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A Psychological Interpretation of Genesis 2:24
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

“Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

In Pope St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, he begins with Genesis. What better way to tell the story of what it means to be human then to start at the beginning. In the Creation account, it is revealed that man was not meant to be alone, and God created a suitable helper for him. The relationship between the man and the woman was designed to be one of mutuality and complementarity. There were significant differences, yet they existed in harmony and complemented one another.

One of the goals of Christian marriage is to rediscover that original unity between Adam and Eve, through sacrifice, self-gift, and a shared movement toward holiness. Yet often, couples find themselves feeling isolated and alone, experiencing solitude and even despair within their relationships. The idea of marital unity can seem so far off, like a distant dream, when the day-to-day interactions are grating.  In Love & Responsibility, Pope St. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla) wrote:

True love, a love that is internally complete, is one in which we choose the person for the sake of the person, — that in which a man chooses a woman or a woman chooses a man not just as a sexual partner but as the person on whom to bestow the gift of his or her own life. It is put to the test most severely when the sensual and emotional reactions themselves grow weaker, and sexual values as such lose their effect. Nothing then remains except the value of the person, and the inner truth about the love of those concerned comes to light. If their love is a true gift of self, so that they belong, each to the other, it will not only survive but grow stronger and sink deeper roots.  Whereas if it was never more than a sort of synchronization of sensual and emotional experiences, it will lose its raison d’etre and the person involved will suddenly find themselves in a vacuum.

Ideally, when a man and women enter a marital relationship, they are doing so freely and are able to make a full gift of themselves. Sometimes, however, this is not the case. As Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Theology of the Body, in order to give yourself, you must first have some sense of self-ownership.  

Some psychologists like to focus on “the unconscious” in their work and believe that the goal of individual therapy is to bring the things that are outside the person’s awareness into view. These are the therapists that like to ask, “so, tell me about your mother…” There is a sense that if we can become more aware of our true intentions, motivations, and desires, we can make more informed decisions and increase ownership of our choices. To uncover the truth about ourselves, we go back to the beginning, to our origin stories.

When we carry unresolved pain from our past in our unconscious, we can react to our current relationships and life events from a place of fear and self-protection without even realizing it. There is a defense system in place to keep negative past experiences from recurring. It is a very natural process. As a kid, you touched the stove and found out that it burns, and you will never touch it again… In our interactions with our parents as children, we were constantly using them as a sounding board, taking in and adapting to their feedback, and learning how to be. Our parents were not perfect people and sometimes their reactions were not the most reliable. In such cases, we developed beliefs and reactions that may have helped us navigate childhood, but do not generalize well into adulthood. The journey of self-mastery involves untangling the past from the present, recognizing when we’re reacting based on our history instead of the here-and-now. In order to be fully present to the person in front of me, I need to see the reactions that are coming from my own unmet needs or history and make a conscious choice to reorient myself to the person before me. It is a brave and difficult thing to explore some of the dark corners of your story, but once illuminated the fear no longer reigns.

So what does all this have to do with Genesis 2:24? My working theory is that most marital conflict is rooted in an inability to see past an original wound and truly orient to the other person. Maybe I’m reacting to something my spouse said and interpreting it through a lens colored by my past experience.  That coloration, while true to my experience, may affect my ability to see my spouse’s intentions clearly or interpret them accurately. I’ll give you a personal example. My dad was not around very much when I was young.  That generated an assumption in my mind that men are naturally selfish. For a longtime, I had no idea that I even had that assumption, never mind that I was using it to interpret the behavior of all the men in my life.  You can imagine how that filter might affect my interpretation, in moments when my husband would choose to do something for himself, instead of for our family. Thankfully, I’ve learned to identify when that thought-train is leaving the station and choose to reorient myself to my spouse ­– who by the way is incredibly devoted to family – and see that in the moments he’s choosing something for himself, it’s to replenish and rest, to make himself more available to us in the future. What a different reality! So, I like to think that to leave the father and mother and cleave to the spouse, can speak to that process of untangling the past from the present, ultimately restoring the freedom needed to fully commit to loving the person before me in the present moment.

Bringing John Paul II into Couples’ Communication
by Dr. Emily Dowdell

One of the reasons I am excited to be a part of the RWPS team is our commitment to making the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II and his Theology of the Body more accessible. One area in which we do this is in marital therapy. 

