Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Married singleness

I am auditing a class at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando for the next several days on Couples Counseling. I wanted to get some focused training to become a better counselor for engaged and married couples at my church. I'll try to post a blog each day to reflect on a key concept I need to process further.

Perhaps the most important concept I took away today was this: Many of the marriages represented in the church today are what the professor termed "intact but drifting marriages." These are the couples who, though married, live on parallel tracks. (I have often called these people "married singles.") They live under the same roof but live as singles, with separate hobbies, separate passions, separate communities, separate jobs, separate ministries, and separate visions for their future.

What makes helping these couples difficult is that they will say their marriage is good. They have adjusted to the low level of intimacy they experience and get along with each other. They take care of business and keep things running. They are often quite involved as volunteers in the church. Divorce would not even be in the vocabulary of these couples. Yet as Wallace Stegner writes in Angle of Repose, "It is a bruised and careful truce; we walk in bandages and try not to bump our wounds.”

When couples like these come for counseling it is often because the husband says his wife is depressed; or the wife says her husband is having a mid-life crisis; or both of them say they are having problems with their kids. The real problem is their own loss of intimacy with each other and with God. But they don't recognize it.

One thing I thought was especially interesting is the idea that these couples have chosen married singleness instead of facing the chaos of relationship and the mystery of their partner. It's a lot easier to establish parallel tracks instead of facing our resentment toward our spouse, or our broken dreams about what we expected marriage to be, or our anger at our spouse's sin. It's messy and threatening to express negative emotions to our spouse. So what many people do is bury those emotions, silently come up with a contract to co-exist peacefully, and seek deeper intimacy in other pursuits or people.

It made me wonder, how many of the married couples in the typical evangelical church -- in MY church -- are "intact but drifting"? How can we help them if they don't see the truth, wave the white flag, and seek help? In our small groups and elsewhere are we picking up the warning signs and, like a surgeon, probing down to the heart of the matter to help bring healing and wholeness to these marriages? I'm wondering if we even perpetuate the problem by being content to "do church" without taking the time to expose the disease at the heart of so many marriages. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I think it's hard to pick up on warning signs when couples are married singles. They either don't know, like you said, or won't tell anyone about it because it's not what the "Christian" marriage "should" be like. It's easy to act as if everything is okay.

My husband and I are dealing with this right now, and it's not easy. But we're willing to go through the crap and probing of the heart to not live like singles under one roof anymore. It's awful living parallel lives. I hate it. It's also hard to change, but worth it. It's worth going through the hard stuff to not be married singles anymore.

There are probably tons of people in evangelical churches who are "intact but drifting". I think the church should definitely take the time to expose this disease of the heart. I could change many marriages for the better.

James Sutton said...

I'm not married but I'm working on it.

Among other things that means that I'm reading and thinking more thoughts about marriage and what it means to be married than I ever have before.

I think what you've described is a legit problem. HOWEVER, I think if youre going to understand how to help folks that are there you've got to figure out how it is that they got there.

I mean I don't think people get married in that state. My fiance and I are certainly not there ... yet. BUT I think I could see very easily how we could get there.

Here's how I think it works: A couple has a similar interst. For example ... um ... gardening. They both become passionate about it. Their passion drives them to have some serious opinions about what should be done with that garden. Often these opinions are different. If these differences are not expressed in a healthy manner destructive conflict can follow. One or the other of the couple withdraws from the activity and goes off to scratch that itch somewhere else.

All that's to say, that on the surface it might look like "married singles" are people who don't enjoy the same things. However, it might be that they DO enjoy the same things -- in fact they enjoy them so much, they want those things all to themselves. If they can't have them ... well then fine. You keep that hobby and I'll go do something I can enjoy by myself.

The issue then is why can't they enjoy the thing that they enjoy together.

I think the reason for that is sin.

I'm a selfish, prideful, arrogant, wicked, angry man. If you're around me long enough -- eventually you're going to get tired of my junk. The same is true of anyone.

Therefore the solution is Christ alone. If you don't build your marriage on him ... I think you're either doomed to live out a marriage that's a shadow of the true relationship marriage was meant to be, or ... well, what are divorce rates up to in America?

Okay ... you asked for thoughts. There they are ... unedited and off the cuff. I don't know how valuable my opinion is given my lack of experience ... but that's what's great about the internet! Any idiot can potentially have their thoughts zapped into billions of homes across the planet!

Mike said...

Thanks, almost-married man. Good thoughts. You've outlined one scenario, and I agree, the problem could be a passion the husband and wife have in common but which becomes the wedge driving them apart. I've seen this happen, for instance, when a couple tries to run a business together, and they end up making each other crazy. (Pastors and their wives often let their love for the church come between them.)

However, in my experience the more common scenario is when the husband and wife do not have and have not even tried to develop a shared ministry, interest, or hobby. Right from the get-go, they are off doing their own things, meeting for sex and whatever else has to be done to keep the household afloat. Babies come along, the bills have to be paid, trouble hits, and there are not enough points of contact in the relationship to keep it glued together, so drifting ensues.

James, you & your fiancee are doing a good thing tending a garden together. Now, just don't let your scenario happen!

Anonymous said...

This subject you have written about has "hit the nail on the head" in my opinion! I don't know what other marriages are like, but I can definitely see my husband and my relationship together in the description you have written about. In our case, I don't think we ever truly learned to become "one" when we were first married. Some married couples may have started out in their marriages with a strong union and common interests to begin with. For others (as in our case), the process of becoming one never really got off to a great start. I think it is safe to assume that many married couples today feel lonely in their marriages and almost as if they are indeed "married singles". If this silent scenario exists in numbers along the lines of epidemic proportions, then I firmly believe that this "disease" needs to be addressed within the church community...the sooner the better! Many marriages would be blessed by the focus and encouragement of the church in guiding and supporting a more thriving and intimate relationship with one's spouse! The pressures of life today are enormous, especially for married couples who are in the difficult years of raising families. I, for one, am desperate inside to find a way to connect more with my spouse and establish a more intimate and loving relationship, much the way I believe God originally intended for it to be!

Mike said...


Thank you for your honest comment. You are not alone, and there is help available. I have a few ideas for you and your husband:

1) Contact me through our church website, www.upc-orlando.com. I'd be happy to meet with you and your husband.

2) There are good Christian counseling centers all over the place, and I could refer you to one. My wife & I have had a good bit of marriage counseling and it gave us such help and hope! If you live in central Florida I'm a big fan of Grace Clinic. Visit www.graceclinic.org for information.

3) My wife & I once attended a Marriage Encounter weekend and it helped us learn ways to avoid married singleness. Visit www.marriage-encounter.org for more info.

4) Family Life is an organization affiliated with Campus Crusade for Christ. They hold "Weekend to Remember" conferences througout the year in various locations. Many couples have been able to start all over again because of these conferences. Visit www.familylife.com for more info.

5) I'll be praying for you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your helpful suggestions! It's helpful for others to be aware of the many resources available for married couples, as you have listed. I will definitely look into several of those options!

Anonymous said...

I am looking forward to reading about all you have to say about this. I have known for a long time my husband and I are drifting in differernt directions. I bet its been literally years since we have talked about anything other than our children and our job. Its sad really. We dont fight, we dont talk.

THe man I married was kind and sweet and shy. Now he is emotionally abusive and unfaithful. Yet I stay. worrying more about what others would think if they knew.