The homepage for Christian women’s website Girl Defined — all pastel and floral and sweetly feminine — promises to help visitors with “getting back to God’s design.”
For Christian sisters Kristen Clark and Bethany Beal, the site’s founders and proprietors, that means giving a lot of thought to a very specific image of dating, love, marriage, parenthood, and family.
Back in 2018, Beal (then Bethany Baird, because obviously a godly woman takes her husband’s surname after marriage) compiled a list of questions she wanted to ask Mr. Beal (Dav, to his friends and her fans) to make sure he was truly the right person for her to marry. She posted them on the Girl Defined blog after hundreds of her followers asked for more information.
Fast-forward to 2020, and that list is ready for prime time — newly edited, organized by topic, and formatted into a classy little booklet with tidy headings and borders. (You can get your own digital copy, free of charge, here.) And naturally, the sisters filmed a YouTube video to introduce and promote the document now that it’s reached its final form.
Bethany explains that her decision to make this list grew out of mistakes she made in previous relationships:
The reason that I compiled this is because previously, like before Dav, I had been specifically in one romantic relationship I’m thinking of, I assumed me and this guy were on the same page about a lot of things, and so I just assumed we didn’t need to talk about like certain subjects. We didn’t need to talk about certain convictions, lifestyles, choices, the future. We talked about a lot, but I just avoided certain topics… And that relationship went down in a small crash-and-burn fire. I don’t know. It didn’t end well.
That’s all good. Learning from past mistakes and making changes is important. Clear communication without assumptions is important. And for some people, a document listing questions can be a very useful tool to organize their thoughts and make sure they address the most common causes of disagreement within relationships.
But then Kristen makes a claim that overreaches:
Over time, seeking wisdom, counsel, prayer, asking deep questions, seeing if you’re on the same page, if you’re going in the same direction — that is the process, the journey that will help you know if they’re the one. And this is a tool that we want to give you for free.
The idea that any amount of conversation can predict whether or not a pair will be together for life — one assumes divorce is not on the table for God-defined relationships — relies on the assumption that a person, having reached adulthood, is finished growing. If that’s true, all that remains is to ensure that the static, unchanging values each party espouses fit together, and presto! You know if you’ve found The One or if you’d better keep looking.
But human beings aren’t static. And the expectation that one’s values will never change sets young Christian girls up for the very heartache the list is supposed to help them avoid.
Only instead of being hurt by a difference in values they never anticipated, they’ll be hurt by a difference in values they thought they’d guarded themselves against.
The answers to these questions are presented as a near-guarantee, but in reality they’re a snapshot of a moment in time. And time brings change.
Clark and Beal claim that this isn’t a checklist; it’s a conversation starter, equally applicable to men or women. At times, though, the phrasing betrays the reality. The questioner is advised to ask their subject about the qualities desired in “your wife” — never “your spouse” or “your husband.” Given the target audience for Girl Defined, that’s an understandable oversight. But asking what he wants in a wife without also asking what she wants in a husband doesn’t set up a particularly mutual conversation.
In fact, the whole thing gives the impression of a man sitting in a job interview, applying for the position of husband.
Consider some of the questions recommended:
What adjectives would your employers use to describe you?
Are you consistently faithful in fulfilling your commitments? Give examples.
Recognizing we are all imperfect, in what one or two areas do you think God wants you to improve most?
How would you describe your work ethic?
Do you have a high standard of excellence?
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Ideally, of course, the conversation would be a lot more egalitarian than the typical job interview. Presumably the woman in this scenario is also interviewing for the position of wife. But the job-interview tone of the questioning brings up another important problem.
The point of a job interview isn’t to be honest. It’s to get the job you want.
It’s easy to imagine a conversation where one or both parties lie — if only to themselves — about some of the answers. It’s a lot harder to imagine a conversation where somebody admits that they have no work ethic, or their personal hygiene is poor, or they don’t intend to do any housework once they’re married. (And that’s to say nothing of the difference between intentions and follow-through: A promise to do the dishes every night doesn’t necessarily translate into the dishes always getting done.)
The problem only gets worse around questions designed to weed out abusive behavior. Asking “are you ever manipulative of others?” or “have you ever been violent?” is unlikely to prove anything. You can ask your partner whether they are honest, but you can’t know whether the answer they give you is true.
Some things don’t need to be talked about in relationships, not because they’re unimportant, but because they’re the sorts of things you can really only learn about by watching a person’s behavior.
In itself, the concept of a list of relationship questions isn’t bad or wrong (though some of the questions are shockingly bad and problematic, with more than a little judgment strongly implied). But the idea that a list of conversation topics can provide a prophylactic against heartbreak just doesn’t stand up to reality.
Human relationships are messy, human beings are complicated, and there’s nothing bulleted lists and page borders can do to change that.