Problems in Marriage

The predominant myth is that romantic love, "true" love, almost always hurts and is based upon the false idea that each partner should derive his/her sense of emotional well-being from the other. Thus, the relationship often becomes very angry, controlling, and blaming. This is the "I-can't-live-without-you-baby" syndrome (variations: "He-needs-me" and "It-hurts so-good"). Such relationships usually involve very unhealthy behaviors--such as addictions of all kinds, immorality, lack of stability, etc.

Source: Orthodox America

The old model of marriage and family life, with a man and woman coming to the marriage with a reasonably well-developed sense of both their own personal identities and the roles they will play as husband and wife, mother and father is now collapsing in Western civilization. The 50% divorce rate in our society is proof of this. Effective parenting also seems to be disappearing, and appropriate bonding between parents and children takes place less and less. Marriages in which both partners are integrated personalities who encourage each other to grow and develop to the fullest, are becoming rare in the mad dash to combine having children, lots of money, and careers (spirituality often gets completely overlooked in this bizarre formula).

In part this is because the last few generations have derived almost all they believe about love and marriage not from the Church, the Gospel, or the pulpit, but from Hollywood films (and the private lives of the stars) and especially from the lyrics of popular music. A number of thoughtful commentators on the modem Western psyche and its culture have observed that our twentieth century views of “romantic love” may even become a threat to our mental and emotional well-being. The predominant myth is that romantic love, “true” love, almost always hurts and is based upon the false idea that each partner should derive his/her sense of emotional well-being from the other. Thus, the relationship often becomes very angry, controlling, and blaming. This is the “I-can’t-live-without-you-baby” syndrome (variations: “He-needs-me” and “It-hurts so-good”). Such relationships usually involve very unhealthy behaviors–such as addictions of all kinds, immorality, lack of stability, etc. When such relationships consummate in marriage, as they often do, they are unhappy and frequently do not last.

We are not saying there is no such thing as real and healthy love. The Gospel speaks of several different kinds of healthy love (each of which is defined in Greek by a different word). Eros or erotic love is only one of these the least important–but it has become the main ingredient in today’s myth of “romantic love.” And it is causing us a lot of trouble.

The whole concept of “romantic love” is relatively new on the scene. It first appeared in the West about five hundred years ago, at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance, “when civilized societies first found enough spare time to indulge in flowery prose” (“What is Love?” Time, Feb. 15, 1993). Scientists are now beginning to discover that there may be more of biology than poetry in purely romantic love. Genes, chemicals in the brain, imprinting through psychological experiences–all of this creates the overwhelming “feeling” of what we call romance or eros, the feeling of being “swept off our feet” and wanting to swiftly merge (both physically and emotionally) with the object of our desire. The problem is that we want to make eros more than it is, or was ever intended to be. This is the “old man,” the unredeemed nature, of which St. Paul speaks. Revelation, on the other hand, calls us to something higher, something more permanent. And it is the duty of the priest to raise the understanding of his flock—especially those contemplating marriage-~to this higher level. 

From the Christian standpoint, which is founded on the life, example and message of Jesus Christ, the other forms of love–which are not based on feeling but on consciously chosen values and behaviors—must begin to develop quite early in a relationship if the marriage is to grow. These other kinds of love derive from principles of self sacrifice agape–and companionship—phileo. Although most successful marriages incorporate a certain element of eros, it is ultimately not the most important component in a life-long and happy marriage. Contrariwise, where individuals cling to the myth of “romantic love,” disaster is not far behind. Because of the prevalence of this and other wrong ideas and unhealthy behaviors, priests should ask couples to commit to engagement periods of some length, with extensive pre-marital counseling wherever possible.

It sometimes happens that a marriage begins to founder because a sexual dysfunctionality such as impotence, frigidity, or even disinterest manifests itself. There may be both physical and emotional reasons for such a problem. It is the responsibility of the pastor to encourage both spouses to obtain appropriate medical/psychological help so that this natural part of married life might be healed and restored. Occasionally, however, the problem cannot be resolved, or becomes permanent due to illness or surgery. In such a case the priest must guide the couple to see that the will of God is in this, too; they should be encouraged to remain together and enhance the other kinds of love in their relationship. 

The increased divorce rate is not to be looked for in social pressures as so many including Churchmen now contend. The cause is personal and moral. With a claim to complete personal gratification and with a set of expectations about what life should hold out it is hardly surprising that the realities are a disappointment and that people find it difficult to co-exist at close quarters in relationships where a high level of personal sacrifice is essential to success.

