Can a Bestselling Christian Marriage Book About Love and Respect Lead to Abuse? - Word&Way

Can a Bestselling Christian Marriage Book About Love and Respect Lead to Abuse?

“Love & Respect”
“Love & Respect”

Love & Respect by Emerson Eggerichs. Courtesy image

(RNS) — There’s not much love lost between Christian marriage and sex blogger Sheila Wray Gregoire and pastor turned marriage expert Emerson Eggerichs.

Or much respect.

The two — both of whom have been featured on Focus on the Family broadcasts — have been feuding for a year over Eggerichs’ bestselling book, Love & Respect.

Gregoire says she’s heard from hundreds of women who say one of the book’s main themes — that giving a husband “unconditional respect” can lead to a happy marriage — contributed to abuse in their marriages. She wants Focus on the Family, which originally published the book in partnership with Integrity Publishing, to drop its endorsement.

Eggerichs rejects any claim that Love & Respect, which has sold more than 2 million copies since 2004, has contributed to abuse. He believes the book and the ministry that shares its name have helped thousands of couples.

Like any book, he said, Love & Respect could be misused by people with bad intentions.

The dispute over the book has raised enough controversy that Focus on the Family weighed in. Focus issued a statement last week saying Gregoire had “orchestrated a campaign” to discredit Eggerich’s book. According to the statement, Focus continues to endorse Eggerich.

“The fact of the matter is that we believe Mrs. Gregoire has seriously misread and misjudged various aspects of Love & Respect, and we further maintain that its central message aligns both with Scripture and with the common-sense principles of healthy relationships,” Focus said in a statement.

Focus also said any book, including the Bible, can be misapplied.

“But to the extent that Mrs. Gregoire has shared examples of marriages that have been harmed by Love & Respect, we would submit that the damage has come as the result of one or both spouses twisting and misapplying the text, not as the result of the book’s actual message,” the statement read.

The dispute between Gregoire and Eggerichs and Focus on the Family started — as so many current debates do — with a tweet.

Gregoire, who has just over 16,000 followers on Twitter, posted a message that seemed to be a direct challenge to the main theme of Eggerichs’ book: the idea that a woman’s greatest need is for love, while a man needs respect.

“You know what I appreciate a ton about my husband? That he respects me. Sure, he loves me. But you can love someone and also take them for granted. That feels horrible,” she wrote in January 2019. “When you respect someone, then you treat them as a real, whole person. Women need respect, too.”

Gregoire, author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex and To Love, Honor and Vacuum, said she’d been asked to endorse Love & Respect from the stage while speaking at marriage conferences in the past. But she’d not read it carefully.

The response to her tweet — and a growing concern she had about the quality of marriage advice being given to Christian couples — convinced her to give the book a closer look.

Since she writes about sex, Gregoire began with the chapter on that topic. She found it troubling and said that the chapter focused primarily on women meeting the sexual needs of their husbands — and seemed to frame sex as a means to an end for women to gain love.

In several cases involving divorce discussed in the book, she said, the husband blamed his wife for the breakup — and sometimes for an affair — because she had withheld sex.

Gregoire ended up writing a review of the sex chapter on her blog.

“That was on a Monday,” she said. “I was just inundated with emails by women who said ‘we read this book and it enabled my husband to abuse me.’”

Over the next few days, Gregoire wrote two additional blog posts — with one focusing on the problem of unconditional respect and and she also recorded a podcast discussing the book.

In response, Gregoire said, she received hundreds of comments, saying that the advice from Love & Respect had backfired. The more they tried to respect their husbands, commenters told her, the worse things became.

Gregoire concluded the book’s central message was harmful and robs women of respect.

She eventually compiled a report on the comments and said she sent copies to Eggerichs and Focus on the Family. She also asked Focus to stop promoting Love & Respect.

“To me this was a no-brainer,” she said.

She said that Focus ignored her request. But she continued to collect stories from women who said they had been hurt by the book. Eventually, she sent a 5,500-word open letter to Focus on the Family documenting her conclusions and including many of the letters and comments from her readers regarding the book.

Eggerichs said Gregoire could not be more wrong. He said that of course women need both love and respect, as do men. But he believes the Bible teaches that love is women’s greatest need while men’s greatest need is for respect.

He told Religion News Service that he’s heartbroken to hear about cases of abuse. And that’s one point, he said, where both he and Gregoire agree.

“We are on the same page when it regards abuse,” Eggerichs said. “I am as concerned as anyone that people will use things in abusive ways.”

