for the individual’s benefit and that the marriage should be ended when costs exceed benefits. Family sociologists have documented this response in the literature as the “deinstitutionalization of marriage” (Cherlin 2004), the “retreat from marriage” (Smock 2004), and the view that lifelong marriage is “something of an aberration that existed” in the past (Gillis 2004). Ellen Lewin (2004) challenges the idea that marriage is the only legitimate conjugal arrangement. John Gillis (2004) welcomes the new trend of a wide range of formal and informal marriage arrangements and asserts
that “seen in the larger historical and global perspective, there is nothing particularly alarming in the tendency. In fact, there is much to recommend it” (991). A careful observer might note that these comments are based on naturalistic assumptions that society should accept what is happening (such as higher rates of cohabitation and divorce) as normative and not make value judgments about what marriage should be. Contrary to a biblical view, much contemporary writing views marriage as a relationship of convenience, formed according to what the two people decide to make of it.
Differentiated Unity: Becoming One and Retaining Uniqueness The contemporary crisis in marriage is real. But rather than cave in to postmodern marital ethics, we believe the dilemma of modern marriage can be solved by recapturing a biblical view of marriage. Whereas God intends for marriage to constitute a unity as in “two become one,” it is not God’s intent for either the husband or the wife to lose his or her own identity in the process of forming that union. Tim and Kathy Keller (2013) describe how the beauty of a biblical definition of marriage and Christian sexual ethic is that it challenges premodern notions of marriage (marriage functions economically) and modern (marriage is a contract) and even a postmodern view (marriage is a remnant of a long bygone area that impeded on personal flourishing). God intends marriage to reflect the unique type of relationality found in the Holy Trinity. This truth is a core derivative of Genesis 1:26–27: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’ . . . So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The relationality between the distinct human beings (male and female) reflects the imago Dei—the image of God.
We bring this emphasis on relationality into our model for marriage. The relational nature in marriage is analogous in human form to the divine Trinity. As the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (three distinct persons) mutually indwell the Godhead in a trinitarian fellowship, so do spouses (two distinct selves) mutually indwell the marriage union. Ever mindful of our human limitations, we believe this model offers great promise. It is in their distinctiveness that spouses mutually permeate each other when they form their union. Unity and distinction coexist. Reciprocal and mutual interdependency is what God had in mind for marriage. A differentiated unity brings great satisfaction to both spouses and to their relationship. In
this context, to be human in marriage is to be a particular spouse in a relationship, distinct and unique and yet inextricably intertwined and interdependent with the other. Mutual indwelling never negates but rather enhances the particularity of each spouse. As Gary Deddo asserts, “The unity and the distinction are each unimpaired by the other” (1999, 23).
DoS, or as we will argue later, differentiation in Christ, is about identity. We are called into relationship with Christ during conversion. We are given a new identity, one based on membership in Christ’s family. This new identity in Christ forms the core self and is the basis for relating to others. Thus, our differentiation in Christ is the key factor in determining the effectiveness of spousal differentiation. Both spouses are more than they can ever be by themselves, because they have become something bigger in their union. In marriage, spouses are both distinct (male and female differentiation) and equal (directed to be fruitful and have dominion) in their created purpose. They find ultimate meaning in and through their relationship with God and each other. The supreme meaning of being created in the image of God is that spouses reflect a relationship of unity without absorbing one into the other. Marital mutuality is reached through a reciprocating relationship in which spouses encounter their own uniqueness in relation to God and the other.
Assimilation is a process in which two separate entities become one, while accommodation is an agreement by two separate entities to be different. From the lens of BFST, assimilation is fusion. The biblical concept of one flesh might appear to be assimilation. However, the Bible also describes the relationship of the believer with Christ as becoming one with him. Does this mean that we lose our identity and personhood when we become Christians? Of course not! In fact, this is the difference between the various Eastern religions and Christianity. Salvation according to the Eastern religions is to acknowledge the self as an illusion and then to recognize oneness with the eternal force in the universe. The dissolution of the self and the cosmos is described in the psychology of mindfulness (Grabovac, Lau, and Willett 2011). In Christianity, salvation is relational. It comes when the person is rightly related to God, the Creator and provider of eternal life.
Assimilation in marriage, where the personhood of one spouse is given up, is not what God intended. Christian marriage is more like accommodation, where two separate people each maintain a distinct personhood but choose to come together in unity and oneness of commitment, meaning, and service. It is noteworthy that the key verses in Ephesians 5, which speak about the
marriage relationship, are introduced by the directive, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (v. 21). Ideally, in Christian marriage each spouse is subject to the other; that is, each makes room for the other to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven, to serve and be served, and to know and be known. A marriage in which one partner, the husband or the wife, is asked to give up his or her personhood for the sake of the other denies God’s expression in and through that unique member of the creation. The relationship is remarkably more fulfilling when both people are equally expressed in their union, providing others an opportunity to know two distinct people as well as to relate to the couple as a unit.
