Reading Real Marriage, Chapter 1: Whither the Counselors?

This post is the first in a series in which I’ll review Mark and Grace Driscoll’s book Real Marriage though a complementarian lens. I myself do not believe that complementarianism is a morally or theologically sound view; but my church does, and it recently hosted Driscoll’s Real Marriage conference. In a recent conversation with my pastor, he said that he believes that Pastor Driscoll’s theology aligns well with our church’s beliefs; so I am trying set aside my own egalitarian beliefs and read Real Marriage in light of what I know my church’s soft-complementarian teachings on gender to be, and to try to understand what Driscoll — and by extension, my church — is teaching about marriage, and whether those views are ones that I can live with in a church. 

Because the publishers made the first chapter of the book available online, much has already been written about this section; so I won’t spend a lot of time here. As is customary for Christian how-to books, the Driscolls use this section to try to accomplish three things: 1. Tell their own redemption stories, with heavy emphasis on the sinful lifestyles Jesus saved them from; 2. Demonstrate what makes them experts on the topic and why we should listen to them — in this case, Mark and Grace describe how they went from an unsaved, premarital-sex-having dating relationship to a saved, lonely, unhappy, very-little-sex-having marriage, to a healthy, robust, lots-of-sex-having marriage, and presumably it’s having fixed their own marriage through applying “what God says on the subjects of sex and marriage” (page 4). Because they’ve already written so well about this chapter, I’m going to crib from Rachel Held Evans and Dianna Anderson’s observations about Chapter 1:

1. Mark talks about sex A LOT. The cover of the book says that it’s about “Sex,Friendship, & Life Together,” and apparently that order was intentional, because it seems like everything he has to say about how well a marriage is functioning comes down to sex. From Dianna Anderson:

I’m just going to say it outright: Mark Driscoll is obsessed with sex to a practically unhealthy level. It is almost scary how often sex is mentioned throughout this first chapter – it is as though every thought about marriage and gender has to do with the act of sex and the quality of intimacy between partners.

I fully recognize that sex is a big part of relationships and problems with a sex life can be symptomatic of other relational issues. BUT, I would refrain from going in the opposite direction – as it appears Mark Driscoll has done – and making it seem as though sex is the only thing that matters when it comes to a healthy, functioning relationship.

Here’s what I mean: Driscoll makes sex into a larger issue than it needs to be in discussing marriage. If this first chapter is any indication, the bulk of this book will center on sex, which fails to recognize that sex is only a part of a whole, rather than the whole itself. He interjects sex into a conversation where sex doesn’t necessarily need to be brought up.

Indeed, sex is brought up as a descriptor of a couple’s marriage on the very first page of the Introduction. Mark is telling about a couple who came to him from marriage counseling after their children had grown up and left home, and he writes: “With their children grown and home empty the glue that had once held them together was gone, and they were reduced to life as nearly sexless roommates” (p. xiii, emphasis mine).

Later in Chapter 1, he describes the manly-man pastor of the church he began attending in college: “He had been in the military, had earned a few advanced degrees, and was smart. He was humble. He bow hunted. He had sex with his wife. He knew the Bible. He was not religious” (p. 9, emphasis mine). Everything he writes about the problems he and Grace had in the early years of their marriage is framed in terms of their sex life. And in the introduction, he lists the issues the book intends to address, and four out of the five items are sex-related:

In this book we share biblical truths about some of the marital issues you may face, including how to be your spouse’s best friend, dealing with porn addiction, overcoming sexual assault, how to avoid being a selfish lover, and yes, even those sex questions you’d be too embarrassed to ask anyone, especially your pastor. (xiv, emphasis mine)

Every indication in the introduction and first chapter is that this is a book about sex, with some other marriage stuff thrown in for color.

