Orthodoxy Today
Good Marriage IX. Trapped in a False Definition of Marital Love

The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.
Psalm 9:9

A serious problem arises in a marriage when one partner holds the view that in order to feel complete, the other partner must prove his love through sharing identical interests and enjoyments (Good Marriage VII, Morelli, 2007b). They have in mind not just an ordinary caring and love, but a desperate caring, affection and togetherness. This implies that if one spouse loves and cares about their partner, the partner is duty-bound to spend time with the other whenever it is requested. Not doing so indicates diminishing love and interest. The article also pointed out the perception shaping the demand: being alone is bound to be distressing, deficient, unfavorable and fearful -- a phobia (fear) in other words.

This follow-up article focuses on the reaction of the spouse who is the object of the phobic partner. The husband (or wife) feels trapped; the partner is manipulating and controlling him in ways that prevent him from freely giving his love to his wife. He also feels that he must be available whenever his wife wants them to be. The wife perceives that the husband is not meeting his spousal obligations and she too, in a sense, feels victimized trapped. It works in the other direction as well. A husband could just as easily place the same demands on his wife.

The spouse who feels trapped in a definition of love imposed by the spouse experiences feelings of deprivation and oppression. No spontaneous expressions of love are available in this scenario, and the initial feelings of love erode and are replaced by anger, anxiety, guilt, and the inability to muster loving feelings towards the "trapper" spouse. Persons trapped in this marital dysfunction avoid sharing thoughts and other intimate interactions with their spouses. A disturbing aspect of this dysfunctional withdrawal is that it increases over time. Withdrawal allows the trapped spouse to feel relieved and less anxious, to feel rewarded. He senses a weight being lifted.

Negative Reinforcement of Undesirable Behavior

In behavioral psychology negative reinforcement is the term that describes a way of increasing the frequency of a behavior by removing an unpleasant event (Morelli, 2005, 2006a, b). Unwittingly, the love-defining spouse negatively reinforces the trapped spouse's withdrawing behavior. By constantly asking for reassurance and making statements like "If you loved me you would _____", the trapper spouse is sabotaging the very outcome so desperately sought because the trapped spouse gets relief and pleasant feelings when he or she withdraws from the presence of the trapper. In turn the trapper spouse is left feeling even more insecure. This unfortunate cycle tends to escalate.

Spiritual considerations: Love Must be Free

St. Paul reminds us: "Love is patient and kind ... Love does not insist on its own way ... " (1 Corinthians 13: 4,5). In his commentary on this passage St. John Chrysostom pointed out:

Love vaunteth not itself (ed: is not rash). For it renders him who loves both considerate, and grave, and steadfast. In truth, one mark of those who love unlawfully is a defect in this point. Whereas he to whom this love is known, is of all men the most entirely freed from these evils. For when there is no anger within, both rashness and insolence are clean taken away. Love, like some excellent husbandman, taking her seat inwardly in the soul and not suffering any of these thorns to spring up. http://www.haywardfamily.org/ccel/fathers2/npnf112/npnf1147.htm#P1601_972185.

A husband or wife who requires his or her spouse to show love in a certain way fails to see that love must be freely given by the giver and received humbly by the recipient. St. Maximus the Confessor taught that: "The person who fears the Lord has humility as his constant companion ... For he recalls his former worldly way of life, the various sins he has committed ... then, together with fear, he also receives love, and in deep humility continually gives thanks to the Benefactor and Helmsman of our lives."

Behavioral Intervention: Assertiveness

A favorable psychological or spiritual result can be brought about by acquiring the skill of assertiveness to communicate viewpoints and feelings. Assertiveness is defined as an honest and true communication of real feelings in a socially acceptable way. This definition has two qualifications: 1) The assertive utterance should be pleasant, or at least neutral, in tone of voice (also called pragmatics of speech); and 2) only delivered when pleasant or neutral communication fails to bring about the desired result. If this approach fails, only then should an escalation of words and increasing communication pragmatics (tone of voice, volume, pitch, etc.) be employed.

For the Christian a third corollary applies: All assertive pragmatics must be done in the love of Christ which includes patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control - what is known in scriptural terminology as the "fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5: 22-23)" (Morelli, 2006c).

