I did not intend to spend quite as much time on the first element of the Marriage Pyramid, but seeing as it is foundational to a happy, fulfilled successful marriage I didn’t feel I could move on without a proper treatment of the material. To be honest…I still left a great deal out for the sake of time, so I don’t feel too bad about it. But it is extremely important to remember that love, biblically understood and defined, is the absolute rock bottom foundation needed to in order to have the marriage you intended to have the moment you stood in front of the minister and said, “I do”. If you want more of an in-depth explanation of the importance of this love, please read 1 Corinthians 13 for a description that amazes the mind and warms the heart.
However, now we move onto the second necessary element in the pyramid, and like love, needs to be viewed in a way differing from most treatments. The second element is safety. And I bet I know what you’re probably thinking. You’re probably thinking that by safety I mean the rudimentary elements of safety such as adequate food and shelter…or more likely…physical safety at the hands of your spouse. In other words, when I begin my explanation of this topic most assume that I am going to discuss physical safety from the standpoint of telling folks that if you engage in mental or physical abuse towards your spouse, your marriage relationship will suffer irreparable harm. But come on…do we really need to spend and inordinate amount of time trying to prove this? Really?
When I was leading the CREDO Marriage Enrichment Retreats in my Navy days I dedicated a huge section of the program to a module I entitled: Relationship Killers. I know…not the most positive or whimsical title…but it was a true title. I wanted much more for these folks to hear the truth about what could kill their relationship more than I wanted them to smile at the cute title. Be that as it may, it was always one of the more interesting modules we covered. Mainly because everyone was convinced I was going to spend the bulk of my time talking about what I referred to as the “Big Three”. The three things that logically fall into this category are: physical abuse; substance abuse; and adultery. I call these the Big Three because they are the ones that are most visible…and will certainly kill any relationship that includes them. However, while these are the most visible relationship killers…in my experience…they were not the predominant reasons that most of my couples were having issues. Oh, I dealt with them on a somewhat consistent basis…but they were by far in the minority among the reasons married couples ended up in my office.
And let’s be honest, if I have to spend a large amount of time basically telling grown married folks that physical abuse, substance abuse or adultery will destroy your relationship, then, we have bigger problems to worry about. I think we all have our heads screwed on pretty good about this. If I had to do a segment called, Hitting Your Spouse Does Harm to Your Marriage, then shouldn’t I follow it up with such important classes as: The Sun is Hot; and Falling off Mt. Everest will Probably Hurt You? I had precious few hours with these couples to illustrate to them the potential dangers to their marriage…so I mentioned the obvious ones and hammered on the less obvious and more prevalent ones. Such is the case with safety. And while physical safety is an absolute necessity, I don’t need to convince people of this. I need to alert them to the danger that lurks in the background…quiet…and waiting to chip away and erode a relationship without the couple even knowing it is there. So, the safety I am referring to is not just physical safety…but emotional safety. And if you don’t think this is that important…let me explain.
When you choose to love someone to the point where you will end up marrying him or her…that is the most powerful love one human being can bestow upon another. You give yourself to them…they give themselves to you. This relationship by the way, according to Genesis, supersedes the parent-child relationship. It’s not better…just different. Note when God performs the very first marriage ceremony between Adam and Eve the text exclaims that: “Therefore man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”(). You see here the importance of the husband/wife relationship as described in the Bible. In no other human relationship are we called to become “one flesh” with another person…including parents. This is extremely important to understand in the context of discussing this issue of safety. We’ll expound on that later. Suffice it to say that the close personal relationship between a husband and wife is paramount to any other human relationship.
That being said, here is how I describe this safety aspect of the pyramid: Choosing to love my spouse in this way makes me extremely vulnerable. Does it not? Think about it. I have known my wife since I was six years old…we’ve been married nearly 28 years. She is the best friend I have or have ever had. And she knows absolutely everything about me. She knows the good…the not so good…the bad. She knows my weaknesses. She knows my fears. She knows what hurts me and why. In other words, if she wanted to, she could hurt me more than anyone else in the world. She could…right? I mean as I said, she knows every fear and weakness I have. It then stands to reason then that if she knows these fears and weaknesses, then she could exploit them to hurt me. She could, as I stated just a moment ago, hurt me more than anyone else in the world…even more than our kids could. And that means I am extremely vulnerable to her. She could hurt me, but I am counting on the fact that she won’t. That is part of the deal with love. You are betting that this person who could hurt you the most….won’t. But the very fact that she holds this position in my life leads to one inescapable and paradoxical conclusion. And that is that my wife, the love of my life, is potentially…the most dangerous person in the world to me. Let that sink in a minute.
