Orthodox Christian Marriage is Mutual – Equal Respect and Love

The writer of Genesis said of Adam and Eve: "And God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it. Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." (Genesis 1:28; 2:24) St. Paul wrote in Hebrews: "Let marriage be held in honor among all..." (Hebrews 13:4)

St. John Chrysostom typified the Orthodox Church Fathers: "From the beginning God has been revealed as the fashioner, by his providence, of this union of man and woman, and He has spoken of the two as one: male and female He created them" (Homily XX on Ephesians 5:22). "Union" in Greek is syzygias, a term uniformly used by the Church Father to mean yoked in wedlock and the married state.

In a blessed marriage in the Orthodox Church, the couple is ordained as the leaders of their domestic church, crowned to be the king and queen of their domicile and granted grace for the "fair education of children" as the Orthodox wedding service proclaims. In Christian marriage, authentic and true love seeks to replicate the type of self-sacrifice Christ revealed to us when He became man and dwelt among us (and which is still expressed today in Christ's faithfulness to His Church). Self-sacrificial love conforms to the Great Commandment to love our neighbor more highly than ourselves. In so doing we also love and honor God (Matthew 25:36-40, 1 John 4:19-21). This kind of love between husband and wife, even if imperfectly practiced and not always realized, constitutes what St. John Chrysostom called the "small church" and as such ensures the health and stability of the family in raising children (Homily XX on Ephesians 5: 22-33).

In the marital relationship two individuals become "one flesh;" a term that means that two individuals work in concert to become one in mind and heart. They are joined together in love in a way that replicates the Three Persons of the Trinity relation of love to each other.

Becoming "one flesh" in a blessed marriage is an act of agape, a selfless giving of one to the other; a self-emptying (Greek: kenosis) in a manner like Christ when He took on human flesh and assumed human nature. This theme is affirmed in the Orthodox marriage service as well. The "crowning" of the couple actually references martyrdom, that is, giving one's life for the other. As a martyr gives his life for Christ, so must the spouse be willing to give his life to his wife (and the wife to her husband), and in so doing fulfill the law of Christ which is to love the neighbor as yourself. It is a call to love that rings through the intoxication of pleasant emotion into the deeper reservoirs of the heart and soul from where sacrificial love is drawn.

Marital self-emptying however, occurs only if each partner consents to it. In making man in His image, God gave man freedom. This leads those in a marital union to a crossroad: The path of righteousness where marriage is a joined duality, or the path of self-satisfaction where marriage is defined as a singularity.

Self-centered marriage is a marriage in name only. After the Fall we are predisposed to self-centered choices directed by the passions (lusts) rather than choices based on agape. St. Isaac of Syria tells us: ". . . pandering to the flesh, produce(s) in us shameful urges and unseemly fantasies" (Early Fathers from the Philokalia).

The passions spring from the heart of the person. Jesus told us: "For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man" (Mark 7: 21-23).

St. Paul wrote "While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death" (Romans 5:7). The work of the passions can take place either before marriage or after the marital union takes place. In either case they lead to a choice of singularity or self-satisfaction over a righteous, joined union.

Before marriage one may not understand or be committed to the Christian view of marriage (Morelli, 2004). After marriage, due to the brokenness of human nature, the passions may predispose a couple to discord. St. Paul's warning applies to the "demon's" attack on the marital union: "Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19-21). The Church Fathers attribute this to the demon of each passion that never tires of breaking union with God.

For example, demon of lust the Church Fathers told us, can take over our lives. Modern society facilitates this malady. Sex is broadcast everywhere for almost every use: art, fashion, music, news, pornography (especially the Internet), and the sale of almost any product from automobiles to computers, The secular world flagrantly exposes body parts, especially the genital areas.

The Church Fathers knew about such enticements a thousand years ago. St. Isaac of Syria wrote: "Passions are brought either by images or by sensations devoid of images and by memory, which at first is unaccompanied by passionate movements or thoughts, but which later produces excitation." One way to deal with these passions, continued St. Isaac: " . . . their thought must become attached to nothing except their own soul."

One has to make a choice between Christ and demon. St. Paul asked: "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation . . . distress . . . persecution . . . hunger . . . nakedness . . . danger . . . the sword? For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ our Lord" (Romans 8:35-39). Vigilance and discernment are major virtues to be acquired by those seeking Christ indwelling in them and desiring to overcome the power of passions.

