When Jesus discussed marriage with the Pharisees he said: "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh" (Matthew 19 4-6). He was talking about a spiritual and physical union that encompasses love, creation and sacrifice.
In some marital relationships however, togetherness is not defined as a union of one flesh in Christ. Instead, the partners believe that marital happiness and satisfaction is acquired through an "incestuous sameness" similar to the identity problem described by developmental psychologist Eric Erikson (1950). They believe that in order for the marriage to flourish and a sense of personal worth and values occurs only through experiencing an intense love by their partner mirrored alongside identical interests, enjoyments, and pursuits. They have in mind not just an ordinary caring and love, but a notion of caring, affection and togetherness that has a desperate character to it.
Alongside this view of "desperate caring" is the belief that being alone is distressing, deficient, unfavorable and fearful (phobia). Persons holding such conceptions and experiencing the accompanying emotions play a game with those around them. If they think their spouse has intense love for them and shares their interests, they are happy. If they think their spouse's love is not intense enough or has different interests, they view themselves as not worthwhile. Defining oneself in this scenario is like a game of ping-pong. Feelings of self-worth sail back and forth and someone else holds the paddle. Yet the player must stay in the game because being alone engenders anxiety and fear.
It should be pointed out that many activities in marriage involve collaboration (Morelli, 2007). Many times couples come to an agreement on the areas of household management and shared activities. For example, some couples find cooking breakfast on a Saturday morning a joint pleasurable activity while others share a liking for the same recreational activity. One couple enjoyed fishing and went overnight deep-sea fishing trip once a month.
However, couples can make the cognitive error of maximizing togetherness by expecting that they should share and have the same level of enjoyment in all marital, household and personal activities. Such distorted perceptions allow our judgment of marital satisfaction and personal happiness to be dependent on decisions of others. This could be considered at type of emotional slavery.
As discussed in Morelli, 2006, restructuring distorted cognitions involves questioning the basis of the perception. This is done by examining the evidence for the cognition by asking such questions as: "Where is the evidence one cannot enjoy oneself doing an activity unless it is totally shared in by one's spouse?" In my pastoral and clinical practice I usually ask the person holding this view to give me an example of an activity they had pleasure doing before they were married. One patient described a "National Geographic" cruise he had taken to the South Pacific. He discussed the friends he made who shared his interest in archeology etc. The trip was one of the highlights of his life.
In responding to his narrative I emphasized the obvious connection: "You said you did this before you were married and you thoroughly enjoyed yourself. So being with your spouse was not a necessity for engaging in and enjoying the activity." I asked: "What does this suggest about the requirements for marital satisfaction you are setting up for your marital relationship now?" We went on to discuss how these demanding expectations he created for his marriage were in fact without foundation.
He needed to change his expectations. He could restructure his rule system to say, "it would be nice if my spouse enjoyed a particular activity, but I can still enjoy myself without my spouse's participation." We discussed the areas of his marriage in which activities were shared as well as areas that would remain singular. The pastoral/clinical goal was to break down the perception of the "desperate togetherness" was a necessity, as well as abate the fear of being along.
Where is the evidence that successful marriages involve having the same views on all activities?
While it is true that couples who have similar interests have a higher level of marital satisfaction, the areas singled out as most indicative of marital satisfaction were: similar views on affection, communication, finances, shared time, sexuality and value of religion (Fowers, Montel and Olson, 1996). These findings are consistent with Gottman's research that highlighted what he termed the level of "shared meaning" which he described as involving "a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together; a culture rich with symbols and rituals, and an appreciation for [the] roles and goals that link...understand[ing] what it means to be part of the family..." Gottman (1999).
To further refute the notion that the togetherness must be reduced to an "incestuous sameness", researchers Rankin-Esquer, Burnett, Baucom and Epstein (1997) that autonomy was also a crucial factor in marital satisfaction. Autonomy was defined as the couple's (mutual) encouragement of independence and individuality between each other. In plain terms, having the independence to do some activities alone can strengthen the marriage.
Shared meaning and Christian marriage
One important caveat: "Shared meaning" of the kind referenced above must rest at the core of individual autonomy in marriage. In the Orthodox Church blessed marriage is given this "shared meaning" when the divine purpose of marriage is comprehended and practiced. This meaning draws from the deeper reality of Christ's relationship to His Church starting with scripture and carried forward in the writings of the Church Fathers on marriage.
St. Gregory Palamas for example, used nuptial symbolism to describe the need for all to be bound to Christ when he wrote: "The consummation of grief is pure bridal union with the Bridegroom. For this reason St. Paul, after describing a married couple's union in one flesh as 'a great mystery', added, 'but I say this with respect to Christ and the Church' (Ephesians. 5: 32). As they are one flesh, so those who are with God are one Spirit...he who cleaves to the Lord is one spirit with Him" (Philokalia IV). This should be the character of togetherness in an Orthodox Christian marriage.
Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and Society. NY Norton.
Fowers, B, J., Montel, K. H., & Olson, D. H. (1996). Predicting Marital Success for Premarital Couple Types Based on PREPARE. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 22(1), 103-119.
Gottman, J.M. (1999). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. NY: Three Rivers Press.
Morelli, G. (2006, March 6). Asceticism and Psychology in the Modern World. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMonasticism.php.
Morelli, G. (2007, June 5). Good Marriage IV: The "Preference Scale" - A Tool for Communication, Negotiation and Collaboration. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageIV.php.
Rankin-Esquer, L A., Burnett, C K., Baucom, H., & Epstein, N. (1997). Autonomy and Relatedness in Marital Functioning. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 23(2), 175-190.
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.