The trapped spouse might mention feeling like a "prison inmate" in this way: "You know when you tell me I don't love you unless I do something your way (then give a behavioral example), I feel trapped. I love you and sometimes I want to be able to express and show you in ways I really feel. I want to show you I love you in ways and at the times you want me to, but I feel imprisoned when you expect and demand me to do it all the time. Maybe we can talk about how to share our love expressions, and the times we spend together in ways that fit both our desires."

This hypothetical description may seem stilted. It is offered only to reveal the tone a person can employ when trying to correct the dysfunction. Clearly every couple will choose the words most appropriate for them.

Psychological Incorporation of Spiritual Freedom

St. Irenaeus of Lyons as quoted by Clement (1995) taught us us: "(Mankind) was free from the beginning ... For God is freedom and (mankind) was made in the image of God." To overcome the dysfunctional perceptions of that lead to a sense of entrapment in marriage, both spouses have to internalize this teaching and make it part of their psycho-spiritual definition of the marriage. A married couple has to incorporate the same freedom to give, share, receive and accept the individual ways of showing love that God gave us from the beginning.

Love is never coercive. Those who loved Christ the most were never forced to love but did so from their heart. Of the woman who was a sinner who came to Jesus, as described in St. Luke's Gospel, Jesus said; "Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little" (Luke 7:47).

Jesus accepted the different ways of showing love from those who loved Him. St. John wrote: "There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at table with him. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment" (John 12: 2-3).

Those who came to Jesus were also free to reject Him. St. Matthew recounted the episode of the young man who asked Jesus: "

"Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?" (Matthew 19: 16). Jesus responded, " ... keep the commandments" ... "The young man said to him, "All these I have observed; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions (Matthew 19: 19-22).

But even while accepting those who would reject Him Jesus never gave up on them. After the young man left Jesus told those inquiring as to who can be saved: "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26).

The spouse feeling trapped should certainly not stop communicating that they would like their spouse to accept their love and how they feel when forced to show love as defined by the other. But at the same time, both spouses have to recognize the individuality of the other in showing and receiving love and that it must be free, spontaneous and come from their heart.

Love Behaviorally Pinpointed

Any communication should be clear and concrete (Morelli, 2006c ). Phrases like "I want you to love me 'more' or "'less' or 'differently' etc., are meaningless. Even requests like "I would like you to spend more time with me", or "I wish you would stop telling me how to love you" are vague and abstract. An example of a behaviorally pinpointed request would be: "Let's go out for a romantic dinner and movie this Friday." Another example, "When you tell me to 'spend more time with me' I feel trapped and anxious. If you want me to do something, tell me what it is you want to do and we can discuss it."

Steadfast Love

The word "love" is one of the most frequently used words in the Psalter. Most often the word love is accompanied with the adjective "steadfast"; a term which means true, loyal, unchanging, faithful, resolute and strong. This is how the psalmist describes God's love for His people.

This is also how Christ so loved us when He took on our human nature and, as we say in the Divine Liturgy, gave us His Body which was broken for us and His Blood which was shed for us for the "remission of sins." " ... having remembrance this saving commandment, the Cross, the Grave, the Resurrection on the third day ... "

As Christ became our Bridegroom and we became His Bride, so husband and wife are married into Christ and to each other in steadfastness. Without the Cross, there is no Resurrection. Without steadfast love no earthly crosses can be endured.

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned Canticle 8:7

To overcome the troubles of marriage, may this be the spousal prayer: "My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody! Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! I will give thanks to thee, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to thee among the nations. For thy steadfast love is great to the heavens, thy faithfulness to the clouds.
Psalm 57: 7-10.


Clement, O, (1995). The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Text and Commentary. New Hyde Park, NY: New City Press.

McGuckin, J.A. (2004). The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology . Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press.

Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting I. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.

Morelli, G. (2006a, February 04). Smart Parenting II. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Morelli, G (2006b). Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology. Fairfax VA: Eastern Christian Publications.

Morelli, G. (2006c, July 02). Assertiveness and Christian Charity. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliAssertiveness.php.

Morelli, G. (2007a, May 15), Good Marriage III. Nagging: The Ultimate Marriage Over-Control. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageIII.php.

Morelli, G. (2007b, August 7). Good Marriage VII: 'Desperate Togetherness' and the Fear of Being Alone. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageVII.php.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: October 4, 2007

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