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Interacting with "Hold Me Tight" by Dr. Sue Johnson - Ch. 1

Hold Me Tight

This post is Part Two of our review of Dr. Sue Johnson's marriage book "Hold Me Tight." You can find the original post HERE, or search the tag "Hold Me Tight" to see the entire series.

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"We live in the shleter of each other." Celtic saying

It would be easy to skim past this introductory quote to Dr. Sue Johnson's "Hold Me Tight" Chapter One, but that would be a mistake. It's one that fits her purpose in writing, and is therefore worthy of reflection.

As Christians, we understand, biblically and experientially, that we live in a fallen, Genesis 3 world. Nothing, it seems, is as it ought to be. Those who've made it fifteen minutes past their wedding cake understand this well.

Life as a sinner on this side of glory under the shelter of another sinner can be an intensely sanctifying condition. Not only do we come to know the sinfulness of our spouse, but our own sinful nature is progressively exposed.

In this spiritual sense, husband and wife do indeed "live in the shelter of each other." We intuitively know that we are in need of shelter from life's storms. Scripture frequently holds out God's loving presence as a "shelter," "refuge," or "place of safety" (cf. Ps. 27:5; Ps. 31:19-20; Ps. 91:1-4; Is. 25:4).

As marriage is designed by God to be to his people a type of shadowy forerunner to that ultimate and heavenly refuge that they will one day know in completeness forever, so we are glad to enter into it in time.

Unfortunately, it's not until the mortgage on that marital shelter is signed that we come to see and experience the leakiness of that shelter's roof. What's harder is when we begin to suspect that the leakiness is, at least on occasion, no accident, but malicious and callous.

Like any responsible homeowner, once the rain starts to come in, the occupants either want the roof fixed immediately, or they begin seeking shelter elsewhere.

A Shelter for Better or Worse

All of this discussion of the marital covenant as "shelter" points us to one of Johnson's big ideas in chapter one: "For better or worse, a love relationship has become the central emotional relationship in most people's lives" (14).

If we evaluate this statement biblically, we can find shades of agreeement, with some important clarifications.

First, let's acknowledge that the pre-eminent "love relationship" that every human being desperately needs is with their Creator-God through Jesus Christ. The marriage relationship is a good gift, but it is not ultimate. Rightly undertsood, marriage will point us forward to our eternal relationship (marriage) with Jesus as adopted sons and daughters of the Father, sealed to us by the Spirit in baptism and the Lord's Supper by grace alone through faith alone.

Second, as Christians, we want to understand that the marriage relationship is more than an "emotional" venture. Within this "shelter," we will experience many of life's ups and downs, victories and defeats. What we modern people call "emotions" will fill the rooms of our shelter, but they are not the shelter itself.

The shelter is a "covenant," a pledge and promise made before the face of God (coram Deo) to love our spouse in good times and bad. In this sense, love is much more than a feeling we more or less wake up with from one day to the next.

Marital love, biblically speaking, is a covenant we keep first with our heavenly Father who gave our spouse to us, and only then with our spouse (Prov. 18:22). Undertsood rightly, we guard and keep that covenant not primarily for our own benefit, but for God's glory and the joy of our spouse.

If we hold these truths to be self-evident, as revealed to us across the pages of Scripture, then we will prayerfully and in humility ask God to help us bring healing to the holes in the roof of our shelter for which we are responsible (even as we pray for healing of the leaks for which our spouse is liable).

Progressively, we learn that providing and being a "safe space" for our spouse is one of life's greastest joys.

Securing the Connection

All of this discussion of "shelter" brings us to Johnson's biggest idea in chapter one: "A sense of secure connection between romantic partners is key in positive loving relationships and a huge source of strength for the individuals in those relationships" (22; emphasis added).

Johnson has in view the foundational work of Dr. John Bowlby, who decades prior established what is known as "Attachment Theory." Bowlby's work in the field of parent-child relationships suggested that "children have an absolute requirement for safe, ongoing physical and emotional closeness, and that we ignore this only at great cost" (20). Johnson (and others) would go on to apply the foundational principles of Bowlby's work to adult relationships.

Read carefully, it doesn't prove difficult to see and appreciate the helpfulness of an "attachment approch" to the marriage relationship. Johnson summarizes key points in the chapter as:

1) When we feel generally secure in marriage, we are comfortable with closeness and confident both in depending on our spouse and our ability to provide that support to them,

2) When we are safe in their shelter, we are less prone to ascribe malicious intent to them when they are to us a "leaky roof," reducing our own sinfully angry responses toward them, and

3) Secure connection with our spouse empowers us for daily living as we face the normal struggles of life. (See pages 22-23)

These summary points are offered as what we receive from our spouse when we are securely connected. As we seek to build a biblically motivated marriage, let's also consider that our spouse stands to be greatly blessed by us as we become to them a shelter that offers Christ-centered refuge from a lost and dying world (1 Jn. 2:17).

Johnson helpfully warns us that for those who are living in unsafe, unconnected, insecure marital shelters, not only do spiritual-emotional traumas abound, but adverse physiological effects, such as high blood pressure and rising stress hormones (i.e. cortisol).

"When love doesn't work, we hurt," Johnson writes (26).

Conversely, Johnson reminds us that medical science can now see via brain imaging the physical results of our seeking to be to our spouse the type of safe and loving shelter that God has called us to be to one another.

Johnson observes, "When we are close to, hold, or make love with our partners, we are flooded with the 'cuddle hormones' oxytocin and vasopressin. These hormones seem to turn on 'reward' centers in the brain, flooding us with calm and happiness chemicals like dopamine, and turning off stress hormones like cortisol" (27).

In this, we see the natural effects of body and soul working together, as designed by God, and all within the loving confines of biblical marriage.

Light for Today

Prayerfully evaluate and take inventory of the ways in which you are and/or are not being or becoming to your spouse the safe and loving shelter that they need.

Where are the leaks in your shelter's roof?

How would Scripture have you begin sealing those leaks attributed to you?

How would Scripture have you bring your spouse's leaks to their attention?