Thursday, July 25, 2013

Do traditional gender roles feed your marriage? (Book Review)

The Proper Care & Feeding of Marriage, by Dr. Laura Schlessinger 2007

According to conservative Christians, the role of women in ministry to connected to women’s role in marriage, because both are about authority.

The first time I felt called to a career in ministry, I discussed it with my college roommate. She wasn’t unkind or unsupportive, but she quoted her favorite pastor, Matt Chandler. He said, how can a women be a pastor and have authority over her congregation, then go home and submit to the authority of her husband?

He meant it to be a rhetorical question. So let’s look at a few books that support that assumption.

I received “The Proper Care & Feeding of Marriage”1 as a wedding present, but never read it. (It has that cover with the grinning celebrity who doesn’t look like anyone who’d be my friend in real life.) But the time has come.

Gender and Personality

Gender is the first theme hit hard in this book. This doesn’t have to be a bad way to start. Men and women are different. Any two individuals entering a relationship are different, and those differences can cause conflict or strengthen them.

So, hooray for differences! Praise God for creating diversity.

But, Dr. Laura doesn’t celebrate individuals. She makes one box labeled “men” and one box label “women.”2 Personally, when I don’t line up with the women box, I suspect that little of her advice is going to apply to me.3

Cynanide & Happiness bakes up some puns
Several descriptions of men and women align with aspects of Myers Briggs personality types.

E (Extrovert) Social, focused on relationships and bonding
S (Sensing) Better at details
F (Feeling) Bring feelings and emotions to logical guys, but emotions dominate rationality
I (Introvert) Have a hard to work together in problem solving, want to do it alone
N (Intuitive) See the whole picture objectively
T (Thinking) Strong, uncomplicated opinions, practical, won’t talk about feelings or vocalize love4

The emotion/logic dichotomy is the most pervasive stereotype in lists like this. And it’s almost believable. We can share anecdotal examples. Personally, I am more emotional than my husband. I’m a crier: sad movies, bad days, weddings… but my Myers Briggs is a T, not F. I’m a thinker, I’m logical. I want ten good reasons for everything. I need a history and purpose. (Sometimes I have to let go of these things and let the Spirit guide me, but I’m not naturally good at that. I’m also a J.) Yes, I have emotions, but they are not the lead force my decisions-making.

None of this makes me less of a women, or less feminine. But I believe it’s okay that my expressions of my femininity look different than other women’s.5

But Dr. L needs men and women to fit into strict gender personalities so her puzzle pieces fit together. “A real man needs a real woman to be complete, and a real woman needs a real man to be complete.” (page 4) She tries to justify this with Genesis and doesn’t get far.6 The idea that a single person is “incomplete” is not Biblical. Jesus and the Bible valued singleness. Completion is not found in another person, but in God.

Gender Roles

Dr. L is a promoter of stay-at-home moms. I’m not opposed to that. I was blessed to have a stay-at-home mom. But I don’t agree that traditional gender roles are the “proper source of self-worth.” (page 31) From a practical standpoint (there I go being masculine again) it doesn’t work for every family. Income, skills, gifts, and calling can lead mothers in other directions. But the attitude and insistence than traditional gender roles will fix our culture penalize women who can’t or aren’t interested.7

The “proper” role of men is to provide for the family. Dr. L calls this “slaying dragons.” (The phrase is used over and over and over.) Is meant to make his office job sound more exciting, or give him more pride in a disappointing paycheck? More likely, the metaphor requires that the wife is the damsel in distress, the one who needs rescuing.

Yes, that can be romantic. But is it an accurate or desirable state for marriage? Even in fairy tales, that’s just the beginning of the relationship. After the princess is rescued, wouldn’t they build a more sturdy life as a team, without needing to interject the drama which first brought them together?

Yes, providing for a family is hard work. It’s a good thing to do. Children suffer when parents are selfish. But Dr. L is over-simplifying and neglecting families stuck in poverty and limiting the creative freedom of families who have options. Some have stay-at-home dads. Or a parent who works out of the home. Or differing schedules. A special day care, time with Grandma or the co-op. None of these solutions are inherently selfish.

