There are two sinful extremes to which we often go when it comes to the degree of intimacy/closeness/connection we share in our marriage. One one end is a wife being enmeshed with our husband (or “codependent”) and on the other end is a wife being distant, unplugged, passive – maybe even cold. (Husbands do these things, as well, of course – but I am writing for wives.)
Yes, marriage is about oneness. But we need to understand what that means – and what it doesn’t mean.
Oneness does not mean a sick relationship where there are no boundaries between individuals and people try to be responsible for other people’s emotions, feelings, and decisions rather than for themselves. It is not about us controlling other people and getting them to do what we want them to do. It is not about self. It is not primarily about our feelings. The goal is not our temporary happiness. It is not about constant and uninterrupted verbal/emotional contact. The goal is holiness, unity, pleasing God, and blessing our husbands.
In godly oneness, each spouse is competent and whole spiritually/emotionally and free to make his/her own choices.
Each spouse knows he/she is responsible for his/her own emotions, spiritual growth, decisions, sin, and obedience to God. They are fully dependent on Christ to meet their deepest needs, not each other. Jesus is the priority far above the marriage. They understand the sufficiency of Christ and can be content whether they have their way or not. They make lots of time to spend privately with God. They abide in His Spirit and His Word. He gives them the power they need to be godly people and spouses. They each long for God’s will to be done far above their own will.
If a girl’s family had improper boundaries, or she felt responsible for things that really only the parents should have been responsible for, or she felt that she had to be the “grown up” and there was much dysfunction – that daughter may grow up thinking that enmeshment is “normal intimacy” and may get very upset when her husband doesn’t allow her to control him and is repelled by her attempts at smothering him and and violating his boundaries.
He will interpret her trying to be enmeshed with him as intrusive and oppressive control, not intimacy. She will feel that her husband is rejecting her love, but it is really her lack of respecting his boundaries, his free-will, and the feeling of being controlled that he rejects – not real love.
I am using the “psychology terms” just to give us a way to describe these situations that are unhealthy where people are overly attached or try to be overly bonded and overly responsible for others – or where a wife tries to control her husband (of course, sometimes it is the husband doing the controlling – and that is an equally destructive problem, too).
What is going on here in spiritual terms – I would say – would be idolatry of our husbands/marriages/romance/connection, a lack of trust in God, a lack of understanding of free-will, and a lack of understanding of God’s sovereignty.
This is where we have self on the throne of our lives and/or another person, our feelings, or marriage/emotional intimacy with our husbands on the throne of our lives. Or we may also have people’s approval as an idol – something we value more than Christ in our hearts. These idols are not generally conscious. We don’t purposely worship them or bow down to them. We may say we believe in God and trust Him – but what we say doesn’t match up with how we live and our subconscious motivations.
When we ask God to help us evaluate our priorities, our greatest desires, our biggest fears, and how we actually live – He can help us see the idols in our hearts. John Calvin said, “the human heart is an idol factory.” We can make almost anything more important than God in our hearts and turn it into an idol – trying to find our security, identity, contentment, purpose, and fulfillment in that thing rather than in God. We are not fully submitted to Christ as Lord of all in our lives.
If my husband, his attention, his approval, his affection, his romantic gestures, my personal happiness at the moment, my having my way, my being in control, etc… are the most important things to me… my priorities are out of line with God’s commands for me. He must be the absolute most important thing/person in my life. Period. If I am looking to something else other than God and trusting something besides God, I am an idolator. Idolatry is serious sin in God’s eyes. Just read the Old Testament and see what became of people and nations who engaged in idolatry. (Verses about idolatry)
Generally – the signs that I have idols in my heart will be things like – great worry, fear, and anxiety. I do not have God’s peace and joy. My motives are fear-based and my sinful nature is in charge of my life as I try to control things over which I actually have no control rather than my understanding where my responsibilities end, where other people’s and God’s responsibilities begin, and trusting in the sovereignty of God.
Emotional/spiritual intimacy in marriage is not about violating healthy boundaries with my husband.
