute for “How’s it going?” I usually say “good” or “fine,” as I know they have little interest in details, though this probably makes me appear rather unenthusiastic to some. I often wonder how else they expect someone to respond. What would they actually do with honest answers like “We had a fight last night”? Or “We’re having tons of sex!”? Hence, the question brings me amusement, despite my slight annoyance that my individual well-being seems to have decreased in relevance to the world, at least for a few more months.

Lastly, there are those who are genuinely curious. “How is married life (really)?” This is a mixed group, including everyone from near strangers to bridesmaids, but it is almost exclusively single friends who ask. I like to talk about marriage, so I don’t really mind the question—but it’s not the easiest to answer meaningfully.

From my perspective, early “married life” is going to be quite similar to two things:

First, it is like the engagement period and dating relationship and ordinary friendship that came first. We married each other; we have a history together. Marriage is just a continuation of that past. It doesn’t feel sectioned off in a profound way. We are us, the us we always have been. Married life feels remarkably like the entirety of our relationship, perhaps especially because we tried to make fewer artificial distinctions before our wedding. For example, we started pooling financial resources and making financial decisions together at least three months “early” and established our joint bank accounts about a month or two in advance. While many people wait for months after the wedding to do this—or question whether they want to at all—I would recommend that everyone try to transition into marriage with similar practices.

Secondly, the first few months of married life feel quite similar to having a new roommate—though one you’ve already been friends with for a while. You already know something of each other’s habits. You’ve experienced conflict. You already often cook together, study together, run errands together, etc. When you’re living together full-time there are always new things you must negotiate. How do we do chores? (Er, do we do chores?) What about bedtime routines? Do we need to ask the other person before having someone over? In my experience, learning to live with Jeremiah is remarkably similar to learning to live with my college roommate Kate. There is nothing very interesting to describe, as much of what single people seem to be asking about are things they can already answer simply from living with another person.

With these two items taken care of, there are really only a few questions that seem to lurk below the surface:

“Is it what you expected?”
Yes, actually, it’s almost exactly what I expected. Is that weird?

“Is it what I as a single person expect?”
This obvious depends on the person, so I answer accordingly. While some people do have overly fluffy visions of marriage, on the whole I find that many people are too negative about marriage. Many see marriage as something risky to be put off. Others, trying to inject something positive into a culture of serial relationships, emphasize that marriage is hard—almost to the point that you wonder if marriage is any fun. If your expectation is that marriage sucks the life out of you, then no, it’s not what you expect, or at least it doesn’t need to be.

“Are you happy?”
Yes!

While sometimes I’ve been frustrated to answer the same question so often, the repetition—and especially the additional questions I’m sometimes asked by people in Group 3—has forced me to reflect on marriage in our society. We are certainly in an interesting place, when it comes to how we talk about marriage, how that differs based on context, etc. It leaves me with the sense that even among those with better preparation for marriage itself, few have the knowledge of real-life marriages (and engagements!) that might be a useful point of reference, even for those who never marry.

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Marrying Young

About six months ago I read a fabulous book, which helped to confirm for me my love of sociology of religion. The book, by Mark Regnerus, was called Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers and one of its themes included the discrepancies between adults’ teaching/teenagers’ belief/teenagers’ practice when it comes to evangelical sexual ethics. This, among other things, has led Regnerus himself–who is evangelical–to advocate for younger marriage.

The stereotype, of course, is already that conservative Christians tend to marry younger. Still, along with the many non-evangelicals, there are plenty of evangelicals who also would question Regnerus’s recommendation.

I used to be one of them.

It’s not so much that I thought everyone that got married young did so just for sex or that all young marriages were bound to fail. It was much more of a feminist thing for me–it seemed the younger the marriage the more traditional the gender role expectations tended to be. (I’m not certain that there is any social scientific evidence for this, but this was my probably unfair stereotype.) I’ve changed my mind, however, and I feel like sharing some of the reasons with the world. So here is my brief treatise on the benefits of marrying young:

Some Christians criticize others for their lack of a “consistent ethic of human life”–i.e. supporting the death penalty while opposing abortion. I think we Christians need to do some reflection on a consistent ethic of marriage. We have so emphasized not committing adultery and not divorcing that we neglect to discuss many other important things. These items range from how to best support those who have divorced for legitimate or illegitimate reasons to better supporting dual-earner families, from acknowledging female sexuality to recognizing the significance of emotional abuse. I also believe that among these issues is the need to thoughtfully consider and teach the beauty of the very countercultural aspects of marriage.

