God of the Living

Sermon on Luke 20:27-38

Psalm 145: 18-20 God is righteous in all God’s ways and loving in all God’s works. God is near to those who call upon God, to all who call upon God faithfully. God fulfills the desire of those who fear God; God hears their cry and helps them.

Introduction

The excitement of the holidays is upon us!

However, if you feel anything but excited and more exhausted about now, I don’t blame you. I feel it. While I love the descent of cold weather and the pep that returns to my step, October’s close ushering in November brings with it the weight of another year nearly gone. I tend to roll into November like Santa rolls out on December 24th: carrying sack upon sack of all that has been created over the past months. Sadly, unlike Santa, I’m not distributing these “goods” and making things lighter. I’m storing these “goodies” for myself, my weary shoulders and back—and it feels heavy right about now.

I know it might be social conditioning, and I know nothing magical happens on January 1st, but there’s still something profoundly psychological that occurs in my inner world on 1/1. Bundled in the blankets of coldness, crispness, and bareness, there’s so much newness embedded into that day. Like a clean and clear canvas, the upcoming year lays out before me beckoning me to paint anything anywhere. By the time I hit November, I’m squinting my eyes, pallet knife in hand, looking to peel back layers of paint sloppily placed sometime back in June or maybe it was that spill in April?

I go through the motions, lumbering from one day to another murmuring like a Zombie. Instead of “brains” it’s something about “Friday” and “after Christmas” and “next year.” In other words, I’m trapped in the routine of duties and obligations, demands and deadlines, days in and days out. I’m the walking dead among the living, unable to summon myself out of it, dependent on whatever reserves of energy I have left, and growing too comfortable with the heaviness of existence and the powerlessness to do anything but give in to death’s bony claim on my life.

Luke 20:27-38

And Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and are given in marriage, but the ones who are deemed worthy to happen to be at that age and of the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. For they are not able to die still, for they are equal to angels and they are children of God, being children of resurrection. And that the dead are being raised, Moses made known on the basis of the bramble, as it says, ‘The lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ Now God is not of the dead but of the living, for to [God] all people are living.”[1]

Luke 20:34-38

Luke introduces us to a new religious group strolling temple grounds: the Sadducees. They differed from the Pharisees in the content of their ideology—they denied resurrection,[2] spent their time among the aristocratic of the Holy City, were a bit more conservative,[3] and adhered to Torah above all other writings.[4]Yet, they shared some characteristics: a preference for power, privilege, and elitism.[5] They, like the Pharisees before them, attempt to ensnare Jesus in an intellectual trap cloaked under the façade of an appeal to marriage and resurrection.[6] Their recourse through Moses, though, reveals their trap; the real crux of the question: do you, Rabbi, faithfully follow Moses?[7]

Jesus’s not-so-subtle answer? Uh, yeah, I do. Jesus’s oh-so-subtle question back: Is it about obeying Moses or understanding Moses?[8]The thrust of Jesus’s answer to the Sadducees anchors the discussion about marriage, being given in marriage, and resurrection in a right understanding of Moses and the Scriptures. it’s not about obeying what was; it’s about stepping into what will be. Starting off with a comparison of two ages (this age and that age, literally: τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου and τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου, respectively), Jesus makes a distinction between those who are stuck in the present order (this age) and those who are alive in the eschatological order (that age).[9] In other words, are you following in the ways of the kingdom of humanity or are you following in the way of the reign of God?[10]

The clues are in the language Jesus uses to speak of marriage, and it’s the clues that are lost in our translation. The Sadducees use language of “take” to speak of marriage (λάβῃ/λαμβάνω, I receive/take). We get lost in this text because of our conception of what it means “to marry” which carries with it—mostly—ideas of mutuality and equality. But the Sadducees are saying that this one man was given this woman to be his wife and then when he died the subsequent brothers then took her. They then appeal to the resurrection—something they do not believe in—to ask Jesus, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Jesus’s reply indicates that their question is absurd, and they do not understand Moses or resurrection.[11] You do not see that you are stuck in this age and blind to that one.[12], [13] Jesus flips the language back on them, it’s in this age that human beings are taken and given as if they don’t matter;[14] but in the age of God, no such thing happens because they are children of life and not of death and do no perpetuate systems treating human beings like belongings.[15] In that age, no one owns this woman as an object; she is alive and not dead.