Ilias the Presbyter tells us: "Demons wage war against the soul primarily through thoughts . . . " (Philokalia, III). Ideally the marital couple will make a "spiritual desert" for themselves, removing them from the "enticements" so prevalent in modern life. Spiritual death occurs when these thoughts are self-centered.

St. Maximus the Confessor knew this as well: "The self love and cleverness of men, alienating them from each other and perverting the law, have cut our single human nature into many fragments" (Philokalia, III). How much more should St. Maximus' words apply to those who have become "one flesh"?

Psychology and sociology aids us in understanding the social, cognitive, and behavioral factors that contribute to the spiritual breakdown (the demon's work) that creates marital brokenness. Cognitive-behavioral research (Beck 1988) and its related marital investigation programs (Christianson and Jacobson, 2000 and Gottman, 1994, 1999) have done much to help delineate the cognitive factors that lead to marital discord and to develop efficacious clinical interventions.

Beck, for example, points out the cognitive distortions that produce marital conflict. Individuals do not know the "state of mind, attitudes, thoughts and feelings" of the other so they impose their own interpretation. There is a tendency to rely on ambiguous signals from the other and interpret them based on the observers' own attitudes, thoughts, and feelings.

The intensity of the observer's beliefs about the motives of the other is not a measure of the accuracy of the observer's interpretation, however. One major contributor to maintaining these inaccurate perceptions is what Beck labels a "closed perspective." Beck states: "Closed or self-centered perspectives are defined by the individual frames of reference; people view events only according to how they relate to them."

Beck goes on to state something with which the Church Fathers could readily agree: "Marital conflict fosters and exaggerates egocentric perspectives." These biases determine perception and focus on unfavorable features of the other's behavior while disregarding favorable ones.

Treatment procedures include training the spouses in recognizing that the source of many misunderstandings is differences in perception. Traits that each spouse has are not "bad" in and of themselves, but a "mismatch with their own traits." Each of the spouses has to restructure or reframe the perception or perspective of the other. They have to view the other "more benignly and realistically."

Christianson and Jacobson find three factors lead to marital discord: criticism, demands and cumulative annoyance. Gottman has extended this to include what he calls the "Four Horseman of the Apocalypse [that] clip-clop into the heart of marriage: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling" (Gottman,1999).

The spiritual heritage of the Church may use different terminology, but the meaning is the same. In Gottman's research, for example, a complaint focuses on a specific behavior, while criticism focuses on general character assassination. This is in accord with the Church Fathers. St. Peter of Damaskos taught: "For he who sins . . . will not dare to judge or censure anyone."

"Defensiveness" and "stonewalling" are terms not in scripture and the writing of the Church Fathers, but their meaning is readily apparent. The prophet Job, spoke of "a heart hard as stone" (Job 41:24). The prophet Ezekiel said: "But the house of Israel will not listen to you; for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel are of a hard forehead and of a stubborn heart" (Ezekiel 3:7-8), Even Our Lord warned about His words falling on "hard" soil, in the Parable of the Sower (Luke 8:13).

Pastorally and clinically I have found four factors are especially insidious in undermining marital relationships: mind-reading, reciprocity, entitlement, and constant urging (colloquially known as "nagging") (Burns, 1989).

Mind-reading is the unrealistic cognition that one's partner should be able to know what the one is thinking, feeling or desiring. (All individuals perceive the world differently; it is the individual's responsibility to communicate to their spouse what their wants and needs are.)

Reciprocity is the unrealistic expectation that if one does something for someone they have the right to expect a return (even though the other may not be privy to this "unilateral contract." Spouses should clearly state what they want from the other and attempt to come to a common agreement.

Entitlement occurs when the spouse feels they deserve love, companionship, happiness, honesty, obedience, etc. Entitlement works hand in hand with expectations. When an event occurs in which one family member does not feel that others lived up to what was expected of them, feelings of anger and being used result.

Constant urging is the unrealistic expectation that if one urges (nags) one's partner enough, he will comply with what is wanted. Often the opposite is produced, people stonewall when feeling coerced. It is better to get individuals to voluntarily comply with requests on their own.
These psychological interventions can be enlivened by the Holy Spirit: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another" (Galatians 5:22-26).

