Orthodoxy Today
Good Marriage X. Perfectionism

Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

There is no doubt that to be a Christian is to be called to a life of perfection in Christ. St. Paul's exhortation to the Romans is based on Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ's own words: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5: 48). St. Paul admonishes the Corinthians: " ... let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God" (2 Corinthians 7:1).

The holy spiritual Fathers of the Church were focused on perfection. This is so well illustrated in the subtitle of Book I of St. Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Moses (1978). The subtitle of Book I is: "Concerning the Perfection In Virtue."

Christian perfection is not limited to the individual and their relation to God and neighbor but to the marital relationship itself. One of the petitions of the opening Ektenia or litany of the Betrothal Service prays "[God] will send down upon them perfect and peaceful love, and His help, let us pray to the Lord."

Perfectionism vs. Striving to be Perfect

In a previous article (Morelli, 2005b, 2006), the difference between the Christ's command to "be perfect," was distinguished from the "perfectionism" regarded as a cognitive-emotional aberration by mental health clinicians and researchers. The point was made that the Holy Church Fathers were realistic in their understanding of Christ's words.

For the Church Fathers, the human element must be taken into account. God is infinite and humans are finite. God is boundless and endless, humans are always in process. Human existence will always be the ascent of a ladder, an ascent that never reaches the top. Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2000), comments on St. Isaac of Syria's teachings on perfection: "..this ascent is endless, as its aim is the unbounded God.." Bishop Hilarion then quotes St. Isaac: "The limit of this journey is so truly unattainable that even the saints are found wanting with respect to the perfection of wisdom, because there is no end to wisdom's journey. Wisdom ascends even till this : until she unites with God ... And this is the sign that the insights of wisdom have no limit: that wisdom is God Himself."

That perfection is ever ongoing and never completed is even made more clear in Bishop Hilarian's quote from another of St. Isaac's writings: "For a man can never complete the work of repentance. It is always suitable to every sinner and righteous man who wishes to gain salvation. There is no limit to perfection, for even the perfection of the perfect is truly without completion. And for this very reason repentance is bounded neither by periods of time nor by works until a man's death."

Mankind is Finite

It is in this spirit of understanding that the expectations in marriage, both of oneself as a spouse and of the spousal behavior of the other, should be formed. It is important to keep in mind and to apply this marital ektenia petition of St. John of the Ladder, (1982) who said: "Love, by its nature, is a resemblance to God, insofar as this is humanly possible" (emphasis added). We have to remember we are human.

This is not to condone or justify any personal or marital wrong. It is to focus on the good will, intention and striving for perfection in marriage. A perfect and peaceful love in marriage would conform to St. Paul's so well known description of love as he told the Corinthians: "Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; (1 Corinthians 13: 4-8).

Mankind is Fallen

Mankind is fallen. We are inclined to imperfection and sin. We know our intellect is wounded. We think, feel and do inappropriate things (Morelli, 2005b). St. Symeon the New Theologian, tells us: "After the devil and his demons had brought about man's exile from paradise and from God by making him transgress, they found they could inwardly derange - to a greater or lesser extent - anyone's reason whenever they wanted to." (Philokalia IV).

Clinical behavioral researchers and mental health practitioners have shown that cognitive distortions (or 'deranged reason' as St. Symeon so aptly describes it) produce marital conflict (Morelli, 2006a). 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. They tend to make demanding expectations of the other and catastrophize and overevaluate outcomes that do not turn out as expected. Conflict, anxiety, anger and depression are often the result. Psychologically we have to build up imperfection tolerance, spiritually we have to develop a spousal love, following the counsel of St. Paul, that is patient, not rude or arrogant, or insistent on it's own way. This is a marital love that can bear and endure things while still working with one's spouse to make marital wrongs more right.


One type of perfectionism is a spouse thinks that to be a good spouse, a husband or wife has to be adequate or even superior in ways the culture defines as important. It should be kept in mind the predominant culture in the Western world today, is a secular, materialistic and pagan. The values of this culture include: youthfulness, allure, attractiveness, clothes, creativity, enchantment, fascination, glamour, intelligence, magnetism money, occupation, personality, popularity, power, status, sexual skill, success, and title. They also may think they have to be the best or outstanding father or husband, mother or wife.