In this way, Jesus affirms resurrection from the dead not only as some future eschatological, end times fulfillment of all things, but as something that occurs now. Now, God is not of the dead but of the living, for to [God] all people are living.[16] According to the trajectory of Jesus’s logic here: those who die in God—Jesus’s ancestors—transition into God and thus they live because God is not the God of the dead but of the living, for God is not dead but alive. (Is not the substance of God love, and is not love living and not dying?) God is the source of all life and if the source of all life; all those who transition into God live.[17]

If in death we are alive in God through transition into the liveliness of God, then how much more should we be alive now? [18] As those who participate in God from this material angle, should we not also participate in life and not in death? [19] Shouldn’t we live with faces turned toward possibility, brazen with the bright sunlight of what will be rather than with strained necks looking backward, spines broken by weighted burdens?[20]

Conclusion

Back to the introduction.

We confuse survival mode for living. It’s not living. This is the tragedy of our moment in time; are any of us really alive? Living? And by this I do not mean “are you pursuing your passions?” or “calling”, for such language brings condemnation to already burdened bodies. What I mean is: are you here, right now? Can you breathe…deep? Can you look forward and see others or are you straining to look backwards refusing to let what is be what was? Would you see a shooting star in the night sky or are you busy looking down? Have you already succumbed to death? Are you, like me, the walking dead?

Our fears turn us in onto our own ego. Not only the feelings of guilt that overcome many people in their fear of death do this; other forms of ‘cares, grief, and personal woes’ can also hold us hostage and take complete control over us. We only become free in looking away from ourselves, which always means also leaving one’s present [curved in] situation.[21]

Right now, I need interruption. I need the trajectory of my material form altered. I need something that’ll call to me causing me to harken to it. I need to be beckoned out of myself. If anything is going to change for me at this point in the year—under the weight of these burdens—it has to come from the outside. In this way, as simple and pedestrian as it may sound, I’m dependent on an encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the story of God’s profound love for the cosmos thus for me, for you thus for me that I’m transported out of death and into life, out of this age and into that one. Truly, I cannot resurrect myself from this walking-deadness; I must be resurrected. I’m caused to stop, listen, see, hear, to turn and look by a humble proclamation of love so grand. In that moment I gain life because I gain a moment and in that moment is God; wherever life is there is God, wherever there is God there is love, and wherever there is love there is life.

So you, too, beloved, need to be interrupted to gain life, to be called into life out of death so that you can live now in God, by faith in Christ and in the power of the holy spirit and then live again in God, with those having transitioned into God before us. Shema, O Israel, the God who loves you is life.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 234. “For the sake of his Gentile readers, he explains that the Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection. On the matter of the resurrection, Jesus agrees with the Pharisees, who do believe in it. So the Sadducees are questioning both him and the Pharisees.”

[3] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 521. “I said that the Sadducees were the priestly party of the aristocracy, even more conservative than the Pharisees, who were the priestly party of the middle class. It was through their conservatism that they didn’t believe in resurrection, for they accepted only the first five Books of the Bible (the Pentateuch), and in them the concept of resurrection does not appear, for it is a late concept in the Bible. Politically they were allied to the Romans, and they were the most strongly opposed to any messianic movement of the people that would endanger their privileges.”

[4] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 718. “The Sadducees, known for their emphasis on the Torah, attempt to set Jesus up; appealing to Moses, they concoct a scenario that, in essence, requires to answer the question, Do you follow Moses?” See also fn2.

[5] Green, Luke, 718-719. “Members of the Sanhedrin and their agents have been shamed and confounded into silence (vv 19, 26), leaving an opening for some Sadducees to engage Jesus in discussion. This is our first introduction to the Sadducees in the Third Gospel, but from an historical perspective this is not surprising. Sadducees, after all, exercised their aristocratic influence in the Holy City. Surprisingly little is known of them, undoubtedly owing to their loss of position following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Josephus observes that they had the confidence only of the wealthy, and this comports well with their appearance in the Third Gospel at this juncture. Luke has and will continue to represent Jesus in controversial encounters with those of highest status in the city, and this would include the Sadducees.”

[6] Green, Luke, 717. “Within this co-text, however, it can hardly be read as anything but a further attempt to ensnare Jesus by embarrassing him before the people. The artificiality of the question is suggested, moreover, by its absurdity…”

[7] Green, Luke, 718. “In fact, the staging of this scene indicates that the real issue at stake is one of scriptural faithfulness, and then authority to interpret Scripture faithfully.”