It takes two persons to keep the marriage together but it takes one to break it. Why? Because marriage is a conjoint relationship.

I was recently asked: "How does separation and divorce in a marriage fit into this holy business?" The basic answer is that it doesn't. But more is to come: Christ can transform all even what appears "bad" and is "bad" into good. How is this possible? St. Peter of Damaskos (Philokalia III) suggested: "The more we place our hope in the Lord with regard to all things that concern (us) whether of soul for body the more (we) will find that the Lord provides for (us) . . . The more (we) exert ourselves for the sake of His love, the more God grows near to (us) through His gifts and longs to fill [us] with peace . . . "

In a world that is broken and disordered, problems will occur. If we respond by fighting the good fight as St. Paul said, and exert ourselves as St. Peter of Damaskos said, then we are growing near to God. From the brokenness in marriage a "new creation" can emerge. "Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself" (2 Corinthians 5: 17-18).

The growth is accomplished through prayer, participation in the holy mysteries, especially Confession and the reception of the Holy Eucharist. The greatest good after any brokenness is the capacity to be able to "love more."

Sex and Sexuality in Marriage

Marriage also replicates the creative energy of God where the couple as "one flesh" unites to create new life. For Christians the "theology of sex" based on Divine Love is at the highest principle, infinitely beyond empathy or any other set of ethical standards. It references the essence of God Himself. St John tells us " ... for love is of God ... .God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). This is the love we are to have for one another. Archimandrite Sophrony (1999) reports that St. Silouan the Athonite, echoing the Church Fathers, said: "Both Christ's commandments of love towards God and love toward neighbor make up a single life."

The Church fathers said the same thing. The Persons of the Holy Trinity interrelate amongst themselves in Love. Creation is an act of love between God and His creation. He creates in love and continues to keep the universe and mankind in being out of love. The infinite God creates out of nothing, and continues to create through the laws of nature He has created. God has given mankind, through its two modes of male and female, a share in His creation. Sexuality is the gift from Him by which we share in His creation. Therefore, sexuality is holy and should be treated as such, because it is the way we were made to share in God's creation.

The sexual organs are the instruments of this creation. God made them to be what they are anatomically and to function the way they do. Thus, even the sexual organs share in holiness. For example, the function of the male sexual organ is to deposit the seed of new life in the female. This makes sexual intercourse a creative act that replicates in some measure the very nature and purpose of God whom we know as the Creator. This presumes then that the proper context for sexual intercourse is love. Sexual relations properly understood are expressed in a context of love that is by nature self-emptying.

These means that any use of the sexual organs for self-centered pleasure runs counter to God's plan for creation. St. Paul explains this beautifully when he compares the love a man should have towards his wife in terms of the love that Christ has for the Church. "Husbands, love you wife," St. Paul writes, "as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her ... " (Ephesians 5:25).

Therefore any type of sexuality, which is self-centered, manipulative and degrading, is impure because it is not based on self-emptying, self-giving, committed, and creating love. Love always has as its center the good and welfare of the individual. It is for our good and welfare that we were created by God, our Father, redeemed by Christ in His act of "Extreme Humility" of embracing the cross, and sanctified by the Spirit whom He sent. As Christ took on our flesh, a man and woman in marriage " ... shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh" (Matthew 19:5-6). Thus the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians have so much meaning: "The body is not meant for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body." As God's love is not casual, crude, rude and self-centered, so too, sexual love should not be this way. As God's love is giving, emptying and creative, so too sexual love should be this way.

Orthodox Christian Marriage is Mutual Equal Respect and Love

The epistle read at the Orthodox wedding service is often misunderstood. The focus of the understanding is the beginning of the passage, describing the husband as "head" and wives as "subject." It surely would be interpreted in Western culture as misogynist. The key to understanding the meaning of St. Paul 's frequently quoted passage is the later verse: "For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church." This, in fact, means the wife and husband are of the same flesh and value. He would value her and her preferences as he values his own. Thus, there is an equality in respect and love.

Parents Are Teachers of the Gift of Blessed Sexual Love

Parents have to be the main teachers of God's gift of human sexuality. This should be supported by clergy, clinicians teachers, etc. From early childhood to the teen years, parents and child caretakers should present this "theology of sexuality." The parents in word and action must first model this presentation. Use of crude words for body parts or the sex act undermines the holiness and sanctity of sex itself. It also bespeaks unbelievable hypocrisy. Any presentation of sexuality must be age-appropriate. Ordinary daily events give parents so many opportunities to discuss sexuality and its meaning.

