My wife, Cindy, and I were talking recently about obstacles to healthy marriages. One of the things we have observed happening in marriages today is the tendency to frame marriage problems using an Oppressed / Oppressor perspective. Cindy brilliantly coined a phrase for this which I want to elaborate on today: “Critical Spouse Theory.”
In this view, I am the Oppressed and my spouse is my Oppressor. This approach is destructive to marriages on several levels.
First. Both parties will inevitably declare themselves to be “the Oppressed.” In a world where marriage is seen primarily as a means to one’s own personal happiness and fulfillment this resonates well. Anything that blocks one’s personal fulfillment is obviously oppression!
As I said, both the husband and the wife will consider that they are the Oppressed and their spouse is the Oppressor–and they’ll have plenty of support to back their claims; if they hop on TikToc or YouTube, they’ll find hundreds of ex-wives or ex-husbands, reinforcing this view that they don’t need to put up with such oppression from their spouse.
Second. This way of looking at my spouse is overly simplistic. It lumps her into the general category of Oppressor, discounting any of her good qualities. In this worldview, there is no such thing as “partial oppression”–it’s an all-or-nothing approach. I cannot see any of the good because I’m focusing only on the bad.
Third. Once I apply this negative label of “My Oppressor,” I no longer look at my spouse as the precious person I fell in love with, but now I see her as my enemy. This identity distortion will spoil every interaction between us. I’m not talking to a decent human being so neither do I have to behave like one.
Fourth. This perspective, therefore, absolves me of responsibility. The Oppressed gets a pass on moral culpability. I hear this all the time in the counseling office. “I don’t have to treat him decently until he stops Oppressing me.” And of course, the culture will reinforce this. The Oppressor is only capable of evil and the Oppressed is exempt from moral critique.
Fifth. Things are unlikely to change for the better. The only way for my oppression to end is for me to come out on top (unlikely) or divorce (more likely).
Sixth. Critical Spouse Theory doesn’t offer any hope for a healthy marriage.
Avoiding the Critical Spouse Theory worldview
Most of the essays I write on Christian marriage are the antidote to Critical Spouse Theory. Here’s some links to several of them.
1. We must recognize that Christian marriage must never be primarily about personal happiness and self fulfillment. That is a consumer-based, commodifying basis of marriage. A Christian marriage is not a contract, but rather a covenant. Marriage isn’t a perpetual honeymoon, but it is rather a crucible for character-building, where we learn to be like Christ in how we relate in the most intimate of human relationships. Marriage ought to be the context where we learn to love, serve, forgive, and grow toward one another, teaming up to provide a stable context for childrearing.
2. We must recognize that all of us are a mix of Oppressor and Oppressed. It’s rarely one sided. Our marital love fails. We all hurt the ones we love. We all fail to fully keep the wedding vows we made.
3. We would do well to focus on our side of the equation–becoming less of an Oppressor. Take responsibility for what you need to change about you. We must focus less on the other person’s faults. Jesus taught to take the log out of our own eye before obsessing over the speck in someone else’s.
4. We must get rid of the 50-50 mindset. I’ll automatically see myself as the Oppressed when I think that I’m unfairly getting less than my fair share.
5. We must remember that we don’t get a pass on loving our spouse even when we may feel Oppressed.
One final word. I’m not saying there aren’t actual cases of abuse in marriage–there are! If you are in physical danger, call 911. If your children are being abused, take them and get out. Implement whatever boundaries are needed. Yes, there are exceptional cases of abuse, but they are exactly that–exceptional. Most of us just need to learn how to better respond to the ordinary challenges of marriage.