by Rhett Smith, Relevant Magazine, March 4, 2012
Why “two becoming one” is never as easy as it sounds.
When my wife and I exchanged our wedding vows on a scorching Texas day in 2005, the words we stated to one another hinted at a desire to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions in the relationship we were forming. By repeating those phrases, I was promising to do all I could do to assume my role in the marriage. In essence, I was stating my intention of sticking by her side through all the ups and downs life could throw at us.
So it was a shocking revelation in the early days of our marriage when I realized my spouse could not possibly meet every need or want I had. Nor could she continually prop up my fragile ego so I could feel better about myself.
I’m afraid that, in our Christian culture, when people recall the Biblical command that the two “will become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24) they just assume their partner is going to fulfill everything for them. Unfortunately, that misperception leaves a lot of disappointed and anxious people. Misguided expectations have created a dynamic of relational anxiety in many relationships. One or both partners don’t take responsibility for their own role in the relationship, but abdicate it to the other.
Unfortunately, as a therapist, by the time most people end up in my office, their relationship is already stuck in a rut. No movement. No life. Certainly not the thriving life that most couples dream of when they decide to commit to one another.
Sitting in Anxiety
It was anxiety in my marriage that brought to my attention the unhealthy expectations I had placed upon my wife. I had expected her to meet every need. I had expected her to always affirm me. I had expected her to fill those empty spaces in my heart and soul no one but God can fill. That is an exhausting job to expect of a partner, and it was my own inability to deal with my anxiety that drove me to expect more and more unrealistic things of her.
Anxiety is a deep emotion tied to our personhood as we struggle with our sense of identity and wrestle in our relationship with God. When we are unwilling to face anxiety in the battle to gain a clearer sense of self, we may unwittingly unload it onto our partner in the form of unreachable demands.
Most of us may be either unaware of or unwilling to admit to the presence of anxiety in our lives, but it’s an important emotion for us to take personal ownership of—especially if we hope to have healthy relationships. Anxiety can manifest itself in our lives in a myriad of ways, and when it does, we have a couple options available to us. We can: a) pretend it doesn’t exist, while running away from it and pushing it further below the surface. In this hidden place, it will more than likely return to us tenfold; or, b) we can bring it to the light, paying attention to it and seeking to understand what anxiety leads us to do. It is in this place that God uses anxiety as a catalyst to help us grow as a person.
Sex and marriage therapist David Schnarch talks about the process of differentiation, which he describes as: “… balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness. Individuality propels us to follow our own directives, to be on our own, to create a unique identity. Togetherness pushes us to follow the directives of others, to be part of the group. When these two life forces for individuality and togetherness are expressed in balanced, healthy ways, the result is a meaningful relationship that doesn’t deteriorate into emotional fusion.”
When we enter into relationship with one another we are automatically faced with the struggle of still standing on our own two feet when we’re tempted to simply lean on each other. The early years of my marriage were marked by a constant push and pull as I tried to figure out who I was while being in relationship. But a healthy relationship does not demand I give up my identity, nor does it demand my partner to give themselves up to meet all of my needs.
Echoing the apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:21, a husband and wife are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (NIV), but it is a mutual submission that does not ask us to give up our created image in God (Gen. 1:27) in order to fulfill every need the partner may have. Rather, when we enter into a relationship with one another, our model is that of the Trinity, where Father, Son and Holy Spirit dwell together in relationship while maintaining their very unique identity.
Whether we are married, engaged, dating or single, we are all in the process of trying to maintain our unique identity just as we have a desire for mutual belonging in a relationship. This balance of mutuality and differentiation is known in theological circles as perichoresis—or, “divine dance.”
I love the image of a divine dance taking place between the three members of the Godhead. It’s an appropriate metaphor to remind couples that we need to be responsible for our own steps if we are to dance successfully together. I can’t constantly be worried about what my partner is doing, and I can’t expect them to take full responsibility for what only I can control. When I pledged “I do” to my wife, I was making a promise to her to take responsibility for myself as we lived life together. For her, I was promising to control the only thing I have control of: me.
When a spouse properly manages the anxiety of this shared life, they are offering their partner a valuable gift. They are giving them the opportunity to be themselves, free of having to constantly meet all the other’s needs. And in that freedom something beautiful takes place: both partners are now free to serve and meet needs, creating space for the other to give fully out of their heart. When I took responsibility for my life and took control of my issues, my wife no longer had to always come and fix me. And when she didn’t have to fix me, I was more enjoyable to be around, freeing her up to meet me relationally in ways I didn’t expect.
As couples manage anxiety and take responsibility for their own life within the relationship, they free each other up to truly give. Or, in Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s powerful words: “Being free means ‘being free for the other,’ because I am bound to the other. Only in relationship with the other am I free.”
Rhett Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MDIV, LMFT) in private practice in Plano, TX and on staff at The Hideaway Experience where he helps couples live more fulfilling marriages. Rhett is the author of The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? (Moody Publishers). He lives in Frisco, TX with his wife Heather and their two kids. You can find out more information at www.rhettsmithcounseling.com.