Building the Marriage Sanctuary

Charles Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was writing about married life. Marriage has within it the best and the worst.

It’s never been easy to build a good marriage, but it’s harder than ever now. Roles and expectations have changed so much that couples often enter marriages without much clarity about how to do it. We may begin with love, but there is labor involved that isn’t always fun and easy. Taking a relationship from commitment to sanctuary—from decision and partnership to a place of peace, a haven from the storm, a renewal center—is filled with struggle. But the outcome can be heavenly. I speak from professional and personal experience. I have been married since 1978 and a pastoral counselor for couples since 1980. I can’t say I’ve been happily married for every bit of those years, nor can I say I’ve helped every couple find bliss together. What I can say is that I’ve learned some things through the refining fires that might help create a home where peace and renewal are present and can be sustained.

Building a marriage sanctuary is not just a labor of love; it is very difficult work. It is not just about having good times together, and it is not about seeing bad times as a problem. In many ways the hard times in a marriage are what make us grow. Marriage, as author and marriage counselor David Schnarch says, is a "people-growing machine," making us grow and change in ways we never imagined.

Why do we fall in love with one another? One reason is compatibility. Early in a relationship there is a bond that develops that is almost unbelievable. We find ourselves enamored with how alike we are. It’s a nice experience, but almost all mature couples say, "We’re a lot different than we thought we were early on." Still, it is important to remember how compatible we first were. Those memories are not just precious, they contain an important truth.

A second reason we fall in love is sexual excitement or sexual security. Some couples are excited and very turned on to one another from the start. Other couples experience sexual security—not so much dramatic sexual excitement as comfort. Either is okay, neither is inherently better or worse than the other, but some level of sexual attraction is important.

Early on, at an unspoken level, we recognize in our partner a person with similar problems, so if we can develop a truly healing relationship, we can find some of the healing in our lives that we need. Even though we sometimes think we do, we don’t normally find a partner who is much more mature or immature than we are. "Water seeks its own level," is the commonsense phrase for this. We seek a partner with whom we can truly grow.

Why do we decide to marry? One reason is tradition: to conform to social and religious traditions in order to be accepted, and to legitimize sex and children. Another reason might be to save the relationship from a breakup. Couples who are worried about a particular problem may believe that marriage will make the problem go away or the stronger commitment of marriage will reverse the damage.

Another is to celebrate spiritual togetherness—this is a more mature reason. When a relationship achieves a certain level of maturity, we begin to realize that we’ve created a successful relationship—not one that won’t have problems later on, but one that is doing well now and worth celebrating. Finally, marriage allows the relationship to be more public and socially acceptable. People can go places wearing rings, refer to themselves as married, have children together, and no one will complain when they want to be alone (and make love), or sleep in the same bed.

As we move along in our relationship there are two predictable crises. Initially we are fooled into believing that the bond we have, the deep level of compatibility, is evidence that we are with a person who is traveling in the same direction we are. It would be great to find someone moving in a parallel line with us, but that is rare. What is more common is to find someone moving in a non-parallel direction, so that we will cross and begin to move apart from one another. When we first cross paths, we are in the same place. That’s when the bond happens, and it’s wonderful. But as we continue on our individual journeys, we find ourselves moving apart. It is natural, but at some point one partner or the other, or both, realize that if they keep going in the direction they each are going, they will grow completely apart and lose touch with one another. This is the first predictable crisis. It’s a crisis of decision.

We must do one of three things:

  • The couple can continue on their present paths, not making any shifts, and consequently they will grow apart emotionally. The marriage might break up from the growing distance, or they might stay together living virtually apart from one another—different bedrooms, different sets of friends, etc. They might be cooperative, but there will be little true intimacy.
  • Some couples decide to go back to the bond and cling to one another. They often display an enmeshment with one another, thinking that this will keep them from growing apart. The problem is that individuals usually find a secret way to seek their own personal enrichment, and one day these couples wake up to the fact that they have secret lives that are far apart from the bond. They won’t truly know one another anymore.
  • Sometimes couples decide to shift their journeys, with one or both of them changing their individual direction and learning to move in parallel ways. Traditionally that meant that the woman shifted to move in her husband’s direction. But even for heterosexual relationships, that’s not working as it used to. What tends to happen now is that both make adjustments, both shifting their directions. They won’t experience the constant bond, but they can shift their journeys in such a way that they can easily move closer when desired and re-experience some of the joy of the early bond. This is a decision to develop mutuality. In this way they choose to travel parallel to one another.

You could say that these three options are independence, dependence, or interdependency. The couples that develop truly intimate and satisfying relationships create interdependency or mutuality.

