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Published Date: March 5, 2012

Published Date: March 5, 2012

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A Most Twisted Love

In pondering humans’ relationship with God, the ancient monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) describes four “degrees” of love (which can apply to all other relationships as well):

Level 1) I love me for my benefit. Here’s an infantile, self-involved person with a severe personality disorder—excessive self-love and the inability to recognize or acknowledge the distinct individuality of others. This is narcissism—pure ego—unaware of, or indifferent to, differing experiences, ideas, interests, concerns, etc. which are the reality of friends, neighbors, and family. This relationship proceeds from and results in the demoralization of all concerned—it is all about me; there is no you.

Level 2) I love you for my benefit. A person with this sense of entitlement and prerogative is at least a step up from the complete egomaniac. This sort of self-love allows for the existence and personhood of others, if only as mere extensions of themselves, to be utilized and manipulated exclusively for their personal advancement and satisfaction. This relationship incorporates exploitation and privilege—it is all about you for me.

Level 3) I love you for your benefit. Here we have the martyr mentality which gives little to no thought for oneself. It is self-denial, self-abnegation—living wholly for the other with no consideration of personal needs and desires. It is a continual pouring out and giving up of self—literally laying down your life for others. This relationship is the epitome of self-deprivation—it is absolutely not about me—my needs do not even enter into the equation.

While a life devoted solely to others might seem admirable and even Christ-like, St. Bernard was careful to make the point that this level of martyrdom is unsustainable; if you don’t mind ending up dead or wishing you were dead from sheer exhaustion, self-loathing, and despondency, then go ahead and give it a try.

Level 4) I love me for your benefit. Anyone who has traveled by plane is familiar with the potentially life-saving admonition, “In the event that the cabin loses pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling above you. First, place the mask over your own nose and mouth; then, assist others…” Such advice is sensible, and it is really the only option capable of sustaining a mutually beneficial, healthy relationship over the long haul. This relationship establishes reciprocity and mutuality—symbiosis, if you will. It is all about me for you and you for me—it is a form of self-love, but it is not selfish.

So, what does all of this have to do with the Quiverfull/patriarchal philosophy and lifestyle?

The demanding Quiverfull life is a recipe for burnout, not only for Mom, but also for the older daughters. And though at first glance the hierarchical family structure with husband as authoritative head and wife as submissive helper may appear to be an inviting setup for the men, the day-to-day reality and the long-term effect of being indiscriminately catered to—the perpetual indulgence of power and control—turns out to be not such a sweet deal for Daddy after all.

I was intrigued recently to read about “Acquired Situational Narcissism” (ASN)—a personality disorder brought on by wealth, fame, and the other trappings of “celebrity.” ASN differs from conventional narcissism in that it develops after childhood and is triggered and supported by the celebrity-obsessed society: fans, assistants, and tabloid media all play into the idea that the person is vastly more important than everyone else, triggering a narcissistic problem that might have been only a tendency and helping it to become a full-blown personality disorder.

Naturally, I began making connections, because what is patriarchy if not the absolute enshrinement of the supreme importance of males? I would argue that the description of ASN could legitimately be read this way:

ASN differs from conventional narcissism in that it develops after childhood and is triggered and supported by the narrowly-defined, strict gender-role-obsessed fundamentalist sects (such as Quiverfull): church leaders, submissive wives, and interpretations of select Bible verses all play into the idea that the husband is vastly more important than his wife and children, triggering a narcissistic problem that might have been only a tendency and helping it to become a full-blown personality disorder.

Consider the following advice from Debi Pearl, author of Created to Be His Help Meet: Discover How God Can Make Your Marriage Glorious:

For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man” (1 Cor. 11:8–9). Four thousand years after creation, Paul, Timothy, and Peter wrote to us, telling us God’s original plan was still the same as it was in the beginning when Adam and Eve were first learning how to be husband and wife.…

I know that as you read this it almost sounds like blasphemy, because it is so weird to think that your husband deserves you as his help meet. But who said anything about what he deserves? You can only realize your womanhood when you are functioning according to your created nature.… Your female nature cannot be retrofitted to the male role without permanent damage to the original design.

….God made you to be a help meet to your husband so you can bolster him, making him more productive and efficient at whatever he chooses to do. You are not on the board of directors with an equal vote. You have no authority to set the agenda. But if he can trust you, he will make you his closest adviser, his confidante, his press secretary, his head of state, his vice-president, his ambassador, his public relations expert, maybe even his speech writer—all at his discretion.

As a fully convinced patriarch’s wife, Debi Pearl and similar champions of wifely submission inspired me to anticipate and meet my husband’s every need and desire, regardless of the cost to myself and the children.

I did this, not primarily for Warren’s benefit, but because, as Pearl explains:

When you are a help meet to your husband, you are a helper to Christ for God commissioned man for a purpose and gave him a woman to assist in fulfilling that divine calling. When you honor your husband, you honor God. When you obey your husband, you obey God. The degree to which you reverence your husband is the degree to which you reverence your Creator. As we serve our husbands, we serve God. But in the same way, when you dishonor your husband, you dishonor God.

Looking back, I can plainly see that the “assistance” which I rendered to Warren as his “suitable helper” served only to reinforce in his mind the idea of his superior and divinely sanctioned importance. My daily submission to his every demand—no matter how petty or self-serving—was about as helpful as giving in to a tantrum-throwing, breath-holding toddler. It’s a very effective way to create a tyrant.