2. It’s all about Mark. A big selling point of the book is that it’s co-authored by both Mark and Grace Driscoll, ostensibly giving both of their perspectives on issues that have affected their marriage. And Grace does write a few sections of Chapter 1, but most of the words — and seemingly all of the perspective — come from Mark, even in areas where it would be more beneficial to hear Grace’s voice, such as when they dealt with Grace’s past sexual abuse. Dianna Anderson writes (after quoting a section of the book in which, after years of a troubled sex life, Grace discloses to Mark that she is a victim of “physical, spiritual, emotional, and sexual abuse” – only the last of which Mark spends any time on, of course):

Well. Okay. So at least he admits that he has an overbearing personality and had made some mistakes when it comes to handling his obviously “delicate” wife. But look again at how he discusses the assault – “Grace’s problem was that she was an assault victim. The details of her abuse broke me. It hurt deeply [ed. note: keep in mind it’s still Mark speaking here]. … In forgiving and walking with Grace….”

Note also that it is still all about him and his reaction. She – even though she is co-authoring this book! – doesn’t even get to discuss her abuse…. And it should be noted: This is all that is mentioned of the abuse. One paragraph that is more about Mark’s reaction to her revelation than how physical, spiritual, sexual, and emotional abuse was hard to recover from and clearly created trust issues. Rather than allowing Grace the grace of being the victim, Mark puts himself in the victim’s shoes, takes on that role, and silences her discussion of it.

Even the way the next paragraph begins is telling: “As Grace began working on her root issues…” It’s not “as we began to work together in helping Grace understand and recover from her past,” it’s Grace doing it on her own. Keep in mind, this is a section following four pages of talking about how Mark and Grace had to work together to get over her sin of indiscretion. Evidently, when it’s an issue that affects Mark in a more direct way (her cheating on him), it takes both of them. Something that affects Grace primarily (and by extension of being her husband, him, however indirectly), it becomes her issue to work through. (all emphasis Dianna’s; I edited somewhat for excerpting purposes)

3. Mark displays a seriously warped attitude about the role of counseling. As he tells the story of his and Grace’s marriage continuing to fall apart as they are hit with major emotional crises and extreme loneliness and despair, on top of which Grace “was suffering from painful stress-related issues caused by her public relations job” (11), the one thing they never do is seek professional counseling. Some excerpts:

A bomb had just dropped, and shrapnel was everywhere! … How could we ever get through this? Mark tried to get counsel from other men, but they didn’t know what to say or do. I (Grace) didn’t think we should tell anyone since we were just planting the church, but that decision only made the pain go on longer for both of us. We should have sought counsel from someone, but we just both felt alone (12).

I (Mark) had been out of touch with my old pastor since graduation and had no one to talk to. Some friends tried to give us counsel, and they meant well and did their best, but ultimately they were of little help. So I put my head down, kept my pants on, and decided not to be the porn or masturbation or adultery guy (13).

We didn’t know how to talk through these extremely hard issues without hurting each other more, so we didn’t talk about them at all. … Occasionally we’d meet a Christian pastor or counselor who was supposed to be an expert in these areas, but we never spoke with them in much detail, because in time we found out they either had marriages as bad as ours or they had been committing adultery and were disqualified for ministry. We felt very alone and stuck (14, all emphasis mine).

So, okay, there were no counselors who were qualified to help Mark and Grace because their marriages were just as bad as the Driscolls’. But this doesn’t stop Mark from counseling hundreds of couples during this same time. Apparently having a bad marriage disqualifies other counselors — trained, professional counselors — from giving marriage counsel, but it doesn’t disqualify Mark:

[Mark preached through the Song of Songs] on the joys of marital intimacy and sex. … My counseling load exploded. … Day after day, for what became years, I spent hours meeting with people, untangling the sexual knots in their lives, reading every  book and section of the Bible I could find that related to their needs. … One particularly low moment occurred when a newly saved married couple came in to meet with me. I prayed, then asked how I could serve them. [The couple asked a lot of very specific questions about whether certain sexual activities were acceptable for them to do as a Christian married couple.] After they left the counseling appointment, … I remember sitting with my head in my hands, just moaning and asking God, ‘Do you really expect me to do this as a new Christian, without a mentor or pastor, in the midst of my marriage, and hold on for the next fifty years?’ Peter walking on water seemed an easier task (14-15).

