Few people would need to be convinced of the key role that marriage plays in the general well being of our society. Through the knowledge emanating from contemporary developmental psychology, we are increasingly aware of the impact that family life has on the formation and development of our children. For the most part, the origins of the family, is a marital relationship, the coming together of two people vowing to love one another. As their love for each other grows, it impacts on the overall quality of love in the whole family – parents for their children; children for each other. Through our loving marital relationship, we create an ever-growing culture of love in the family.
Our marital relationship is the most tangible, realistic ‘portrait’ of love that we can give to our children. Their reference point as to what is loving intimacy or what is not, is the manifestation of love or lack thereof in our marriage. Furthermore, our marriage becomes an example of hope; that two individuals can grow in love for one another despite their differences, imperfections and short-comings.
Given this realistic picture of human love that we hold up to our children on a daily basis, one of the significant gifts that we give to our children then is the effort-filled way in which we work on our marriage. I like to think of it this way: Their academic education is happening daily in their school environment through the efforts of their teachers. The home is the forum where they are educated in love, the family an environment where we specialise in teaching our children about love, not by putting books about love before them, but rather by means of experiential learning, their experience of our love for them that grows from our love for one another.
This all seems quite obvious, the spiralling cycle of love in the family unit. That is, the ever-growing quality of our love for one another helping us to grow as ‘lovers’, and this filtering down to our children. In being the recipients of our efforts to be better ‘lovers’, they, in turn, become more evolved ‘lovers’ themselves in their future marriage and nuclear family.
Love and Faith
Central to this spiralling growth of ourselves as ‘lovers’, is God’s ever-present love for each one of us, in actual fact the starting point of the growth spiral – the source of love.
Our faith tells us that God is deeply interested in each one of us. He loves each of us with a depth of love that is difficult for us to comprehend. Not only is God the biggest fan of our marriage and its ongoing growth, but we also believe that he has a personal relationship with each one of us; that he loves each one of us intimately. His single-minded desire is our salvation, our redemption, wanting us to experience the fullness of life. He is single-mindedly desiring our growth and healing as a person. He certainly does not want us to remain enslaved by sin and self-centredness. In His love for us, He wants to free us from our self-engrossed ways of being.
God’s loving agenda
To put it another way, his loving agenda is that He wants us to grow in our ability to love; to heal from our limited ways of loving and through his grace, be transformed to the truth; that is, that we are created in his loving image and likeness. Said differently, we are created with an inner being that is programmed for love. So his desire is that we become better lovers in the broadest sense of the word. In essence, he wants to help us remove the walls that we have built around our hearts, which suffocates the voice of love within us. In the words of the prophet Ezekiel (11:19), he wants to heal our heart of stone, and give us a new heart of flesh – a heart that can give and receive love in an ever increasing way.
God is constantly looking for opportunities to mould us and shape us. Jeremiah (18:1-6) describes this process as the potter working with the clay. God is the potter; we are the clay. His workroom, where the moulding takes place is our daily lives, our experiences, situations, the events of our lives. And our marital relationship is that ideal daily event where God can work on our moulding. It is in our daily encounters with one another that God has the opportunity to transform our hearts. Our marriage is his workshop where he wants to work on us, where he wants to chip away our rough edges if only we consent to his transforming love.
In order to understand and embrace this purifying or healing action of God in the context of our marriage, it is helpful to understand a bit more about our human nature. Throughout scripture and in particular, the New Testament, we can identify a description of ourselves as having conflicting tendencies within; a tendency towards God, with the Spirit directing us towards more Godly ways of being, the ways of love, and a tendency towards more selfish, worldly ways of being, where we are engrossed with self. This latter aspect of ourselves is described in the New Testament as the false self or Paul talks about our human nature. In psychology we refer to the ego. If we tune into this inner tension, pay attention to our consciousness of this inner spiritual battle, we will notice it most vividly in our marital relationship.
For example, we will notice an awareness of a spiritual calling to be considerate, kind and thoughtful toward our spouse; to constantly move beyond ourselves and our own needs and desires; to be aware of our partner, and not just do our own thing. We will notice that our marriage calls us to be respectful, to put into practise Paul’s definition of love – love is patient, love is kind, love is not ill-mannered, or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love never gives up. So we might notice our marriage commitment urging us to follow the promptings of the Spirit. Yes, this is what we vowed to do on our wedding day; that we would continue to love one another, no matter the circumstances, knowing that at times there will be an imbalance in terms of need fulfilment. We vowed that we would not just think of ourselves.
However, in being more deliberately conscious of our inner selves, we might also notice that there are other tendencies, emanating from our human condition; energies that want to rebel against the promptings of the Spirit; ever plaguing thought patterns and emotions that want to take us in another direction. The pronouncement of our vows doesn’t seem to be enough to ensure that we live them out. Left to our own devices, it feels like we would keep on subtly and not so subtly trying to shape the relationship to suit ourselves. We would automatically go about creating a relationship that will be comfortable for me and my need fulfilment alone.
