Monday, February 14, 2011

The Art of Marriage, Part II

Click here to return to Part I.

After watching two videos sessions of "The Art of Marriage", I reflected on what I'd just seen. It goes without saying that "The Art of Marriage" was intended for a heterosexual Christian audience, since same-sex couples were neither shown nor discussed. What surprised me, however, was that much of the first two videos seemed to be geared toward a male audience. On-the-street segment notwithstanding, nearly all of the speakers in the video were men. When women did speak at length in the video (either as actresses playing characters or as real people), they did so as part of a couple. I thought it was odd that a program intended by definition for a mixed gender audience would take this approach.

I was troubled by the video's antipathy toward divorce and what I felt was a disregard for personal happiness. Chronic unhappiness in a relationship is a sign that something is wrong, and if the unhappiness persists, it can drain the vitality from a person's life.While I agree that people should try diligently to work through problems in relationships, sometimes couples are simply incompatible, and divorce is the most reasonable option. Major problems such as chronic infidelity may throw into question whether a relationship is salvageable. Moreover, dangerous problems such as domestic abuse require a completely different approach, one that prioritized the abused partner's safety and means of escape over preservation of the marriage.

"The Art of Marriage" stressed Christian faith as the foundation of a successful marriage. I can see how being on the same page spiritually can be an asset for couples, but at times, I felt that the program was expecting too much from religious piety. What happens, I wonder, if a married couple has different expressions of their faith, or if one partner loses their faith? What if problems are so deeply entrenched that well-meaning religious faith cannot change them? Does the Biblical admonishment to avoid being "unevenly yoked" ever come into play?

After the two video sessions, I went home and perused the workbook that all participants received. The workbook closely followed the content of the videos and was intended as supplemental material. In addition to stressing the importance of a spiritual foundation for one's marriage -- that is, Christian faith -- the workbook also discussed the importance of time together (i.e., date nights), good communication, conflict resolution, and self-awareness. A workbook chapter on physical intimacy frames marital sexuality in terms of commitment, passion, companionship, and spiritual intimacy, rooted in respect and communication. All these strategies struck me as positive, and I was pleased to see them in the program.

Unfortunately, the workbook also contained strong patriarchal content, which I see as unhealthy for relationships. Chapter three of the workbook, "Love Dances," claims that God intended men and women to have different responsibilities in marriage. Men are called to love and lead their wives, while women are called to support and respect their husbands. Marriage is likened to a dance in which the man leads, but also supports and works in rhythm with his female partner. Despite the warm language, the workbook's message is clear: men have authority in marriage, an institution which is framed in patriarchal terms.

The "Love Dances" chapter bemoans "role confusion" in relationships, lamenting that culture has brought about a "gender blender" regarding roles in marital relationships. Insisting that someone has to take the lead in marriage (and that someone is the husband), the chapter claims that 50/50 marriages are doomed to fail. While the book urges men to show love, humility, and encouragement, it also urges wives to submit to their husbands by following their husband's leadership.

Despite the positive content contained in "The Art of Marriage," I cannot condone its patriarchal content, which encourages an unhealthy hierarchical structure within marriages. I believe the creators of the program had a noble goal of helping couples strengthen their relationships, and I'm sure that many couples approach the program with genuine intentions. Some couples may glean positive relationship advice from the program, which encourages communication and warmth. Unfortunately, the program also has flaws that may prevent participants from recognizing each other as fully equal partners or letting go of unhealthy marriages.

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