Scripture on Marriage: Rediscovering God’s View
The Bible says that when two people come together in marriage, they become one flesh (Mark 10:8, NIV). Does this mean that we are to abandon our personal identity to live as one with our partner in Christian marriage? Does God – who formed each of us uniquely in the womb – really wish us to give up our individuality when we enter into the covenant of marriage?
I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a healthy marriage in which each spouse’s identity is so tightly wrapped up in the other spouse that they lose their individuality. We are all unique, each with our own goals, wants, and needs—and getting married doesn’t change that. In a healthy marriage relationship, both partners must develop their unique selves while also loving and connecting intimately with each other. This is no easy task! Marriage is a delicate balancing act of growing into yourself as an individual, and bonding deeply and emotionally with your spouse.
How does the Bible support this view? Perhaps Paul’s metaphor of the body will help shed some light on the unifying bond of Christian marriage. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains that, though they are a fellowship of many individuals, believers are to live as one body. If the body were just one element – say, a foot – it would not function very well. To work properly and beautifully, the entire body must come together as one, with each part maintaining its individuality and purpose (1 Cor. 12: 12-31). Indeed, the body of Christ is comprised of many parts that work together toward a common goal.
Differentiation and Christian Marriage
Maybe Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians to “live as one body” can help us to clarify what Jesus meant when he said “two become one” in marriage. I would suggest to you that God wants us to become more truly ourselves as we cultivate intimacy with our spouse in Christian marriage. The most beautiful and fruitful marriages are ones in which both spouses commit to developing themselves as individuals while growing in relationship with each other.
Dr. David Schnarch calls this process differentiation, and it is the centerpiece of his marital help book Passionate Marriage. Differentiation is the process of becoming more yourself by engaging in relationship with others – and in particular, with your spouse. It is the act of balancing your drive to be with others and your drive to develop yourself as an individual (55). The process of differentiating does not alienate us from others, but deepens our emotional connections and allows us to develop a whole and integrated “self-in-relation” that does not change according to circumstance. Ultimately, differentiation is the process by which we grind off our “rough edges” and become more fully ourselves while also strengthening our love for our spouse (51).
In Passionate Marriage, Schnarch outlines the etymology of differentiation. The word comes from biology and refers the process by which cells develop. All living cells originate from the same matter, but over time they differentiate—that is, they take on individual properties and each cell “performs separate but related functions.” Sounds a bit like Paul’s description of the body, doesn’t it? Schnarch adds: “The greater the differentiation, the more sophisticated and adaptive the life form” (62)—meaning that well-differentiated life forms will have a greater versatility in responding to challenging circumstances.
Well-differentiated people do not rely on others to determine their identity. When they are in a relationship, well-differentiated persons are able to navigate conflicting views with their partner because they are grounded in their sense of self (55). Those who lack differentiation, however, will develop a reflective sense of self, which means that undifferentiated people root their identity in others rather than in themselves. The undifferentiated person needs validation from others in order to be at peace with his or her own self. When this happens, he or she “develops a contingent identity” (59). People who form these kinds of attachments cannot understand themselves apart from their relationships; consequently, they will fear any changes to the relationship, and may even dread emotional changes in their partner.
How Christian Marriage Counseling Can Help You Differentiate
Differentiation is not a step— it’s a process, a lifelong goal. It is hard work, and differentiating will require you to make difficult decisions. It is not an easy route to healthy marriage—but it is the best option, and will ultimately lead to better, more fulfilling life with your spouse.
Differentiation is also a nuanced process, and it can be challenging to understand the subtleties of differentiating in marriage. How do you become yourself while also deepening your bond with another person? How do you focus on personal development while living fully with your spouse? These are complicated questions without easy solutions. If you find the concept of differentiation helpful and interesting, a Christian counselor can help you explore this idea in greater depth. If you are just starting in your marriage and want to set out on the right foot, or if you have been married for years and are looking to develop a healthier marriage relationship, a qualified Christian counselor can provide you with the guidance and support you are seeking.