Many of these cultural values need not be intrinsically evil or wrong. For example, to be dressed in appropriate clothing could be considered a statement of love, caring and diligence. To attain excellence in an occupation and give glory to God in thanksgiving for having provided an individual their abilities could be spiritually enlivening. It is only when these characteristics are defined according to our secular, pagan, humanistic un-Christ-like societal values, and we make them the center of our own worth or the worth of our spouse that there is a problem.

Spouses with self perfectionism may think they can only be loved by their husband or wife if they are "perfect." They are actually employing the mind reading cognitive distortion. As noted in a previous article (Morelli, 2006c), in mind reading a person may think others will label them as failures if they stumble in some task. They may also label themselves as failures. In marital situations they define stumbling as what they think the behavior is their spouse wants of them and how their spouse labels and evaluates hem if they do not measure up.

A husband may say "I cannot hammer a nail without banging my fingers and ruining the wall, my wife won't think of me as a 'man' any more." Challenging and refuting this pernicious irrational thinking involves accepting only verified outlooks: "I have no evidence what my spouse thinks of my carpentry skills. In fact she may not even value hammering nails or think it important. She might even think more of me because I am a good cook. I need more information about her thoughts and feelings, let me ask her." It is even possible his wife may even feel more endearing toward him. Affection might be stirred in his wife as her views and feelings are sought out and appreciated by her husband.

Other Perfectionism

The other side of the perfectionism coin is to expect one's spouse to be perfect. Realistically, as stated above no one has yet attained the state of perfection. No one can perform perfectly in all things in every aspect of life, all the time. This "other perfectionism" is thus utterly unrealistic. Holding on to this irrational expectation is a setup for the dysfunctional emotions of anger, depression, disillusionment, frustration and resentment. No one can meet such irrational expectations. At best someone may perform reasonably well in a few areas of their lives during some times of their lives. It should be pointed out this is not to condone mistakes, less than perfect behavior and surely not sinful behavior. It is merely to point out we need to develop imperfection tolerance.

As mentioned above, the spiritual basis of this imperfection is that we are "broken" since the fall of Adam and Eve (Genesis 2,3). St. Athanasius and St. Gregory of Nyssa saw mankind initially created walking hand in hand with God, but as this "communion of divine contemplation" was lost through neglect, Adam, Eve and all subsequent mankind "progressively wandered into alienation from God" (McGuckin, 2004). As I said in a previous article (Morelli, 2006a): The brokenness we have inherited from Adam we experience as passions. "Passions are defined as the inclinations to sin." This 'theology of brokenness' should be incorporated into the understanding of marriage.

The Mental Ruler Technique and The Preference Scale

In developing imperfection tolerance the use of The Mental Ruler Technique (Burns, 1980, Morelli, 2006b) and The Preference Scale (Morelli, 2007) are particularly useful.

In helping to realistically evaluate spousal behaviors or performance a mental ruler should be employed. This involves evaluating a the spousal actions (or non-actions) on a zero to 100 scale, with zero being the most pleasant thing you could picture happening to you Patients frequently have little trouble imaging a very pleasant event (zero). Sitting on a sun drenched tropical beach is a typical image. Patients need much help however, imaging a worst event (100). I offer the example of a medical missionary in South East Asia several years back who suffered a horrifying death. His captors placed chopsticks in his ears and hammered them in a little each day until they penetrated his brain and killed him.

Sabotaging the Mental Ruler

An important caveat: Do not employ the mind reading error (Morelli, 2005a). Instead of focusing on the objective action to be evaluated, a spouse focuses on what they think is the other's motive. In troubled marriages, couples are likely to put their own construction or interpretation on their spouse's behavior. This mind reading occurs using another cognitive distortion: arbitrary inference. Arbitrary Inference is drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous or neutral situation.

For example, consider this situation: a husband may offer his wife a cup of coffee. His interpretation and motivation might be: "I love her and would like to do something nice for her." His wife might, without evidence, employing the mind reading thinking error may interpret his motive quite differently: "Now he is even trying to tell me what I should drink , why can't he let me make decisions for myself, why is he always trying to control me."

