Christian Sexual Ethics and Just Love for a Mormon Marriage

by Caroline

Last week my husband and I had a fascinating dinnertime discussion on whether or not we have a ‘just love’. You see, I’m taking a class on Christian sexual ethics right now, and I’m reading one of the foremost ethicists on the subject — a Catholic nun by the name of Margaret Farley who taught at the Yale Divinity School for over 30 years.  Her book is called Just Love

The framework for sexual ethics that Farley comes up with highlights her commitment to the importance of justice in sexual relationships. For Farley, love is not enough. Love alone can be based on fantasy, it can be manipulative, it can look at the other only as a means to an end. Therefore, in her sexual ethical framework, love must coincide with justice.  Just love must contain these seven norms:

1. Do no unjust harm (don’t be physically, emotionally, spiritually destructive to the other)

2. Free consent.

3. Mutuality (both partners giving and receiving)

4. Equality (of power)

5. Commitment

6. Fruitfulness (not necessarily referring to kids, but rather a love that expands beyond the two, out into the larger world and brings good things to it.)

7. Social Justice (This is complex – on one level, she’s talking about making sure that one’s sexual relationship doesn’t harm third parties like future children, future lovers, or others that are in relationship to one of the parties. On another level, she’s talking much more broadly, about affirming the rights of all members of society as sexual beings. Homosexuals, transexuals, intersexuals, heterosexuals – all have the right to claim respect from the Christian community and to claim freedom from unjust harm and equal protection under the law. )

As I was analyzing my own marriage to see if it qualified as a ‘just love,’ one big question stuck in my mind.* Do Mike and I have a commitment to equality in our marriage? Sure, Mike and I conduct our marriage as equal partners. No one has the final say just by merit of being male or female, no one’s opinions weigh more than the other’s. But listen to how Farley describes equality (or rather inequality):

“Major inequalities in social and economic status, age and maturity, professional identity, interpretations of gender roles, and so forth, can render sexual relations inappropriate and unethical primarily because they entail power inequalities — and hence, unequal vulnerability, dependence, and limitation of options.”

Ahhh! This hits to the bone, this makes me catch my breath. I am so much more vulnerable than Mike.  I can never make as much money as he does. Right now our professional identities couldn’t be more different — I as stay at home mom, he as professor. My dependency on him is much starker this his on me. So can our love be just?

I don’t know, but I am comforted by Farley’s later paragraph, in which she says perfect equality isn’t necessary, but that it has to be “close enough, balanced enough, for each to appreciate the uniqueness and differences of the other, for each to respect one another as ends in themselves.”

Mike and I may not score so high on the vulnerability/dependency part, but I think we do pretty well on the respect and appreciation one.

  • What do you think of Farley’s framework?
  • How well do you think it meshes with Mormon ideals?
  • Do you have ‘equality’ in your marriage? How so and how not?

*I’m consciously leaving aside the question of number 7 — social justice — right now. That’s a big enough topic to be its own post.

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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21 Responses

  1. Dr Wei says:

    I feel that your basis for determining an inequality between you and your husband by the amount of money each earns is an artificial and demeaning construct. There is an ancient tradition that Satan invented money. If not actually so, he has done a good job of using it to his purposes. Judging ones worth by dollars and cents (or pounds and shillings) demeans the goal of developing ourselves through Christ’s atonement into eternal beings and an eternal family.

  2. esodhiambo says:

    I don’t think current income need be the barometer of equality, but earning potential could definitely factor in. Your husband’s profession is not necessarily a particularly lucrative one, and, depending on your background, you might go out tomorrow and secure a much better job. But then, lots of SAHMs ARE NOT in that position–they are in a position of current and continuing and endless dependency because they lack the education, skills, or experience to earn enough to support themselves (and children!) even minimally. Even if this is not often (or ever) discussed in a marriage, it is a fact that surely both partners not in total denial knows. Knows. And the influence of that knowledge cannot be denied entirely.

    Perhaps this is overly cynical, but I have come to believe that it is somewhat reckless for a woman to have more children than she can support BY HERSELF. I know plenty of LDS women who either have the education, skills, or background in place to support themselves and family before they start bearing children and I think that very very wise. I would guess that most of the SAHMs in my ward, though, are not in that position and have no immediate way to support themselves financially or mentally should they need to. Of course that makes them exceedingly vulnerable. I have seen women put up with stuff in their marriages that I don’t think they would if they didn’t “have to.” Sad.

