The Never-Been-Kissed Duggar Women Have Relationship Advice for You

The Duggars, all 21 of them, have a word for their unusually large family: "normal."

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The Duggars, all 21 of them, have a word for their unusually large family: "normal." In an interview with The Wire, four of the older Duggar women — 20-something daughters Jill, Jessa, Jinger, and Jana — used the word often to explain the reasoning behind their new book, Growing Up DuggarIt's a book about relationships, including romantic ones. But the Duggars, who follow a particular branch of conservative evangelical Christianity, don't date. They court. "We're even saving our first kiss," Jessa Duggar told The Wire in an interview, "for our wedding day." With such a different way of being, can the Duggars teach us anything about ourselves, as they'd very much like to do? To crib a relationship status none of the Duggars will ever use on Facebook, it's complicated.

For example: among pretty "normal"-sounding sections on being kind to others, and working through sibling quarrels, the women describe "the obedience game," which is exactly what it sounds like. When Duggars are little, the obedience game is like Simon Says, except Duggars always obey when it comes from mom and dad. Teaching obedience, the Duggars advise, is how to teach good character, and it's good practice for a faithful life. And then there's the advice on friendship, which notes that "the very best way to be a friend is to point your friends to Jesus." All four girls wear purity rings, which they discuss in their section on romance.

The Duggar family inhabits a specific sort of celebrity that permeates the boundary between fringe and mainstream. On the one hand, the large, religious family has made its living as a reality show subject: to many, they're the friendly-looking bunch with all those kids with J names. On the other hand, the family is active — politically and spiritually — in a cloistered Christian community that prompts them to homeschool their many children, and to remove themselves as much as possible from the world that made them famous.

That, in part, explains the curious juxtapositions of  the new book, between the repetition that the Duggars are just like you and me, and the particulars of their religious beliefs. Speaking by phone in March, Jill did most of the talking for her sisters, with their father Jim-Bob Duggar in the room. The women are in different stages of courtship, meaning that their relationship advice (in the broadest sense) is a mix of their experiences and what they've been taught. On this issue of romantic relationships, that's more or less the latter. Jessa, 20, is in the middle of a courtship right now with Ben Seewald. Or possibly engaged to him, if this exchange with the Wire is any indication: 

J: Yes ma'am. 
And you are not engaged. 
J: N....[
laughter] Tune into next season to find out!

The next season, of course, refers to their ongoing family reality show 19 Kids and Counting. It premieres tonight on TLC. In the past, the family has promoted upcoming seasons by teasing major events, such as an engagement or a new pregnancy. Yesterday, the Duggar clan revealed that Jill, 22, is also in courtship with Derick Dillard.

As the older female Duggar children, Jill, Jessa, Jinger, and Jana have occasionally captured the imagination of viewers who don't necessarily share their  beliefs. The internet is filled with speculation on whether one of them, usually Jinger, will rebel and leave the tight-knit family circle. That fantasy sees Jinger becoming a high-profile celebrity for watchdog groups who believe the conservative "Quiverfull" movement harms the children it raises, someone who could confirm what they've always suspected about the family and others like it. But if the book, and their interview with us, is any indication, the older Duggar women have instead grown up into polished, mature, likeable spokespeople for the family business.

The best common ground between the Duggars and the rest of us, strangely, may be found in some of the characteristics the Duggar women believe sets them apart. In the Duggar family, those who date to build relationships are often just "having fun," as opposed to looking for a serious partner. "There's really no permanent commitment there," Jill told The Wire about modern dating. She added that the women hoped readers of their book would learn about what's at the "heart" of how human beings engage with the opposite sex:  the"character" and "thoughts" that lead to sexual behavior. In the book and on the phone, the Duggars put dating in opposition to their courtship practices, which focus on "character." Dating is of the world. It's temptation, low self-worth, and peer pressure. Courtship is about long-term prospects.

When asked how this could be — men and women who date can and do successfully build lives together, and sometimes even get happily married — Jill pointed to her sister's courtship: "It's different than the regular dating because the couple sits down and set themselves some goals," she said, from the beginning. The more the Duggars talk about how they court, the easier it is to see where the similarities are to traditional dating: the women believe you "just know" when you're ready to marry someone. The Duggars ask the same questions about character, life goals, and children, as anyone in a serious relationship, they just do it without sexual contact first, and often in the presence of their families. The real difference, then, is in how the Duggars see you and me. In the book, here is how the Duggar women describe teenage female sexual desire:

"The girl may so yearn to feel valued and accepted by a male that she gives in to the boy's desires. But too often the boy's 'love' for her turns out to be fleeting, and the girl is left cast off and degraded. From there, things can easily spiral downward as the girl's yearning to feel valued intensifies and she seeks acceptance from the next boy who comes along. We hear from a lot of girls in this painful situation." 

The Duggar women grew up preparing for courtship, and a lot of their advice — none of them have yet married, apart form their older brother — relies on their relationship with their parents.

So it's important to note that the Duggars are promoting this way of courtship in an interesting time for their particular religious communities. Right in the middle of the press tour for Growing Up Duggar, Bill Gothard — a Christian patriarchy leader whose teachings are referenced multiple times by the advice book as a resource — resigned as the head of his own organization after facing dozens of accusations of sexual harassment. Given their endorsement of Gothard's influential teachings, The Wire asked the family for a statement on the Gothard scandal. Jim Bob, the father, said:

"I think it's important for each person to put their faith in Jesus and not follow any man. For us its so important for each of us to have a relationship with the Lord. And the foundation of the relationship is asking Christ to forgive us for our sin, and to turn over the control of our life to Him, and to follow him. And so we don't follow any men, and that's just where we're at." 

When asked specifically if the advice in the book still stands, despite the controversy surrounding the man who produced it, Jim Bob added, "What we do as a family, is we just follow what the Bible says. As a family, that's our goal. ... People will let us down, but Jesus won't." In other words, Gothard's ideas will remain a part of their family, even if the man behind them doesn't.

Although the Duggars can be politically active — oldest son Josh Duggar lives in DC and works at the Family Research Council — this book is more of a memoir than it is a manifesto. Filled with easy-to-digest anecdotes, it sticks to the family thesis statement of common ground. The framework of their stories, their personalities, remain relatable, despite the differences. And of course it does. The common ground is exactly what makes their reality show so watchable for so many. So we asked the Duggars to apply their advice to an outsider, specifically to me. What can the Duggars tell me, a non-believing journalist in New York, about getting married?

The never-married daughters again deferred to their father, after offering that I should not "marry someone you can live with," but instead "marry someone you can't live without." For his part, Jim Bob said: "first off, somebody shared with us early on to never let the sun go down on your wrath." Work out fights "on the same day it happens." And, he added, never air your dirty laundry in public. "When we praise publicly then the praise is multiplied in encouraging that person. But when we correct somebody, we try to correct them in private."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.