In an age of fiercely independent souls and an individualistic culture often drenched in ego-driven objectives, the very idea of marriage between equal partners can be challenging to comprehend—even more so to live out.
That’s simply not how many have experienced marriage—not throughout history, and not even today.
While there are positive signs of growing parity in contemporary relationships, the lived practice of shared burden, responsibility, and leadership of a family can stretch even the best of human beings—something to which most couples can attest. The Christian tradition, and, in particular, the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, provide a welcome expansion of understanding as to the importance of marital interdependence and equality that go beyond more common arguments heard today.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” a religious declaration from the Council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The proclamation—and the theological doctrines that support it—present a vision of marriage grounded in humanity’s relationship with divinity.
Similar to any happy family, this begins with a deep sense of our own beloved status as sons and daughters—in this case, of Heavenly Parents. We each hold an individual place in Their hearts and thus, inherent eternal worth. And whatever weakness we grapple with is also made light(er) by the indescribable pain of the Son, Jesus.
In individual ways, we are thus reached and taught, invited and enfolded—if we will—in Their love and grace. More than simply consoling us, this connection empowers us to do great good in the world around us.
That’s why the integration of lives, of purposes, of actions, of minds, and of thoughts invited by the divine is so complete. As branch to vine, God seeks to make us fully integrated. Fully His.
No holding back. Surrendered and secure.
The more He works with and through us, the more pure our views and the more manifest good we can do. With unrelenting fidelity, this commitment follows us through the lows and highs—being lifted when we stumble.
A beautiful rhythm can emerge, however, not through forcing sameness but through celebrating uniqueness and individuality.
For those who understand these rich teachings, they can’t help but see that God wants the interdependent marriage to function in a similar pattern. Each spouse holds a unique place in the heart of the other, bought by sacrifice, and fully integrated into the other’s life.
God pronounces this union fully equal and names it an “equal partnership.” Equal, not because spouses are the same or have the same proclivities or skills, but because of a profoundly interwoven union that reflects common burden-sharing. Each spouse is interwoven in a way that gives meaning to what God calls “one flesh.”
This is the model outlined in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”
Equal, yet interdependent.
Given the strident calls in today’s world for equality as sameness (same abilities and capacities), with comparatively few meditations on the synergy available only in the deep investment into interdependency (implying a fusion of distinct capacities)—perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the value of this approach is sometimes easy to miss.
A beautiful rhythm can emerge, however, not through forcing sameness but through celebrating uniqueness and individuality. And rather than maximizing immediate pleasure, this kind of a relationship aims to build capacity for joys even beyond this life.
That arises from a practice of shared governance unique in the world around us. Indeed, we hardly have precedence to learn how it might be led, managed, viewed, or sanctified.
With kings, presidents, rulers, CEO’s, directors, officers, or the like, we recognize distinctive levels of unequal power-sharing and distinctive privileges on many levels. So, none of these traditions or models serve to educate us well. For in all these, the power, purpose, participation, possibility, and prominence of these leadership roles, as scholar Alan Hawkins and colleagues describe them, are unequal in many ways, both subtle and overt.
God asks us to shake off tradition in this brave doctrine of equal, interwoven partnership and reach for a higher standard.
To do so, selfish ends are the first to go. To have shared ends anchored in the goal of eternal life aligns all other priorities. Thus, emerges purpose. As selfishness recedes, domination ceases, making way for a fluid share in the relationship’s distribution of power. As unrighteous dominion then departs, thriving is introduced as partners have an increasing number of opportunities open to participate in fulfilling their purpose and deploying their gifts for the betterment of the whole. Joy in these pursuits and in the accomplishments of one another allows humility to intercede and prominence to be lifted together, giving each the full breadth of possibility to achieve their highest mortal aims.
Purpose, power, possibility, prominence, and participation all uniquely and remarkably united in a trusting human relationship.
Reaching towards this standard is no easy path, but whether attained in this life or the next, the reaching will have been worthwhile. This reaching towards a higher relational plane requires a tacit departure from the inclinations of the natural man or woman who is slow to trust and slow to connect deeply—especially those who are fiercely independent and suspicious of anything impinging on individual rights.
The rugged individualism or a “selfie mindset” that has come to define much of our current culture will not steady our best marriages because marriage is a relational combination that finds a way to both subsume ego and elevate discipleship through deepening interdependence.
As Elder Bruce C. Hafen noted, the “concept of interdependent, equal partners is well-grounded” in Christian teachings. Adam and Eve, our first parents were our first model of this structure. All that we read about their striving and counseling together reminds us of their commitment to their sacred union. He continued, “in an equal-partner marriage, both [individuals] also bring a spiritual maturity to their partnership . . . each striv[ing] to become…a complete spiritual being” and thus “with true participation, husband and wife merge into synergistic oneness.
Existing differences (whether on a level of spiritual gifts or different roles of family leadership) can become a powerful part of building a whole, since the couple can lead, shape, and bless others together in ways they could not do separately.
Yet, as Alan Hawkins and his associates contend, these different “stewardships do not entail domination or subordination; rather they allow for a system of interdependent service and leadership for the purpose of redeeming souls”—especially those little, precious souls parents are tasked with helping increase in “wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”
“Temple marriage covenants do not magically bring equality to a partnership. Those covenants commit us to a developmental process of learning and growing together—by practice.”
What does this look like in practice? It looks like the ready round of congratulatory praise when the partner succeeds—without the worry that maybe this says something about one’s own inadequacy. It looks like either partner willing to comfort a child or take out the garbage, not because it is one’s turn, but because it needs to be done. It looks like the recognition that a 50% individual contribution will never amount to much, since both partners will need to commit at the 110% level to keep love flowing and children growing. It looks like the rejection of the need to create ready marital “escape plans” to feel safe from potential heartbreak, since these thoughts and plans also keep one “safe” from the highest joys of a fully trusting relationship. It means the tacit acknowledgement that some marital differences will always be chronic (e.g., one partner’s first choice for date night is the opera, while the other prefers a professional hockey game).
What this does not mean is a casual or non-vigilant attitude by either partner towards the many aggressions, domineering attitudes, misplaced expectations, and subordinating relationships that cultures have perpetuated resulting in crimes against women and disrespect towards men. In equal partnership relationships, these issues are both recognized and handled openly, and subsequently and intentionally dismissed from the relationship.
Individual couples clearly won’t be automatically able to rise to this relational level even if their worthy marriage began with sacred promises. Referring to Latter-day Saint orthodox marriage ceremonies, Elder Hafen stated, “Temple marriage covenants do not magically bring equality to a partnership. Those covenants commit us to a developmental process of learning and growing together—by practice.” The process will require years of dedicated efforts where we oft must reach to the heavens for directions in our individual circumstances. And then, in a beautiful way, the “extent to which they have become one with Him is the extent to which they are one with each other.”
For a generation who may particularly fear a loss of independence, who likes to keep options open, and who may be anxious in matters of commitment, this high call to interdependence may require an even greater leap of faith than prior generations have made. Thus, it is imperative that a greater effort be mounted to show the way, to make more overt these principles of strong marital relationships, and to provide models in every community.
These and other efforts to live with a bright faith will help emerging adults to see beyond discouraging national statistics to recognize that their faith, work, and investment does not leave them hopeless on a sea of undulating trends, but rather that living this equal partnership model—time proven since the first generation of this world’s history—gives them a lighted stone in a finely fitted vessel with God “blowing them” towards their promised land—built not after the manner of men, but by a deeply uniting, ever trustworthy celestial standard.