When the Bible describes two becoming one flesh in the covenant of Christian marriage (Mark 10:8), what does that mean for us as individuals? Are we each supposed to shed our own identity and create a new “coupled” one? How should we reconcile God’s creative expression and purpose in forming each person uniquely in their mother’s womb with His design in the covenant of marriage?
Maintaining Your Identity in the Oneness of Marriage
I, for one, have never seen a healthy marriage in which the identity of each spouse is so tightly knit to the other, that their individual identities get lost or become unrecognizable. Marriage doesn’t change the fact that we each have our own longings, needs, and personal goals. It does not diminish our uniqueness. For a marriage to thrive, each spouse needs to cultivate their distinct self, while simultaneously loving, connecting, and building intimacy with one another. This is no simple task. It is demanding work! Marriage requires that delicate balance of growing individually, yet developing a deep and emotional closeness with your partner.
What guidance does the Bible give on this aspect of Christian marriage? Consider Paul’s description of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. He writes about a body made up of many individuals who operate together to live as a seamless whole; each part indispensable and necessary for its proper functioning. In order for the body to work, every part must fulfill its unique purpose and individuality, alongside the others doing the same. This is the same beauty found in Christian marriage: all the parts working together toward a common purpose or goal.
God’s Plan for Differentiation within Christian Marriage
Paul’s teaching to the Corinthian believers to “live as one body” may bring clarity to Jesus’ description of the “two becoming one” in Christian marriage. As we grow in intimacy with our spouse within the bond of Christian marriage, God continues to shape us into the person He designed us to be. The most robust, beautiful, and life-giving marriages are the ones rooted in a commitment to developing each individual, while also growing the relationship with one another.
According to Dr. David Schnarch, this process is called differentiation. It stands as the focal point of his book, “Passionate Marriage.” He describes differentiation as the process of becoming more yourself as you engage in relationship with others – particularly, your spouse. It is the act of balancing your drive to be with others alongside your drive to develop yourself as an individual. Differentiating is not meant to alienate us from our relationships. Rather, it allows us to deepen our emotional connections and simultaneously develop a whole and integrated “self-in-relation” that does not change as circumstances vary. Ultimately, differentiation is the process we use to smooth our “rough edges” to more fully become ourselves while strengthening our love for our spouse.
Schnarch says the word differentiation has its roots in the biological terminology used to describe the process by which cells develop. All the cells of an organism originate from the same matter. However, as the living thing grows, each cell takes on distinct properties in order to perform its “separate but related function” within the organism. Sound familiar? It’s just like Paul’s metaphor for the body of Christ, isn’t it? Schnarch adds: “The greater the differentiation, the more sophisticated and adaptive the life form” — implying that the more differentiated the organism, the more flexible and versatile it may be in adapting to challenges and changing circumstances.
A well-differentiated person does not depend on others for their identity. When facing conflict with their partner, the person who is well-differentiated utilizes their sense of self to negotiate the discordant views. In contrast, an undifferentiated person develops a reflective sense of self. By being unable to derive identity in self, they rather root it in the identity of others. This person seeks the validation of others to calm their disquieted sense of self. Schnarch describes that the person then “develops a contingent identity.” Individuals with these types of attachments struggle to understand themselves separate from their relationships. Often, they dread any emotional variation in their partner or fear changes in their relationship.
Christian Marriage Counseling for Differentiation within Christian Marriage
Unfortunately, there is no quick, easy path to differentiation. Learning to differentiate is a lifelong process, with eyes on the long-term goal of a healthy, fulfilling, life-giving marriage. It is nuanced, challenging, and at times filled with subtleties. It can require difficult decision-making.
If you have been captivated by this concept of differentiation and find it helpful, I would encourage you to explore it further with a Christian counselor in spokane. He or she can help you navigate complicated questions, like: How do I deepen my marital bond, while simultaneously becoming myself? How do I grow as an individual while living fully with my spouse?
Whether you are a newlywed looking to establish a good foundation or have been married for a while and want to cultivate a healthier marriage, a qualified Christian counselor can assist you in deepening your understanding of how differentiation impacts your marriage. He or she can offer the support and guidance that you seek.
“Passionate Marriage,” by Dr. David SchnarchPhotos
“Together,” courtesy of William Stitt, unsplash.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Enchanted,” courtesy of Annette Sousa, unsplash.com, CC0 Public Domain License