[8] Green, Luke, 718. “The Sadducees are not the only ones to cite Moses, however; so does Jesus. The baseline of Jesus’ answer may be surprising to his audience but harmonious with a central sense, he turns the question away from obedience to Moses to one of understanding Moses. Who interprets Moses (and the Scriptures) faithfully?”

[9] Green, Luke, 720. “Fundamental to Jesus’ first point is his contrast between two sorts of piety, two aeons, and two forms of practice vis-à-vis marriage.”

[10] Green, Luke, 718. Scriptures are read with the right perspective, they are not self-interpreting. “As he lays it out, this perspective is an eschatological one, one that takes into account the presently unfolding purpose of God, and that generates in the present both faithful interpretation and faithful response.”

[11] Green, Luke, 721. “Jesus thus underscores the absurdity of the Sadducees’ question by undermining its major premises. The scenario they had painted has failed, first, in its perception of the nature of the age to come. Second, it fails to account for the reality that the age to come impinges already on life in the present.”

[12] Green, Luke, 720. “The Third Gospel often depicts persons, both male and female, as ‘sons of…,’ not as a matter of literal descent but as a way of denoting their character, their behavior. One sort of person is thus orientated toward ‘this age,’ with its concerns for status honor, relationships of debt and reciprocity, and the … .) The other group consists of ‘those who are considered worthy of a place in that age….’ The apposition of the two expressions ‘this age’ and ‘that age’ assumes a division of time into two aeons, the present age and the age to come.”

[13] Gonzalez, Luke, 235. “A better interpretation is simply to say that Jesus is arguing that the conditions of the present age do not obtain after the resurrection. The question, ‘Whose wife will she be?’ ignores the radical newness of the coming kingdom. There are many similar questions that have no answer (and that are similar to those that the Corinthians seem to have been asking, and to which Paul responds in 1 Cor. 15)… Jesus does not attempt to answer such questions, but simply calls his listeners to trust the God who has made all things, and who will make the kingdom come to pass.”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 235. “An interesting note having to do with marriage is that Jesus says that in the new order people ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage.’ For a woman to be ‘given in marriage’ implies subjection to others: the father who gives her, and the groom who takes her. In an order of peace, justice, and freedom, people are not ‘given’ to others.”

[15] Green, Luke, 721. “Although typically represented as passive verbs, the instances of the two verbs translated ‘are given in marriage’ (NRSV) actually appear in the middle voice: ‘to allow oneself to be married.’ The focus shifts from a man ‘taking a wife’; (wv 28, 29, 31) to include the woman’s participation in the decision to marry. This is important because the basic concern here is with a reorientation of human relations through a reorientation of eschatological vision. One sort of person is aligned with the needs of the present age; such persons participate in the system envisioned and advocated by the Sadducees, itself rooted in the legislation governing levirate marriage, with women given and taken, even participating in their own objectification as necessary vehicles for the continuation of the family name and heritage. The other draws its ethos from the age to come, where people will resemble angels insofar as they no longer face death.95 Absent the threat of death, the need for levirate marriage is erased. The undermining of the levirate marriage ordinance is itself a radical critique of marriage as this has been defined around the necessity of procreation. No longer must women find their value in producing children for patrimony. Jesus’ message thus finds its interpretive antecedent in his instruction about family relations of all kinds: Hearing faithfully the good news relativizes all family relationships …”

[16] Green, Luke, 722. “At the close of this argument, Jesus uses a clause, ‘for to him all of them are alive,’ meant to serve as a basis for his argumentation. …Instead, in some sense, these texts affirm, these persons are given life by God, Luke has already provided insight into the nature of resurrection life in his earlier reference to Lazarus, who was carried away by angels to Abraham (who is still alive[!]….”

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 235. “Having responded to the objections of the Pharisees, Jesus counterattacks with his own argument: Moses says that God is the God of his ancestors and, since God is not a God of the dead, but only of the living, this means that for God those ancestors are still alive.”

[18] Cardenal, Solentiname, 523. “OSCAR: ‘Yes, I agree with that, too, because I’m beginning to think that to be able to rise again you ought to begin to rise now in this life, first. In order to be able to have the hope of resurrection, I say, of God. But if you die in selfishness, what hope do you have!’”

