Attitudes regarding marriage have changed. A recent article in a secular women’s magazine puts the matter in a nutshell: “Not so long ago problems were regarded by both a wife and her mother (to whom she was most likely to go with a marital problem) as natural and normal. (‘I had the same trouble with your father.’) Unhappiness alone was rarely justification for leaving a marriage. (‘He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t beat you, and he brings home his money. What else could you want?’)

“Most modern women, on the other hand, regard happiness as the principal goal of marriage. If they cannot find happiness with a man, they regard divorce as a reasonable alternative.”

Here is a problem: what exactly is “happiness,” “fulfillment,” “realizing one’s potential,” “having a full life”? God and Redbook may agree that marriage is supposed to help us realize our potential, but this will not mean much unless they have the same idea what “potential” is.

The “full life” through marriage can be envisioned according to at least three different models: the self-realization model, the contract model, and the one-flesh model.


According to this model, the ultimate point of marriage is to bring fulfillment to each of the partners individually. “Fulfillment” here means having interesting and exciting experiences. It means being loved and affirmed. It means having the freedom to “express” oneself, and to “grow,” and to be “creative.”

Reflecting about good reasons for divorce, marriage therapist Albert Ellis voices the self-realization model: “[The husband] may sense … that his wife hinders his and her growth and development by her tyrannical possessiveness. Or he may vaguely feel other qualities about his marriage, of which he is only semi-conscious, that actually constitute excellent reasons for his leaving it.”

In this view, marriage is soil. Its purpose is to help you grow sleek and wonderful, and to make you like yourself very much. If your marriage holds you back and makes you dull and grumpy, then it is time to shake the old depleted soil off your roots and repot yourself. Admittedly, the repotting may shock your system a bit, but it is hoped that in the long run you will be a more “fulfilled” person.

Of course, when the new soil, in its turn, runs out of nutrients, it will be time to start over again.

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A paradox sleeps in the bosom of the self-realization model. No love whose primary purpose is individual self-realization can be deeply self-realizing. It is self-thwarting to adopt fulfillment as the purpose of marriage and the criterion of success in it. You can never quite admit to yourself that you are really in this for its health benefits. You have to keep telling yourself you are in love, for otherwise you get only a very inadequate form of fulfillment.

For example, when you are getting repotted there is something you must be careful not to notice too clearly: it is that the present soil, too, may need replacing eventually. If you become too aware of this, it gets hard to suck the nutrients out of the present soil. If you want self-fulfillment from marriage, you need to think of marriage as something greater and more serious than a context for self-fulfillment.

The self-realization model of love is in the air nowadays, and even Christians who notice its incoherence may be influenced by it. We may find ourselves sizing up our marriage by the yardstick of self-fulfillment, and we may even be having thoughts of bailing out when we think our human potential is being stifled.

Marriage here has become a gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) form of mutual exploitation. There is no room for lifelong promises: If you are into marriage for self-realization, it makes no sense to promise to love and cherish your partner in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, until death you do part. If he becomes an invalid, that can put a cramp in the pursuit of your human potential. Or your mate may just become a dull person, or lazy; and then maybe a more exciting person will come along.

This is clearly an area in which the Christian is called to keep unstained from the world. When we find ourselves making individual fulfillment the bottom line for assessing our marriages, we can be sure we have been seduced by spiritual forces contrary to God and ourselves.

Marriage As A Contract

So the Christian wedding service introduces an element that bypasses the self-realization motive. It has the couple vow mutual faithfulness through whatever comes. It is not that you shouldn’t wish for individual self-realization; we would hope that some individual fulfillment is in store for you, and if it can be accomplished consistently with marriage, then so much the better. But the service serves notice: if actualizing your potential is your highest goal, we suggest you look for another way. In marriage you throw in your lot with this person. If he or she frustrates your own growth, you are still committed.

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Marriage is not like a business partnership—two people joining together for what they can get from it. It is communion, the formation of a stable personal bond. But to give the bonding some teeth, marriage does have a contractual dimension. When it is working right, this produces a dimension of commitment. Before the congregation the couple declares their intention and takes a solemn vow that they will love each other.

These days many couples write their own wedding services, sometimes from scratch, sometimes by modifying a traditional service. Some of this just personalizes the service. But what often gets left out of customized weddings is a couple’s promise to love one another until death them do part.

This is a symptom of ambivalence; we want to go through the wedding service, all right. We are not content just to live together with our fulfillment in view. We sense there is something unfulfilling about being so casual. We are looking for the deeper bond. But still we are not ready to promise. We know the dangers of commitment and are realistic about the prospects. And so, being realists, we just scratch out the harder promises in the service.