While marriage is something that has existed throughout history and in many different cultural contexts, it has undoubtedly been done differently depending on the particulars of those contexts. Our context today introduces many interesting elements into the equation, ultimately leading to later marriages. First, the high divorce rate of my generation’s parents has left many anxious about commitment and a few quite jaded. Secondly, casual sex is not always as common as portrayed in movies but is still a part of the cultural landscape (facilitated, of course, by modern methods of birth control). Thirdly, our current economic situation and the direction of our society more generally is encouraging more education, postponing careers. Fourthly, American culture is extremely individualistic. To me, these seem to be some of the most significant factors in delaying marriage today. Together they make marrying young look unnecessary at best, foolish at worst.

Taking even the most positive approach, younger marriage is just likely to cause problems. When you’re in your 20s, you really don’t know what you’re doing with your life. “Emerging Adults” have a lot of growing up to do and are still waist-deep in questions about their future educations and careers. What if you marry someone, only to find out that they work in New York, while you’ve accepted a great job in California? What if you can’t both get accepted into the same or nearby grad schools? What if in your continuing to grow up, one or both of you changes significantly? When you’re not planning on having kids yet anyway, why get married? You can still live together with some degree of commitment, and yet be able to get out if things don’t go as you hope. Additionally, weddings are expensive, and it makes more sense to wait until you have enough money to pay for the accoutrements you’ve always dreamed of, right? Anyway, it seems wiser to wait until you have stable careers with stable incomes.

In this culture with these attitudes, marrying young is weird. And clearly it’s not for everyone–some people haven’t met the right person or aren’t at the right place in their relationship or personal growth to make that kind of a step. And yet, I wonder what it’d look like for Christian communities to encourage a different attitude toward marriage–not so much marrying “young” vs. marrying older as much as Christian marriage as an intentionally countercultural act. You’re deciding you don’t want to leave your options open, you’re not going to try to guarantee the stability of every aspect of your life, you’re going to take some risk as far as your education and careers work out, and you’re willing to commit yourself to one person when you don’t necessarily have to yet and even though you’ve seen a lot of marriages die. To me, that sounds pretty radical in our society.

I’m not trying to say that non-Christians can’t have good and purposeful marriages, of course, just that as Christians we should especially be thinking about how the gospel applies to every aspect of life, including marriage. I know not everyone should actually marry young but going into marriage with a different set of attitudes toward partnership and commitment can be really significant, I think. For example, many Christians emphasize that commitments are important to keep, yet many also still promote some sort of hesitancy (whether in serious conversation or innocent jokes) about commitment. I would argue that an actually more Christian view of commitment maturely measures the risk, yet in the end embraces that uncertainty with excitement and hope.

To truly apply this to our ideas about commitment would go beyond our natural enthusiasm for those who are already planning to marry. I think it would change the way to consider things like, “What if we get stuck accepted to two different schools?” or “Shouldn’t we wait until we’re financially stable?” When you’re already acknowledging the risk inherent in commitment (no matter what the circumstances!) and daring to believe that good can come from it, these questions fade in importance. After all, marriage is about more than cleverly engineering your life circumstances to support a relationship. You can grow it in a greenhouse, if you prefer, but the unexpected is likely to make you feel like you’re in the wild, anyway. Why not just start there? Yes, some times might be harder–you can’t really know–but if the whole point of this is commitment, what does school or money or whatever else have to do with it? If you don’t think you want to be committed if some things don’t go as planned, why do you think you might ever want to get married at all?

Personally, I’m enjoying the fact that things don’t always go the way we thought, as it shows me just how good my decision to get married has been. While Jeremiah and I are both waitlisted for PhD programs, we have an uncommon advantage: each other. I’m surprisingly calm about the fact that I don’t know what I’m doing yet or what will happen if one of us gets in and the other doesn’t. I’m remarkably happy about it all and just excited to see how it turns out. Our life together in and of itself seems much more important than our particular plans. What good would it have been for us to wait to get married, apply to various programs, and end up at opposite ends of the country? If you don’t know you want to get married, that’s ok. But if you want to, don’t wait. It doesn’t accomplish anything. And actually going through with something that seems crazy can end up being a really wonderful thing.