Just because a couple forms a union does not mean there are no differences between the spouses. Quite the contrary! Precisely because they bring unique perspectives to the union, they will need to navigate through their differences. In fact, Genesis 2 emphasizes the complementary nature of the relationship—male and female. At a minimum, biological differences foster opportunities to esteem the uniqueness of each spouse as well as incorporate these differences into the marriage. In navigating these differences, it’s important that each spouse be open and responsive in an attitude of humble respect. Conflict is to be expected when two distinct and unique individuals express themselves equally. Marriage without conflict can signify that one spouse has given up personhood. In a vital relationship, conflicts are viewed with an eye to finding a solution that is in the best interest of each spouse and the relationship as a whole. Agreement is never at the expense of one spouse over the other. Being subject to one’s spouse does not mean giving in for the sake of avoiding conflict or maintaining harmony. In fact, giving in for the sake of avoiding conflict may be a way of letting a spouse down.
Commitment involves a willingness to express your desires and opinions, to confront a partner in love, to listen with openness to your spouse’s desires and opinions, to have compassion, and to affirm the other’s ideas. Differentiated unity assures a mutual love that works out differences for the good of the relationship.
Learning New Roles in the Marital Dance Perichoresis is the Greek word used to describe the relationality among members of the Trinity. Eugene Peterson (2005, 44–45) points out that, in the original language, perichoresis literally means “a round dance.” Like a round
dance, marriage can be described as two people moving rhythmically together as they repeatedly embrace, release, hold on, and then let go of each other. Partners will dance in unity when they share an understanding of their roles in relation to each other as they perform their particular dance. It may be an ever-changing dance with new moves as circumstances alter, but when spouses are in step there is great joy in observing the graceful movements. We find it helpful to think of spouses being in tune with each other as they anticipate, construct, change, and live out their roles throughout their marriage.
Prior to marriage, most spouses have already formulated in their minds a role for themselves and a role for the person they are to marry. How husbands and wives define their respective roles can be important. High expectations often lead to disappointment. It was discovered by DeMaris, Sanchez, and Krivickas (2012, 989) that “couples characterized by more traditional attitudes toward gender roles were significantly less satisfied.” Discussing role expectations prior to marriage will hopefully counter the unexpected or unrealistic ideals that hinder rather than help the couple work out their respective roles. This subjective anticipation of new roles before entering marriage is known as role taking. A rat running a maze is limited to learning by trial and error. It must randomly follow each corridor in search of food until it either reaches a dead end or finds the reward. Humans use their rich vocabulary and elaborate thinking ability to run a maze in their minds. In fact, before two people decide to marry, they each probably run through an elaborate symbolic maze by imagining what it would be like to be married to the other person for the rest of their lives. We constantly engage in role taking when anticipating the new roles we eventually assume.
An important ingredient in the achievement of marital adjustment is the ability to take on the role of another person. This requires empathy—the ability to view the world from someone else’s perspective and to stand in that person’s place. Research shows that people with role-taking ability score high on marital-adjustment tests. It is extremely important that partners be able to see things from the viewpoint of their spouses. This is what understanding the other is about.
After marriage, spouses engage in role playing. Role playing is the process of actually assuming the role of spouse and dancing out the part that has been only imagined up to this point. The first part of role playing can be thought of as playing at a role. Spouses play at a role to the extent that they
are self-conscious and unsure of themselves in marriage. We can engage in role playing hundreds of times. However, when we actually assume a role, we find it to be somewhat different from what we imagined. A newly married couple will experience some awkwardness in playing at their new roles as spouses. Even though they are acutely aware that they are newlyweds, they are not yet accustomed to their new roles as married people. It takes time to become comfortable with the role so that it feels natural.
People who begin marriage by playing at a role will eventually become comfortable with it and spontaneously engage in playing the role of marital partner. Meanwhile, because of the expectations formed prior to role taking, the early stages of marriage often bring role conflict. Both people enter marriage with their personal and family-of-origin definition of what their role and their spouse’s role should be. This can lead to confusion and difficulty.
Much emotion is invested in one’s new role as husband or wife, and consequently there is also great potential for conflict. A husband and wife may disagree about the definition of the spouse’s role. He may enter marriage thinking that husbands do not do dishes, while the wife may consider this to be his role. Similarly, a wife may view her role as including responsibility for the budget, but the husband may see this as his territory. As the couple begins to clarify these messages, tension is likely to occur. If they resort to pulling or pushing while learning this dance, they will appear uncoordinated and will likely step on each other’s toes. Finding the mutual rhythm and coordinating the right steps is worth every effort it takes to create a harmonious pattern of movement.