Eggerichs is president of Love & Respect Ministries Inc., a Rockford, Michigan-based nonprofit that conducts marriage seminars and conferences. The organization, which was founded in 2000, has brought in an average of about $790,000 a year in revenue from the sales of resources and services over the past five years.

The main idea of his work is based on a verse found in the New Testament Book of Ephesians: “However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”

In an interview, he said that respect has its limits.

“Unconditional respect does not mean you give a person license,” he told RNS. “It means there is nothing you can do to make me hate you. I am not going to become something ugly because you are ugly.”

Eggerichs said that when he gives talks about marriage, he differentiates between what he calls “people of goodwill” and those who are dangerous. People of goodwill sometimes get ugly in a relationship because that’s the nature of relationships, he said. He said his approach helps them to respectfully talk about their differences.

Abuse is different, he said in the interview and in a follow-up email.

“For decades, my position has been clear: when in harm’s way, get out of harm’s way,” he told RNS in a follow-up email. “Separate. My mom separated from my dad for five years because of my dad’s abusive conduct. I have zero tolerance for abuse.”

After the interview, Eggerichs posted an article on his website outlining his views on abuse.

Eggerichs said his ministry has mentored thousands of troubled couples over the past 20 years and makes it clear in that mentoring that abuse cannot be tolerated.

The ministry gives that same advice to spouses who write in asking for advice, said Lisa Shea, a staff member for Love & Respect who has led small group studies of the book since the mid-2000s.

She said that Love & Respect changed her life.

In the early 2000s, Shea said, she and her husband were having marriage troubles. She’d already been divorced once and feared her second marriage was destined to fail. Then a friend sent her a copy of a book by Eggerichs called Motivating Your Man God’s Way, which outlines his love and respect philosophy.

She feared that if she applied the precepts, she’d turn into a doormat. And she was sure they would fail. “I am not going to do this,” Shea recalls saying at the time. “This is crazy – I am not going to show this man respect. He does not love me.”

But with no other options, she tried it and says that learning to respect her husband saved her marriage.

“My life was radically changed by the message of Love & Respect,” she said.

Respect, she said, does not mean tolerating abuse. Shea said she makes that point clear when she teaches eight-week sessions about Eggerichs’ principles. She said the question of abuse comes up in several of the sessions.

“Respect does not mean you take a beating and smile,” she said during a talk about her background, broadcast by Focus on the Family.

Shea said she answers questions from readers who email the ministry looking for help with their marriage difficulties. Abuse, she said, can’t be tolerated, and safety comes first. She said she also tells women that respect does not mean putting up with adultery or other sins.

Those need to be confronted in a respectful but firm way.

“This is what you don’t do,” she said. “You don’t say, ‘You are pathetic, you are a loser.’”

Sarah McDugal, an author, speaker and abuse recovery coach, said she was married for 13 years to a spouse who was emotionally abusive and had addictions to porn and sex. She said that early on, some friends had given them a copy of Love & Respect.

The people who gave her the book were well-intentioned, she said. But in her husband’s hands, she said, the book was harmful. She said that he blamed his infidelity on her.

“It was an issue not of his acting out in adultery,” she said. “It was an issue of me not being respectful enough.”

She said the message she got from the book was that wives needed to respect their husbands, no matter what. And if she would give her husband unconditional respect, God would fix all his problems.

McDugal now believes giving anyone unconditional respect is problematic. In the hands of an abusive spouse, that advice can be harmful.

“It’s really bad for people in a bad marriage,” she said.

McDugal doesn’t think Eggerichs intended his book to cause harm. And she thinks if he would spend some time talking with experts on abuse and women who have experienced abuse, he might adapt his message.

Rachel Harden also worries about the message of Love & Respect. She’d been raised in a Christian home that taught that a man should be the leader of the family and said she wanted to follow God’s will for her marriage.

“I had been primed with a submission doctrine,” she said.

She also said Love & Respect was promoted as being “this amazing solution for marriage.” Harden found the book empowering and said it gave her a formula for success.

“If I respected him,” she said, “he would have no choice but to show me love.”

That approach failed, she said. And the couple split up several years ago after 14 years of marriage.

Harden said she learned there’s no simple formula for having a happy marriage. And sometimes love means demanding respect.

“Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is to set a hard boundary,” she said.

For her part, Gregoire said she will continue advocating against Love & Respect. She doesn’t think she will ever change Eggerichs’ mind. But she hopes Focus on the Family will listen at some point.

“My goal is to make decision-makers and the media see that this is a toxic book,” she said. “That’s why I’m directing this at Focus.”