The Cycle of Abuse in Fireproof

My husband recently rewatched the Christian movie Fireproof. I’ve seen it many times, and caught most of it this time.

I’ve always had trouble listening to the beginning of the movie, when Caleb (the main character) yells at his wife, Catherine. I didn’t know when I first watched it, but the word for my response was ‘triggered’.

The husband, Caleb, is verbally abusive.* The movie makers don’t intend it that way. I think they intend us to see both characters as equally flawed, but he’s screaming demeaning things in Catherine’s face, backing her up against the wall, and later beating a trashcan out of his anger at her. Verbal abuse. It’s really messed up.

Luke said he couldn’t really fault anything that Catherine did in the movie.

The movie gives us every indication that Caleb’s temper in this scene is normal for him, only this time Catherine says ‘I want out’.

Caleb tells his father about this, and the father responds by sending Caleb a handwritten book called ‘The Love Dare’. For forty, Caleb will read the book and do a ‘dare’ to show love to his wife, in an attempt to save their marriage.

When Caleb starts the love dare, there is NO communication. He just acts differently. But the scary thing here is, the change he makes is textbook abuser behavior, according to the cycle of abuse.

It’s called the reconciliation phase, and it often happens when the victim, like Catherine, is getting ready to leave.

Now, I’m not saying people can’t change for good (although abusers are often repeat offenders), I’m just saying Catherine was right not to trust the change. The movie NEVER addresses this.

 

Honestly, this is a couple that could really benefit from facilitated conversation in counseling. They have deep issues that they need to hash out, but they never even communicate on their own. We’re supposed to think that Caleb getting saved will suffice to heal their relationship, but the fact is he’s still a flawed person who has broken Catherine’s trust, and even with a permanent change, this is going to take time and discussion to heal. The sad probability though, is that Caleb has not changed for good, not completely. Christians abuse people all the time, there isn’t any reason to think just because someone professes belief in Christ, that they won’t abuse their loved ones. Even with a positive life change, that change is often not complete.

But that isn’t what the movie teaches. According to Caleb’s dad, his and Catherine’s problems are all because they aren’t Christians. Standing in front of a cross, the father tells Caleb ‘you can’t love her, cuz you can’t give her what you don’t have’.

The idea that only christians can love their spouses and have a successful marriage is not only offensive to non believers and members of other religions, it’s out of line with statistics – the same percent of ‘born again christians’ get divorced as the rest of the population (evangelicals have lower rates).

 

The couple in this movie is already married, but other than that it fits a common pattern for a romance movie. the two persons who will eventually get together have problems, one person falls in love (this time it’s ‘again’), there’s a love triangle even. Eventually, after a stunning lack of communication and some problems, they get together, and they enter the honeymoon phase of the relationship, and we leave them there.

Unfortunately, there’s also a honeymoon phase in the cycle of abuse. It’s what often keeps a person in an abusive relationship, the hope of lasting change and happiness. The problem is, the honeymoon phase seldom lasts. Unless the abuser really changes (and in the movie, Caleb’s temper problem is never addressed, it’s just wiped aside when he ‘gets saved’) the abuse will start again.

The way problems are wiped aside and never dealt with in Fireproof is troubling. In real life, they would be almost certain to come up again.

This movie is scary because it is intended as a ministry to struggling married couples, the Love Dare is even sold in stores, and there is a marriage curriculum based on the movie, but its example to couples of not communicating and letting their faith in God do all the work in the marriage is unhealthy and unhelpful.

 

*Hat tip to Sarah Moon for livetweeting the movie a few months ago and making me realize this for the first time. She wrote a blog post about it here.

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