The contract model is more courageous and more realistic about human nature. The writers of those promise-laden wedding services knew something about human fulfillment that seems to have been forgotten by the pushers of self-realization. They knew that if you remove from marriage the element of commitment, with its potential for the sacrifice of the individual’s self-realization, you also deprive it of its power to fulfill those individuals in the way that only the bond of genuine love can do.

One Flesh

But, truth to tell, a nobler reason than any we have mentioned is often given for deleting the promises. Aren’t promises out of place in a love relationship? Isn’t a contract the wrong kind of glue for binding two people in a marriage? Shouldn’t that be a spontaneous, natural, living thing?

Couples today are critical of the highly ethical marriages that seem to have been the norm a generation or so ago. There was a strong sense of marital “duties” and a strong ethic of sexual fidelity. Each was there whenever needed by the other. It was fulfilling enough to contribute their part to the stable and stabilizing social arrangement of marriage. But missing was a sense that Mr. and Mrs. Barnes were in love, that they delighted in one another’s company, that they were real companions to one another.

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It is surely in part the desire to avoid this “externalism” in their own marriages that leads many younger couples to adopt the ideology of self-realization. Our argument, however, is that this is the wrong road to take, and that Christianity, with its “one flesh” model, has all along had a deeper understanding of marriage.

It is inadequate to think of marriage as a forum for individual self-realization, and to think of it as merely a covenant to stick it out to the end. The contract view is in some ways nobler than the self-realization view, but both see the parties basically as individuals who come into a more or less external relationship with each other. Both give far too little credit to God’s desire that the couple become a new communion.

Christ loves his church, says Paul, not as a group of people external to himself with whom he has entered into an agreement, but as his own body. And similarly, God intends for a husband to love his wife and a wife her husband, as extensions of themselves. We do not usually have to promise to look out for our own interests in the daily affairs of life. We are deeply enough disposed to do so anyway. In the same way, in Christian marriage the promise to love one another until death us do part ideally becomes superfluous as the bonding between the two grows and deepens.

The illustration of being “one flesh” that most readily comes to mind is the relationship of parent and child. Being a parent extends your vulnerabilities and joys. When the child is sick, you are sickened; when he is threatened, you are threatened to the depths of your being. And similarly, the child’s joy is your own: when your kid hits a homer, it is even better than hitting one yourself.

We all have a vestige of the one-flesh concept of marriage, even if our thinking has been secularized. This comes out when a couple we know well gets a divorce. Unless they have been very obviously alienated from one another, we perceive them as bonded, and so when they divorce, each looks like a sundered, incomplete individual. We say, “Hi Joan. How’s …?” We catch ourselves, and we have an impression that the divorce means not just that Harry is no longer a “part” of Joan’s life, but that this is not quite the old Joan, either. A dimension of her has been amputated. The personality-inheritance of an era in their history takes on an aura of death.

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To be one flesh with another person, in Paul’s spiritual sense, is to see that person, quite naturally and without effort, as an extension of yourself. We rarely see this in marriages. It is far more common to see mutual tolerators and coping cohabitors—and, moving toward the less humane—competitors, adversaries, enemies. But every now and then we do see a couple who seem to have become one flesh.

Scenes From A Marriage

To get a clearer view of these three conceptions of marriage, let us take an episode common to the lives of many couples, and see how it would look in each kind of marriage. The partners have different desires regarding a vacation trip. Roger’s idea of the perfect vacation is three weeks in Toronto: one week at a philosophy seminar, one week doing research at the Pontifical Institute, and one week visiting philosopher friends. Marilyn has a different idea: a week and a half in Toronto visiting art galleries and viewing films, and a week and a half at the lake, water skiing and lying on the beach.

Self-realization. Because of the demands of their jobs, Roger and Marilyn do not see much of each other during the normal course of their lives, and so they were hoping this vacation might be an opportunity to “renew acquaintance.” As it became clear that they had different notions of what kind of vacation would fulfill them, they began to see that if they took their vacation together, one or the other would be “stifled.”

But at least their preferences overlap for a week and a half in Toronto, so that during that time they can be “together”—which is to say, in the same city. She can go to the galleries while he is at the seminar or doing research, and they can sleep together. During the other week and a half they go their separate ways. After three weeks, they drive home together.

Contract. Roger and Marilyn are committed to taking their vacation together—not just sleeping in the same hotel room after all-day separation. Their different interests pose a problem, but they are willing to “compromise,” to give and take, to “sacrifice” for one another and for the marriage. Roger doesn’t feel he will be “stifled” if his vacation lacks full intellectual stimulation, and Marilyn does not resent too much a loss of self-fulfillment in missing the art galleries and films and water skiing.

