Why Men and Women Fight, Part 9.1: The Meaning of Marriage

The Religion App 1.1

The sub-culture of the particular religious communities in which partners were raised can put pressure on a relationship, especially when the partners respond to their religious education in different ways. When a couple feels constrained to conform to their conditioning, they can get caught in emotional reactivity and automatic behavior, rather than choosing freely what might work best.

The Meaning of Marriage

Often times, people point to religion to provide the reason for marriage, although those reasons may differ. In our Western culture, the meaning of marriage is changing and can threaten a coupleship when each enters the union with differing views about that meaning.

The way an individual views marriage usually includes a combination of factors including, 1) the religious or sacred meaning of marriage; 2) the social meaning of marriage; and 3) the personal meaning of marriage. Conflict can result when one partner believes in one view while the other believes in a different one.

The Sacred View

In the sacred view, marriage and family are founded by God and governed by religious leaders and institutions. People who hold primarily to this meaning tend to believe that personal desires (such as money, attraction, and personal satisfaction) are secondary to God’s will and purposes. Whether you marry, whom you marry, when you marry, how marriage should be lived out, and under what conditions it may end are all based in religious law. People who view marriage this way tend to see their conflicts on a right-wrong axis, and they often take their problems to clergy for resolution.

The Social View

In the social view, a marriage is primarily the business of the family and the community. Rather than religion, the rules and desires of the family and community govern who should marry whom, how they should live, and whether or not a particular marriage should end. Family property, lineage, race, religion, and ethnicity are all important considerations for marriage in this view. The bride and groom are obligated to parents and to the extended family, even more than they are to each other. Couples who differ on this view can come into conflict when extended family obligations are impractical (an incompetent oldest son takes over the family business, for example), or when they lead to emotional distance (such as when the family business prevents a father from being physically or emotionally engaged with his family).

The Individual View

In the individual view, religion and communal supports are diminished, and emotional and interpersonal satisfactions come to the fore. Happiness and personal fulfillment dictate whom to marry, how a marriage should operate, and under what conditions it may be terminated. The authority for making these choices isn’t God, clergy, family or community, but oneself.

This view is becoming more prominent—to the horror of those who more purely espouse one of the other views. Although the individual meaning of marriage increases the stakes of the emotional commitment, it minimizes the external commitments, requiring that the individuals team up to create a climate of care and support—or suffer the possibility of dissolution.

The Personal Growth View

I propose a fourth view of marriage: seeing partnership primarily as a vehicle for personal growth, and only secondarily as a vehicle for personal fulfillment. When a couple can use their conflicts to become more and more differentiated, which indirectly creates a climate of personal satisfaction and mutual support, long-term fulfillment is the inevitable by-product. In the end, everyone wins.

Understanding the Other

These views need not be mutually exclusive, and they don’t need to create irreconcilable conflict, although they can do just that when spouses adopt all-or-nothing attitudes about their differing views. If couples can try to understand their own and their partner’s beliefs, remaining open to changing their own values and to being tolerant of differences of opinion, it’s possible for a couple to integrate the meaning they each make of the marriage.

Sometimes marriages can function without conflict about their views of marriage until one or both partners shift their views at a critical turning point in their lives, perhaps after the death of a parent, or when the climate of the marriage creates an overload of stress on one partner, or when a life stage produces internal chaos between one’s pseudo-self and one’s solid self.

To Be or Not to Be Understanding…or Together

One couple I worked with divorced because his conformity to her insistence that he convert to her religion eventually made both of them so resentful of the religious sacrifices they made for one another that they couldn’t sustain the relationship. Their daughter became the most unfortunate victim of two pseudo-selves wrangling over religion.

Another “religiously disparate” couple I work with is thriving, partly because he refused to sacrifice his own values when her family insisted that she break up with him because he didn’t share their faith. Two years later, she decided she had to make that decision for herself, so that she wouldn’t resent her family for making her choose against her will. She decided to marry the man, and to wrestle with the conditioning of her youth, rather than make him the sacrificial lamb to her fears of losing the approval of her parents. It’s been an intense internal wrestling match for her, but it’s her responsibility to fight it, rather than to force her husband to sacrifice his solid self for her. She is valiantly confronting the “tyranny of the shoulds” conditioned into her brain by strict religious training. Wherever she lands will be because she has challenged herself to grow up and become her own person.

Religious conditioning is so powerful that most adults either adopt the faith of their youth or simply let it fall to the wayside, rather than adopting another. People whose religion is a high value do best when their partners share the same religious standards; even a slight bit of difference in religious beliefs can create huge rifts in a relationship. The more solid the individuals in the relationship, the less their religious differences tend to divide them.


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