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Understanding Brokenness In Marriage

Fr.George Morelli

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It is because a blessed marriage is holy that a broken marriage is a tragedy.

The writer of Genesis said of Adam and Eve: "And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it;' Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Genesis 1:28; 2:24). St. Paul wrote in Hebrews: "Let marriage be held in honor among all . . ." (Hebrews 13:4).

St. John Chrysostom typified the Orthodox Church Fathers: "From the beginning God has been revealed as the fashioner, by his providence, of this union (Greek: syzygias -- yoking wedlock married state as used by the Church Fathers) of man and woman, and He has spoken of the two as one: 'male and female He created them'" (Homily on Ephesians 5:22-33).

In a blessed marriage in the Orthodox Church, the couple is ordained as the leaders of their domestic church, crowned to be the king and queen of their domicile and granted grace for the "fair education of children" as the Orthodox wedding service proclaims.

How does brokenness in marriage occur? The answer is found both in the spiritual and psychological realms.

Understanding the spiritual definition of marriage helps explain the meaning of brokenness. Spiritually, in the marital relationship two individuals become "one flesh;" a term that means two individuals work in concert to become one mind and heart. They are joined together in love in a way that replicates how the Three Persons of the Trinity relate in love to one another.

Becoming "one flesh" in a blessed marriage is an act of agape, a selfless giving of one to the other; a self-emptying (Greek: kenosis) in a manner like Christ when He took on human flesh and assumed human nature. Marriage also replicates the creative energy of God where the couple as "one flesh" unites to create new life.

Marital self-emptying however occurs only if each partner consents to it. In making man in His image, God gave man freedom. This leads those in a marital union to a crossroad: The path of righteousness where marriage is a joined duality, or the path of self-satisfaction where marriage is defined as a singularity.

The latter is a marriage in name only. After the Fall we are predisposed to self-centered choices directed by the passions (lusts) rather than choices based on agape. St. Isaac of Syria tells us: ". . . pandering to the flesh, produce(s) in us shameful urges and unseemly fantasies" (Early Fathers from the Philokalia).

The passions spring from the heart of the person. Jesus told us: "For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man" (Mark 7: 21-23).

St. Paul wrote "While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death" (Romans 5:7). The work of the passions can take place either before marriage or after the marital union takes place. In either case they lead to a choice of singularity or self-satisfaction over a righteous joined union.

Before marriage one may not understand or be committed to the Christian view of marriage (Morelli, 2004). After marriage, due to the brokenness of human nature, the passions may predispose a couple to discord. St. Paul's warning applies to the "demon's" attack on the marital union: "Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19-21). The Church Fathers attribute this to the demon of each passion that never tires of breaking union with God.

An example of how this works may aid our understanding. The demon of lust, the Church Fathers tell us, may take over our lives. Modern society facilitates this malady. Sex is broadcast everywhere for almost every use: art, fashion, music, news, pornography (especially the Internet), and the sale of almost any product from automobiles to computers, The secular world flagrantly exposes body parts, especially the genital areas.

The Church Fathers knew about such enticements a thousand years ago. St. Isaac of Syria wrote: "Passions are brought either by images or by sensations devoid of images and by memory, which at first is unaccompanied by passionate movements or thoughts, but which later produces excitation." One way to deal with these passions, continued St. Isaac: " . . . their thought must become attached to nothing except their own soul."

One has to make a choice between Christ and demon. St. Paul asked: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation . . . distress . . . persecution . . . hunger . . . nakedness . . . danger . . . the sword? For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ our Lord" (Romans 8:35-39). Vigilance and discernment are major virtues to be acquired by those seeking Christ indwelling in them and desire to overcome the power of passions.

Ilias the Presbyter tells us: "Demons wage war against the soul primarily through thoughts . . . " (Philokalia, III). Ideally the marital couple will make a "spiritual desert" for themselves removing them from the "enticements" so prevalent in modern life. Spiritual death occurs when these thoughts are self centered.

St. Maximus the Confessor knew this as well: "The self love and cleverness of men, alienating them from each other and perverting the law, have cut our single human nature into many fragments." How much more should St. Maximus' words apply to those who have become "one flesh"?

Psychology and sociology aids us in understanding the social, cognitive, and behavioral factors that contribute to the spiritual breakdown (the demon's work) that creates marital brokenness. Cognitive-behavioral research (Beck 1988) and it's related marital investigation programs (Christianson and Jacobson, 2000 and Gottman, 1994, 1999) have done much to help delineate the cognitive factors that lead to marital discord and develop efficacious clinical interventions.

Beck example, points out the cognitive distortions that produce marital conflict. Individuals do not know the "state of mind-attitudes thoughts and feelings" of the other so they impose their own interpretation. There is a tendency to rely on ambiguous signals from the other and interpret them based on the observers own attitudes, thoughts and feelings.

