Orthodoxy Today
Good Marriage VII. ‘Desperate Togetherness’ and the Fear of Being Alone

Love does not insist on its own way (1Cor 13:5).

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" (Mt 19 4-6). He was talking about a spiritual and physical union that encompasses love, creation and sacrifice.

Unrealistic perception

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 are acquired through an "incestuous sameness" similar to the identity problem described by developmental psychologist Eric Erikson (1950). They believe that a marriage flourishes and that a sense of personal worth and values occurs only through experiencing an intense love by their partner of their 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 jointly pleasurable activity, while others share a liking for a mutual recreational activity. One couple enjoyed fishing and went on an 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 the decisions of others. This could be considered at type of emotional slavery.

Cognitive restructuring

As discussed in Morelli, 2006, restructuring distorted cognitions, also known as cognitive errors, 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 which 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 which would remain singular. The pastoral/clinical goal was to break down the perception that the "desperate togetherness" was a necessity, as well as to abate the fear of being along.

Behavioral research: Do 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)found 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' (Eph 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.

A specific example of the danger of a false notion of marital togetherness is when a husband (or wife) who is the object of a phobic partner feels trapped and that the partner is manipulating and controlling him in ways which prevent him from freely giving his love to his wife. He also feels that he must be available whenever his wife wants him 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 their 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 ... " (1Co 13: 4,5). In his commentary on this passage St. John Chrysostom pointed out:

Love “vaunteth not itself;” i.e., 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.i

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 (McGuckin, 2004) 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); 2. And 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 (Gal 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 Clément (1995), taught 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 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" (Lk 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" (Jn 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?" 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 (Mt 19:16; 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" (Mt 19:26).

The spouse feeling trapped should certainly not stop communicating that they would like their spouse to accept their love, nor 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 in 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” (SS 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.” (Ps 57: 7-10).


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

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.

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

Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting I. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/smart-parenting-i-raising-well-behaved-children.

Morelli, G. (2006, March 6). Asceticism and Psychology in the Modern World. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMonasticism.php

Morelli, G. (2006a, February 04). Smart Parenting II. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/smart-parenting-ii-raising-well-behaved-children.

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

Morelli, G. (2006c, July 02). Assertiveness and Christian Charity. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-assertiveness-and-christian-charity.

Morelli, G. (2007, June 5). Good Marriage IV: The "Preference Scale" - A Tool for Communication, Negotiation and Collaboration. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/good-marriage-iv-the-preference-scale.

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

Morelli, G. (2007b, August 7). Good Marriage VII: 'Desperate Togetherness' and the Fear of Being Alone. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-good-marriage-vii-desperate-togetherness-and-the-fear-of-being-alon.

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.


i http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf112.iv.xxxiv.html

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: August 7, 2007

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