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Monday, July 25, 2016

Boundaries in Dating: Definitely Not Complementarian

Two water molecules, with + and - signs indicating electric charge. Image source.
Chapter 9 of Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships is called "Beware When Opposites Attract." And wow, you guys. From beginning to end, this chapter screams "we are NOT complementarian", though it doesn't mention complementarianism or gender roles at all. Let's start at the beginning:

So, it's about the phenomenon of "opposites attract" in romantic relationships. In other words, if you lack certain strengths or abilities, you might be attracted to someone who has them. The writers, Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend, say this can often be a good thing. People who have different abilities can work together and help each other, and they're better off than if they tried to do everything on their own. But it can also become unhealthy:
We should use and appreciate the abilities of those who have what we don't. However, the danger occurs when we make opposing styles or abilities a basis for relationship.
At this point, all the complementarian readers gasped and dropped their books.

[For those who haven't heard of complementarianism: it's the belief that men and women are "different, but equal." God has created men to be strong and lead and protect their families, and women to be kind and nurturing and take care of children. So women should be limited to roles where they don't "have authority over men." I was taught that this is what "the bible says", so Christians are required to believe it. Many bloggers, including me, have pointed out that this is really messed-up and is NOT EQUAL AT ALL.]

Or, hmm. Actually, maybe all the complementarians didn't gasp and drop their books. If I had read that sentence- "the danger occurs when we make opposing styles or abilities a basis for relationship"- back when I believed in complementarianism, I wouldn't have read it as challenging complementarianism at all. I had never heard of Christians who didn't believe in complementarianism, and this is a Christian book, so OBVIOUSLY the authors aren't talking about "opposing styles or abilities" related to how the husband has to be the spiritual leader and the wife has to submit. I mean, OBVIOUSLY they're Christians, so they believe that. They must be talking about other opposite characteristics in relationships.

(It's also possible to totally misread the bible in this way. You're totally sure about "the biblical view" on topic XYZ, and then you read a bible verse that contradicts that "biblical view", but you never even realize it's a contradiction. Because you know of course the biblical writer believed "the biblical view" that you learned in church, so clearly they didn't mean to contradict it. They must have been talking about something else when they wrote that.)

But, for real. These writers are NOT complementarian. They are not. If they say they are, they're lying. Every single thing in this chapter goes against the very foundation of complementarianism. (And, to be clear, I agree with them and I very much believe complementarianism is evil.)

Anyway. "Boundaries in Dating" says it's a problem when "opposing styles or abilities" become "a basis for relationship." I submit [heh] to you that this describes complementarian ideology perfectly. Complementarians teach that in order for a romantic relationship to be good and healthy, the man must act in a certain "masculine" way and the woman must act in a certain "feminine" way. Complementarians differ in how they define those "masculine" and "feminine" roles- some say women MUST stay home and take care of their kids, while some say that it would be wrong ("legalistic") to define specific jobs or tasks that a woman MUST do or a man MUST do, but that whatever they are doing, a man must go about it with a more "masculine" attitude and a woman must take a more "feminine" approach. They teach that these differences in personality types and "roles" are absolutely essential. (And in this ideology, same-sex marriage makes no sense. Also, the existence of non-binary people.)

Let me tell you about one of the examples that "Boundaries in Dating" gives, showing that "opposites attract" can cause relationship problems. Lindsey didn't like confrontation or conflict, so she generally just let people walk all over her. Her boyfriend, Alex, was the opposite- he was assertive and able to stand up for himself. So, when she had a problem with someone, Lindsey would ask Alex to go talk to them for her. He talked to her landlord, her boss, her mechanic, and her mom, and was always able to solve Lindsey's problem. But eventually, Alex was unhappy that he always had to do this for Lindsey- they talked about it and realized that Lindsey really needed to learn how to stand up for herself. She was depending on Alex instead of developing her own character.

Then there's this veryyyyyyyyy interesting bit:
Lindsey's issue with Alex was fear-based. She was not an irresponsible person, but she had come from a family in which being polite, nice, and compliant were seen as virtues, while honesty, confrontation, and limit-setting were seen as selfish sins. She had grown up believing that telling the truth was hurtful, and she hated conflict. So she was terrified of dealing with problems with people.
Oh my goodness- they just came SO CLOSE to talking about the problem of "limit-setting" being seen as a "selfish sin." But nope, that's all they say about it. As I've said before, in the Christianity I learned, boundaries are DEFINITELY bad. You should always do more, give more, help people more. Love your enemeies. Put others first. It's wrong to care about yourself. And I'm frustrated with the fact that "Boundaries in Dating" does nothing to address that line of thinking. This book is FULL of healthy advice, but no good godly evangelical would be able to believe any of it. And in that bit I just quoted, where Lindsey had been raised to believe that having boundaries was sinful- I WOULD LIKE TO HEAR MORE ABOUT THIS. I would like to hear a detailed argument on why it's not true that Christians should always put others first and not care about their own mental health.

