Marriage as Survival: I marry in order to stay alive.

This post is a continuation of thoughts I began to develop in posts on December 6 and 13 of last year (2007)

Are you aware of how your survival issues impact your marriage?

For most of human history the main goal of marriage was survival. The survival of individuals, the survival of clans, the survival of empires. Marriages were, thus, arranged in order to address survival needs. Romance was a luxury of the elite and, even then, was something one got from a tryst, not from one’s spouse.

With affluence, survival needs fade in to the background. Or perhaps I should say that physical survival needs fade in to the background. No one in the USA has to marry in order to keep from starving. (Physical survival can still be in issue in marriages involving physical abuse, but that’s a different issue.)

So, marriage may no longer be about physical survival, but it is definitely about emotional survival! And I THINK I’d say that these usually revolve around self-esteem needs, though I’d like to hear your point of view on this.

Here’s a list of some typical emotional survival needs that can get mixed up in the choice of a spouse:

  • “I can’t believe this former cheerleader is attracted to me!”
  • “Finally, sex without guilt.”
  • “My family might be happy if I choose him.”
  • “I feel safe when I’m with her.”
  • “She really admires me!”
  • “With my help he’ll be successful (and then I’ll feel successful).”

Most couples certainly come together based on the genuine and positive characteristics each sees in the other, but underneath the surface there is always a quiet negotiation around the issue of survival. A mature marriage emerges when each person identifies and takes responsibility for his or her survival needs. In a mature marriage, each person is committed to personal growth. In an immature marriage, each person is trying to find ways to get the other to meet his or her needs.

In religious or spiritual language, this places marriage, potentially, in the category of “idolatry.” An idol is anything to which we take our anxiety that has no power to heal our anxiety. Idols may have the power to soothe us or distract us, but they can never transform us. And if we are to give any credence to the great religious traditions of the world (not just Christianity), then we “know” that we are all idolaters.

To be a bit transparent here, I’ve known for a long time that I have a deep need to be “seen” and admired. Put any personality inventory in front of me, and I’m going to score high on the narcissism scale. Its something that I joke about, but it has taken me years to realize what this emotional need of mine — this idolatry — has meant for my marriage. I’ve spent tremendous amounts of time learning what this means for me as a therapist, but not nearly enough time learning what it means for me as a husband. Consequently, I’ve made it very difficult for my wife to have a relationship with me. Rather than relating to my wife as the unique person that she is I’ve spent far too much time relating to her as though I’m entitled to have her admiration. It hasn’t made for a particularly healthy connection.

So, if you buy in to my assumptions, then most of us marry in order to find something that is missing within us. Its not just about that. The more mature a person, the more he or she is going to connect with another based on who the other actually is, but I assume that almost no one in the first half of life has reached that level of maturity. For most of us, marriage at least begins primarily as an idolatrous, survival oriented, experience.

If you’re marriage is less than satisfying to you, here’s a few questions:

1. In what ways does your marriage kick up emotional survival issues for you?

2. In what ways have you taken responsibility for your own survival?

3. In what ways have you tried to make this your partner’s fault?

4. What did you learn about marriage and survival from your parent’s marriage?

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About Wes Eades

I've been a pastoral counselor, marital therapist, and overall listening ear since about 1989 or so.
This entry was posted in Marriage, Spiritual Formation. Bookmark the permalink.

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