A Marital Unity Myth: 1+1=1

By Robert Paul
By Greg Smalley
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Illustration of the equation 1+1=1 as a symbol of marital unity
Illustration by FOTF/Brian Mellema
Uncover the lie that distorts true marital unity

About nine years into my marriage, the conflict pattern I had with my wife, Jenni, was predictable. Sometimes differences arose that threatened our marital unity. So I would try to help Jenni see why her position and feelings were wrong and how she needed to change. Jenni would then escalate into anger to get me to back off. 

One day during that season, we got sideways over something. Jenni asked if we could walk to the park so we could talk.

I agreed.

When we arrived, she took out a piece of paper and drew a line down the middle. She labeled one side “Bob.” The other side “Jenni.” On the “Bob” side, she listed the way I saw the issue. On the other side, she listed the way she saw it.

She then asked me if I agreed with her description.

I acknowledged that what she had listed on both sides was accurate.

Then Jenni said, “From my perspective, you just see this issue differently than I do. And I’m OK with the way you see it. Can you be OK with the way I see it?”

My answer was an emphatic no.

Marital unity definitions

Jenni was shocked by my response. In her mind, differences were an acceptable and natural part of all human relationships. However, at that point I was thoroughly locked into a belief that differences were a problem to overcome. That’s because I had an unrealistic view of marital unity. I thought that when a husband and wife were joined in matrimony, they essentially gave up their individuality in order to become “one.”

Discovering a healthier model for marriage eventually turned our marriage around. But I had to let go of my false idea about unity. I had to replace it with a biblical mindset allowed us to form a healthier relationship. Here’s a look at the true unity that God has designed for couples.

The 1 + 1 = 1 lie

If you’re like me when I was first married, marriage was represented by the math equation 1 + 1 = 1. It sounds wonderful. And on the surface it seems to align with God’s plan for husbands and wives to experience oneness. Jesus’ teaching on marriage describes oneness as unity: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:6). Jesus uses the metaphor of “one flesh” to describe the spiritual, emotional and physical unity couples can experience only in marriage.

However, this metaphor can’t be taken literally; otherwise, every married couple’s goal would be to become conjoined twins!

This two-become-one model seems to promise fewer arguments, but as Jenni and I found, it produces more discord because one spouse’s preferences, choices, ideas and personality may get attacked or even eliminated.

There Is Still Hope for Your Marriage

You may feel that there is no hope for your marriage and the hurt is too deep to restore the relationship and love that you once had. The truth is, your life and marriage can be better and stronger than it was before. In fact, thousands of marriages, situations as complex and painful as yours, have been transformed with the help of professionals who understand where you are right now and care deeply about you and your spouse’s future. You can restore and rebuild your marriage through a personalized, faith-based, intimate program called, Hope Restored.

A biblical marriage requires two healthy people

A healthy relationship requires the foundational building block of a biblical marriage: the healthy adult. And by “healthy” we mean a person capable of fully caring for his or her whole being—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual—who has also accepted full responsibility for the job. 

Sounds simple, right? We wish it were, but sadly it’s not. As Dr. Greg Smalley, vice president of Marriage at Focus on the Family, and I work with struggling couples, we’ve noticed that both the understanding of true adulthood and the modeling of it are largely missing.

The good news is that becoming an adult is fundamentally about those two factors I mentioned: capability and responsibility. If you are able to care well for yourself and then take on the job, you qualify. Those of us with less-than-ideal examples to rely on may have to work a little harder to figure it out, but it’s completely doable. 

There’s one more important element to becoming a fully functioning, healthy adult: recognizing that, by design, we are dependent upon God. We are flawed and imperfect people who need His help. The great news is that He can provide so much of what we need. Thus, the job of an effective adult is to responsibly care for ourselves while simultaneously depending on the Lord, who is our ultimate source of life, strength, wisdom and knowledge.

Through a commitment to personal responsibility and self-care, healthy individuals become capable of forging a strong marriage.

When two healthy adults interact

When Greg and I work with married couples in our respective practices, we try to help them understand and embrace a concept of marriage that moves beyond the faulty 1 + 1 = 1 equation We call it the Healthy Marriage Model. It provides a clearer picture of God’s eternal design for marriage.

Marital Unity Diagram that includes a husband, wife, and God
Illustration by FOTF/Brian Mellema

When two healthy adults build a relationship, a new dynamic is formed: the Interactive Space. This is where their relationship can grow and culminate in marriage. Within this Interactive Space, the relationship develops as the couple learn more about each other by sharing who they are, what they enjoy and what they want to do in life. When things seem good and they want to go deeper still, they might discuss their dreams and aspirations, their passions and their sense of life calling.

If the Interactive Space feels tense or is filled with anger, or they anticipate criticism, hurtful interactions or other unpleasant experiences, they’ll likely be apprehensive to enter. However, if the space is warm, cozy, exciting, loving and pleasurable, they’ll be far more likely to want to engage with each other. They each get to do their part to help create an interactive environment they both feel comfortable in and look forward to spending time in.

The Interactive Space needs maintenance

Over time, neglect of the Interactive Space is where many couples encounter trouble. Having initially created a warm and vibrant space, they ignore it, assuming it will continue to grow on its own. For their relationship to continue thriving, they must regularly enter the Interactive Space together and invest time and energy into keeping the relationship alive. This is where they can cultivate the friendship and a marriage they love. If they don’t maintain the space, the relationship may wither and die for lack of attention. 

When two healthy adults are building a relationship with each other and with God, they can also experience a vibrant, shared spiritual experience together. Couples can invest in their spiritual intimacy by turning their private times with God into times where they interact with God together. This can include:

  • prayer
  • devotions
  • Bible study
  • church and Sunday school attendance
  • discussions about God and their faith journeys
  • and other rich opportunities that can deepen their intimate relationship with God.

This makes the Healthy Marriage Model math become 1 + 1 = 3. Only when a husband and a wife give their marriage attention and care will there be true unity.

The hard work pays off

Jenni and I have come a long way since that day in the park when I didn’t appreciate our different perspectives. A few years ago, the Lord helped us overcome a common source of tension: planning our vacations. Jenni and I have very different ideas about what an ideal vacation is. Jenni loves to go and do and see as much as possible. Now, I also love to travel and see new things. But when we did vacations Jenni’s way, I came home exhausted, needing a vacation from our vacation!

By contrast, my ideal vacation is to find a beautiful, scenic beach where I can relax, sun and swim, with no agenda or timelines. 

Our differing ideas about vacations became fertile ground for constant conflict in our marriage. But God had a better plan: unity.

Jenni and I learned to hear each other’s hearts and better manage conflict. We talked about how we each felt about vacations, what each other’s preferences were and why we felt that way. Then we decided to try to create a vacation that we could both love.

As a result, we strategically planned our road trip to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. We had never done before: day on, day off, day on, day off. We packed “on” days full of sightseeing and experiences that would leave us fulfilled and exhausted. On the “off” days we relaxed, recharging by sitting around a body of water and just existing at a slower pace.

In the end, we both agreed it was the best vacation ever! We discovered that when we allow our differences to blend, we find ways of operating as a couple that are far better than either of us would have found alone. We now know that we really are better together.


Listen to our broadcast as Dr. Greg Smalley discusses how cherishing the differences between you and your spouse can bring true unity in your marriage.


9 Lies That Will Destroy Your Marriage is a book by marriage experts Dr. Greg Smalley and Robert Paul. In it, they identify the rampant lies that are killing marriages and reveal the truths that can rescue those relationships that are floundering. 

© 2020 Focus on the Family. This article first appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of Focus on the Family magazine. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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