I’m just dumbfounded by this. I just cannot understand how Mark came to the conclusion that he was qualified to do counseling with his parishioners, “as a new Christian, without a mentor or pastor, in the midst of [his] marriage.” It seems like not only an obvious recipe for disaster, but also a huge violation of the trust of the people who came to him for counsel.

I myself have been seeing a Christian therapist — a woman who has her Psy.D. from an accredited Christian university and is a member of the APA — for six years now, and during that time she has been transparent with me about the things that she does to ensure that she remains objective and well-qualified to counsel her clients. She went through therapy herself when she was in grad school as a requirement for her program, and when she lost a family member a year and a half ago, she began seeing a therapist of her own again; she has two mentors, both fellow psychologists several years older than her who helps make sure she’s meeting her own needs and setting healthy boundaries; and again, she has had years of training in becoming a counselor.

Pastor Driscoll, according to Wikipedia, has his Bachelor’s degree in communications with a minor in philosophy and an M.A in exegetical theology. There is no part of his education that qualifies him to be a counselor, and he was trying to do counseling not only with no training, but with no support network and a clear lack of appropriate boundary-setting.

This is not healthy for him or the people he was counseling. And he describes above that he knew it wasn’t healthy. And yet at no point in this chapter does he indicate that he in any way thinks that he did anything wrong by continuing to counsel. 

Neither does he ever write anything to qualify his statement about how all the Christian counselors he met were, essentially, hacks. And although I haven’t read past the first chapter yet, a search of the index doesn’t indicate that counseling or therapy or psychology or anything along those lines will come up again, except for a section in chapter 4 where Grace talks about how a wife should “respectfully counsel” her husband.

Instead, Mark writes things like, “If it’s rooted in biblical wisdom, keep trying until it works or you die” (xi). And “[I]f you really get into the issues in your marriage, you will likely have seasons of crisis and chaos to overcome before you get to a better place” (xii). And he says these things without ever suggesting that helping people to work out just how to apply “biblical wisdom” to their lives in a way that works is exactly what Christian psychologists are trained to do, and that it is a million times easier and more effective to work through these seasons of crisis and chaos with a trained professional who knows how to help.

This, to me, is a huge, almost unforgivable omission…and it makes this tweet from yesterday rather ironic:


There were a few other minor things that bothered me in Chapter 1, but these were the three main threads that stood out. Here is one last observation, from the last paragraph of this chapter as he’s talking about what the book will address:

And if you have unconfessed sin and/or a past of sexual sin, including pornography, fornication, sexual abuse, bitterness, and the like…. (18, emphasis mine)

This list of “sexual sins”? One of these things is not like the others. Being a victim of sexual abuse (I’m assuming that’s what he means here, and not that the reader might be sexually abusing others; in which case, that’s not like the other things in the list, either, because it is a crime) is not a sin that needs to be confessed. Hopefully, in the context of a safe, supportive, and mutually honest relationship, a person who had been abused would be able to tell their spouse about the abuse, and the two of them could work together to help the victim heal. Maybe with a professional counselor.

But for Mark to throw “sexual abuse” in a list of sins his readers may need to address in their marriage does not give me faith in his ability to handle abuse and assault issues well in this book. Instead, it just makes me feel incredibly sad for Grace.


So, that’s it for the first chapter, and honestly, it does not leave me feeling optimistic about this book. It certainly hasn’t done anything to establish Mark’s credibility in speaking about marriage issues. I’m hopeful that as we move to Chapter 2, on friendship, things will look up…because if this first chapter is an indication of how the whole book is going to be, I may not make it.

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