JWs live by a very strict moral code, rather Puritanical in nature, that forbids any type of sexual contact between people who are not married to each other. Once engaged to be married, the rigidity of that policy slackens only the tiniest bit. As a result JWs do not engage in what most non-JWs would consider normal dating.
In order to be eligible for their brand of “dating” one must be of marriageable age and, as the Bible calls it, “past the bloom of youth” when hormonal urges might cloud their judgment and lead to an imprudent marriage. Therefore, teenaged JWs do not date. No prom; no, “Hey, wanna catch a movie on Friday?” If they socialize at all it is in groups and chaperoned by a responsible adult (preferably a small army of adults). This means that the normal process of exploring one’s own sexuality never happens until marriage.
A more mature JW (let’s call him “Don”) who desires marriage and sees an attractive prospect (let’s call her “Sue”) will have to angle to make sure they are invited to the same social events which, depending on the congregation, may be few and far between.
Lacking the requisite social events necessary for the desired contact, Don will attend meetings at Sue’s congregation whenever possible, engaging her in conversation or, perhaps just gazing longingly (at which point we must vigorously poke Don in the side and push him in Sue’s direction).
Once friendly contact has been established and mutual interest ascertained, the pair will have to create social events at which to mingle or press their married friends into service as chaperones on visits to museums, dinners out, and shopping excursions. No hand-holding, kissing, or other physical contact is allowed except, perhaps, a supporting arm when walking across an icy sidewalk.
So, Don and Sue are smitten, and Don manages to find an opportunity to slip away from the chaperones and ask for Sue’s hand (having obtained her father’s permission). Now they may hold hands and sit together at meetings. Kissing is not recommended, although not forbidden. No fumbling hands amongst the shirt buttons, now, Don! Be a good boy.
A brief engagement is preferable in order to prevent lust from causing the premature loss of chastity. In order to use a kingdom hall for their wedding, Don and Sue’s conduct during their courtship and engagement must be above reproach.
In practice, this repression of natural urges results in many early marriages, which leads to a great deal of unhappiness down the line.
In my own case, I was married at 18 to a 25-year-old man who, I found out some 25 years later, only wanted me for the basest of reasons. I’ll write more about that in my book.
The wedding ceremony itself consists of a talk given by an elder and then the reciting of vows. Oh gosh, let’s see if I can remember how it goes. “I Sue take you Don to be my wedded husband, to love and to cherish and deeply respect for as long as we shall live together on earth according to God’s marital arrangements.” Don uses basically the same vow, except he leaves off the “deeply respect” part.
Weddings are supposed to be fairly simple, especially if held in a kingdom hall. Customs vary in different parts of the world, but lavish decorations are not allowed, you must use a Kingdom Melody (JW “hymn”) for the processional, and writing your own vows is not allowed.
Likewise, the reception is to be modest and controlled. If the whole congregation is invited, probably there won’t be any alcohol served. Weddings I attended in Maine back in the ‘70s usually were potluck affairs with square dancing. By the ‘90s they were more likely to be catered and invitation-only with a hired band. It is extremely unlikely that any JW in good standing would hire a wedding planner.
In my case, we had to do things on the cheap, even though I was engaged for nine months with plenty of time to plan. Of course, I was only 17 for most of that time and had been trained not to expect much. As was customary back in the ‘70s in my part of the world, I made my own wedding gown, and my groom wore his best suit. I had two bridesmaids who also made their gowns and the male attendants wore their best suits. We had a small reception at my parents’ home, mainly for family and close friends.
Once married, the JW wife is expected to be in subjection to her husband. If there is a heavy decision to be made he will listen to her opinion and concerns, but it’s his decision, and she must support him no matter what she thinks of it. As you can imagine, for a modern woman with a brain in her head this is nearly impossible and requires a huge amount of self-control and self-repression. Now, there’s a recipe for lasting happiness!
A striking example of this dynamic in action occurred when my supervisor, a JW, received permission from her superior to attend a national trade association conference in a distant city. It was shortly after 9/11, and her husband was uneasy about her taking a plane anywhere. Of course, his fears were irrational, but she had to obey him and send someone else in her place. Her chagrin was obvious, but she was forced by scriptural law to knuckle under. The non-JWs in the office were astonished, and the ultimate result of this inexplicable turn of events was that the boss was diminished in the eyes of her staff.
As you can imagine, this dynamic works well only if the husband is a reasonable, loving man who follows the example of Jesus Christ. Yeah, right. Often, what you find in JW households is an abuse of power on the part of the husband/father. Conversely, there are some women who will not be silenced and run roughshod over their husband’s authority – in private. In public, they will put on a show of submissiveness.
The children in the household are subject to their parents’ authority, at least until a son gets baptized. Once that happens, while still required to be obedient to his mother, he is considered her spiritual head. Newly baptized boys tend to let this teensy bit of authority go to their heads and start trying to order their mothers around, a situation that never ends happily.
Girls in the household are absolutely the lowest forms of life on earth. They have no voice whatsoever. If an autocratic father rules the household, life can be pretty unbearable providing yet another reason for early marriage and escape.
More on a woman’s place in JWs next week.