To properly employ the mental ruler, the objective event should be evaluated itself not the motive or interpretation. Mind reading should be challenged by asking each other what motive is behind any action. For dialogue to work, couples have to communicate honestly. If one of the spouses does not want their husband or wife do something, this should be communicated to and be complied with, by the other spouse.

In the above example, the concerned wife might ask: "John, why are you offering me coffee?" His response: "I wanted to do something nice, I love you." Her response: "Thanks I appreciate your love, but please let me decide what I choose to drink in the morning, it is really important to me." A desirable response from her husband: "OK! I'm glad you appreciated my effort, but if it is that important, I will honor your wish." (This dialogue may appear somewhat stilted, but is a 'model' of how respectful mind reading challenging and communication can go.)

Couples can now combine the use of The Mental Ruler Technique and The Preference Scale to build imperfection tolerance. A reminder about these procedures discussed more fully in other articles:

The Preference Scale runs from +10 down to -10:

+10 +9 +8 +7 +6 +5 +4 +3 +2 +1 [0] -1 -2 -3 -4 -5 -6 -7 -8 -9 -10

On the plus side of the scale favorable or desirable behaviors of their spouse are rated; the greater the liking, the higher the positive number. On the minus side spousal behaviors or performances that are disliked are rated; the greater the dislike, the higher the negative number.

The range in which to practice imperfection tolerance is in the -1 to -5 range. Behaviors or performances below this range -6 to -10 are possibly serious problems that should be dealt with by more invasive psychological procedures (Morelli, 2005b).

Examples of behaviors most often reported by couples that are most amenable to intervention developing imperfection tolerance in the -1 to -5 range usually involve typical everyday differences in lifestyle and behavior in marriages that all spouses confront: leaving dirty dishes in the sink, dropping laundry on the floor, leaving the toothpaste tube uncapped, over or undercooking a dinner dish, missing an appointment, being late from work or chore, forgetting a birthday or other celebration, forgetting to pick up an item in the store, etc.

Extremely Serious Problem Behaviors

Some behaviors are beyond imperfection tolerance. These behaviors would rate in the extreme minus range. All have to be dealt with immediately, firmly and with interventions appropriate to the seriousness of the behavior. Adultery would be an example of a behavior that is not to be tolerated and requires immediate spiritual and psychological intervention. Consultation with one's spiritual father or mother, parish priest or trained priest is a necessity. Prayer and the Holy Mysteries of the Church will be the foundation of any spiritual intervention. Professional help, by licensed, experienced and spiritually prepared mental health practitioners must be sought and used.

A common misconception is that adultery of necessity means the end of a marriage. This is far from the truth. Christianson and Jacobson (2000) cite research that indicates "infidelity" is a "reconcilable difference." I have worked clinically and pastorally with couples that have been able to reconcile after adulterous relationships. Another common misconception is adultery is the start of marital problems, research shows just the opposite, it is actually the consequence of serious problems already in a marriage (Gottman, 1999). This is an important reason for couples to seek professional intervention when problems first arise. This is also an important reason for pre-marital and continuing marital programs so Orthodox Christian marriages may start out strong and maintain their spiritual and psychological health throughout their lifetime.

Spousal Abuse

There is another category of spousal behaviors that is beyond imperfection tolerance. These behaviors fall into the category of extreme abuse. This abuse behavior is seriously sinful and immoral and would certainly be considered illegal in most Western governmental jurisdictions. Abuse falls into four categories:

  • Physical, (hitting, battering, etc.);
  • Sexual, (forcible intercourse, inappropriate touching, glancing, language etc.);
  • Psychological (calling someone by demeaning terms "You idiot, looser" [actually mild, often far worse words or phrases);
  • Neglect (legally denying food, shelter, education, or necessary care);

For a fuller treatment of this issue refer to Morelli, 2005c Abuse: Some Pastoral and Clinical Considerations. Immediate protection from the abuse must be enacted. This may mean physical separation. All laws relating to abuse must be followed, including reporting to the proper law enforcement agencies. As some of these extreme abuse behaviors are illegal, it should be noted arrest and incarceration of the abuser after juridical procedures would result. Medical and psychological treatment should be considered and employed as appropriate. Medical and psychological consultation is a necessity in such circumstances.