Edward Norman “Freedom in an Age of Selfishness” in Intercollegiate Review, Spring 1993.


Of course, few would want to return to the marriage folkways of the old world with its arranged marriages even though these were based upon a mutual community of interests rather than on the idea of purely “romantic” love and “fizzling chemicals” in the brain. (There is a surprising amount of evidence that such marriages were often more functional and stable than our modern marriages.) But because modern marriages are so often based upon unhealthy ideas about marriage, they become breeding-places for serious disorders. Thus, when the tires of eros begin to subside, as they are programmed by nature to do, other problems, which were masked by the first flushes of romance, emerge. Sexual addiction, although not limited to those who are married, is an extremely destructive problem. Priests know that young people who have become addicted to masturbation, prostitutes, or the “free-love” atmosphere of our society (in spite of the threat of AIDS) are sometimes unable to shake off this preoccupation when they get married, preferring auto-eroticism or the elusive “other” partner to the rich and full experience of the marriage bed to which they made a commitment. This often leads to related addictions such as pornography. Television talk shows today sometimes glorify auto-eroticism as the ultimate in “safe sex,” thus unnaturally separating sexuality from love, communication, companionship, and personal spiritual and emotional growth.

The sexual dysfunctionaltry of many people in our society both men and women–has been veiled by an intense and permissive atmosphere of sensuality and sexuality of all kinds. The Church’s ancient teaching that personal happiness comes, in part, from the discipline of all appetites, has never fallen on more deaf ears.

Self discipline and delayed gratification – elements which are common to all successful marriages (or even just happy and productive people!)–are no longer highly esteemed values. Where they are not consciously esteemed, they are not taught. The primary vehicle of all values is the family (secondarily, the Church). Therefore, when loving and healthy values are not modeled for children by their parents, these values are doomed to extinction.

The question of birth control in marriage is essentially a question of value, of self-discipline and obedience to the will of God. More and more priests are encountering engaged couples with no intention of having children after marriage–or at least they want to postpone it indefinitely. This creates a conflict, for in the Sacrament of Matrimony the priest prays for abundant offspring for the couple as a sign of God’s blessing! It is surely rank hypocrisy to pray for this blessing when the couple have no interest in having children! [1]

It is often the case that the arrival of children is artificially delayed for so-called “economic reasons.” But these are not always valid. Sometimes they have more to do with a chosen and self-indulgent “lifestyle” on the part of the parents than with real economic considerations. Because life is always a gift of God, the Almighty “Lifegiver,” married couples should consult with their priest about the question of birth control. It is the priest’s task to act as a mirror to the couple, showing them where they may be acting out of pure selfishness, and where not. Similarly, a couple thinking about artificial means of conception (as opposed to contraception)–“test tube” babies, artificial insemination, etc–must take counsel with their priest. It may be God’s will that the childless couple should adopt.

The Church’s standard, being the standard of the Gospel, is higher than that of the world and the medical/scientific community. For example: today we often hear it said that no child should be born who is unwanted. On the surface, this sounds “good.” But the standard of the Gospel is higher: all babies, regardless of the circumstances, should be both wanted and loved! It is a subtle but important difference. And it’s the responsibility of mature Orthodox Christian men and women to develop the capacity to make this distinction. Powerful grace to do this is given abundantly in the Sacrament of Matrimony itself, if only couples will avail themselves of it. Abortion for any reason, even in the case of a physically or genetically deformed baby in the womb, is the sin of murder, and is so proscribed in the canons of the Church.

The question of remarriage (after divorce or the death of one spouse) is related to the subject of discipline and the providence of God in our lives. As a compassionate concession to the weaknesses of human nature and our God-given need of companionship, the Orthodox Church will allow, under certain circumstances, up to three marriages. But the Church should be cautious when divorcees want to remarry. Having already experienced one failed relationship, the Church is not over-anxious to bless what may become a second (or even third) failed marriage–with all of the possible consequences to innocent children.

In the case of widows and widowers, the Church is more indulgent. But among the generations of pious old-world Orthodox it was not uncommon for one who had been widowed (especially if the children were already grown), to prayerfully plumb the providence of God to see if it would be better to enter monasticism or give oneself over to a life of service instead of trying to form a new companionship in this world. Here, too, the prayerful guidance of the priest can be helpful.


[1]The Orthodox patristic teaching about marriage maintains that sex within marriage has multiple physical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions having to do with the mystery of marriage and God’s loving providence for us. Therefore, the conception of children (or the inability to conceive) is the will of God for that particular couple. By definition, God’s will can never be cruel or arbitrary, but is the exercise of His infinite wisdom and providence.


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