For example, young children,are naturally inquisitive. Frequently they ask about the sexual organs. Instead of shying away from discussion, this is an opportunity for parents (and other appropriate individuals) to tell them these are gifts from God. Children ask about birth. They should be told age-appropriate and accurate information: "This is how God gave mommy the way to have your "little brother/sister born", etc.

Most importantly, never separate the explanation of sex from the love of God in terms of His creation and commitment to us and the creative act and commitment implied in the sex act within marriage. When family members are exposed by way of the media to sex that is devoid of God's creative love and commitment, parents can comment on it. Simple interpretive comments on advertisements can be very effective. When a suggestive ad on TV appears for example, a parent may comment: "Look how this ad is using that look (posture, etc). Where is the deep meaning and love they should have for one another as Christ had for us"? Comments do not have to be long and preachy. Children learn very effectively from short, pointed statements.

Use of analogy is also effective: "When we receive communion, Jesus is really in us. We would never defile Him or the chalice that holds His Precious Body and Blood. We should never defile the body parts that God gave us to share in His creation."

Frequently sex focuses on the "hedonistic", pleasurable feelings that accompany a sex act. This topic should also not be avoided but addressed. God allows us to feel pleasure. This is the way He made us. The acts that can produce pleasure can be either acts that help ourselves and others grow psychologically and spiritually, or that can enslave us and others in terms of ordinary human development: socially, occupationally, and spiritually. Pleasure blinds and enslaves us when we are motivated to act selfishly and not for the good and welfare of the other whom God asks us to Love. Pleasure as a result of a loving act can help and motivate us to continue sharing in God's loving committed creative acts.

In this context, parents and child caretakers can bring up other pleasure-centered activities that have similar consequences. For example, drugs can be used to heal, such as when recovering after surgery. Drugs can also addict, impede clear thinking, and prevent us doing well at school and our job. We become enslaved to pleasure instead of finding freedom in Christ's love.

The dignity and importance of the Christian vocation of parents becomes more meaningful after meditating on the beautiful prayer said by the priest as the married couple become "one flesh" in the Orthodox wedding service: "Unite them in one mind and one flesh, and grant unto them fair children for education in the faith and fear ... " Remembrance of this prayer may aid parents in remembering the reason for the spiritual depth of Christ-centered marriage and parenting. This is the sacramental grace and commission bestowed on the newly married couple by the Holy Spirit. At evening prayer a beautiful way to end the day would be for parents and all who work with children to say: "Come Holy Spirit, (unite us in one mind and flesh) that our children be educated in faith and fear. Strengthen us for our appointed service as (parents, grandparents, caretakers) of our children. Let the Love of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ impel us in all we say and do on their behalf".

Religious education training programs should have specific modules for dealing with issues of sexuality that will come up in the religious education classes for children at different grade levels. Directors of Religious Education and teachers ought to have specific training in the developmental stages of children and the cognitive processes employed by children at each age. Specific curriculum material can be developed appropriate to these stages and different thinking processes. As mentioned above, children sense that certain topics are not discussed and they develop the notion of the "attractive taboo." I am in no way suggesting: "how to do it" instruction that is so objectionable to many parents. Nor am I suggesting discussing instruction in preventing pregnancy. But if a student asks what a condom is, a teacher should not shy away from a quick Christian "theological" answer.

First of all, a general rule of thumb is not to assume any child knows what you know, but rather start by asking in a very direct and natural way: "What do 'you' think it is?" Younger children typically surprise teachers and parents by giving simplistic, sometimes "vanilla" answers. Older children are apt to have more accurate answers. In all cases, the teacher's response should be natural and theological (appropriate to the age-cognitive developmental level of the student): "God made the husband to use his seed with someone he loves and whom God has blessed in marriage ... Some men who are not married use condoms with a person God has not blessed them to be with."

Some God-blessed married couples may decide to use a condom temporarily, for a good reason, (e.g.: to finish a semester at college, move into a new house) and then fulfill God's will for them and stop using it so to have the children God wants them to have. Workshop training in this, wherein Religious Education Directors and Teachers can practice dealing with the variety of questions children of different ages and cognitive stages, is invaluable. It would be my recommendation that parents and clergy also participate in curriculum development and workshops. Lines of communication between parents, teachers and clergy are best kept open and the approach by all to this important issue integrated.

