When two become one: The mathematics of marriage

John and Jane are two entirely different persons–different in upbringing, personality, and background. After much prayer, time, and counsel, they march to the altar and take the vow of becoming one flesh under the blessing of God. What does it mean becoming one? Is it possible for two differing persons to become “one”? Some would say no. The Bible, however, says yes.

But how does one understand the statement that two “shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Is it a mathematical mystery? Or is there something more to it?

The mathematics of annulment

Some would argue that the Christian marriage is a miracle that transcends the simple rule of mathematics, giving us the equation 1+1=1. Such an argument does not reflect the true meaning of Genesis 2:24 or the underlying biblical principle of oneness in marriage. If 1+1=1 is correct, it follows that one of the two must renounce self and become 0. Such a self-renunciation allows for a mathematical possibility (1+0=1), but creates a theological difficulty.

Consider Elaine. She was one of those who seemed to have a very clear view of her future. She had every potential of becoming a successful professional. Always happy, always alert, she had a personality that would move her upward. However, when Elaine got married, she began to experience some small changes in her attitudes. Self-doubt and insecurity slowly intruded into her life. She did become a professional, but the high-level success seemed to elude her. She became quiet, laughing or smiling only when her husband was not around. She lived a quiet, sometimes painfully reclusive life—seldom expressing herself even on such matters as the education of her children, the decor of her home, or the clothes she wore. Her husband decided everything.

You have met Elaine any number of times in every conceivable place. She carries on life as a routine, even portraying a pleasant image outside. But hidden within is a multitude of problems that go undetected by even the closest of friends or family members. Psychologists call this Identity Annulment Syndrome, seen more in women, and somewhat less in men.

Two significant characteristics mark this syndrome: a loss of decision-making ability and a slow transfer of control over everything to the spouse, including the most personal tastes. The result? A tremendous sense of frustration, not expressed verbally, but stored internally until one day it explodes in an emotional trauma. Fear, anguish, and emotional pain come to the surface.

Ellen White counsels that the wife “should not sacrifice her strength and allow her powers to lie dormant, leaning wholly upon her husband. Her individuality cannot be merged in his. She should feel that she is her husband’s equal—to stand by his side, she faithful at her post of duty and he at his.”1

Again she wrote: “God has given [the wife] a conscience, which she cannot violate with impunity. Her individuality cannot be merged into that of her husband….It is a mistake to imagine that with blind devotion she is to do exactly as her husband says in all things, when she knows that in so doing, injury would be worked for her body and her spirit.”2

Again, speaking to a newlywed couple, Ellen White said: “But while you are to blend as one, neither of you is to lose his or her individuality in the other. God is the owner of your individuality. Of Him you are to ask: What is right? What is wrong? How may I best fulfill the purpose of my creation?”3

Thus the ideal of biblical oneness does not permit the annulment or surrender of one to the other. A spouse is not to control the conscience of the other. Indeed God’s creative activity involving a rib is a forceful symbol that Eve “was not to control him as the head, nor to be trampled under his feet as an inferior, but to stand by his side as an equal.”4 “Nobody gets married to have their personality destroyed or to be ignored by the spouse.”5

The mathematics of mutilation

If annulment of one person is not the answer to the problem of oneness, can we think of mutilation of both as a possible way to understand the concept? By mutilation, I mean each person gives up 50 percent of self. That would permit this formula to survive: 0.5+0.5=1. Some Christian couples walk through this path for social and financial reasons, for the sake of children or to avoid failure. In the process, they are forced to give up many of their personal goals and dreams.

Of those who take this route, many are not even aware when they stopped being themselves to become someone else. “Both decided that their ‘life’ would be a ‘way of life.’ But as time went by, both must examine whether daily living is real life, agony . . . or death.”6 In fact, both are “half dead” because they have left 50 percent of their lives completely outside the relationship.

If the percentage is something else, say 40 percent by one and 60 percent by the other, the result could be even more disastrous. No, the answer to the problem of oneness in marriage does not lie in the mathematics of mutilation—but in the mystery of love. But first, consider a major question.

Looking for a solution

If you feel that any of the mathematic riddles described above fit your case, pause for a moment. What should you do to overcome the temptation of self-negation?