A Note on Musical Marriage

In modern, pagan, secular culture we live in an era of 'musical marriage.' Just as in the musical chair game, when the song plays you dance around and sit and change chairs when the music stops. Of course someone falls off and cannot find a chair. In marriage you dance the marital game until the personal marriage song you are playing stops then you sit down and your partner falls off. The various terms for this cultural phenomenon are "trial marriage," "serial marriage," "polyamorous marriage," "open marriage," "common law marriage," or just "room mating" etc. If some formal marital license or marriage service was involved to legitimizing the couple before the state, then a legal divorce paper is involved in terminating the relationship. Otherwise these musical marriage or relationships are performed outside the law.

A glance at celebrity Hollywood, MTV, or soap opera themes presents the model. Changing partners does not involve The Preference Scale or The Mental Ruler, outlined above. It is as simple as picking an ice cream flavor from a store: yesterday I wanted pecan today I want mint, tomorrow I may want vanilla. Any flavor any time is my choice. Any reason I want to change partners is acceptable. Unfortunately this thinking has permeated the value system of some who call themselves Christian, but it is afar from the commitment Christ asks from His true followers.

Orthodox Christian marriage

As St. Paul told the Galatians (3:27): "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." This garment is then sealed with the Holy Spirit in Chrismation. In marriage we are to be Christ Himself to our partners. To the modern ear, St. Paul's message to the Galatians (5: 23-30) may seem at first sexist and misogynist. St. Paul writes:

For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.

In actual fact St. Paul's words broadcast the highest love and respect that husband and wife should mutually have for each other. He writes "the husband is the head of the wife and thus wives be subject in everything to their husbands", but this cannot be separated from St. Paul's later words quoted that the husband would "love their wives as their own bodies" not hating his flesh but nourishing and cherishing it as Christ loves His church. The Church is the Body of Christ. Spouses have to work out the details of how this mutuality of love will be worked out in the culture in which they live.

Orthodox Christian Marriage is Mutual-Equal Respect and Love

If the focus of the understanding is the beginning of the passage, describing the husband as "head" and wives as "subject" . It would surely would be interpreted in Western culture as misogynist. The key to understanding the meaning of St. Paul's frequently quoted passage is precisely however the later verse: "For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church." This in fact means the wife and husband are of the same flesh and value. He would value her and her preferences as he values his own. Thus there is an equality in respect and love.

Christ's message must permeate all cultures

A cursory glance at any introductory anthropology textbook would testify to the wide variety of cultural expressions that make up the world. Cultural anthropology is a science of mankind. "It studies all facets of society and culture. It studies tools, techniques, traditions, language, beliefs, kinships, values, social institutions, economic mechanisms, cravings for beauty and art, ... struggles for prestige. It describes the impact of humans on other humans. (http://www.cyberpursuits.com/anthro/default.asp).

It is not the role of the Church to determine the structure of any particular cultural institution. It is also not the role of the Church which was founded in a specific culture to impose or endorse that culture as intrinsic to Christ's message. Christ's message has to permeate all cultures. The role of the Church is merely but most importantly to proclaim that whatever expression a culture takes, the totality of Christ's love must permeates it. Our Lord told his disciples "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28: 18-20).

"Baptizing all nations" is not intended to bring all nations into the Jewish culture. St. Paul was the first to argue that the Gentile culture could receive Christ. The ritual laws of the Jews would not be necessary for commitment to Christ. He said to the Corinthians: "To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law--though not being myself under the law--that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law--not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ" (1 Corinthians 9: 20-21).

A Non-Marital Example

Please permit me an example removed from marriage. The average American, or individual in a Western culture would no doubt consider "democracy" the highest (and best) form of government. But this is not Christ's message. A kingdom, or empire could be Christ-like, a king or emperor could treat his subjects in a spirit of Christ-like love. In fact it could be argued a Christ-like king would never allow the tyranny of abortive-murder or same sex marriage allowed as is in many so called "democratic' nations. There is nothing intrinsically Christ-like or satanic about any form of government: autocratic, democratic, socialist etc.

