Part of the The Billy Graham Rule and Friendships With Someone of the Opposite Sex Series
Social media recently exploded over the resurgence of a 2002 article concerning the stance that Mike Pence chose to take in his marriage. At the time of that writing, Pence and his wife, Karen, admitted to following a principle similar to the “Billy Graham Rule" in which Dr. Graham acknowledged his commitment to never eat alone with another woman or attend an event where alcohol is being served. And with that revelation, people began slamming Vice President Pence for living out his personal convictions.
I’ve noticed that in many of the articles I’ve read concerning Vice President Pence’s declaration, individuals have expressed concern about how this perspective could devalue women, portray women as sexual objects or keep them from advancing professionally.
Amid the condemnation and judgment that exploded across our country, it would seem that few people took the time to really understand the meaning, motive or impact of the Pences’ stance regarding their marriage. Maybe, just maybe, we can all learn something from them. We may even begin to see some benefit in honoring marriage as an institution at the same time we commit to taking a stand for our personal marital convictions.
How could the Billy Graham rule be beneficial to marriage?
Guidelines help us to fulfill the mandate to honor marriage. Hebrews 13:4 (NIV) says, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” The directive in this verse is clear — honor marriage, including your own. Value marriage. Make your marriage a priority.
As married couples, our behavior should be an indicator of what we value. Therefore, it should be apparent to others that we value our marriage on a personal level and value the covenant of marriage on a general level. I believe we can do this best by choosing to behave in ways that would not leave others — even bystanders — wondering if we are truly committed to our marriage relationship.
Consider how you would feel if you saw your neighbor out to lunch with a female friend and they were laughing, giggling, maybe even flirting. Would it make you wonder how his wife would feel if she walked upon this scenario? If this were my husband, I know I would struggle with what I was seeing. So the question comes down to this: Would this kind of interaction with someone of the opposite sex benefit my neighbor's marriage or create a moment of doubt for his wife? Would my neighbor ultimately be honoring his marriage? With an example like this in mind, I can see the value of establishing boundaries in marriage.
Personally, I want to be very careful with what I say and what I do in order to honor my marriage. I want others to see through my words and deeds that marriage is not only a good thing — it’s a great thing!
Guidelines in a marriage relationship are not uncommon. Most marriages, Christian or not, typically have some sort of agreed upon code of conduct. Married couples intuitively understand that if one spouse chooses to behave in a manner that brings only individual satisfaction in the marriage, the behavior will obviously have a negative impact on the relationship. Therefore, whether or not it involves a formal discussion, many couples have some sort of code of conduct or accepted set of guidelines that they have agreed to. Your boundaries may not look identical to those of Vice President Pence or Dr. Billy Graham, but you probably understand acceptable limits.
A lot of married couples will tell you that marriage is the most wonderful thing they’ve ever experienced, as well as one of the most difficult things they’ve ever experienced. With that in mind, it's understandable why having clear expectations of appropriate behavior is helpful to both a husband and a wife, especially when their relationship needs to be guarded during seasons of difficulty.
My husband, Greg, and I have had our own set of guidelines that we have followed for the past 25 years. Although our boundaries may not be quite the same as the “Billy Graham Rule,” we’ve committed to what we could call our own “Smalley Rule.”
Greg and I consistently guard our marriage by setting boundaries around how we interact with other men and women. We’ve committed to the following guidelines:
- Never be in our home alone with a friend of the opposite sex.
- Don’t socialize alone with a member of the opposite sex.
- Don’t travel alone with someone of the opposite sex.
We’ve worked to more clearly understand what it means to honor each other’s privacy at the same time we battle against secrecy. Because this has been a work in progress for us, Greg and I have also agreed that if an awkward situation comes up, we will have open discussions in order to arrive at a mutually agreed upon solution.
Guidelines create emotional safety in marriage. As my husband honors our shared code of conduct, I feel enormously valued and cherished. Greg honors me as his wife, his beloved, by adhering to our mutually agreed upon boundaries. I would assume that Karen Pence feels the same way I do — as did Ruth Graham — comforted by knowing that her husband cares enough about her to take a stance to protect their marriage. Regardless of what the world and social media might be spewing about Vice President Pence, he has proven his commitment to his wife.
I can’t stress enough how important it is for your marriage that you have a conversation with your husband or wife to discuss interactions with members of the opposite sex. If you’ve never discussed the desired boundaries or guidelines you both wish to have in your marriage, it would seem that in the wake of people reacting to the Billy Graham Rule, now might be a great time to do just that. I encourage you to pause and evaluate your own marital convictions in order to cultivate the greatest level of safety in your marriage.
Why not put boundaries in place so in your own moments of weakness or temptation you already have a guardrail of protection in place? Consider a few of the following guardrail examples:
- Leave the door open when one of you is meeting with a person of the opposite sex.
- Be sure there is a window in your office so your interactions with other people are visible.
- When you’re talking with someone of the opposite sex, steer away from conversations about frustrations you may be having with your spouse.
- Be aware of your own feelings or secret desires when a member of the opposite sex walks into the room.
Very few people would admit to having been involved in the intentional pursuit of an extramarital affair. But many confess to feeling a connection with someone of the opposite sex, and then the relationship just gradually began to form. The potential destruction an extramarital affair can have on a family is immense. I am not saying that every interaction with the opposite sex is an affair waiting to happen or even a sexual temptation. However, having boundaries around all your interactions will help lead you to safety when it's needed.
What are some of the benefits of protecting your marriage?
Regardless of how you feel about the Billy Graham Rule and its intent to protect a husband and wife, research has consistently shown that marriage is worth protecting from harm or destruction. I believe that God created marriage, (“God, not you, made marriage” Malachi 2:15, The Message paraphrase). But even if you try to take God out of the discussion, marriage has still proven to be an emotionally, physically and financially beneficial institution for adults, children and all of society.
Beyond the social impact of marriage, it is simply an amazing experience. There are so many benefits to having someone stand by you during both the challenges and the joys of life. I have found that there is nothing like having your best friend to fall asleep with and wake up beside.
Because each one of us chooses to be proactive in different areas of life (health, fitness, finances, etc.), I wonder why married couples would not be proactive in building a healthy marriage? Both husbands and wives should protect the amazing gift of marriage in their lives, so even if you don’t want to follow the extent of the Billy Graham Rule, why not discuss how you and your spouse plan on protecting your marriage?
Erin Smalley is a co-author of The Wholehearted Wife and serves as the program manager of marriage ministries at Focus on the Family.