  3. “love is not enough. Love alone can be based on fantasy, it can be manipulative, it can look at the other only as a means to an end. Therefore, in her sexual ethical framework, love must coincide with justice.”

    What a great statement! How lucky you are to be taking that class. I wish lessons materials for young Mormons would focus on these 7 principles. Just emphasizing pre-marital chastity and worthiness for a temple recommend is not enough preparation for marriage.

  4. mb says:

    I would make one change to what Farley says.

    “Major *PERCEIVED* inequalities in social and economic status, age and maturity, professional identity, interpretations of gender roles, and so forth, can render sexual relations inappropriate and unethical primarily because they entail power inequalities — and hence, unequal vulnerability, dependence, and limitation of options.”

    The key is in the mutual perception of the husband and wife. I have known couples where the wives are nearly identical in their daily work, education, paycheck (or lack thereof), maturity etc. etc. and were married to men who were also extremely similar to each other in position and education etc. Despite those similarities of situation, the perception of unity and equality and justice in love were vastly different in each couple simply due to the perceived value of each ones contributions to the marriage that were shared or disagreed over by the spouses involved.

    If you and your spouse do not perceive each other as equally vested and contributing and worthy of respect, no amount of money, education, work or gender role adaptations will fix that inequality. If you and your spouse honestly and fully do respect and appreciate each other as equals, no economic, educational etc. differences will significantly derail that.

    They key is not found in giving one partner the same age, or having him/her develop the same economic earning power, social status, or professional identity. The key is in the perceived value of what each one brings uniquely to the table.

    If you don’t believe that what you are bringing to that union is as valuable as what your partner brings, you will need to change that perception in your own heart. And the kindest gift you can give to your partner is to value what he/she brings, whatever it is, as much as (not more or less than)you do your own.

    I think Farley hints at that verity when she talks about appreciating the uniqueness and differences of the other, for each to respect one another as ends in themselves.

  5. mb says:

    Lest I be misunderstood, I do NOT mean to imply that if you are not being treated as an equal it’s your own fault for not thinking you are equal. Good heavens, no. It is grindingly demeaning to be in a relationship where you are considered by others to be of lesser value.

    I do, however, wonder how many times we unnecessarily and without help from others, question our value as we slip into the pervasive use of society’s measuring sticks to determine how we view value of what we bring to a relationship. Or how often we do that to view the value of our partner.

  6. Joe says:

    Sister Farley’s teachings would seem to be incompatible with LDS patriarchy, would it not?

  7. mraynes says:

    Fascinating subject, Caroline. I generally like Farley’s framework and think it meshes fairly well with Mormon ideals. Now Farley’s framework may be incompatible with patriarchy but for the most part, current LDS rhetoric about marriage resists an overtly patriarchal set up. I believe that Farley’s ideals are inherent in any healthy relationship and I do believe that the church has an interest in facilitating good marriages.

    As for equality in my marriage, I, like you, have a flexible definition of it. mr. mraynes currently has more economic power but he makes up for that inequality by being respectful of the work I do in the home and by being committed to sharing as equal an existence as possible. I have noticed that when there is an imbalance in our relationship, like when he works long hours and is not home to help with the kids or housework, our intimate relationship suffers. This says to me that we are at least striving for a “just love”. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  8. Pinto says:

    Not here to comment much except to say that I read “Just Love” in grad school too and thought it was the radness. It affected me so much I used her 7 principles to evaluate my dating relationships and eventually my marriage. I think they are wise stuff to live by.

  9. bonnie says:

    I have never heard of this woman or the idea of Just Love before. It is so fascinating. I think this is a book I will read . . . soon! Thanks for sharing.

  10. Caroline says:

    Dr. Wei, I agree that one should not measure one’s worth by the size of her paycheck. However, the reality is, a large disparity in earning potentials does leave one person more vulnerable and dependent. Whether that means the marriage is ‘unequal’ probably depends on the interpretation that particular couple gives to the situation.

    esodihiambo,
    I like your point about earning potential. And sadly, even though I’ve a couple of MA’s, I’ll never earn more than my hubby. As a high school teacher, I can earn about half of what he can.

