Four Pillars of a Marriage That Works

May 18, 2015

“Mawwiage is what bwings us together today. Mawwiage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam within a dweam.”  So declaims the Impressive Clergyman in the cult-classic, “The Princess Bride.”   But “mawwiage,” or rather marriage, is not a dream within a dream: it is reality. In an interfaith marriage, what do we need to do to keep our marital reality from becoming a nightmare?

In a word, a dreamy marriage is built on harmony in four areas. We call these the four pillars of a good interfaith marriage:  emotional harmony, intellectual harmony, sexual harmony, and spiritual harmony. Whenever any of these areas turns sour, the harmony of the entire relationship is undermined.

First Pillar: Emotional Harmony

Emotional harmony deals with matters of style—how individuals relate. While people will be different, and while the male and female gender are blessedly different, each partner needs to appreciate and respect these differences, and learn not to simply impose their own relational style on the other, nor to disparage a partner whose relational style differs from their own. One example: imagine a relationship between a shy and very “shut down” husband, and a wife who demands that he talk out his emotions and reveal his inmost thoughts every time there is an issue.  That might be her style, but if she demands that his style match hers, harmony becomes dissonance. Partners need to learn to appreciate each other’s style, as much as possible accommodate to that style, and not demand that their partner be exactly like themselves.  And it doesn’t hurt to experiment with modifying your style for the sake of harmony with your partner.

Second Pillar: Intellectual Harmony

Intellectual harmony deals communication on a different level—our thoughts, our ideas, and how we think and communicate about the ideas of others. This too calls for harmony. A marriage between partners where one is a high level conceptual thinker, and the other distrusts “fancy talk and fancy ideas” is likely to encounter trouble.  This is why it is generally good to seek a partner who at least finds your fascinations interesting. This doesn’t mean you need to be clones: but both partners need to respect and appreciate the intellectual world of the other.

Third Pillar: Sexual Harmony

Sexual harmony is also important.  This encompasses everything from the frequency of sexual contact, the nature of aggressiveness that one’s partner prefers both as actor and recipient, the activities that are acceptable and those that are off limits, and the level to which sexual activity is regarded as fun and healthy or perhaps as a burdensome expedient. Contrary to the messages we get from the common culture, sex isn’t everything:  but make no mistake, it is a BIG something. And when there is disharmony in this area, the entire relationship suffers. It is therefore crucial to reach some agreements in this area prior to being married.

Fourth Pillar: Spiritual Harmony

Finally, we come to spiritual harmony. This area is just as important as emotional, intellectual, and sexual harmony, but it is the most neglected.  One of the ways in which disharmony shows up here is when one partner is ardently spiritual, and the other is at best tolerant of their partner’s spirituality. Psalm 24 helps us identify four ways spiritual disharmony shows up.

Spiritual Harmony Disruptions: First Way

The Psalm begins, “The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” There is no meaningful difference between the sacred and the secular because God is the Creator of all there is. Sometimes the "tolerant" partner imagines that he [usually it is a he] will allow his partner to maintain her religious activities, which he views to be a corner of her life which he agrees to accept. However, it doesn’t work that way. Rather, for many spiritually motivated Jewish or Christian partners,  everything is God’s business because he is the Creator of all. Conflicts are apt to come up wherein the tolerant partner will say, “What does religion have to do with this?”  What he doesn’t understand is that for highly motivated Christians and Jews, everything is God’s business.

Spiritual Harmony Disruptions: Second Way

The Psalm goes on to state, “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?  And who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.”  For the spiritually highly motivated person matters of ethics and morality are highly tuned. This doesn’t mean that one needs to be religious to be ethical or moral, nor does it mean that all religious people are ethical and moral. Still, it does mean that generally, for the spiritually motivated person ethics and morality are important issues, and this is likely to become a point of irritation in decision-making with one’s non-religious partner.

Spiritual Harmony Disruptions: Third Way

The Psalm provides further light, saying, “Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.”  For the spiritually motivated person seeking the face of God is priority one. What does this mean? It means cultivating intimacy with God as we have encountered the Divine Presence, seeking to expand and preserve the subtle ways in which we believe we have encountered him, and to avoid those activities or influences that in some manner inhibit or quench this experience. Because such matters are very difficult to explain to someone for whom such experiences are foreign or perhaps illusory, the highly motivated partner’s insistence on priority one is sure to become a point of contention in the marriage, especially when children come along.

Spiritual Harmony Disruptions: Fourth Way

Finally, the Psalmist speaks of how all of these considerations are non-negotiables for the spiritually highly-motivated partner:  “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle!”  The God of the Bible comes to us as King.  For those who consider themselves his servants, his mandates are non-negotiables. Because we live in a culture that views personal autonomy to be some sort of Holy Grail, the idea that God comes to us as King is often viewed as primitive, unreasonable, and even pathological. Can there be any doubt that this consideration and how it makes the other spiritual factors we have named non-negotiables is apt to introduce serious dissonance into the harmony of “making sweet music together” when there is a significant difference in spiritual temperature between two partners? Don’t bet on it!

Toward a Resolution of Spiritual Dissonance

There are four solutions to these dilemmas that are usually attempted, but they are not equally desirable. [1] Ignore these things and expect love to conquer all. Although commonly imagined, this is rarely the case; [2] Have the spiritually motivated partner cool his/her jets, deciding to sacrifice their spiritual life to the priority of marital harmony.  In my experience, even the non-motivated partner will find this undesirable as stifling their partner’s spirituality is antithetical to the love they share together; [3] Separate or divorce. This is of course a drastic move, not to be undertaken lightly, and to be avoided if at all possible; [4] For the spiritually unmotivated partner to enter into a growth curve whereby he/she commits to learning more about and growing in appreciation of the partner’s spiritual commitments. As in the case of the spiritually motivated partner cooling his/her jets, this serves to move the spiritual temperatures of both partners to more equal ground, but with far more positive results.

While this approach may feel threatening to the unmotivated partner, it addresses the question which we at Interfaithfulness view to be an imperative for all intermarried couples: Considering our life situation what will it mean for me/us to grow in serving the purposes of God?”

It’s a good question to ask, and a crucial one to answer.


3 comments on “Four Pillars of a Marriage That Works”

  1. Excellent article, Stuart. As you know I'm a professional counselor, along with my other pursuits, and I do quite a bit of marriage counseling. This article is really helpful, including its final suggestion that the less spiritually motivated partner consider learning more about and appreciating his/her partner's spiritual commitment. The rub there is that the more spiritual partner often presents this option as a sort of divine mandate, a compulsion, rather than an open invitation. Also, at times the supposedly more spiritual partner is less developed in some important spiritual ways than the "unspiritual" partner. Still, you provide a valuable resource that should help in cases like this as well.

    1. Thanks for the response, Russ. I had trouble finding it, as I have scads of new addresses. I will in the future be sure to incorporate your suggestion about how the more spiritually motivated partner often presents the spiritual upgrade option as a sort of divine mandate. Of course that is true. And it is also true that "spiritual" people can lack sensitivity and balance their "less spiritual" partner has in spades. You have just improved my act.

      A video has already been done with your improvement not included. so when you see it on the site, don't think I am ignoring you!

      Thanks again.


      1. Good confirmation here. Rabbi Yitz Jacobs at Aish Hatorah had a class on these same principles, which I did attend.

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