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So they compromise: Saturdays are spent at the beach, with Marilyn’s face toward the sun and Roger’s in some dusty tome under the umbrella. They do some cafe-hopping with Roger’s intellectual friends, while Marilyn mostly watches the weirdoes on the street, undistracted by the talk of politics and philosophy that hardly interests her. On Tuesdays, when admission is free, they go to the galleries, where Roger browses dutifully, gritting his teeth only a little, and living in hope of closing time.

One flesh. Like the Roger and Marilyn of the contract version, the couple committed to the one-flesh marriage are bent on taking their vacation together, and they connect this commitment with remembering their vows. But their notion of “together” is richer. Being together does not just mean spending time in the same physical vicinity. Ideally, it means sharing activities that are characteristic of themselves in their unique individualities. It means getting significantly into each other’s lives.

It means embedding their bond in the larger common bond of the kingdom of God, and thinking of the diversity of their activities as under the impetus and limiting of Christ’s will. In this case, Roger’s efforts at being together with Marilyn involve trying to see her not just as an individual with some needs to be met, but as a child of God who in a very special way is an extension of himself. So if she likes galleries and movies, he seriously tries to “get into” going to galleries and movies.

He does this for her sake, but the more she becomes an extension of himself, the more it is for their sake. Her efforts at being “together” with him are not just efforts to resign herself to his love of intellectual pursuits and altruistically to give him room to engage in them. They are efforts to enter into his world, to see things from his perspective, to see and hear with common eyes and ears, to share his interests, joys, and concerns. He seeks to learn art history from her, for instance. She tries to get to know his friends, and to enter, as she can, into their discussion.

Marital Self-Realization

Becoming one flesh does not happen on the wedding day (or night), nor is the process very likely ever to be complete. It is a calling of Christian couples, a destination toward which they ever travel. Even in the best marriages it remains a challenge and a goal for creative efforts. But for those of us on the way, how can we foster our growth as couples, a growth that makes the promises superfluous because it achieves their intention so perfectly?

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Paul says, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Subjection to one another can take many forms: learning from one another, honoring the other’s desires even when they conflict with your individual preferences, working alongside the other in an apprentice capacity. But in all cases, this subjection bonds the couple together only if it is a spiritual subjection, an honoring of the other, in his or her individuality, with time, attention, efforts to understand and enjoy. It is an exercise of humility in which you set aside yourself for the moment and become absorbed in the activities, interests, and abilities of your spouse.

For a fully mature bond, this subjection to one another must be mutual. Thus, you learn together, and your capacities and activities intermesh so as to make a co-unity, a single working, playing, thinking, feeling unit that in the deepest sense is a couple—that is, two persons who have been coupled by this common history. Repeated acts of humility toward one another have a powerful bonding effect over the years.

Paul says this subjection to one another is to be “out of reverence for Christ.” The subjection of wife to husband or husband to wife is not to be absolute. One is not to enter into the other’s life in anything that is inconsistent with Christ’s will. So Bonnie and Clyde could never qualify as realizing the Christian “one-flesh” ideal—and less extremely, no couple who are not honoring Christ in their union can have achieved this special kind of human fulfillment.

The communion of “one flesh” is nested in the communion of the church, whose head is Jesus. And this means the new marriage self that will emerge over the years as you submit to one another out of reverence for Christ will be distinctive. Its activities and concerns will be shaped and styled by their larger context, which is the kingdom of Christ.

Even in secular marriages, we sometimes see what a powerful bonding effect it has for a couple to have some common goal that is beyond the narrow context of the marriage—a political cause, a project of art, a business. Christians have such a “common cause”—the greatest and most perfect that can ever be—built into their marriages. The Christian Reformed wedding service says, “The purpose of marriage is the propagation of the human race, the furtherance of the kingdom of God, and the enrichment of the lives of those entering this estate.”

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“The enrichment of the lives” of husband and wife has been the subject of this article. If our argument is correct, the fact that the marriage communion is nested in the communion of those seeking God’s kingdom is a very important basis of that enrichment.

The Bible’s vivid metaphor for the marriage bond, that the two become “one flesh,” ought to be the guiding idea for our thinking about marriage. Our selves are brought to realization in and through this most intimate of human bonds. The vows are in the service of this “self-realization” and are really a promise to pursue the “one flesh” goal with all seriousness and concentration. Ideally, the marriage reaches a state of maturity in which the promises are no longer binding—not because what is promised ceases to be incumbent on the couple, but because their own union is so complete that the promises, as bindings, fall down loose around them.

Robert C. Roberts is professor of philosophy and psychological studies at Wheaton (Ill.) College. His wife, Elizabeth, is a homemaker and former teacher.

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