[19] Cardenal, Solentiname, 521-522. “I: ‘For the Jews, and for Christ, there was no distinction between soul and body, as there was for the Greeks, who said that the soul came out from the ‘prison’ of the body. According to biblical thinking, resurrection, if it existed, had to be complete and material.’”

[20] Cardenal, Solentiname, 525-526. “I: ‘Also, Yahweh told Moses (when Yahweh appeared for the first time in history) to tell the people that Yahweh was the God of their forebears, of their past, of their history; Jesus is now saying that the people of the past continue to live, because the God of history is also God of the future. To be alive for God is to be alive for the future.’”

[21] Dorothee Sölle The Mystery of Death Trans. Nancy Lukens-Rumscheidt and Martin Lukens-RumScheidt. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.

Dear Charlotte…

The exchanges of words built by a love so sublime

of two people placed and locked in quondam time;

love seemingly capturing you both by such surprise,

caught by shock …Suddenly!… I can only surmise.

In any other time and place, under another circumstance…

If things were even a bit different…what a splendid dance!

Yet had that been the case,

would you now be in my space?

Would you then be speaking to me of this difficulty?

Unknowingly provoking profound emotional faculty!

Had it just been so run of the mill—

falling in love and having your fill—

would you catch so many gazing eyes,

asking their human hearts to recognize

the difficulty of the complexity of being

human, one to one, supple hearts beating?


This story that I read, of you two,

renders the concept of Love anew.

Love is not bound by signed contract and written pledge,

or bound tightly by the unyielding thread of its selvedge.

Love refuses cessation in its fervent active liquidity,

flowing where it will and can with liquid rapidity—

never stopping, never ceasing,

always growing, always increasing.

(Like a mother bearing into life not one child but two

her love did not split and halve but doubled and grew.)

Love is more than a choice, and seizes us sudden,

ignoring our blind-eyes and claims of “forbidden!”

There is no way that Love as a force can be hemmed in,

not even by vows uttered within marriage’s fencing-in.

Through you two I see that love renders us utterly human,

unable to control and choose where love anchors in union.


There’s so little that I get to know

of the depth of the dialogue, the low

of frustration of burgeoning isolation

in the small distance of separation

existing between two bodies of flesh,

never to mingle, never to mesh.

The ache of desire streaming out from your heart,

taking what you had—could get—but still, the smart

of the pain of that ever very small distance

erecting profound walls enforcing resistance…

But again, there’s so little I can know about

what happened in the times not written out…

did the ethic of love you two crafted and wrote down

keep in place—holding—when you were out of town?

Please forgive my audacity of this intrusive interrogation;

it’s not mine to voyeuristically solve the remnant equation.


I know more the emotional trials and tribulations he went through,

but little I’m given of the extent of what his decisions did to you.

The idea, his mostly, dropped as from divine lip,

and into it assumed you would simply fit and slip.

Dictums masquerading as choices for your consent…

Never minding the environment of potential discontent?

The threat of loss, of heart broken, his presence never again held…

reduced apparent selections to one, options were withheld.

When in love one does what one has to do to stay near

to the one whom one loves and considers so dear.

How often did your heart secretly confess in the middle of the night

that none of this was the way it should be, that you should take flight?

Did you ever script a “Dear Karl” letter only to tear it from piece to piece?

Did you muster courage for “Goodbye” but stumbled over the first griece?

Love’s great venomous bite renders hearts, minds, and bodies paralyzed,

forcing yield to the warm toxin flowing causing action to be unrealized.


Navigating the path you walked—trying again and again to make the best

of a situation that shouldn’t have been but yet it was…the distinctest—

was never going to be without great discomfort for all three hearts involved.

(She Loved him, he loved her and Loved you, you Loved him, nothing solved.)

Not to mention the tension and frustration existing between Nelly and you,

even in times of relative ease and tranquility, the triangle would never do.

My modern eyes gaze upon her situation and swear she should have just

left him, packed up, moved, walked on claiming new ground to readjust

and be with one who could love her in the way she so deserved

rather than sit and watch him keep his love only for you reserved.

But it is unfair of me to cast such an out of context gaze and sling

my hypothetical expectations for a woman of whom I know nothing.

I wonder about those momentary quiet times between you and her,

how often you saw—deep within—the pain she had to quietly endure.

You were the chosen one, the desired, the beloved,

and she the left, the deserted, haunted with unloved.


So many roam the earth swept by the wind of love’s door reclose’

even those wedded and coupled feel that lonely and cold repose.