1. Ask for help. It is fairly easy not to be aware that your personality is slowly undergoing a process of annulment. Seek help from a Christian professional, preferably with pastoral background. Such help can enable you to rediscover and reinforce your unique personality.

2. Unlearn. Behavior is learned, and as such can also be unlearned. People give their lives to be managed by others for many reasons. Whenever people allow others to control them, to the point of not knowing who they are, they should try to find the cause. It may be family situations, unresolved childhood trauma, or some crisis that forced one partner to take charge.

3. Express your feelings. If you feel that you are not being heard, or that your spouse tends to put you down and take the upper hand, it’s time to speak up. Communicate and be assertive. Help your spouse to appreciate and affirm the principle of mutuality in marriage.

4. Study the purpose of marriage. God gave husband and wife the responsibility to take care of each other. Husband and wife are to complement each other. While one cannot be the conscience for the other, both can be a source of strength to each other.

5. Treat each other with mutual respect. Husband and wife must understand that they are equal partners in a divinely ordained relationship. Both have responsibilities to preserve this relationship of mutual love and care.

The mystery of love

Now, back to our question. What does “the two shall become one” mean?

When Mary and I began our married life, we had to face many conflicts that arose from our cultural differences and the way we did things. The first years were difficult ones. After trying to “convince” and impose our point of view on each other, we were finally able to take the high road of agreement. We began with simple things, like our meals. Personally, I do not like oil of any kind. My wife, on the other side, loves to add oil to everything. In the beginning, this was a struggle, trying to make the oil disappear from our table and pantry. But one day she discovered it was possible to cook without oil, adding it afterwards. For 14 years we have been cooking without oil at home, but those interested in eating with oil just add it on to their plate later. Problem solved.

For me, rest means lying down on a sofa to read a good book or listen to some music. For my wife, rest means taking a walk. In the beginning, I tried to convince her of the advantages of staying home to do a little reading. She, on the other hand, wanted me to understand the importance of going outdoors. Finally, we opted to take turns deciding what activity to do, even if the other one did not particularly like the choice. We were happy with the arrangement. Through the years, I have learned to appreciate a day outdoors, and my wife spends more time reading. What appears as a problem can be solved by mutual respect and consideration.

Oneness, therefore, does not mean eclipsing the other’s personality. It means giving up self’s desire to be master over another, and instead reach the high ground of mutual love and respect, and create the unity that is foundational for the success of marriage. The basic ingredient of this unity should, of course, be love.

Love is the solution

Love is not selfish, does not seek its own. Born of free will, love seeks to give and not receive. Only those who do not love demand submission and annulment.

No one unites with another in marriage to lose his or her individuality. To the contrary, we unite with a person who appreciates our uniqueness and dignity. A couple’s relationship is a reciprocal commitment of mutual cooperation. Both are happy to see the other reach maximum potential.

Each person is unique. The saying that “God broke the mold after he made you” is not only true, but it should be repeated more often. There never was, and there never will be, anyone exactly like you or me. Therefore, in marriage, as we establish a love relationship, we are doing so with a very unique person. Love and respect for that uniqueness preserves the unity of the relationship.

A Chinese proverb says: “Do not walk in front of me, I cannot follow you. Do not walk behind me, I cannot be your guide. Walk by my side and I will be your friend.” There lies the secret for a lasting, united love. Two different persons, walking side by side, hands clasped, hearts united, affirming that they are one in the mysterious relationship of marriage.

When Miguel Angel Nuñez wrote this article, he served as director of education and youth ministries of the Pacific Chile Mission. The ideas presented here have been developed fully in one of his books, Amar es todo (To Love Is Everything). His new address: Universidad Adventista del Plata; 25 de Mayo 99; 3103 Libertador San Martín, Entre Ríos; Argentina. E-mail: miguelanp@ hotmail.com

Notes and references:

  1. Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Washington D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1980), p. 231.
  2. Ibid., p 116.
  3. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1904), vol. 7, p. 45.
  4. White, The Adventist Home, p. 25.
  5. Alfredo Altamira, “En el Matrimonio 1+1 no es 1 ni 2,” Vida Feliz 29 (July 1992) 7:8.
  6. Ibid., p. 9.