Because, yes, I now believe the boundaries are good and healthy. You shouldn't keep giving and giving and being nice to people who hurt you emotionally. You matter and your emotions matter, and God wants you to be emotionally healthy. But do you have any idea how much "Christian morality" I had to unlearn in order to get to this belief? "Boundaries in Dating" offers no help in unlearning that. It assumes that, by giving examples of how boundaries benefit you, and how a lack of boundaries hurts you, it is making a convincing argument that "you need to have boundaries." But for good evangelicals, no- all of that is meaningless. It doesn't matter if something benefits or hurts yourself. All that matters is putting God first. Dying to self. Submitting to God. Giving up your rights.

Ugh. Yeah. This book is full of really really good, healthy advice that everyone should know. But it would all be meaningless to someone who is reading this from deep within evangelical culture.

Okay. Let's move on. There's another example in this chapter I want to tell you about, because IT'S SO IMPORTANT TO LEARN ABOUT WHAT'S HEALTHY AND UNHEALTHY IN A RELATIONSHIP. It's about Kim and Pete. Kim had a hard time being social and making friends, but Pete was just the opposite. So when they were dating, they would go to social events together, and Kim found that she was much more comfortable making friends when Pete was there. Soon, she began to depend on him- she felt that she couldn't go to social events alone, she had to always follow Pete around. Then they both started to resent each other- Pete didn't like how he always had to manage her social life, and Kim didn't like her loss of freedom. Pete began treating her worse, because he figured she'd have to stick around anyway- she needed him. Kim put more and more energy into keeping Pete happy. It was like a parent-child relationship, which isn't healthy in a dating situation. Pete had more control- he knew she would have to go to the events he wanted, because she wasn't willing to go out alone. They were both unhappy. Eventually, Kim started to work on making friends on her own, and as she got more confident, she decided she didn't have to put up with the way Pete was treating her, and they broke up. This story shows the sort of problems that come from depending on your partner for something you really should be able to do yourself,

"Boundaries in Dating" goes on to talk about how dependency isn't necessarily a bad thing- but it's bad when we use another person's strength as an excuse not to develop ourselves. Which is interesting, because in complementarianism, they teach that there are certain skills or personality traits that women just can't have, or men just can't have. That's completely opposite from the teaching given by "Boundaries in Dating", which says that you shouldn't make excuses like that and rely on your partner instead of developing yourself.

And this makes me think about me and Hendrix. I'm really glad I'm reading this book, because I never really thought about relationships in these terms before- like there could be actual general patterns to know about what's healthy and unhealthy. Actually, thinking about dependency in our relationship, yeah there are times when we need to contact the landlord about some problem and suddenly I "can't speak Chinese very well" so I ask Hendrix to do it. Hmm. And Hendrix pays my cell phone bill online- I actually don't know how to do it myself. I could definitely figure it out though- I used to, back before we lived together. Maybe I'm too dependent on him in some ways (mostly related to our household responsibilities and paying bills- and maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing?). Usually, though, when I have a problem with people, I ask him for advice and we talk about it together and decide what I should say or do, and then I go do it. He doesn't do those things for me- instead, he gives me advice to help me learn how to do it myself. Which is really good.

Anyway, here's one more anti-complementarian bit I really liked from this chapter:
My father, who has been married for fifty years to my mother, is very different from her. He likes playing jazz piano in the background for her while she sings. He still talks about how she can light up a room with her presence, while he enjoys being in the background. What he is actually says, I think, is that she lights up not only the room, but also his own heart. And that is how opposites truly can attract: not as a basis for a relationship, but as a wonderful complement and addition to an already loving connection.
(It's kind of hilarious how this chapter uses the word "complement" over and over, while making no mention at all of complementarianism, or gender roles, or differences between men and women, or how women need to find a man who can be their "spiritual leader" and they shouldn't develop their own leadership abilities because that would "emasculate" him. Not a single word on any of that.)

In summary, a lot of good advice. But I don't think they realize how completely heretical they sound to all the good "godly gender roles" Christians.

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A blog series reviewing the book Boundaries in Dating: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Relationships (introduction post is here)

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