    “Perhaps this is overly cynical, but I have come to believe that it is somewhat reckless for a woman to have more children than she can support BY HERSELF.”

    I’m a cautious sort, so I tend to agree with you. But I wonder if there are other readers out there who would want to respond and disagree… I’d love to hear their perspective on this.

    “I have seen women put up with stuff in their marriages that I don’t think they would if they didn’t “have to.” ”

    I think that’s exactly the kind of vulnerability that Farley is talking about. Great point.

    Course Correction,
    Yes, doesn’t that idea about love not being enough just resonate? I immediately thought, ‘That is so true.’ And great point about teaching these principles to young Mormons. It would be so helpful for them to be taught to examine their relationships in light of mutuality, equality, etc.

    mb, great points about perceived inequality. Your comments about wives and husbands who are equal in education, etc. but who are not perceived as equals by each other is right on, I think.

    mraynes,
    “I have noticed that when there is an imbalance in our relationship, like when he works long hours and is not home to help with the kids or housework, our intimate relationship suffers. This says to me that we are at least striving for a “just love”. ”

    I feel exactly the same. Great observations.

    And I also agree that despite the patriarchal rhetoric which Joe points to, leaders try to resist ideas that lead people to think that the man has the ultimate control in the marriage. They spend a lot of time trying do define ‘presiding’ as calling on people to say prayers and planning FHE, two things that are relatively innocuous.

  11. mValiant says:

    I thought this was an awesome post, really great points.

    And I think mb’s point is interesting. My husband is 10 years older than me, we’ll never “fix” that. But we work at having equality in how much perceived power we both feel in the relationship.

    I like this framework and I like the idea of weighing dating relationships by it, I’m going to send it to my best friend.

  12. Kelly Ann says:

    Thank you Caroline for an excellent post. I will definitely read more. It makes me think about the imbalance in my last failed relationship and hopefully I’ll remember the 7 points in dating in the future.

  13. Sterling Fluharty says:

    I would love to hear how these ideas relate to Alma 42:25 and Moro. 7:45-47. It sounds like Farley believes God is at least partially exempt from this framework since he is so much more powerful than us. Does Farley believe unconditional love is mistaken or naive? I love how Farley appears to be in agreement with Matt. 10:16.

  14. esodhiambo says:

    BTW–I DO love the irony of taking marriage advice from a nun. 😉

  15. jeans says:

    You might also enjoy reading Susan Moller Okin, Justice Gender & the Family – she critiques contemporary social theory for ignoring gender, and she argues that gender equity begins at home and in the marriage, if it is to succeed anywhere else in society.

  16. anon says:

    Paraphrasing: “They shall cleave unto each other and become one flesh.” (too lazy to look up the reference)

    I agree 100% with points 1-6. I even agree with point 7, up to a certain point. I do have issue with that bone-striking paragraph.

    Suppose, all else equal, you became a cut-throat investor, and (hopefully you bet against mortgage-backed securities) you were pulling down a sizable income. Would you even be questioning whether or not you were just to Mike, due to your increased financial options compared to his?

    The fact that there is variance in individual achievements and pursuits should not automatically make a love between two people unjust. Therefore, the mere existence of a disparity of levels between a couple in any dimension is a moot point, unless one uses the disparity in a selfish manner. I would venture to guess that, as two people seek to become one flesh, love becomes just regardless any perceived differences.

  17. Mindy says:

    I think mb was right on by interpreting equality with perception. I’ve known couples who were similar enough in age, socio-econimic status, etc. But one partner treated the other as a child and claimed power over the other partner. Likewise, I’ve known couples with a greater disparity along these lines. Perhaps one is significantly older than the other, but they treat each other as equals.

    My husband might make all the money right now (I’m currently a SAHM), but he recognizes my partnership in his career success and my ability to build a career of my own if I wanted or needed to. If he were to die or one of us to was to leave the marriage, it would be HARD. I’d have to rebuild my career from the ground up. But I could do it, so I’m vulnerable, but not helpless like a child. I don’t think this type of vulnerability necessarily negates equality.