And about gender roles: Despite my hang-ups, marrying young says nothing about gender roles. Though this was hard for me to get over (so few of my female friends are married that I was sure there must be something awful about feminists marrying young and that I must be crazy!), I’m learning that we can wait as long as we want to have kids. We can divide chores however we want. We can get as much education as we feel like. We can split time with kids more evenly than most parents. We can be flexible. People can think whatever they want about women and men who marry young–but for us, it’s an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company longer before we have more intense responsibilities, as well as even more time to figure out how we can best make two careers work. And I don’t know what isn’t feminist about that. ;o)

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Pastor tells congregants to have sex

Check out this video on a pastor telling his congregation to have [married] sex seven days straight: http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/crime/2008/11/13/jvm.issues.preaching.sex.cnn?iref=videosearch.

This is actually mild compared to some 30 or 40 day things I’ve seen before, but still, interesting…

My questions:

* Why do Christians pride themselves on being sexperts crushing the myths of secular culture… when in the views of this reporter, and probably many CNN viewers (including myself), this pastor doesn’t really seem to get it.  He’s offering just as superficial a concept of sex as many of the myths he’d criticize.

* What about the reporter’s point?  In what better ways could this pastor talk about and encourage sex that wouldn’t be as likely to also carry negative ramifications for certain spouses?  (If anyone’s wondering if some men would really respond in such a way, I have to say, sadly, I have known some that would.)

* And what about our definitions of sex?  I wonder how broadly the pastor is using this term and how broadly his congregation is interpreting it?  I’m not going to go into detail, I just have to say I hope the women are standing up for what they need, as well.

* How frustrated must those single congregants be?  And what about people whose careers or health conditions make it impossible for them to have sex seven days in a row (or at all?) right now?  Also sucks for all the people struggling with infertility…

Other thoughts?

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My wack wedding

At risk of totally guaranteeing a total guilt trip from myself down the road, I’m inspired today to write about the very weird ways in which I hope to do my wedding (if I do indeed eventually marry in the next 1-152 yr).  What inspired this?  Did I watch Four Weddings and a Funeral?  Was I checking out bridal gown magazines?  Am I just one of those ring-obsessed women?  It actually came to me quite unexpectedly (in the last five minutes), browsing the World Vision web site, of all things.  There was an article about one couple’s honeymoon with the poor of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it took me back to a recent conversation with my roomie Tiffany that essentially amounted to, “I want a weird wedding.”  This is my first time making a lot of this public (and nothing’s set in stone), but prepare to feel inspired… or sorry for me because there probably aren’t a lot of men that will get into this.  (Even more difficult: convincing his mom.)

Let the fun begin!

Idea #1: A Service-Learning Honeymoon
Since the article is what inspired this, If one of us happens to be a social worker or environmental activist, this might not be the best idea.  I definitely want some quality sabbath.  However, hours at the beach, quite frankly, really bore me.  I’d love to go somewhere–anywhere–and really take time to see both touristy and non-touristy places and learn about the history, the culture, the problems, the delights, etc. of that area.  Whether or not we actually “do” something to serve the people there, I’d be sure we go as people and not just consumers.

Alternatively, we could save the money and take some time off from work and stay home–if being married is so exciting the first few weeks anyway, why do you need to add extra fireworks by going to an exotic location?  Let’s save that for when we’re sick of each other and some extra spice.  Or save it for the kids’ college (or an extra degree down the road… or the next time our economy collapses…) or give the money to something worthwhile.  And why have special memories in the Dominican Republic that we could have in the space we live and breath every day?  Who knows.  I’m open.  I don’t think we’re bad people if we decide to go to France, but I’m open to considering non-traditional options.

Idea #2: No engagement ring
I don’t think they’re sexist, per se, but as a feminist, I’m just not into them.  And there are all those conflict diamond issues.  If anyone ever buys me a diamond, it had better be one of those super-certified-conflict-free types.  But I don’t need a diamond ring.  I just don’t.  (And given that I so strongly don’t want one, I would actually probably turn down a man that offered me one, because he obviously doesn’t know me well enough to marry me!)