But you had that true love, the stuff of wishes and prayers, dream and desire

The kind of love that ignites all the senses, sets the entire body ablaze like fire.

You were never his worst mistake, his regret, and never his shame;

you were his joy, his pleasure and love, in substance and in name.

The two of you stumbled into something of profound transcendence

the divine substance poured out through Love’s supreme eminence.

The ease you moved about each other, the fluidity of words

spilled forth, the vibrant energy between each body towards

the other, and the depth of comfort with each other you both found

is the divine knot of love’s string tying hearts together forever bound.

Even if these meager lines are styled so simplistically,

organized and written to you, Charlotte, anachronistically,

I want to (wish to?) say thank you for your humble witness

to Love’s rupture drawing us in to its radical subversiveness.


Inspired by Christiane Tietz’s biography, Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict.

Projection and Distortion, more from David Schnarch and “Passionate Marriage”

The following excerpt from David Schnarch’s “Passionate Marriage” caught my eye as I was reading a couple of days ago. The chapter is “Your Crucible Survival Guide” and the section is Holding onto Yourself Requires an Accurate Picture. The quote starts on page 333 of a 408 page book, this means that when something catches my eye as I’m trucking through to the end, it’s significant. A concept, statement, or thought, has to be so substantial as to still my quickly moving eye. The following quote is one of those concepts/statement/thought. (Bold is mine.)

We all have distorted views of our own lives–it’s part of being human. We develop ways of stringing together events that are plausible and give them particular meaning. Sometimes we create overly bland pictures of our childhoods; other times we may overemphasize some points and ignore others. Overall, the interpretation and emotional impact of things remembered–not just things forgotten–are blunted. The truth is often hidden–right out in the open–camouflaged as something else. People make a lot more sense (and seem less crazy) when their picture is accurately focused; until then the hazy image can be interpreted in ways that they prefer.

Invariably, poorly differentiated people hold onto the part of themselves that constructed the distorted self-portrait. They demand that their partner understand them, in part, because they don’t really understand themselves. They feel understood, accepted, and validated when their partner sees them the way they picture themselves. Their partner’s refusal to see them the way the want to be seen is upsetting. But the problem isn’t a failure to communicate: their spouse can’t understand them the way they demand, because they view their own behavior and the details of their life differently than their partner does. This discrepancy challenges their inaccurate picture of themselves–which they have difficulty maintaining to begin with.

You may think it’s a problem when your partner won’t ‘accept you the way you are,’ but consider what happens when you demand that he validate the distorted lens you use to look at yourself, your life, and your marriage. The problem in many marriages is not that spouses won’t validate each other, it’s that what gets validated is an inaccurate self-portrait. Distortions and projections keep us from seeing our partners and ourselves. That’s important to remember next time you feel like demanding your partner ‘understand’ you the way you understand yourself.

Here’s what caught my eye: demanding validation for a distorted self-portrait. What does this mean exactly? In my opinion, it means that I demand that another person see me as I see myself. This can work in two ways. 1. I may demand that someone view me as awesome as I think I am, which leads to a worshiping situation. In this case, there’s an automatic hierarchy created in the relationship, which results in one person consuming the other person in order to satisfy the attention appetite of the consuming person. There’s no room here for two distinct selves; just one self in love with itself. Narcissism should come to mind. While Schnarch isn’t talking about this narcissistic attribute in relationships, I think it applies. One can easily up-sell themselves as much as one can down-sell themselves.

And that leads me to: 2.  (The down-sell) I may demand that someone view me as poorly as I view myself. (And, this is inherent in what Schnarch is talking about, but I’ll tease it out a bit differently.) It’s not just that I (and I’m using I to make writing clearer) have a “false” perception of myself that is fabricated from a hyper-focus on a negative event or a glossing over of a bland childhood; it’s that I legitimately have been handed the script for a negative view of self and am refusing to read from any other script. I then force others in my life (and here, again, we can expand from the marriage relationship mentioned above out into other relationships like friendships/work relationships) to read from the same script. The problem is everyone in my life is the worst method actors and can’t (for the life of them) stay on script let alone read it correctly.

In other words, I have had traumatic experiences that have radically altered my self-perception and now I look through that experience and claim it as my identity. Anyone who comes up against that identity with an alternate identity for me (what they say/see to be true) is shut out. To remove from me or challenge my trauma-identity, would result in the loss of myself. My trauma-identity is my shell that protects me and keeps people away and either you play along (validating my trauma-identity) or you fight it and then reject me and (still) validate my trauma-identity. It’s lose/lose for you; I control the whole thing and, thus, it’s win/win for me.