Application to Marriage

Applying this to marriage: in some cultures a wife may walk next to her husband or behind him, a wife may or may not own property, etc. Equal pay for equal work among the sexes, and joint discussion of parenting styles between husband and wife are indigenous to most Western cultures. These cultural differences will have to be considered to effectively employ The Mental Ruler and The Preference Scale to work out the problems of perfectionism that can arise in their particular marriage. This is especially to be considered when spouses come from different cultural traditions and/or may come into a culture different from the one in which they were raised. In some such marriages one spouse may become more acculturated than the other in the new society. This problem frequently arises in marriage among Eastern Christians who come from far varying cultural backgrounds. However, understanding of the couple's culture, similar or different, is important in working out of any marital problems (McGoldrick, Giordano, Pearce, 1996).

Christ-like Marriage is Non-Trivial

This fact is essential in a Christ-like marriage. Imperfection tolerance must be developed in the particular culture in which couples find themselves. Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ is the focal point of the Orthodox marital union. To underscore this Christ-centered focus of marriage the words of St. Paul regarding marriage should be contemplated. He states: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church" (Ephesian 5: 31-32). This means it behooves the couple to do all they can to tolerate and work out the non-extreme abuse imperfections in themselves and their spouses. Selling out to the values of popular, pagan secular culture is a sure way to produce a musical (pagan) marriage.

Our Lord's own words regarding divorce are severe: "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. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery" (Matthew 19: 5-6, 9). Father Alciviadis Calividas writes: "Divorce produces as much anguish as death because it is the withering away of a living relationship into emotional and spiritual deadness" (Calividas, 1996). It behooves those married in Christ to do all they can with commitment zeal and effort to avoid the emotional and spiritual deadness of divorce.

Meditation on "Reality" in Marriage

An appropriate consideration in ending this reflection is to consider the words of St. John of the Ladder (1982) regarding married life. In his famous spiritual classic the Ladder of Divine Ascent, he likens spiritual progress as a step by step process. It is not that anyone is either imperfect or perfect, rather we "strive" toward perfection living our lives in a continual climb toward union with God. Stumbling on a rung is expected, and the ladder surely cannot be climbed in a single 'stride.'

His comments on marriage then should certainly be pondered: "Someone caught up in the affairs of the world can make progress, if he is determined. But it is not easy. Those bearing chains can still walk. But they often stumble and are thereby injured. ... The married .. [are] like someone chained hand and foot." At first glance St. John's words are quite pessimistic and would invite the same response from us given by disciples who witnessed the rich young man who rejected Our Lords council to sell what he had and give to the poor to enter the Kingdom of heaven: "When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19: 25-26).

Marital Hope

St. John's hopeful counsel reads: "Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies (italics mine- Gk: ton synaxeon - the Church assembly for the Divine Liturgy and reception of the Eucharist). Show compassion to the needy. Do not cause scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives (husbands) can provide you. If you do all this you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven (italics mine).

Make use of the Church, as channel of blessings, sanctification, and healing. She, Christ's Body is truly a "hospital" (Morelli, 2006c, Vlachos, 1994, 1998). What better ending than to meditate on the prayer married couples should say together at the beginning or end of each day:

O merciful God, we beseech thee ever to remind us that the married state is holy, and we must keep it so; grant us thy grace, that we may continue in faithfulness and love; increase in us the spirit of mutual understanding and trust that no quarrel or strife may come between us ... for thou art our sanctification and to thee we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.


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Calividas, Fr. Alciviadis. The Sacramental Life of the Orthodox Church. Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, 1996. http://www.goarch.org/en/ourfaith/articles/article7106.asp. 3 December 2007.

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Morelli, G. (2005c, December, 04) Abuse: Some Pastoral and Clinical Considerations. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAbuse.php.

Morelli, G. (2006a, January 27). Understanding Brokenness in Marriage. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMarriage2.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. (2006d, December 21. The Ethos of Orthodox Christian Healing. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHealing.php.

Morelli, G. (2007, June 5). Good Marriage IV: The "Preference Scale" - A Tool for Communication, Negotiation and Collaboration. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageIV.php.

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Vlachos, Bishop Hierotheos, (1998). The Mind of the Orthodox Church. Lavadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery.

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: November 20, 2007

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