What does it take to make a good marriage, or perhaps to make a good marriage better?
Veteran counselors, John & Paula Sanford, commented that “the greatest and most common difficulty we encounter in marital counselling is this matter of leaving and cleaving.” So many couples that I know are stuck in their relationship, because they have never really left their father and mother. Leaving is more than just physical leaving. Leaving is also emotional, spiritual, and social. Without adequate leaving, there can never be adequate cleaving. True intimacy requires a death to an old way of relating in order to birth a new level of relationship with one’s spouse.
You may have heard the following in wedding services: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh”. It is actually a quote from the book of Genesis Chapter 2 vs. 24, and reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:5. Having taken many marriage services over the years, I have had the opportunity to observe both healthy and unhealthy relationships. The unhealthy marriages invariably are stuck in the area of leaving. There is an over-bonding, a ‘bentness’ towards one’s parents that keeps the couple from moving forward. It is as if the umbilical chord, spiritually speaking, has never really been cut.
John & Paula Sanford comment that “independence or leaving is the first and continuing price of ongoing life.” Leaving is a two-way street. It is not only the couple that needs to leave, but also the parents that need to release their adult children to their new destiny. That is why marriage services include the question: ‘Do you, members of the families of N. and N., give your blessing to this marriage?’ “Letting go and letting God” can be very painful for parents who have spent much of their lives child-rearing. But unless we choose to let go, we emotionally kill and crush the very ones we love.
The powerful 1990 Irish movie “The Field’ illustrate the vital importance of letting go the ones we love. The Irish father ‘Bull’ McCabe so wanted to cling to his son Tadgh that his inability to let him go ultimately brought about his son’s destruction.
Leaving without cleaving is also insufficient. Healthy marriages require a commitment to cleaving. John & Paula Sanford hold that “cleaving is the primary calling and task of honorable marriage…Cleaving is ‘a matter first of opening to one’s mate, then closing to all others”. That is why marriage services will include the phrase: “forsaking all others, to be faithful to her/him so long as you both shall live”
Cleaving is not a one-time decision, but rather a daily decision to keep one’s heart open to one’s spouse, no matter what the pain and struggle. It is always easy to give in to the temptation to isolate oneself and disconnect from real intimacy. Cleaving is the commitment to love one’s spouse sacrificially, even to the point of laying down one’s life for them. Cleaving is the commitment to washing one’s spouse’s feet, to serving them in big and little ways. Cleaving is the commitment to listening deeply and sensitively when one would rather watch TV or get lost in a book.
One of the healthiest marriages that I know of is my parent’s marriage. They have grown together in the past 60 years in a way that deeply inspires me. They have learned through experience the importance of leaving one’s parents, of setting healthy boundaries so that their own marriage could blossom. My parents also modeled for me the biblical call to true cleaving and intimacy. After 60 years, they are better friends than ever. That is what I want for my children in their future marriages, when they leave us and cleave to their spouses.
Leaving and cleaving is the secret to a healthy marriage. My prayer for those reading this article is that each of us may learn how to truly leave our parents so that we may truly cleave to our spouse.