The Good News
The good news that emerges from the gospels is that God knows this human nature of ours. Throughout the gospels we get a clear sense, through his teachings and the parables, that Jesus knows this inner being of ours. He knows our struggles with this ever present inner conflict. He feels for us as we try our best to not let our more self-centred tendencies dominate our good intentions and desires to be more loving towards one another.
Central to the message of the Good News is that he wants to help. He wants to heal us. He is not a hands-off God who watches from a distance as we struggle along with our conflictual inner being.
If we want to access his help, if it is our desire that God mould us, transform us, He is only waiting for our consent. The initial part of our consent, the first step so to speak, takes the form of us acknowledging and owning those conflicting inner tendencies within ourselves. Can we humbly acknowledge that I am not somehow exempt from the inner spiritual battle? Furthermore, can we acknowledge that in our marriage, all the outward manifestations of tension, conflict and difference are never solely caused by the problematic, imperfect nature of one person in the relationship. That is to say, every scenario of tension in our marriage illuminates the conflictual inner world of both individuals.
I am reminded of the letter of James (4:1) when he comments: “Where do all these conflicts and battles between yourselves first start? Isn’t it precisely in the desires fighting inside your own selves.” Yes, every encounter that we have with each other, particularly the more intense encounters, are helpful moments where we can acknowledge and own aspects of our inner selves, an opportunity to consent to God’s healing Spirit.
Looking at ourselves
Our marital relationship then is continually helping us to have a look at ourselves, to get to know ourselves better. It is like continually holding up a mirror. Let us notice what it reflects. Can we observe ourselves gently, patiently, with understanding, and with love? Can we notice ourselves in relationship to our spouse, and not just notice her in relationship to us? There is precious information about ourselves, how our inner world of emotions, thoughts and attitudes respond when we encounter the one that is closest to us.
As we get to know ourselves more, as our spouse inadvertently holds up a mirror to us, reflecting back to us both our goodness, as well as the outward manifestations of our inner conflict, can we humbly and unashamedly take our increasing awareness of ourselves to God – believing wholeheartedly that he is interested in our healing, believing, with confidence, that he wants to mould us, if only we will consent.
I am reminded of St Therese of Lisieux’s approach to her awareness of her limitations in terms of loving. She says: “Even if I had on my conscience every conceivable sin, I would lose nothing of my confidence. My heart overflowing with love, I would throw myself into the arms of the Father, and I am certain that I would be warmly received.”
Too much responsibility – enabling behaviour
It is apparent in my work as a marital therapist that some individuals, given the circumstances in their early formation, are prone to err on the side of taking too much ownership for the difficulties in their marriage, particularly where their spouse might be invested in a culture of blame. The relationship is then characterised by an imbalance in this regard. One takes too much ownership; the other takes no ownership at all, and an ongoing culture of blame ensues. This can lend itself to a marital environment where we are enabling each other to remain in redundant, stuck ways of being.
God is calling us to help each other, to be interested in the spiritual growth of one another, rather than to enable the other to continue in self-absorbed ways of being.
Co-operating with God, the Potter
Our task in our marriage then, is to create an environment where a culture of ownership of our inner reactions and outward behaviour develops; where humility is affirmed; where vulnerability is responded to with respect and love. We want to establish a culture where we are implicitly encouraging one another to go toward our respective inner selves, and consent to God’s purifying work within us. This needs to go hand in hand with a culture of forgiveness, where we never tire of forgiving one another when our imperfections impact on each other.
Adopting a more reflective disposition in our marital relationship can initially result in an inner experience of despondency. Our more fragile, vulnerable egos might feel the impact of us, through our reflection, experiencing an updated reality check of ourselves as husband or wife, and we begin to get a sense that we are not as good a spouse as we thought we were. Our increased consciousness can result in a denial, and an inability to go to a place of vulnerability within ourselves. We are, in effect, struggling to allow God in, struggling to consent to God’s healing action in our lives.
However, with the help of the Spirit and with time, our increased awareness of self can be met with a humility within us. We begin to know that we are being prepared for an increased openness to acknowledge and receive God’s help.
The crux of the matter is that we can intellectually acknowledge our need for healing, but we can’t heal ourselves. God’s presence is indispensable in the spiralling growth cycle in our families and marriages. I believe He is constantly inviting us to grow in trust of his loving mercy and his desire to heal us. For our part, we have to humbly know our limitations in loving one another and simultaneously know our inability to address our imperfections by our own will alone.
Reflecting on the fruits of the Spirit outlined in Galatians (5:22-23) in the context of our marriage, can help us get a clearer sense of what our co-operation with the Potter might look like. My ongoing openness to acknowledging the truth of my brokenness as spouse occurs concurrently with an openness to the activation the fruits of the Spirit within us. Below is a description of what that might look like.
