Marriage, Intimacy and Capitalism

By August 18, 20109 Comments

As most of you know by now, I moved to the Chicago area last month to pursue a PhD in Educational Studies with a focus on Women’s Ministry. The field of Educational Studies is wonderfully relevant for ministers–it examines the many factors that shape how we think and live, not just in the classroom but in churches, politics, media, etc. Throughout our entire lives we are in the process of learning and growing, and what I want to study in my particular degree is what that means for women. How are women being shaped by the influences around them? How do women learn, and is it different from men? And what does that mean for how the church disciples them?

As I study this topic over the next 3 to 4 years, I hope to share with you some of what I learn. It’s important to me that I keep my philosophical studies grounded in real life, so I’m aiming to use my blog as a means to that end. With that in mind, this post serves as the first installment of this new phase in my writing!

So here goes…

There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.

– Proverbs 16:25

Today I was reading a secular book that examines the dominant worldviews of our culture, and how we are shaped by them in some unexpectedly negative ways. In particular, the book examined what it means to live in a capitalist society and how that affects the way we see the world. What struck me about this topic is that some philosophers have made a surprising connection between our capitalist economy and the state of marriage today.

(If you just zoned out at the sight of the word “capitalism,” stick with me! Whether you’re an econ buff or not–I most definitely am NOT–your daily life and the way you see the world is profoundly affected by what I’m about to stay, so hang with me a bit longer!)

Most conservative Christians offer total endorsements of capitalism and the virtues of having a free market that encourages excellence through competition. While I am not trying to have an argument here about the pros and cons of capitalism, this wholesale embrace of the capitalist way of life has had some unintended consequences. Specifically, it has infiltrated our worldviews and shaped the way we approach life in a more general sense. Consider these excerpts from two different philosophers on the relationship between capitalism and marriage/intimacy:

“Under the exchange economy, we view a loving relationship as ‘a mutually favorable exchange,’ with love as something existing outside our core, a commodity we trade with others for a fair return. Love under capitalism is governed by the ethic of fairness, ‘the particular ethical contribution of capitalist society.’ Where love is concerned, ”I give you as much as you give me’ is the prevalent ethical norm in capitalist society.'” (Excerpts from Erich Fromm in Brookfield, p. 178)

“We treat relationships as profit-making activities to which we can apply a cost-benefit analysis of emotional dividends that accrue to us. In this way of thinking, a relationship is successful if its participants enjoy a good rate of return on their emotional investment in the form of ego aggrandizement, sexual favors, or receipt of unconditional positive regard.” (Stephen Brookfield, The Power of Critical Theory, 2004, p. 257)

As a result of this mindset, our marriages and our capacity for intimacy suffer:

“The most personal relationships are subject to this drive for exchange…This is true even when talking of those who claim to be in love. In Fromm’s view people ‘fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange value.’ When love is conceived of as an exchange, then true intimacy–‘union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity’–is impossible.” (Brookfield, p. 162-163)

Sound too harsh? Sound too cold and analytical to be a realistic description of human beings? While most people probably don’t make a formal cost-benefit analysis chart of a relationship before deciding to marry or divorce, the basic mindset is all there. I see it quite clearly in my own life! For instance, I sometimes find myself tabulating how much my husband has done for me and then measuring it against what I’ve done for him. If I perceive a discrepancy, I suddenly feel disappointed and dissatisfied with the relationship, entitled to more than I’ve been given. And of course this language is all of the place in divorce proceedings: “He just wasn’t making me happy anymore,” or “It was too hard. It wasn’t worth what I was putting into it.”

I see this mindset in other areas of my life as well, such as friendships. Have you ever contemplated spending time with someone based upon whether it’s worth the effort? Perhaps you decided whether to pursue a friendship based on how much they entertain you or make you laugh? That is a carry-over from living in a thoroughly capitalist society, and while that type of thinking may be appropriate on Wall Street, it is unfitting for the Body of Christ, and certainly our marriages.

All of that to say, I am not intending to launch an all-out attack on capitalism, but this is a very stern caution for sure. There are a number of Christians who have, in so many words, described capitalism as “God’s best:” If God were to design an economy, this is what He would lay out! When we begin using that kind of language we have strayed into VERY dangerous territory. Any time we equate a secular institution or construction with the Gospel, our doctrine will start to slip and our lifestyles will soon follow. We will no longer be oriented by Gospel-centered principles but will instead be compromised by competing allegiances.

What is the take-away lesson here?

It’s about guarding yourself against worldviews that compete for the Gospel’s primacy in your life. Our marriages aren’t falling apart simply because of the hyper-sexuality we see on t.v. or the moral pluralism that has infiltrated our culture. Those factors are devastating to marriage, to be sure. But we must also consider that Christians have whole-heartedly embraced a system that examines everything according to how it profits us, a mindset that can quickly sabotage a marriage. Such a wholesale endorsement of any belief-system other than the Gospel is bound to give us far more than we ever bargained for.


  • Wow. This was really interesting. I’ve never thought about this before, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I can totally see it in our culture and in my own life! “…people ‘fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange value.’” SO TRUE.

  • Sharon says:

    haha I know, right? that quote actually stood out to me too–it kind of makes me laugh but it’s also really true.

  • Emily says:

    I’ve thought about this exchange a lot within friendships lately. Recently I found myself frustrated when I wasn’t receiving the same attention/support from a friend that I was giving her. I was praying about my frustration with the situation, and I felt like God said, “Aren’t you glad that my love for you isn’t like your love for your friends: conditional.” If God quantified his love for us based on our love for Him, we would all be in pretty bad shape. Thanks for the post!