Healthy intimacy in marriage is not about me taking over my husband’s decisions and his free will and trying to force him to submit to me. It is not about me having self on the throne of my heart and expecting my husband and God to bow to me (which is what I unknowingly did for many years.) It is also not about him taking over my free-will and trying to force me to submit to him. It is about each of us having the space and freedom to make our own decisions, to have our own thoughts, to have our own lives and interests – and it is about our ability to freely allow each other to draw near and pull back in safety. There is a bit of distance in a healthy marriage that is lacking in a codependent/enmeshed marriage.
To a wife who thinks that being enmeshed = intimacy, it can be terrifying for her to give a healthy amount of space at first.
She will probably feel that she is being unloving. She may feel that healthy space = doom to the marriage and that her husband will go farther and farther away and stop loving her if she gives him that kind of room. She may feel that constant attention, tons of time together, constant communication, affection, and frequent sex are gifts of intimacy. (She will likely measure her husband’s “level of love” for her by these yardsticks and find him to be lacking – she is insatiable. No matter how much time, attention, and affection her husband gives, it is never enough when he is her idol. She is expecting him to meet the deepest needs of her soul that only Jesus can meet.) She may have a tough time understanding that her husband may need some space to think, to breathe, to be himself, to make his own decisions, and to be a man – and that space she gives him is a gift. To her, space is punishment – not a gift. So she can barely bring herself to give him the space he needs so that he can love her in a healthy way. Unfortunately, a wife who believes space is always a punishment and who will not give the gift of space and freedom will sabotage her marriage and her desires for real intimacy.
Thankfully, she can learn to give a healthy amount of space and that will actually draw her husband closer to her – not in a sick way, but in a godly way.
Healthy intimacy looks and feels a lot different from sick intimacy and it looks a lot different from one spouse being emotionally unplugged and shut down. It is kind of like having your husband at arm’s length and holding his hand rather than having your hands around his neck and your nose one inch from his nose trying to dictate what he should do in every situation. But it is not about unhealthy amounts of distance that some spouses give to each other out of fear, shame, bitterness, or resentment.
You might be surprised, like I was, when I found out that Greg always felt connected to me – even when we weren’t talking and even when we were not together physically – unless I was being disrespectful or I said I felt disconnected. I have learned to rest in God’s love and Greg’s love and to enjoy feeling connected to them both all the time – regardless of circumstances.
A healthy marriage has interdependence, not codependence:
Interdependence means – (from www.dictionary.com) the quality or condition of being interdependent, or mutually reliant on each other: Globalization of economies leads to an ever-increasing interdependence of countries.
Countries can be interdependent on each other and work together as a team. But they still have their own borders, boundaries, and their own rulers who make decisions independently for those countries. Yet, at the same time, they try to cooperate with other countries to accomplish a greater purpose and good.
For a wife who was trying to be enmeshed, healthy intimacy is letting go of micromanaging and controlling him. It is allowing him to make choices and to disagree with her without freaking out. It is being vulnerable and not trying to protect self (unless a husband is involved in major unrepentant sin, true abuse, or is mentally unstable, high, or drunk – then a wife does need to protect herself. This post is not for wives in such situations). There is just the right balance of freedom, interdependence (rather than codependence), affection, connection, and space. Not too much space. And no one is trying to control the other spouse. Both spouses feel loved and respected. There is closeness at times, but not in a way that makes either spouse feel oppressed or smothered. And there is distance at times – but during the times of distance, the spouses rest in their love and respect for one another and know that they are still connected.
For a wife who was too far away – she will need to move toward being closer and getting more adjusted to sharing time, affection, space, and attention with her husband. She may feel a bit too smothered at times – and she may have to adjust to more closeness than she would like – as she and her husband try to find the right balance of closeness and space. There is always dying to self for each of us – we give up our will for God’s will and to bless our spouse.
We tend to overcompensate too much at first many times and swing too far one way, then too far the other way, but, in time (with God’s Spirit’s help) – we can learn to do this in a healthy way! The right balance may be different in different seasons of the marriage. This will require sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, to our husbands, and practice.
Help us to learn to have the right balance of closeness and space in our marriages. Open our eyes to any sin in our lives and deliver us. Let us repent in godly sorrow and be filled with Your Spirit to walk in obedience and holiness in Your sight. Help us to cling tightly to You and to honor You and become more and more the women You desire us to be for Your glory!