If I make the claim that no one in the world could hurt me more than my wife if she chose to do so, that makes her not only dangerous…but the most dangerous person in the world to me…potentially. I simply trust the fact that she will not do that. Now…I’m not merely talking about arguing. All couples argue…and mostly over stupid things. And merely arguing with my wife is not enough to trigger this “most dangerous person” toggle in our relationship…unless. And it is the “unless” where this insidious danger to the emotional safety of the couple lives, breathes and attacks. Let me explain further what I mean by this.
If there has been one consistency in the troubles of the relationships I have dealt with over the years, it is the use of catastrophic statements during arguments. And in case you are not sure what I mean by that, let me give an example. If you are in an argument with your spouse and you use the phrases: “You always” or “You never”…it doesn’t matter what comes after that, it is most probably a lie. Because nobody “always” does something (unless it’s breathing) and people do not “never” do things either (unless it’s going to Mars). Let me give you some advice about what is going on in the head of your spouse when you use the term “you always” in an argument by presenting a scenario. Here we go.
My bride: “You always leave your clothes on the floor.”
Me: (knowing this is mostly true but also knowing it is not completely true
immediately searches my mind for a time six weeks ago when I actually
picked up my clothes) “I do not always leave my clothes on the floor…six
weeks ago I picked them up.”
My bride: “Well I didn’t mean literally always.”
Me: “Well, that’s what you said.”
My bride: “That’s not what I meant…you know what I mean.”
Me: “Yeah…you’re right I’ve been able to read your mind for years. Why
don’t you say what you mean.”
My bride: “Well you don’t say what you mean either. What about the
time you said…..”
Me: “Well you’ve said worse that that…remember 8 years ago when
See where we’re headed here? And three hours later…once the argument is over…neither of us could possibly tell you what started it in the first place. My bride is mostly correct…I do leave my clothes on the floor…a lot (though I have gotten better). But I am not going to focus on the problem because she communicated that I always leave my clothes on the floor. Now…I really do know what she means, but I am not going go there. I am going to focus on the verbiage to redirect the argument away from me to her. That’s called being human…our sin encourages us to these things and in the end…this is a pretty harmless example of a catastrophic statement. If I do this to my wife or she does it to me, neither of us is going to think the other is threatening the safety of the relationship. But there are others. And they can be sneaky…and dangerous.
The most prevalent example I have seen of this…and have seen the damage it has done…is when one spouse or the other (or sometimes both) actually threatens the safety of the relationship. If I love my wife with the love I have described up to this point, and if I am that vulnerable to her as I have described, and, if she is potentially the most dangerous person to me…then the most devastating thing she can do to me is to end our relationship. If she walked away from this, it is safe to say that I would never again be the same. All of those vulnerabilities will have been attacked, and I will be left irreparably harmed. Ending and destroying the relationship is the worst thing my bride could do to me. I will expand that to say that one spouse ending the relationship is the single most emotionally dangerous thing that spouse can do to another (remember…I am not comparing this to physical abuse…we went over that…it will definitely destroy the relationship). In a relatively healthy marriage with none of the Big Three…ending the relationship…threatening the safety of the relationship…is the most dangerous thing that can happen.
Think about it this way, if my wife in the heat of an argument hints at, suggests, or outright threatens divorce in any way, shape or form…something weird happens. My wife goes from hypothetically being the most dangerous person in the world to me…to actually becoming the most dangerous person. Remember…no one can hurt me more than her. The worse thing she can do to me is threaten the marriage…ergo, she has become the most dangerous person in the world to me. And what happens when our safety is threatened? We will fight to feel safe again. We don’t have to think about it…we don’t have to reason it out. If you are on a boat and you can’t swim, and you fall out of the boat within arm’s reach of a flotation device…you will immediately clamor and struggle to that device. You won’t say: “Well…I can’t swim. And the life-ring is just past my grasp…I guess I’m done for.” No. Despite the fact that you cannot swim, your life is in danger and you will scramble for safety…immediately…without even thinking about. When we feel unsafe…our natural reaction is to feel safe again. It is human nature. We will discuss this in more detail in part 5 of this series.
Dr. Purvis started Growth Project with Robert Houghton after spending 20 years on active duty as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. After many moves and multiple deployments, he settled in Winter Haven, Florida to do God’s will. A glutton for educational punishment Danny has a BA in English from Carson-Newman College, an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary; and a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. He has been married to his wife Kimberly (whom he met when they were 6 years old) for nearly 30 years and they have four wonderful children.