John Gottman, a marriage counselor and researcher, suggests that there are clear predictors of whether or not a marriage will survive and become a good marriage. First, good marriages include the couple’s unwillingness to fight over unsolvable issues. Instead, they choose to argue over issues that can be solved. Gottman found that couples that fought over perpetual issues—issues that never really changed—would eventually distance themselves from one another and break up. Couples that stayed married would only tackle problems they could resolve together. Second, although all marriages include complaints, poor marriages quickly descend into contempt while in good marriages couples use reconciling and respectful language—what Gottman calls "gestures of repair." Contempt leads nowhere good, while respect and an attempt to make peace help keep couples together. Third, in good marriages the couple’s "positive sentiments" outweigh the negative ones. Fourth, couples must know one another’s "love maps"—how the other feels loved (e.g., touch, presence, being listened to, special gifts, etc.). The key to these predictors is openness and undefensiveness.

The second crisis in a relationship probably won’t come before five years of marriage. David Schnarch calls it "the marriage crucible." A crucible is a large caldron or pot in which rocks of iron ore are deposited, then heated to extreme temperatures. The iron ore melts, the useless slag floats to the top, and the remaining metal has great value.

Marriages are like crucibles; things get real hot. Problems that once seemed simple heat up. Couples get tired of one another. In the beginning, everything is new and exciting and it’s relatively easy to negotiate our way through those difficulties, but later problems have more intensity and heat. This is a natural part of marital growth. It is what makes marriages a "people-growing machine" (Schnarch). During this time we discover much greater potential than we once could see. But it doesn’t come easily. It gets real hot. Most marriage counseling begins with a couple stuck in a marriage crucible, needing extra help negotiating a way through the heat.

One of the most important things that marriage counselors try to do with couples in a marriage crucible is to help the couple see the situation not as the problem but as the solution. The marriage crucible, as troublesome as it is, contains the necessary push that will help both of them become the persons they were intended to be. It is the point where people really become vulnerable to one another, forcing them to turn inward to find one’s true identity and calling. In the process, they will learn who their partner truly is, and the relationship will be transformed.

I have come to believe that a good marriage is like several marriages in one lifetime. There is a point even in good marriages where there needs to be a "divorce," though not a literal one. The early relationship worked well for some time, but it won’t forever. Maybe the children have pushed the couple to a different stage of development, maybe vocations have, or it could simply be personal growth. The relationship as it was, however, isn’t working well anymore. The couple needs a divorce from the old marriage patterns and a remarriage to new patterns and deeper intimacy. In good marriages, these changes create a like-new marriage. It may occur more than once, too. In my experience, the new marriage is a lot better than the old one, too! It has so much more depth of love and understanding and strength of character. This makes marriages worth saving.

Oftentimes marriage counseling is seen as helping couples communicate more positively with one another. Over the years, I’ve found that there is a place for helping couples with better communication techniques—like not using the words "never" or "always" in arguments (which escalate fights), or using the word "I" instead of "you." Most dysfunctional couples’ or families’ dominant word is "you." Families or couples that function well don’t say "you" very often. They say "I": "This is what I think;" "This is what I want to do." Functional people use the word "you" in questions: "What do you want?", "What do you think or feel?" Dysfunctional families use the word "you" in accusations and criticism: "You are doing it again!" "Why don’t you stop that?"

Communication techniques are important, but not as important as self-actualization and letting be. If there is a real purpose of a marriage, it is not to learn good communication, but to help us to be self-actualizing, individualizing people, and to learn how to love another who is also self-actualizing. The way we love is by learning what it means to let be. Letting be, according to theologian John Macquarrie, is love. Letting be is not letting alone, however; it is letting the other be who he or she truly is. It is a principle of relationship and self-actualization. Letting be in love helps people be who they truly can be. It calls us to another level of openness and caring. It is another aspect of marriage that makes it so special. This is similar to what Gottman means in pointing out that successful couples don’t fight over unsolvable, perpetual problems. They let them be.

Sex is often one of the fighting words of marriage. Sex gives us four things. The first is children. Second, it is about feeling touched and having orgasms. Often we think that having orgasms is the best part of sex, but I’ve come to realize that touch is the best part—especially naked touch. It is the skin-to-skin contact, the naked openness, that helps us connect. Orgasm is the end point, what sexual touch leads to, but touching is what sustains us beyond the orgasm. Touching, although not always leading to orgasm, often sets up orgasms, and it is more than just physical touch. It includes words and gestures that are emotionally touching. It includes seeing one another with acceptance and delight. As couples grow in maturity they become able to look into one another’s eyes and see that of God within, that their partner is a child of God. They are even able to have orgasms while looking into one another’s eyes!

Sex is also a place to be wild—a necessary part of life when most of our lives are caught up in being civilized and tame. It’s hard to be tame; just watch children and you can verify that! Children are little wild things who have to be taught how to act civilized. By the time we become adults we usually have learned that pretty well. There are various outlets for our wildness, but one of the best outlets is in bed with our partner. There we can legitimately be wild, animalistic, and have great fun. It can be a place where our desires are truly accepted in ways that can keep us from having to seek illegitimate outlets for wild pleasures. It’s very important that we be more civilized than wild in our public lives, but in our marital life, if we don’t have a place to be wild together, it will slip out somewhere, probably in the wrong place.