The intensity of the degree of the observer's beliefs about the motives of the other is not a measure of the accuracy of the observer's interpretation, however. One major contributor to maintaining these inaccurate perceptions is what Beck labels a "closed perspective." Beck states: "Closed or self centered perspectives are defined by the individual frames of reference; people view events only according to how they relate to them."

Beck goes on to state something with which the Church Fathers could readily agree: "Marital conflict fosters and exaggerates egocentric perspectives." These biases determine perception and focuses on unfavorable features of the other's behavior while disregarding favorable ones.

Treatment procedures include training the spouses in recognizing that the source of many misunderstandings is differences in perception. Traits that each spouse has are not "bad" in and of themselves, but a "mismatch with their own traits." Each of the spouses has to restructure or reframe the perception or perspective of the other. They have to view the other "more benignly and realistically."

Christianson and Jacobson find three factors lead to marital discord: criticism, demands and cumulative annoyance. Gottman has extended this to include what he calls the "Four Horseman of the Apocalypse [that] clip-clop into the heart of marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling" (Gottman,1999).

The spiritual heritage of the Church may use different terminology, but the meaning is the same. In Gottman's research for example, a complaint focuses on a specific behavior, while criticism focuses on general character assassination. This is in accord with the Church Fathers. St. Peter of Damaskos taught: "For he who sins . . . will not dare to judge or censure anyone."

"Defensiveness" and "stonewalling" are terms not in scripture and the writing of the Church Fathers, but their meaning was readily apparent. The prophet Job, spoke of "a heart hard as stone" (Job 41:24). The prophet Ezekiel said: "But the house of Israel will not listen to you; for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel are of a hard forehead and of a stubborn heart" (Ezekiel 3:7-8), Even Our Lord warned about His words falling on "hard" soil, in the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:13).

Pastorally and clinically I have found four factors are especially insidious in undermining marital relationships: mind-reading, reciprocity, entitlement, and constant urging (colloquially known as "nagging", (Burns, 1989).

Mind reading is the unrealistic cognition that one's partner should be able to know what the other is thinking, feeling or desiring. (All individuals perceive the world differently; it is the individual's responsibility to communicate to their spouse what their wants and needs are.)

Reciprocity is the unrealistic expectation, that if one does something for someone, they have the right to expect a return (even though the other may not be privy to this "unilateral contract." Spouses should clearly state what they want from the other and attempt to come to a common agreement.

Constant urging is the unrealistic expectation that if one urges (nags) one's partner enough, he will comply with what is wanted. Often the opposite is produced, people stonewall when feeling coerced. It is better to get individuals to voluntarily comply with requests on their own.

These psychological interventions can be enlivened by the Holy Spirit: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another" (Galatians 5:22-26).

It takes two persons to keep the marriage together but it takes one to break it. Why? Because marriage is a conjoint relationship.

I was recently asked: "How does separation and divorce in a marriage fit into this holy business?" The basic answer is that it doesn't. But more is to come: Christ can transform all even what appears "bad" and is "bad" into good. How is this possible? St. Peter of Damaskos (Philokalia III) suggested: "The more we place our hope in the Lord with regard to all things that concern (us) whether of soul for body the more (we) will find that the Lord provides for (us) . . . The more (we) exert themselves for the sake of His love, the more God grows near to (us) through His gifts and longs to fill [us] with peace . . . "

In a world which is broken and disordered, problems will occur. If we respond by fighting the good fight as St. Paul said, and exert ourselves as St. Peter of Damaskos said, then we are growing near to God. Following the brokenness in marriage it can be a start "new creation". "Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself" (2 Corinthians 5: 17-18).

This is done through prayer, participation in the holy mysteries, especially Confession and the reception of the Holy Eucharist. The greatest good after any brokenness is the capacity to be able to "love more."


Beck, A.T. (1988). Love is never enough. NY: Harper and Row.

Burns, D.D. (1989). The feeling good handbook: Using the new mood therapy in everyday life. NY: William Morrow.

Christensen, A. & Jacobson, N.S. (2000). Reconcilable differences. NY: Guilford

Gottman, J.M. (1994). Why marriages succeed or fail. NY: Simon & Schuster.

Gottman, J.M. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. NY: Three Rivers Press.

Kadloubovsky, E., & Palmer, G.E.D. (1954. trans.) Early fathers from the philokalia. London: Oxford

Morelli, G. (2004). Sex is holy: The responsibility of Christian parenting. The Word. 48 (6) 7-8.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P., & Ware, K. (Eds). (1986). The Philokalia: The complete text compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarious of Corinth (Vol. III).Winchester, MA: Faber and Faber.

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist, Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, (www.antiochian.org/counseling-ministries) and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion. Fr. George is Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.

Fr. Morelli is the author of Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology (available from Eastern Christian Publications, $15.00).

Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology

Posted: 27-Jan-06

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Copyright 2001-2019 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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