Have you ever wondered why the private space shared by a married couple is still referred to by the archaic phrase “the Master Bedroom”? Despite society’s progress toward the equality of men and women, continued use of such a term is one more indication that women, while equal under the law, are not always considered equal partners in marriage.
In the past, wealthy families often had separate sleeping quarters for the master and mistress of the house. The master bed in this scenario would be a private space for the master of the house to which his wife might be invited on occasion. Marital intimacy as we understand it was not likely to be highly valued in this kind of arrangement.
The opposite extreme is illustrated by the concept of the family bed, a common practice in some nonwestern cultures in which parents and children share a bed, often out of necessity. While this model offers potential advantages such as enhancing closeness and affectionate touch among family members, it also has potential dangers such as child sexual abuse, emotional enmeshment, and decreased opportunities for the couple to experience sexual intimacy.
The master bed and family bed approaches to marital intimacy are summarized below. These extremes are contrasted with the more balanced approach of the marriage bed.
The Master Bed
• individual privacy
• personal ownership
• primarily alone
• conjugal visits (or other kinds of visits)
• marital intimacy is not valued
The Family Bed
• no privacy
• sharing, affection, touch
• positive benefits of high closeness among family members
• negative dangers of enmeshment, child abuse, and lack of sexual intimacy
The Marriage Bed
• couple privacy
• shared ownership
• sleeping together
• sexual intimacy
• emotional intimacy
Contemporary versions of the master bed and family bed
The master bed and family bed also represent two contradictory perspectives in contemporary society related to how healthy marriages should be understood.
The differentiation camp claims that a sense of autonomy, self-direction, and self-fulfillment by individual partners is a prerequisite to connection and healthy intimacy within marriage. This view emphasizes setting personal boundaries and avoiding co-dependency. Couples who live and work on opposite sides of the country, getting together when they can, are extreme examples of highly differentiated marriages. This kind of relationship was described by Jill Brooke in a New York Times article called “L.A.T. relationships—Living apart together” (May 4, 2006).
This focus on differentiation within marriage, then, could be viewed as the new, egalitarian form of the master bedroom; each is their own master, and if connection and intimacy happens, that is a bonus.
In contrast, a romanticized view of marriage suggests that true marital intimacy is found in complete togetherness. The story of Sheldon Vanauken’s marriage in A Severe Mercy (Harper & Row, 1977), while a beautiful love story, is also a description of a marriage that in today’s psychological lingo might be called co-dependent or enmeshed. This view of marriage is characterized by sharing the same life experiences, reading the same books, being together almost all the time, feeling what the other feels, and ultimately losing one’s sense of individual identity in the other.
This perspective is understandably popular among engaged and newlywed couples who envision a life together that will be closer, deeper, and consequently healthier than many of the contemporary examples of marriage that they have seen.
The contrast between these two views is illustrated well in the following poems. The first poem hints at the reality that separateness can lead to disconnected lives, while the second one suggests that too much closeness can lead to enmeshment:
I do my thing, and you do your thing
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations
And you are not in this world to live up to mine
You are you and I am I
And if by chance we meet, it’s beautiful
If not, it can’t be helped.
(Fritz Perls, 1969, “Gestalt Prayer”)
We do our thing together
I am here to meet all your needs and expectations
And you are here to meet mine
We had to meet, and it was beautiful
I can’t imagine it turning out any other way.
(Judy Altura, 1974, “Togetherness Prayer”)
These poems are quoted in D.H. Olson & J. DeFrain, Marriage and the family: Diversity and strengths (1994), pg. 76.
The marriage bed as safe haven and secure base
An increasingly popular developmental perspective known as attachment theory provides a way of understanding the tension between differentiation and enmeshment in intimate relationships. While standing firmly on the side of promoting strong affectional bonds (connection) rather than focusing on individual identity (disconnection), this theory suggests that healthy marriage encompasses these two contrasting views of intimacy and offers a balanced perspective of how to live out our marital lives.
