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Published Date: December 4, 2013

Published Date: December 4, 2013

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Marital Intimacy Undermined

So-called “traditional gender norms” within a marriage create an imbalance of power, and the less equality between intimates, the less intimacy. It is difficult to experience intimacy with someone who is in a position to make decisions about your life. When social structures allow the other person to control your life, you normally protect your innermost-self from being known by that person. Unequal power makes full reciprocal self-disclosure less likely, and therefore traditional marriages are less intimate. One fears engulfment; the other fears invasion. Perhaps it is power that explains the paradox of the stereotypically expressive yet inaccessible and unfathomable female on one hand, and the inexpressive male on the other. She tries to get him to talk so as to monitor and moderate his power, while never revealing more than she can afford. So even when a traditional husband might seek deep self-disclosure from his wife, he is sabotaged by his own power…

Other reasons why spouses do not communicate include feelings of inadequacy as a communicator—“I’m not good with words; I don’t know how to say it”—or inadequacy as a person—“If you really knew what I was like, you would not like me.” Sometimes the reason is suppression of what the person considers to be unacceptable feelings, which causes them to pretend to others, and even themselves, that “I am not angry, or hurt, or jealous.” Sometimes the reason is guilt or shame about the substance of their feelings—“I should not be attracted to someone other than my spouse.” And sometimes the reason is fear of conflict—“If I told you how I really felt, you would get angry”—fear of vulnerability—“If I told you my real feelings, you might hurt me”—and even fear of the harmful potential of their own feelings—“If I expressed all my anger, I might destroy you.” All of these barriers to communication are forms and degrees of risk deemed too great to contemplate, culminating in “How can I let you see what I dare not even face myself? How can I expect you to know me and still love me?” What ensues is a living out of two different lives; the joint life which is cautious, full of avoidance, and empty, and the private emotional life which is resentful, defeated, or escapist.

A narrative in the biblical text displays the absence of marital intimacy, or its opposite. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin retells the story of how King David and Michal’s intense love turned tragic because of their sharp-tongued manner of communicating. While David and Michal do not necessarily display the same gender stereotypes we see in twenty-first century marriages, their relationship can serve as an example of the destruction caused by a struggle for power between husband and wife. In the early days of their love, each had performed heroic deeds to literally save the life of the other. But later in their marriage, when David danced naked and wild in front of the Ark of the Lord and his people, he was confronted with Michal’s cold sarcasm: “How the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” (2 Sam 6:20).

Instead of absorbing her withering scorn, David shot back by ignoring the substance of her rebuke and attacking the most vulnerable part of her personal identity, God’s rejection of her father, King Saul. “It was before the Lord [that I danced], who chose me in place of your father and all his household, to appoint me as prince over Israel” (2 Sam 6:21). Then, verse 23 suddenly records the seemingly unrelated fact that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death,” and the story ends abruptly. But the implication is that they never had sexual intercourse again, their gendered differences in communication and power impeding deep interpersonal peace, their growing estrangement now final and complete.

—excerpted from Dennis Hiebert, Sweet Surrender: How Cultural Mandates Shape Christian Marriage, Wipf & Stock, 2013, pp. 124–6.

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