I allow my brokenness to be the genuine thing about me. It also becomes my justification for things, like: not changing, rejecting those who won’t play along, and defaulting to the “see, I knew I was always a failure” when I’m rejected. It’s the defensiveness and anger that rears her head because someone dare ask her not to see herself through the lens of her past. It’s the, “You just don’t get it, do you!?” that flies from spiteful lips or bounces around an irate mind. Who likes to have their identity–that they’ve mistaken for their essence–ripped from their death grip. As Schnarch mentions above, “This discrepancy challenges their inaccurate picture of themselves–which they have difficulty maintaining to begin with.” I need you to play along because I’m barely keeping this act alive;  your playing along helps me dupe myself and is the fodder for me pressing more and more into that distorted self-view.

If you’ve ever become angry because someone pushed against your trauma-identity, then you know exactly what I’m talking about and explaining. The scariest thing in the world is to step out from this broken identity (and I don’t mean identity of brokenness; I mean the identity is broken). To shed the costume of the always victim and leave behind the familiar and over-handled script is to step into *real* vulnerability and the unknown. (I stress *real* vulnerability because I can use my trauma-identity to share my trauma with you as an act of seeming vulnerable but I’m still standing behind that trauma. Vulnerability demands full exposure of the self in the presence of another different self. There’s no standing behind anything in the truly vulnerable.) Being willing to say, “Yes, I will move on from this; I will begin anew” demands a death of the old identity and self, new eyes and ears, even new language. It demands habitually forcing your mind to work in a different way; it demands that you train your own voice to call yourself higher. It demands a dare to believe this other identity. Dare I believe another story about me one that is future oriented and present focused rather than stuck in the past?

And, oddly (at least I find it odd), in this shedding of the trauma identity and stepping into real vulnerability, I’m concurrently stepping into my real self. My real self isn’t my trauma self because the trauma self is dependent on an other validating that story line; stepping out from that distortion demands an alterity and a self-validation. I am more myself as I move forward in the present than I am when I’m consumed with the past.

 

Another Excerpt from “Passionate Marriage”

Previous post here. From chapter 11, “Two-Choice Dilemmas and Normal Marital Sadism” (bold is me):

We have the fantasy that we have the choice between being anxious or not. Unfortunately, we don’t. Our choice is between one anxiety or another. Do something scary–or face problems from not doing it. Make an error by commission–or omission. Face the anxiety that things will change–or stay the same. Do (sexual) things you’ve never done–or forfeit that taste for life. Face the anxiety of growing up–or the terror of facing life as a perpetual child. Confront the fear of differentiation or the dread of marital living death.

These are examples of the two-choice dilemmas inherent in emotionally committed relationships. Such dilemmas arise from our human nature: we are fundamentally separate life forms who value both attachment and autonomy. … Once you realize you and your partner are in two separate ‘boats,’ you understand the nature of your dilemma: you want to steer your own boat–and your partner’s, too. We call this ‘togetherness’–as longs as you are steering for both of you. When your partner does the same thing, however, it’s called ‘control.’ If you want both absolute certainty of your partner’s course and certainty that you’re not controlling him or her–you’ve just run into a two-choice dilemma.

If you check your dictionary, you’ll find the phrase ‘two-choice dilemma’ is redundant–technically, a dilemma is a situation necessitating a choice between two or more unpleasant alternatives. However, many people think of a dilemma according to the dictionary’s secondary definition: a perplexing or awkward situation. In my clinical work I use the term ‘two-choice dilemma’ to highlight that (a) we often try to remain in our perplexing, awkward, and painful situations to keep everything in check, (b) a choice is often required to solve our situation, (c) we usually want two choices but we only get one, and (d) we try to avoid choosing (by remaining in difficult situations) to avoid losses inherent in giving up one option for another (i.e., solution). While not linguistically correct in all cases, clients have found the term ‘two-choice dilemma’ a powerful tool…

There is no point in staying dead in a living dead marriage; doing so is the main reason why monogamous marriage is not able to withstand the blows of alternative relational existences. Why are we letting some of our primary relationships kill us? Why aren’t we fighting to stay alive?