  • Jennifer Pappalardo says:

    Hey Sharon, great post! My economics teacher took this even further and said that a person never does anything without selfish motivations. He said everything had to do with returns. Even Mother Teresa, he said, only did the good things she did hoping she would get crowns in heaven. And that really Christians are the most hedonistic people because they are looking for “real goods” instead of temporary ones found through materialism and sex…. Interesting thoughts, no? Obviously, he was incapable of looking at life through any other terms besides the economic worldviews he had been studying for so long. But it was a challenging though for me.

  • Kaigun A says:

    John piper would wholly agree with the Econ prof and go further in stating that Christians should be the most hedonistic people in the world because the object of our hedonism is the only thing worthy of it. It is also because we do not take the greatest joy in our pursuit of the pleasure that comes from seeking God that we fall into all sorts of false and unworthy pursuits. I’m not sure I completely agree with everything Mr. Piper says, but it’s a thought that often nags at me.

  • Marc Edwards says:

    Interesting idea – but can the problem can really be blamed on Capitalism? While it it can be said that Capitalism reinforces the notion that it’s all about me, me, me, as opposed to Socialism which reinforces the notion that it’s all about the state, state, state, the painful truth is that it’s man’s sin nature doesn’t need any encouragement from Capitalism, and can’t be persuaded to truly change by Socialism. We’re all naturally hedonistic regardless of how our countries’ politics work, and only the renewing of our minds described in Romans 12:2 changes that. That is why socialism looks great on paper, but doesn’t work well in real life. Man is not truly selfless until God makes him so, and these attempts to remake him by regulation and restrictions only result in surface changes simply for the sake of appearance. That’s why government in China has always been riddled with so much corruption that it makes the US House and Senate look like a gathering of angels by way of comparison. And even without the influence of ‘evil Capitalism’, the divorce rate in China, while still waaay less than the US, is increasing at a faster rate than the US now that they’ve made it easier for couples to divorce.

    In addition to this, I would also suggest that the current generation of Americans is much less starry eyed with the ideal of Capitalism than previous generations, yet those previous generations had much lower divorce rates. Also, some of the European countries whose governments lean a lot more towards Socialistic principles than the US (eg. Sweden, Denmark) have pretty high divorce rates too. So I think that the existence of a causal relationship between Capitalism and a more hedonistic, me, me, me worldview might need to be questioned.

    Reflecting on it some more, I think certain people with a more leftist worldview may simply be setting Capitalism up as the fall guy because it suits their broader agenda. Stephen Brookfield and Erich Fromm are after all, proponents of Critical Theory, which has its roots in Marxist Socialist philosophy, so it makes perfect sense for them to cast aspersions on Capitalism. I’m wondering if the real villain really isn’t the sin and deception whose present day form is the hyper-sexuality and moral pluralism which so easily entices our hedionistic natures away from the truth and God’s plan for us. After all, that’s been how it was before Capitalism began, and will continue to be so after it ends.

  • Sharon says:

    Marc, thanks for your thoughts. I have a couple responses.

    First, in our political climate today we automatically default to the capitalism v. socialism debate the moment capitalism is critiqued, and that is troubling to me. Nowhere here did I mention socialism, and while Brookfield and Fromm have communist sympathies, they focus largely on the community oriented heart behind it and how to foster that kind of integrity in our societies. They do not promote a state-imposed practice of the forced sharing of goods or a mindset that views the State as some sort of savior.

    The fact that we cannot fathom a system beyond the categories of capitalism or socialism shows me how thoroughly we have allowed the culture to destroy our imaginations. We cannot conceive of a culture transformed by the Gospel, so we default to the “lesser of two evils,” which is Capitalism. Perhaps there is another, better way, but Christians will not strive for it as long as they are so busy defending the virtues of capitalism that they fail to devote themselves first to the Gospel.

    Second, let me be clear that I am not blaming the divorce rate on capitalism. As I said in the post, and as you reiterated in your comment, our culture’s hyper-sexuality and pluralistic belief system are certainly significant factors. Even so, the fingerprints of a capitalist ideology are all over our marriages and we should not ignore that fact simply because capitalism is our golden calf. We are naive to think that the practices that shape our everyday lives do not shape the way we see the world in a larger sense. And while that is not to say that capitalism is the sole scapegoat, it is to say that ANY belief system or practice that is that untouchably central to our lives, other than the Gospel, deserves a good, hard critique.

    Again, I am not promoting socialism, nor do I think capitalism is to blame for our sin problem. But as Calvin once said, “The human heart is an idol factory,” and in our sin I fear we have come to idolize capitalism in a destructive way. To deny that this could be true is to engage in willful blindness.

  • Marc Edwards says:

    Thanks for your reply – I think you have given me some meat to chew on. Especially interesting is whether we as Christians are failing to provide an alternative and taking the lazy way out by embracing the least evil and rubber stamping it as God’s best.

    I’m not totally convinced about whether capitalist idealogy really influences the way we view our relationships and marriages though. I think about Japan, which is very Capitalistic in terms of political ideology, but is very collectivistic when it comes to personal relationships in society. But then I suppose it could be argued that their cultural heritage provides a counter balance to the influence of the capitalism, while America’s cultural heritage does the opposite. Hmm….you might really be onto something here!

  • Sharon says:

    Haha well thanks for being open to dialogue! It’s so important for Christians to be able to openly discuss this stuff. Feel free to send any other insights my way!

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