Tradition & Opinions

In Dr. L’s view, feminism is the source of all selfishness, immaturity, and marital problems. I don’t have the space to refute that today. So I’ll keep it simple: selfishness and immaturity are not new sins. They are not unique to women. I’m sure there are some situations of woman selfishly pursuing their careers and neglecting their children. Is that the main problem? Prove it. 

Selfishness causes many problems in marriages, and is a great topic for an author to pursue. But the fixation on gender and feminism prevents Dr. L from useful guidance on this subject.

This is a book of Dr. L’s opinions, thoughts she’s sorted out through interacting with many callers who more-or-less already agree with her core values. Maybe it makes her listeners happy to read a book full of their own preconceptions. Maybe it helps their marriages.

Dr. L promotes traditionally cultural Christian values and gender roles. But there is little or no reference to scripture, prayer, or seeking God’s will. It is assumed that our cultural values are Biblical, that they are God’s will. No need to question them.


I searched for good messages in this book, and found that Dr. L tries to empower women “[Wives] have all the power in the relationship to make it or break it.” (page 26)8

Dr. L tends to blame most marital problems on the wives, or at least expect them to be the ones to fix the problem. But this may be because most of her letters and call-ins are from wives. And who better to fix a problem than the one who is concerned about it? It’s empowering to be told, “You can take action on this. You don’t just sit and hope for change.” (My words, not hers.)

But what sort of action is taken? What skills can women bring to the table? The “gentle power (of femininity) over people,” the “sensitive, wonderful, womanly capacity for emotionality” and other phrases seem to suggest that women have a magic power to fix their marriages.  Magic? Surely I exaggerate. Page 19: Women have “that singular magical ability… to transform deflated men into heroes and warriors...  [they have] the ability to not only create life in their wombs, but to sustain that life force in [their] husbands.” It’s “real women power.”

Yes, married couples should encourage one another, and build each other up. It’s great advice (at least 2,000 years old).

Dr. L says that a good wife tells her husband that he’s her hero, she knows she can count on him, and that she respects and loves him. I understand why any man would want to hear those things, and how they would be an encouragement to him. Unless they aren’t true, and he knows she is flattering him out of obligation. Or if he thinks they are true and continues acting immature and selfish, because he thinks he has her approval. So, advice like this can be sweet in some situations, but not all. It can easily turn into manipulation. This book is intended to help desperate people with problems. Even couples who want a boost need more than this one-size-fits-all admiration.

I wish husbands and wives were told to build each other up without tearing down others. Without putting down others, yes, men should be proud of being men, and women should be proud of being women. They shouldn’t let anyone take that away from them.  (Even though Dr. L keeps trying to take it away from them by saying few men or women are real.)

So, is this book worth it for finding the hidden good messages?


  1. Isn’t this title phrase usually for pet-training manuals? Am I the only one who thinks it’s condescending? Especially since her previous book was, “The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands.”
  2. These boxes were created based on a survey from her listeners; a biased subject group.
  3. Dr. L doesn’t directly try to shame women, but she does shame men who don’t fit in the box. On page 2, Dr. Laura says she is “sickened” by metro-sexuality. Although metro-sexuality may have a root sin of vanity or insecurity in certain situations, here she uses it to say that men aren’t being manly enough. Consider page 19: “There aren’t a lot of real men around. There are a lot of males…”
  4. I guess Dr. L hasn’t gendered the J and P traits yet, my gut instinct is that women are considered P and men considered J, as a way of continuing the emotion/analytical dichotomy. Thus, my INTJ personality type is the opposite of feminine.
  5. Here’s a link to some studies of gender with Meyers-Briggs personality types. “Men are 57% T and 43% F, while women are 40% T and 60% F.” So, 43% of men are more guided by their feelings than their logical thinking. Does Dr. L think they aren’t “real men?”
  6. Dr. L could have used Genesis 2:18: “It’s not good for man to be alone…” but she didn’t. I’ll refute it anyway. I don’t believe this passage refers exclusively to marriage, but to the whole of creation and what women add to the world.
  7. If we change our culture and politics to support single moms (the modern days “widows and orphans” of scripture) they could have freedom to raise their kids personally and maybe break poverty and crime cycles. But we don’t.
  8. Does that mean it’s all the wife’s fault if the relationship fails?