Idea #3: A Green Reception
I just don’t feel good about having all kinds of paper and plastic being used once and thrown away.  I’m all in favors of green picnics, potlucks, etc., so why should I be hypocritical when it comes to my wedding?  What will this mean?  At its most normal, it would mean we use a caterer that uses all real dishes, glasses, etc.  At its most extreme, it might mean we ask people to bring their own dishes–regular, casual, whatever dishes–and also commit to “sponsoring” out-of-towners that won’t have their own easily accessible.  I actually really like that idea, not only for the environmental reason, but also because it forces people to depend on each other rather than our just doing what’s convenient.  It makes the wedding more of a real community-building event.

Idea #3: Not-so-expensive clothes
As I’ve watched friends be bridesmaids, I’ve wondered, why the heck do we spend so much (and make our friends spend so much) on weddings?  I’m not judging anyone that wants a more traditional wedding, but I just feel there are so many important things in the world that need our money.  So there are several options: cheap stuff (relatively speaking).  Or even more interesting, why does everyone need to match?  Why can’t people wear things they already have?  Why can’t I just wear something from our first date or a special night?  Not only does wearing things you already have save money, resources, etc., but it also means your wedding is connected with you, your memories as a couple, as a community.  And there’s no trouble trying to find bridesmaid dresses that fit everyone’s bodies and budget.

Idea #4: Really yummy food
So everyone wants yummy food–that’s not so countercultural.  But I guess I figure my food choices are a bit less traditional for your average white American…  I would much rather have nammura or mango with sticky rice than traditional wedding cake.  And I’m much rather have lemongrass tofu and chicken curry and quiche and baked brie with figs than whatever most people eat at weddings.  I know I need to consider that Kate Jessups of the world (so maybe we’ll also have bagels with Munster cheese), but at my wedding, I want to have the kind of food that I actually make a habit of eating, the kind of food that feels like home.  Soymilk and coconut-something are both musts.  Yes, soymilk at a wedding.  We’ll have something for everyone, though.  (Though I don’t know that we’ll serve any kind of soda–I think I’m morally opposed.  Unless it’s Mexican soda.  And Diet Coke for Kate so she doesn’t go through withdrawal.)

Idea #5: Gifts to others
If there are things we need, great.  Let’s ask for them.  But there are certain things people just don’t need that they receive at weddings, even things they’ve put on their registry.  The fact is, we were both living before we got married.  Don’t we already have a few towels?  Don’t we have anything for the kitchen?  Maybe we could use a bit of help, but where we already own something, there’s no need to get something new and “better.”  Instead, it’d be nice to essentially have a “registry”-type system for giving to one of a few meaningful causes.  I’d love to use orgs that one of us has a special connection with (ex: InterVarsity) or something that relates to marriage in some vague way (Christians for Biblical Equality, a domestic violence shelter, or perhaps the option of buying someone out of sex slavery through International Justice Mission or World Vision–because as weird and unrelated as it sounds, if you think about it, being able to have sex when you want with the person you want is a blessing not everyone has, even in the U.S., where rape, abuse, and trafficking definitely happen).  I don’t want a wedding that’s all roses, and I’m not really afraid of bringing these things up.

Idea #6: Multiculturalism
This is not to say that various traditions must be integrated in cheesey ways.  I just don’t want it to feel so exclusively white.  Because that would make me sad.  And I shouldn’t be sad on my wedding day, right?  We’ll see what this actually ends up meaning.  If nothing else, music for the reception has got to be pretty eclectic.

I could make up some more if I were trying to be really radical.  I could also live without doing all of these.  The important thing to me is to take nothing for granted.  Again, we have such privilege.  Culture isn’t bad; it’s good.  Our wedding expectations are just a part of culture.  But sometimes opting out of culture is ok, too.  We can create new ways of doing things that do a better job honoring the humanity in ourselves and others.

I also need to have the right wedding pictures to convince my kids that I’m a true liberal.  :-P  Even if they think I’m a just crazy hippie, they gotta respect that, right?

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