Couples experiencing marital distress are almost always struggling with a breakdown in communication. One or both parties feel misunderstood, and they often find themselves in a power struggle. When couples get locked into these cycles of interaction, they lose sight of their shared humanity, and the love they have for one another. Each person digs their heels into their own individual experiences and demands authority. Many times, the desire for power or authority comes from a deeper desire to be known, heard, and understood at the heart of which is a longing for closeness and a fear of rejection or abandonment. When working with couples who run into these struggles, I often provide this analogy: 

Imagine you and your significant other are standing at the top of a long driveway at dusk. You can’t quite make out what’s happening at the bottom. You see two figures walking past the lamppost and share your observations with each other. One of you sees a couple on a nice evening stroll, the other fears someone is being stalked and in danger.  The two of you argue about who is right, adamant about your observations and opinions. You stay at the top of the driveway and try to convince one another that you really know what’s going on down there. Yet, neither of you have enough information. If we strip away the power struggle, we might have a more balanced interaction. Instead of arguing about who is right, you might be curious about each other’s perceptions. When you seek to understand the other person’s perspective, you might learn that the one who feels fear was once assaulted from behind. The one who saw an evening stroll finds going for walks in the evening romantic. After learning about each other and why you see the world as you do, you might decide to get a little closer to find out what is really going on at the bottom of the driveway.  As you get closer, you could discover that you were both wrong, and it was your neighbor and his son walking their dog. 

In this event, there is an opportunity for the spouses to learn more about one another and their shared reality. One of the beautiful things about the philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II is that he made space for subjective experience without denying objective truth. Some philosophies that aim to honor individual experience can go to an extreme and abandon the notion of an objective reality— we see this in the common phrase “follow your truth” and other mottos based in moral relativism. On the other hand, other philosophies are more rigid about following the rules and impose an objective framework that fails to take into account each person’s subjective experience.  Pope St. John Paul II found a way to recognize the both—and. He affirmed the unique experiences that form our individual thoughts, beliefs, and opinions and asserted that we are interacting with an objective, shared reality. We have a moral obligation to pursue truth and to refrain from treating others as an object, yet we also must respect and honor each other’s subjectivity. 

When we orient ourselves to the pursuit of objective truth — about ourselves and others — in a way that respects our subjective viewpoints, we can experience more harmonious relationships and experience more interior freedom and peace. As in the example above, instead of becoming entrenched in protecting one’s ego, defending oneself and one’s view as “correct” and alienating one’s significant other in the process, we can take a curious stance with oneself, one’s spouse, and the shared reality. In doing so, one might come to realize that, while one’s assumptions about reality were inaccurate, they were coming from a lived experience, thus not invalid. Becoming entrenched in one’s own view becomes problematic when one lacks insight into one’s perspective, presumes to have all the answers, cites assumptions as facts, and refuses to dialogue with oneself, others, and the world.   

If I am approaching a conversation with my husband looking for a certain response — perhaps I am looking for support, validation, or encouragement — and he does not respond in the way I expected, this can indeed be quite disappointing. I might spiral into thoughts about what this means about our marriage or become angry because I feel entitled to the response I wanted.  If instead, I have the awareness to recognize my need, see that I was treating my husband as a source of need-fulfillment, and instead seek to treat him as a person, this changes the dynamic. I can recognize my need, acknowledge my disappointment, and be curious about both of our reactions. I wish I was always able to “put my bags down” in conversations and focus on the good of the other, but sometimes it’s really hard. 

If you or your spouse is struggling to communicate, becoming overwhelmed with strong emotions in conversation, and is unable to be curious — it may be a sign of woundedness and a source of difficulty in your life. There is likely a lot of pain and suffering there, which deeply needs compassion. We are here to help.  By learning to understand yourself and your spouse more deeply, as well as healing underlying wounds that trip us up in our relationships, the RWPS team will walk with you as you seek the healing and growth in your capacity for love. It is also important to remain compassionate with yourself and your spouse through these struggles. We all struggle in our vocations and need the healing power of God’s grace and the support of others to live our vocations fully and faithfully.  In our struggles, we find the prayer of St. Francis a helpful reminder of our calling to seek the good of the other: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.”