David Schnarch and “Passionate Marriage”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been researching (heavily and obsessively, I confess) the concept of intimate relationships, specifically marriage and it’s variants. This week I’ve been reading “Passionate Marriage” by Dr. David Schnarch at a devouring and voracious rate. Schnarch is “a licensed clinical psychologist and certified sex therapist” (from the back cover). The book is, well, excellent; I’m enjoying every chapter. In fact, it’s even altered my view on the concept of monogamous marriage…for the better. Could marriage between two adults actually look like this? According to the book, it seems possible. Addressing the concepts of self-differentiation and the solid-self, enmeshment and emotional fusion, other-validation v. self-validation, intimacy and desire during sex (to name a few), the book offers a reconstructed idea of what a “good” marriage looks like, an idea I had not previously known was possible let alone actually existed. I recommend reading it (even tough I’m only 2/3 the way through), but not at work…he’s a sex therapist, and the case studies in the book will…ummm…make you wish you weren’t at work 😉

Here’s an excerpt from chapter 9 “Mental Dimensions of Sexual Experience” (bold is me):

We insist on being our spouse’s one and only–even in fantasy. On the surface it may seem like we’re following the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife,’ but underneath it’s our narcissism demanding, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods! Worship only me!’ … We don’t want our partner fantasizing about anyone else! It’s not easy to accept, even if we do it, too. Realizing they’re doing it during sex with us adds insult to emotional injury.

Research indicates that, of all sexual fantasies, thinking of someone other than your partner is the most common. These are called ‘partner replacement’ fantasies. When confronted about their fantasies about other partners, many people assume it’s better to deny everything and be glad it’s hard to prove they are lying. They think partner replacement fantasies belong to the category of ‘the few things not said each day that improve a marriage.’

Wanting to be our partner’s ‘one and only’ in fantasy is not just an extension of the principle of monogamy. It has to do with being dependent on our partner’s validation. Our mate’s sexual fantasies play havoc with our reflected sense of self. Validation from our partner evaporates while he or she fantasizes about someone else. We can tell ourselves we don’t have to take it personally. But if we’ve spent our lives pursuing validation from others, we don’t really have much choice but to take it personally when we are not the focus of our partner’s fantasies.

What I’m describing isn’t a problem if you handle it properly. Granted, ti doesn’t feel good at first. But it’s part of marriage’s people-growing machine. You can persist in hating the fact that your spouse’s fantasies don’t always include you, or you can develop a more stable sense of yourself.

For several chapters we’ve look at what happens to marriages dominated by other-validated intimacy. To review the general characteristics of partners in these marriages: (a) they have difficulty introducing novelty into their sexual relationship, (b) they experience anxiety and resist change when their partner does something new, and (c) they have difficulty with maintaining a clear sense of self when out of synch with their partner. More important to our current discussion, they are likely to tune out their partner during sex and focus on body sensations to reach orgasm. Over time, they are more likely to experience sexual boredom and resort to partner replacement fantasies for sexual variety.

Here’s the paradox: the very thing that makes poorly differentiated people go crazy over their partner’s sexual fantasies predisposes them to do the same thing themselves! People wounded by the discovery that they are not their partner’s ‘one and only’ are likely to be fantasizing about someone else. Being dependent on validation from others, they have to lie about it even while they are complaining about their partner. And in the midst of all this, they want their partner to validate them and make them feel secure. Like the exercise wheel inside a squirrel cage, this process drives marriage’s people-growing machinery.

If this pattern rings true for you so far, consider the impact during sex: desire to fuse with your partner actually increases the likelihood of experiencing less intimacy during sex. Your heads are inevitably in different places. you can  feel your partner tune you out even if you’re ‘in synch’ enough to grind.

I’m not saying that there is anything ‘wrong’ with mind-wandering and partner replacement fantasies during sex. I’m putting them in context so you can use them productively. Mind-wandering during sex is probably inevitable–but you can reduce it significantly and increase the intimacy and potency of your sex. The benefit can generalize to the rest of your life, because it involves increasing your level of differentiation.

Humans will always fantasize; that’s not necessarily a problem. The difficulty is that the way we fantasize (and hide it) interferes with intimacy and wall-socket sex. Like hugging, kissing, desire, and monogamy, fantasies operate differently depending on your level of differentiation.

While predominately about sex, the concepts discussed above apply to a number of other aspects that often plague monogamous marriage. And, good Lord, let us hear lest we cease to sense the something-fierce need to overhaul and reconfigure monogamous marriage.