Clergy, as part of an adult education program in a parish, might want to include a section on the "Christian Theology of Sex." Any pre-marital instruction a parish priest has with prospective married couples should include Orthodox Christian Sexuality. This would include material discussed above as it relates to adults and how such material can be incorporated into children's religious education at home and at religious schools. Responsible religious education programs will include material interfacing what parents teach and model to their children at home about sex. Clergy should be knowledgeable and comfortable discussing the theology of sexuality with all parishioners. This would include taking into account differing ages, sex, marital status, and cognitive and emotional maturity.

With the continuing secularization* of our society it is all the more important that we put Christ and His teaching back into our lives, homes and society. Secular sexuality is proliferating. Often this secularization is insidious. It hides in the values that underlie how our society presents itself. In Bruce Almighty, a film released in 2003 a potential message of a life of meaning centered on God and the love of neighbor as the love of God, is negated by the main character living with his fiancé obviously outside of blessed marriage. The message is basically secular. As long as I am a good person, then I can act the way I want. The theme of Madison Ave is: eat drink and be merry for tomorrow you die. Acquire as much wealth and power and sex at any cost. Whoever dies with the greatest number of toys (material goods, power, sexual conquests) wins.

In the Funeral Service of the Eastern Church there is a beautiful Idiomela (hymn) by St. John of Damascus: "I called to mind the Prophet, as he cried: I am earth, and ashes; and I looked again into the graves and beheld the bones laid bare, and I said: Who is the king or the warrior, the rich man or the needy, the upright or the sinner? Yet, O Lord, give rest unto thy servant with the righteous." It is time for all leaders and healers to be zealous about developing an action plan to combat secular sexual proliferation and bring our lives, homes, schools and society back to Christ. We need to make sex and all our earthly life holy again.

Holiness in Marriage

Appropriate words to end this reflection come from St. John of the Ladder regarding married life. In his famous spiritual classic the Ladder of Divine Ascent, he likens spiritual progress as climbing the rungs of a ladder. It is not that anyone is either imperfect or perfect, rather we "strive" toward perfection, living our lives in a continual climb toward union with God. Stumbling on a rung is expected, and the ladder surely cannot be climbed in a single stride.

His comments on marriage then should be pondered: "Someone caught up in the affairs of the world can make progress, if he is determined. But it is not easy. Those bearing chains can still walk. But they often stumble and are thereby injured. ... The married ... (are) like someone chained hand and foot." At first glance St. John's words are quite pessimistic and would invite the same response from us given by disciples who witnessed the rich young man who rejected Our Lords counsel to sell what he had and give to the poor to enter the Kingdom of heaven: "When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said to them, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19: 25-26).

Marital Hope

St. John's hopeful counsel reads: "Do whatever good you may. Speak evil of no one. Rob no one. Tell no lie. Despise no one and carry no hate. Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies (italics mine- Gk: ton synaxeon - the Church assembly for the Divine Liturgy and reception of the Eucharist). Show compassion to the needy. Do not cause scandal to anyone. Stay away from the bed of another, and be satisfied with what your own wives (or husbands) can provide you. "If you do all this you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven" (italics mine).

Make use of the Church, as channel of blessings, sanctification, and healing. She, Christ's Body, is truly a "hospital" (Morelli, 2006, Vlachos, 1994, 1998). What better ending than to meditate on the prayer married couples should say together at the beginning or end of each day:

O merciful God, we beseech thee ever to remind us that the married state is holy, and we must keep it so; grant us thy grace, that we may continue in faithfulness and love; increase in us the spirit of mutual understanding and trust that no quarrel or strife may come between us ... for thou art our sanctification and to thee we ascribe glory: to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Dependency on God

St. Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Ageloglou, 1998) wrote: "We should do whatever can be humanly achieved; the rest which is beyond our power, must be left in God's hands." And the holy monk tells us again: " ... we must reject any form of worldly assistance or human hope and with a pure heart, unhesitatingly and trustfully devote our mind to God. Then, the grace of Christ will fill our soul at once." Spouses, and indeed all, married or single, will gain independence and salvation by dependence on God alone.

Source: http://ww1.antiochian.org/node/17964