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I was in high school when I first went to a Basic and Advanced Seminar, and my family enrolled in the Advanced Training Institute (ATI) homeschool program. Prior to that, my folks hadn’t attended a Basic Seminar in nearly a decade. While they appreciated what they had learned the first time around, they didn’t implement much of it. Until they decided to enroll our family in ATI.
I don’t remember where it was that I first heard about a concept called “listening to the cautions of your wife,” but it was a doctrine espoused pretty liberally by the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). Basically, IBLP taught that God would warn a man against bad decisions through uneasiness felt by his wife. The doctrine was backed up by all sorts of stories and illustrations where men had listened to the cautions of their wives and saved friends from suicide or avoided a business calamity. There may have been stories illustrating the opposite –where a man didn’t listen to the caution of his wife and reaped terrible consequences. My Mama was kind of headstrong anyway, so she was delighted to learn that Daddy had to listen to her, because God said so!
As my family sank deeper into the ATI lifestyle, Mama became our own little “Oracle at Delphi”–meaning Daddy was somewhat afraid to make any big decision unless Mama approved. By default, we sons, who had no wives of our own, were instructed to “listen to the cautions of your mother.”
Around the time my family enrolled in ATI, I distinctly remember Bill Gothard admonishing sons that parents were a “training ground” for marriage. God would use friction in our relationship with our mothers (if a son) or fathers (if a daughter) to prepare us for the same friction we could expect from our spouse. It seemed to make sense, so I plunged headlong into making Mama happy. After all, I wanted to be a good husband someday, and here was my chance to ferret out all of my character flaws, work on them, and someday be a perfect husband for my future bride. If I recall correctly, Bill Gothard said that it was only when you mastered your relationship with your mother that you’d be ready for marriage.
The only problem was that no one stopped to consider whether Mama might be wrong. Whether Mama might use her powers to be selfish and manipulative. And, worst of all, whether God might actually speak directly to Daddy or one of us children.
Things were fine for a few years, while I jumped headlong into “marriage training.” Mama was stubborn. Great! My future wife was probably going to be stubborn, too (or God wouldn’t have given me a stubborn Mama). Mama was unreasonable. My wife was going to be unreasonable, too, and, since I was learning how to suffer an unreasonable mama, my marriage was going to be destined for happiness because my wife and I would never have any fights stemming from her being unreasonable. Mama was arbitrary. God was testing me to see if I would love her unconditionally and thus prove my ability to love my future wife unconditionally, too.
While I had a few disagreements with Mama during the years that followed, over things like what vocation I should train for and who I should marry, it always ended with my deciding that Mama was right and that my character was simply lacking.
I’ll never forget the day God opened my eyes and I saw the woman whom I later married in that special light. You know, the one where your heart starts to flutter and it’s as if the rest of the world goes dark. You can’t stop thinking about her. You pray and pray, “Please God! If she’s not the one you made for me, make these feelings go away!”
So I told Mama about it. Her response, “I really like her, but I don’t think she’s the one for you.” So I assumed that I must not have guarded my heart appropriately. A few months passed and my feelings only intensified. I continued to pray. I broached the subject with Mama again and her response was the same. “I really like her, but I don’t think she’s the one for you.” That cycle continued for a year, until one day Mama had a special revelation from God, that this girl was, indeed, the one for me! Daddy put his rubber stamp on it (which seemed to be his modus operandi most of the time).
I resisted the urge to be frustrated, to gloat, to question. God surely knew that I needed more time to prepare for marriage. And now that I had Mama’s approval and blessing, it meant there would be no friction between Mama and my bride once the wedding took place.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
During the engagement, Mama began to display strange behavior. She’d criticize my fiancée for petty things. I’d ask, “Are you saying you have a caution, Mama?” She would concede that she didn’t. She loved my fiancée. She’d criticize my future in-laws. Again, I’d ask, “Are you saying you have a caution?” She didn’t.
When I moved into my first place, her body language was angry. Weepy. Even violent. She said it was a terrible day. The worst day of her life.
After my wife and I returned from our honeymoon, things were blissful for a few months, but two things began to happen. First, Mama became increasingly competitive with my wife. And, at home, I found my marriage to be somewhat bumpy. My wife and I had long, long talks, and two things became very apparent. First, I could not serve two masters. I could not please my wife and Mama at the same time, so I cut Mama loose. Her happiness was no longer my concern. Daddy could worry about that.
Second, all those years of training for marriage by obeying Mama’s every whim? They were more or less for naught. My wife was not very much like Mama. Sure they do have some similarities here or there, but I think that’s probable with any two individuals you compare.
Several years into our marriage, Mama was still incredibly unhappy, frequently lamenting that my wedding day was the worst day of her life. That she was not ready to not be a mama anymore. In frustration one day, she told me, “You never do what I say anymore!”
One day, after another argument, Mama hung up on me, and I decided I was too tired of all the drama to call her back. We didn’t speak for months. During that time, I learned about setting appropriate boundaries. I learned about things like passive-aggressive behavior and co-dependency. And my outlook not only on my relationship with Mama, but also on all that ATI had taught me about honoring and obeying my parents, changed.
We ultimately reconciled with Mama, but not until she had missed some very important life events. Unfortunately, we will never have the chance to get those back. Things are much better between us in that Mama now understands that we have our own lives. She may or may not agree with every decision we make, but she understands that, as adults, they are our decisions to make and that God is just as capable of redeeming our mistakes as He was of redeeming hers.
And while Mama might have had these struggles regardless of whether my family had ever heard of Bill Gothard or ATI, I have to think her struggles were exacerbated by a system that basically gave her absolute power over the lives of her family members.