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What Can We Learn From “Wife Swap”?

Meet the Sweany-Ernst family of Washington state.
By Dave Boehi

“Meet the Sweany-Ernst family of Washington state.  Wife Laura leads the family in worshiping fairies and Mother Earth.  She and husband Carol believe that competitive sports are dangerous and evil.  They make their three sons do all the household work while they seek spiritual enlightenment.  For two weeks Laura will swap places with Stephanie Starling, a wife and mother in Florida.  Stephanie and her husband, John, believe in ‘living big’ and have focused their lifestyle around 13-year-old son Justin and his career as a motocross racer.  Justin gets whatever he wants, while older sister Samantha is forced to serve his needs …”

For a couple years I refused to watch the ABC television show, Wife Swap because I thought it was literally about wife swapping.  I didn't think that was something I ought to watch.  Then I discovered that the title of the show is pretty  misleading--these are actually stories about the culture clash that ensues when a mother from one family switches places with a mother from another family.  And now when I watch the show I always find find myself asking, “Where do they find these people?”

The show’s producers seem to delight in finding a family that lives some type of extreme lifestyle and pairing it with another family that is totally opposite.  An urban family obsessed with beauty and cleanliness is matched with a survivalist rural family that eats nothing but raw food and doesn’t clean their home so that bacteria can thrive.  A mom who raises her sons to find their “feminine side” and limits their association with other boys is matched with a mother who can’t control her undisciplined, roughhousing sons. 

This naturally sets up plenty of conflict as the mother tries to fit into the new family for seven days, and then forces that family to live by her rules and standards during the final week.  Each hour-long story follows a similar path.  The women are just shocked by the way this new family is living … They lock horns with stubborn fathers who don’t understand this disapproving houseguest … The women institute new rules designed to turn the new families into copies of their own families back home … Adults and kids all learn a few valuable lessons … and everyone lives happily ever after!

On an episode featuring the Starling and Sweany-Ernst families, for example, Laura couldn’t believe that the Starlings cut down acres of trees to create a motocross track in their backyard.  She was concerned about Justin’s frequent injuries from racing, and she quickly noticed that Samantha was not allowed to develop her own interests because her parents were so preoccupied with Justin.  She helped John recognize that Justin was spoiled and that he should support Samantha’s interest in photography. 

This common plotline reveals the most obvious Wife Swap lesson:  If you want to learn how you can improve your marriage and your parenting skills, allow someone with fresh eyes to live in your home.  Many of these couples seem to be clueless that their lifestyle decisions are not exactly normal.  In their self-absorption they don’t realize how extreme they’ve become, or how it has affected their children. 

Sometimes, in fact, Wife Swap often has more to say about parenting than it does about marriage.  It features recurring themes about parents taking discipline so far that they create a stern, loveless household … parents who assert no control over teenage children … parents who are more concerned with their interests than those of their kids … and so on.  If the parents on the show don’t see all their faults, the camera makes them obvious to us. 

Yet there is one nice thing I learn about marriage each week on this show, and this is revealed when the couples reunite at the end of each episode.  As you see them run into each other’s arms, you realize that if you want to really appreciate your spouse, just spend two weeks with someone who is totally opposite.

Perhaps Merry and I should apply to appear on Wife Swap.  I can just see it now …

“Meet the Boehi family of Little Rock, Arkansas.  Dave and Merry are committed Christians, work with a nondenominational ministry to families—and they probably eat a bit too much chocolate and red meat.  For the next two weeks Merry will swap places with Angelica of northern Minnesota.  Angelica and her husband, Brock, live year-round in a tent community in the woods.  Like others in their community, they abstain from personal hygiene, and they are firm believers in ‘open marriage’ …”

On second thought, I think my appreciation for Merry is stronger already.  I think we can pass on the personal appearance.

Meet the Author: Dave Boehi

Dave Boehi is a senior editor at FamilyLife. He has written one book (I Still Do), coauthored the Preparing for Marriage workbook, edited dozens of books and Bible studies, and produces the FamilyLife e-newsletter Help & Hope. Dave and his wife, Merry, live in Little Rock, Arkansas, and have two married daughters.



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