Sex gives us a view of what’s inside—not only of what’s inside our partner, but what our partner sees inside of us. One of the main differences between sex seen from an immature perspective compared to that of mature adult perspective is that the immature person usually sees it as genitally centered or oriented. Mature adults can look deeply into one another’s eyes, seeing the soul of the person. They are able to make love not just with a body, but with a person with a body and soul. Marriage offers this rich potential.

Some marriage counselors say that money is a primary cause for marriage problems. Indeed, money is important, for it is a symbol of our values, what we care for. When money is a problem, it may indicate that what we care for is in conflict. One question to ask about conflicts over money is what values are being represented. Getting those values in line with one another usually takes care of money problems.

On this matter, I have a recommendation. I think that having shared finances is important. Having "our" money helps couples develop mutuality, although there should still be a place for each person to have his or her own personal cash—"mad money" if you will. Each should have a reasonable amount of money to spend with no questions asked, without accountability to one’s partner, but I think it helps to have the bulk of the family’s finances in a shared checkbook. It forces the couple to work together and carefully define mutual values and plans. Money matters help us discover our true values—which couples need to learn about one another.

Drinking and drug use is a common marital problem. Although everyone has heard stories of the disabling nature of addictions, some couples fool themselves into believing that mild daily drinking to a slight high, smoking marijuana, or occasional recreational hard drug usage is not a problem. It may not create addiction-level problems or abuse, financial debts, or legal entanglements, but it inhibits development of the person. It numbs one to life. Marriages are inherently anti-numbing experiences. Good marriages simply don’t tolerate the numbing effect of overuse of alcohol and drugs. If one partner gets high every day, the marriage will eventually be crippled, just as that person’s development will be handicapped.

Few marriages survive daily highs for long. If that’s the spirit one is predominantly experiencing, it is the wrong spirit. There is a better spirit—one that offers a spiritual high. Marriages point to it.

Spirituality is an aspect of marriage that flows from our sense of shared values. Spirituality begins from engagement, connection with another. Touch is the first way we experience our spirituality. We often think that sex is not part of our spirituality, but if that were so, why do we often exclaim at the point of orgasm, "Oh, God!"? There is a way that we know inwardly that the touch that brings us to this ecstatic loss of control is wonderful and sometimes even deeply transforming. This exclamation—"Oh, God!"—is how prayer is part of our marriages regardless of intent.

Spirituality is present in all points of appreciation of the other. It is part of the important experience of being known and still loved. We feel immense gratitude at being accepted in our wildness and our woundedness, to be loved not only at our points of strength, but also in our weakness. It is part of the spirit of the relationship. Its calls us into a high level of openness, and openness is the deepest meaning of faith. It is in that openness that we come to our realization of the Divine. It is often experienced in the depths of our relationship.

Prayer can be an important part of that. I recommend that couples hold hands in bed at night before going to sleep and pray, either in silence or vocally, gently squeezing one another’s hand when completing the prayer.

There is a call to communion in our marriage that leads us to communities where we can be part of something larger than ourselves, where we can share meaning and values with others. This is especially true after couples have children, for the important task of raising children with good values and strong character deepens this need for community. I recommend participating in a meeting, church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, places where people are trying to be good people.

Building the family sanctuary is different from simply building a home. A home is a place where you put furniture; a sanctuary is a place where you put your soul. A home is a place where you decorate the walls. A sanctuary is a place where those decorations represent who you are and what you want your family to be. A sanctuary is a haven from storms, a place of peace, a refuge from our travels. It is necessary in building such a sanctuary to close the doors from time to time to the family of origin’s efforts to decorate it their way. Couples need to decorate it themselves in their own way.

Rituals that comfort and draw us towards love are important. How couples celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other holidays needs to evolve into rituals that feel unique and owned. A couple can take learned rituals into their relationship, but it should become the couple’s own—changed, if necessary, to fit who they truly are.

A sanctuary doesn’t stop just at home; it needs to send us out into the world with renewed strength. It sends us out on a mission, to not only be ourselves, but to be part of the larger community in a way that’s filled with wisdom and surrounded by peace. From the peace and wisdom developed in our marriages, I pray that we might become sanctuary builders wherever we are.

How do we learn to build sanctuaries? We learn it at home. We learn it where the sanctuary of our marriage becomes a sanctuary for everyone who comes into our home. From such places we can become those who create better communities, for from the marital sanctuary come the builders of the sanctuary of our world. As you create a beautiful marriage, a beautiful home, and a true sanctuary, you will be making one little section of God’s world a nicer place to live. There may be no calling higher than that.

Ron McDonald

Ron McDonald, a member of Memphis (Tenn.) Meeting, is a pastoral counselor.