Too Close for Comfort



“The discretion of a man defers his anger; and it is his glory to pass over a transgression” (Proverbs 19:11). 

“A soft answer turns away wrath: but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). 

“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).

“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end…. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:1-5).

During the course of our marriage one of the more embarrassing revelations of myself is the level of insecurity I feel when Robyn disapproves of a choice I have made. I get mad and unsettled when she is mad or unsettled – sometimes even when it has nothing to do with me. I then go through a whole series of rationalizations – both internal and external in an effort to refute her displeasure. I think I am re-establishing my secure place with her (usually by trying to prove I was right) when in truth I am fortifying a pattern of behavior that needs to be demolished.

There are times when I am “too united” to Robyn, though it is not a real union at all. Marital harmony is not to be confused with uniformity and enmeshment. In its truest form, marital unity is grounded in our differences and the fullness we can bring to one another out of those differences. When I am too attached to Robyn I take too much ownership for her feelings, both the negative and positive. Do you see how that is a reflection of my self-orientation? The result – I cannot fully hear her heart because I am too emotionally attached; my defenses are too reactive. My identity is muddied by her approval or disapproval (By the way – my relationship with Robyn is not the only place where this misplaced identity is found. I do it with you too.).

Jesus modeled for us the reality that the more independent we are the more capable of loving we become. That sounds odd doesn’t it? Wasn’t Jesus the model of selflessness and love? How can I say He was independent? Wouldn’t it seem that becoming more independent leads us in the opposite direction of the Christian standard of union in marriage – “… and the two shall become one flesh…” (Genesis 2:24)? How can I be fully united to Robyn while being fully autonomous?

“Apples and oranges.”

Of course it is true that I am called to “give myself up” for the sake of my marriage (Ephesians 5:1, 21, 26). The only way Robyn and I can come to a place of harmony is for us to mutually sacrifice and join ourselves to one another. But to achieve this denial and union there must be a kind of “holy separation” between us. When I reflect on the times she and I function in disharmony it is largely due to one or both of us being too attached to what the other is saying. Reconciliation begins to occur when we become less reactive (more independent) to one another.

Think about it this way. If Robyn cuts her finger I will respond to her pain with emotional empathy that moves me to assist her in “stopping the bleeding”, but I will not bleed myself. I will not flinch and pull back from the pain she is uniquely experiencing. Why? Because we have “separate” central nervous systems. Imagine what it would be like if we felt every ache and pain our spouses experienced – not to mention our children, close friends and others we serve. We would experience a physical and emotional overload. As important as empathy may be (and it is important), it is equally important for us not to get “triggered” by the thoughts and feelings of one another. Getting triggered or reactive is a sign that I am “too close”.

I think Jesus was an expert at achieving this balance. When He was tempted in the wilderness, He was so in tune with the Father that He felt no need to go on and on in deflecting Satan’s attacks. He simply yet firmly said, “It is written….” He did not see these accusations as challenging to Him because He was infused with power from the Father and He knew who He was. He was “separate” from the temptations and the one who stated them. In John 13 (quoted above) it states that Jesus was empowered by the Father, knew where He had come from and where He was going. He was not reliant upon the status others would impart to Him. Therefore, He was able to take the form of a servant and wash the feet of His disciples. He called us to do the same.

There will be times in marriage when we can hear our spouse as the accuser or as the confused disciple (Peter) reacting to what he thought he understood. If we are too close it is likely we will respond to such things in sharpness, retaliation and arrogance. But if we hold firm to our identity as empowered disciples and confident children of God we will respond to one another in the calmness indicative of mature love.

Lord, may we ever find our identity and rest in you. Give us the type of independence that allows us to respond with grace not aggravation; stillness not worry; true empathy not people-pleasing. All this that our marriages may be a place of safe union and point to your kind of Love. Amen.

Further reading: The Missing Piece Meets the Big O by Shel Silverstein


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