Rooted in the work of British psychoanalyst John Bowlby, this view suggests that the need for attachment is not only descriptive of children at an early developmental stage, but is also a felt need experienced throughout life, from “the cradle to the grave.” Children and adults seek close relationships that provide a “safe haven” to return to when life is stressful, and a “secure base” from which to explore the world. Safety (protection) and risk (autonomy) are not seen as opposite poles, but two sides of the same coin, in that the more connected partners are to their spouses, the more strength and confidence they then have to move out into the world.
This way of understanding relationships explains the two dangers in contemporary marriage described above. Attachment theory considers both of the tendencies seen in the master bed and the family bed to be insecure relational styles.
On the one hand is the cultural push to differentiate, to define oneself in contrast to others, to set boundaries in relationships, and to be assertive about one’s needs. While aspects of this approach may be healthy, it can easily lead to avoidant or dismissive attachment in which people appear to not really need others. On the other hand are those who anxiously and dependently cling to others expressing a low sense of self-efficacy and confidence paired with a high view of the other’s value and the other’s ability to meet their needs.
In contrast, the secure attachment style upholds both the legitimate relational needs of children and adults (safe haven) and the need to define oneself and be appropriately autonomous (secure base). Going back to our analogy in the chart above, this goal could be represented by the marriage bed. This is a place where couples have some shared, private space which allows for the possibility of greater emotional and sexual intimacy than does the master bed and more privacy than is allowed by the family bed.
Ultimately, it seems to us that the goal of an egalitarian marriage, at least when it comes to intimacy, is for couples to work on developing appropriate differentiation from each other while simultaneously seeking a deeply committed, secure attachment with their partners. Such marriages allow for individuality and uniqueness within a covenantal commitment to oneness.
Based on a relationship characterized by secure attachment, each partner is able to move out from the safety of their relationship to engage in the world in unique, creative ways. Attachment leads to autonomy, just as autonomy enriches attachment. Perhaps we could coin a new phrase to describe this relational paradox: differentially attached.
Biblical and theological support
While the concept of differential attachment makes sense psychologically, it also fits with scriptural principles. The motto, “a safe haven and a secure base,” resonates with images that permeate Scripture concerning our relationship to God and to one another.
In various passages, marriage relationships and individual relationships with God are used to reciprocally describe the nature of these intimate relationships. Some examples include the story of Hosea and Gomer, the Song of Songs, and Ephesians 5:25 (love each other as Christ loved the church).
The first four of the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:2–8) describe God’s passionate desire for relationship with us, with verse 5 describing God as a “jealous God.” The fifth to tenth commandments (Exod. 20:3–17) focus on how to have healthy relationships with each other (honor parents, do not murder, be faithful, do not steal, lie, or covet).
Our faith is filled with a variety of theological and doctrinal paradoxes. For instance, Genesis 2:24 describes marriage as both “leaving” (differentiating) and becoming united as “one flesh” (attachment). We are admonished to daily take up our own crosses (Luke 9:23), yet we are to also help each other with the burdens of life (Gal. 6:2–5).
Theological reflection on the Trinity can also shed light on this relational paradox. Some of the early church councils struggled with the issue of how God can be both one and three. On the one hand, God is in himself one, a unity in essence (which is attachment to the extreme). Yet at the same time God is in himself three, an example of diversity, with each part of the Trinity having individual personhood, personality, and identity (an example of differentiation). God is simultaneously both transcendent (differentiated) and immanent (intimate).
As Christian egalitarians, we believe that marriages should not resemble the master bed, but rather the marriage bed. Such marriages should value intimacy in its multiple facets, the sharing of life as equal partners, mutual submission, and “us” above “I.”
Egalitarian marriages should be gift-based, affirming the unique giftedness of both partners, as well as skill-based, affirming the specific skills each partner has. The marriage should be flexible and continually growing, and model equality and respect to the children within the marriage, as well as to others outside of the family.
Marriages within the marriage bed model should utilize creative, affirming, and biblical conflict resolution skills without resorting to the use and abuse of power. This parallels the biblical call to equality for all within Christian community (Gal. 2:28). Let us all work towards becoming differentially attached, with marriages honoring to each other and to God.