That’s unfortunate because in many ways, Warren is a nice enough guy. I believe that patriarchy legitimized his weakest tendencies, and the strict gender roles that we followed arrested his ability to adapt and capitalize on his strengths. In the end, our pursuit of the perfect, godly family with Warren as “head” and me as “helper” resulted in the pairing of St. Bernard’s “level 2” entitlement with “level 3” martyrdom—an extremely unhealthy combination that set up some seriously twisted, crippling, and abusive expressions of our “love.”

At the time that it was all unraveling for us, I wrote the following in a letter to my oldest daughter, Angel:

Dad cares—he tries harder than anyone I know. The problem is that he lacks the capacity to care effectively.

Dad is extremely insecure so he tries to compensate by taking control of whatever he can, which happens to be the little things like what words we use, or how we stack the dishes on the counter, or where we’re sitting when we talk to him. He has no competence to make the big decisions like where should we go to church, or where we should live, or how we ought to run the business, so instead he devotes way too much time and energy to minor decisions. The rest of us feel like he doesn’t trust us or that he doubts our abilities. We become defensive, which leads to him feeling disrespected, and he can’t stand that. So he tries all the harder.

He feels (because this is what he’s been taught that the Bible teaches) that he needs to be a leader—he thinks he should provide direction and protection, and make decisions, and be the “head of the home.” Only he is not a leader, and as it is, he’s not terribly gifted or qualified to lead. So, rather than fulfilling what he believes is his legitimate role, he’s frustrated in it. And that only leads to further insecurity.

When his family is willing to give the appearance that he’s in charge, he relaxes a bit and is easier to get along with. But that only works so long as no serious decisions have to be made and we can all maintain a level of superficiality in which we’re fooling him (and ourselves) into believing that he’s fulfilling his “God-given” role as head of the home.

You have to sympathize with the position he’s in. He’s expected (and he expects of himself) to do and be what is contrary to his nature and his actual abilities. It puts us all in a situation in which appearances are everything and reality is the only impediment to our happiness….

I really like your dad and I love him—he’s attractive to me and I admire and appreciate that he has a lot of good qualities, not the least of which are his sincerity and his desire to do the will of God no matter the cost. But, while I do love him, it has been much more difficult to respect him. I have always tried to be respectful because I believe he is entitled to it, but I have never felt respect—it’s been pure will and determination.

When Uncle Ron visited our place back in May, he told me it was obvious that I don’t genuinely respect Dad—and that Dad knows and feels it, and that it’s a big part of why he’s so insecure.

I don’t think you will consider me conceited if I tell you that I feel like whatever there is to respect about Dad has been in large part because of me. I’m not saying that I’ve made him who he is today, but I do believe that he wouldn’t have accomplished nearly as much or made the progress and grown like he has if it hadn’t been for me walking him through it all….I feel like I can be his teacher or his mentor (and sometimes I feel like his babysitter), but I don’t feel like I can fully respect him. Respect that is based merely on entitlement rather than merit can never be genuine.

When I think about it, there’s really nothing I can do for your dad in this regard because whatever I might do to help him gain some self-respect would not inspire me to respect him.

Do you recognize the pattern here? Following the “help meet” model advocated in the patriarchal worldview creates an artificial competence for the man. He never has to struggle through a difficulty and thus feel the sense of triumph once he’s conquered a problem because he is living in a self-protective bubble created and maintained by his well-meaning “Proverbs 31” wife.

As Christians, we constantly heard that in a godly marriage it is essential that a man loves his wife and that the woman respects her husband. Here’s the rub: the patriarchal blueprint for the marriage relationship guarantees that a man will not truly love his wife and that a woman can never truly respect her husband.

A man’s growth and maturity are stunted due to constantly being rescued from adversity. He has nothing of himself—only a dependency upon the woman to uphold that illusion of his headship and control.

There is no love in patriarchy. There is no respect. There is only perpetual immaturity, dependency, and frustration for the man who is subjected to the most sophisticated manipulation as his wife gives over control and authority to him. Because in that move of giving away her authority, the woman takes control of God himself, for in response to her obedience, has the Lord not promised to bless her? When I finally recognized the insidious nature of the headship/submission scheme, here’s how I described my connivance:

The very first thing that I had to learn as a Christian wife was submission. I needed to honor and obey my husband. And I had to be such a devout, godly woman that my husband couldn’t find any fault in me—and in that way, I could “win him without a word.” Of course, [the Bible study ladies] reminded me that it was God’s job to get [my husband] saved, but they also assured me that I could do my part by following their advice and being a loving, respectful wife….What I took away from that meeting was this: all I had to do was be the perfect wife and the perfect Christian and God would honor me and save my marriage.

From my perspective today, it’s easy to see that all I was doing was putting a Christian dressing on my old sorcery. I’d always been skilled at witchcraft—now I had my magic formula (Bible verses) and my incantations (prayers) and all my rituals (my perfect behavior), so how could I go wrong? I had little doubt that I could carry out all that those women told me I must do, and when I did it, God would have no choice but to come through for me.

Everything I did in that respect during that time was my attempt to attach strings of obligation to God so that I could make him dance like Pinocchio at my bidding. I was the ultimate manipulator: I no longer needed to control [my husband] directly because I could influence God to do that work for me.

Yes, that is a most twisted love. That is the reality of patriarchy. Undoubtedly, the women lose, but it’s certainly no bargain for the men either