Though the reality of our human love is that it is imperfect and limited, we can experience it as unconditionally regarding. It is possible to convey the following message to our spouse: “Regardless of your struggles, your constant failures, your repetitive difficulties in daily life, your imperfect efforts in loving me, I commit myself to daily renewing my commitment to loving you and regarding you in your sacred dignity as a fellow human being.” Unconditional love means that we never give up in starting again after moments of heightened emotions, of anger, hurt, despair, disappointment or hopelessness. Unconditional love means that we continue to expose ourselves to the vulnerability of imperfect human love rather than harden our hearts, becoming emotionally detached and distant.
The Spirit enables us to access a joy even in the presence of imperfection, struggle, and relational messiness. It is the joy of knowing God’s faithful presence in our marriage, even though there are difficulties and unresolved issues; the joy of experiencing an ongoing acceptance and regard from my spouse, even though I disclose more and more of my increasing self-awareness of my brokenness and limitations as a husband, and she is seeing my imperfection more.
Furthermore, this experience of the joy of human love offers a more manageable step to consenting to the possibility that the nature of God’s love for me is the same, only that much bigger. Through our marital relationship we have prepared the way for beginning to know the joy of being loved by a loving, nurturing and compassionate Father. That is, our increased awareness of our imperfection is not an obstacle, a source of despair, but rather creating opportunities to know the redeeming love of God.
I understand the fruit of peace in our marriages to be an inner peace as different from an inner panic or anxiety, a peace that is greater than the everyday circumstances of marital and family life and any crises that come our way. It is a peace that stands firm even when the boat is being tossed around in the storm, when our inner world is being churned up by one another, and God is busy with His purifying work within us. I don’t believe that it is an external peace, a tranquil family environment. No, even in the emotional chaos of developing children and outward manifestations of an emotional intensity, I can know a peace within me, emerging from the knowledge that God has everything in hand.
As we pray consistently over years for the healing hand of God in our lives, our attitude begins to display a level of patience towards ourselves and others. God’s healing of our inner being is an ongoing process that generally takes many years. We repeat many of our growth-inhibiting habits over and over again. We hold on doggedly to particular ways of viewing our spouse, and ourselves for that matter. We struggle to let go of particular ways of perceiving and ways of responding, both emotionally and behaviourally, to those perceptions and observations. Our patience with one another is an indispensable quality we need in our growing marriage as we experience one another sincerely aspiring to the same gospel values and trying our best, but at the same time repeating the same imperfections time and time again.
Acts of kindness towards one another are helpful communications of affirmation and regard of the other. They are our free gift of love to our spouse. Kindness is that reminder confirming our love. Given the vulnerability of the wounded inner self, and the unknown territory that is constantly chartered in the growth and healing process, these regular confirmatory communications of love are vital messages of encouragement when the inner discomfort and conflict wants to pull us towards despondency and doubt.
We begin to affirm the goodness of the creation that is our individual beings. We begin to get glimpses of the goodness of God dwelling within us. We see one another working with our wounded nature in ways that manifest a patient, kind acceptance of ourselves. We are no longer demanding and harsh with ourselves in our imperfection, but humble in the experienced confidence in God’s unwavering love.
On our wedding day, we pronounce our marriage vows, committing to remaining faithful to loving one another in good times and bad, in sickness and in health. Living our vows faithfully requires a daily recommitment, considering the experience of the intensity of the inner conflict emanating from our wounded nature and that of our spouse. The inner pain and discomfort can catapult us into dispositions of despondency and despair, with an accompanying commentary attempting to convince us that “things will never change” and that “I will never receive the love that I desire from my spouse.” The pain can also trigger an anger towards our spouse that can precipitate a vengeful, and punishing response. In the midst of all this inner intensity, can I remain faithful, again and again making myself vulnerable in the context in my marital relationship?
The growth in our marriage is characterized as much by our becoming ever more aware of our daily limitations in loving our spouse as by our gradually recognizing that our love is more patient and kind and we are exercising more self-control. Our progressing on the spiritual journey is a humbling experience. We are never free from our weaknesses and imperfections, but grow in awareness of them with a concomitant increase in our confidence in God’s loving mercy. We become less inclined to be purposive and goal-oriented in our marital relationship, forcing change or demanding it urgently from ourselves or our spouse. Gently, we remain faithful to our daily commitment to loving our spouse in an effort-filled, truthful way, even though we are not changing as fast as the pride of the ego might desire. We have consented to God purifying our marital relationship. We leave Him to get on with it, and question less the twists and turns that that purifying action entails, as well as its time frame.
As we become more vulnerable, an increased experience of emotion occurs. As these feelings at times gain an intensity that is unfamiliar to us, we are able to allow those emotions to be, without them influencing our behaviour. We begin to notice an absence of reactivity and impulsivity in response to these emotions. Consequently, in our having a neutral response to them they pass on more quickly, having less and less impact on our overriding disposition. Self-control, then, is not controlling the existence of the emotion, but rather exercising ever-increasing degrees of freedom in choosing our action at the times these conflictual emotions are evoked in us. We are more accepting of these painful emotions emanating from our wounded inner selves, and bear them in a way that does not blame our spouse for them, even though their presence and their limitation in loving us is the trigger for the emotions being evoked.