  18. jks says:

    I was recently reading about women being happier if they chose someone less good looking than themselves. The author’s point was that the woman felt more sure of her partner’s fidelity and investment in the relationship.
    This post and the comments got me thinking about this. Why do I feel like our marriage is balanced and just?
    I am a SAHM and now we have 4 kids and I can’t come close to making what my husband makes if he walks out.
    It makes me wonder if I have compensated in other areas to make things feel balanced. I smarter in many ways than my husband is, although not in all areas. Coming into a marriage with a higher IQ meant I didn’t feel powerless even if there are areas where I felt weak. I come from a wealthier family than he does so I do have a network of support to turn to if I really had to.
    I have a really good friend who is in a marriage where he is becoming more controlling. This makes me worry because I see an imbalance of power. I think the biggest imbalance is that she loves him more than he seems to love her. Or maybe her self esteem is just so low that she thinks she does. I don’t know.
    I just know that I have plenty of lines drawn and if my husband ever crossed them I have complete confidence in my ability to state my mind and my demands and leave if necessary. So I think there is a perception element. Can you imagine leaving. I think my marriage is excellent but if it wasn’t I could leave.
    But maybe I’m fooling myself. I feel strong and confident perhaps BECAUSE of my good marriage and supportive partner. If he wasn’t good and supportive I would be unsure of myself and feel like a failure and see the reality of the difficulties.
    Interesting topic, however, I wouldn’t give up being a SAHM just to be equal.

  19. Caroline says:

    Pinto, I love it. Just Love is indeed ‘the radness’ 🙂

    bonnie, glad you found it interesting.

    thanks, mvalient. I bet you could write a great guest post about the age disparity in your marriage and how you’ve worked to equalize things. (hint, hint)

    kelly ann, yes, I think these would be so valuable for any dating relationship. Though I wish I could share more with you. Farley is a breathtakingly beautiful writer. The way she describes commitment, fruitfulness, etc. – it’s gorgeous.

    Sterling,
    Regarding God being exempt from these because he’s more powerful than us… this is a sexual framework, so God’s relationship to us doesn’t fall into that. But his relationship to the Mother is another thing altogether. We don’t have much information on what characterizes their relationship. It could be that they are actually equals, but that human culture has not yet progressed to the point to accept that and allow Her to be recognized.

    I think Farley would think that unconditional love is a mistake. For instance, if a sexual partner repeatedly beats you, cheats on you, emotionally abuses you, etc., unconditional love just doesn’t seem to me like a wise thing to engage in.

    Thanks, Jeans. I will have to look that book up. Sounds like it’s right up my alley.

  20. Caroline says:

    anon said,
    “Suppose, all else equal, you became a cut-throat investor, and (hopefully you bet against mortgage-backed securities) you were pulling down a sizable income. Would you even be questioning whether or not you were just to Mike, due to your increased financial options compared to his?”

    Interesting question. The answer is No. Because he’d still be making a good salary – enough to support the kids and not be vulnerable were I to leave him. Now if he were a SAHD, then he would be in a position of vulnerability and dependency. And according to Farley, that can be a precarious place, a place that could potentially (not necessarily) lead to inequality in the marriage. Though the final paragraph I quoted from her does nuance this idea. If respect and appreciation characterize a relationship, it can, apparently, still qualify as equal — despite inequality of income or profession. I believe that my marriage, because of our respect, can fit into Farley’s ‘equality’ framework. But that doesn’t fix the fact that I am just more vulnerable. There’s no way to get around that, IMO. (By the way, anon, feel free to use your name. I use mine. :))

    Mindy, sounds like you’ve got a good husband that recognizes the importance of your contribution. And I like the way you said that you were vulnerable, but not helpless. I’d say that would apply to me as well.

    jks, I love this. “I just know that I have plenty of lines drawn and if my husband ever crossed them I have complete confidence in my ability to state my mind and my demands and leave if necessary.”

    It sounds to me like you are a woman who is sure of herself and confident of her own worth and what she brings to the table. That’s huge in having a just and equal marriage.

    By the way, I relate to your first paragraph. I never wanted to marry a guy who was really good looking for that exact reason.

  21. css says:

    What a wonderful concept. Thank you for sharing this.

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