Creating the Ideal Marital Environment

When I was fourteen years old, my dad and I went fishing in the mountains of Northern Arizona. On the first day of the trip, we decided to fish on a secluded river. Since neither of us brought a map, it took about three hours to find the river. When we finally arrived, we were so exhausted that we decided to swim in the cool water. The only problem was that we did not bring our swimming suits. After a small debate, I reasoned that since we hadn't seen anyone all day, we could swim as nature had intended it and feel safe. If only dad had listened to that little voice inside his head!

After only a few minutes, however, a group of hikers suddenly appeared out of the woods. Horrified, we sank down into the deep water so that only our red, embarrassed faces were visible. As the group passed by, one of the hikers curiously pointed at my dad and yelled, “Hey, aren't you that famous author Gary Smalley?” The best part was the fact that the hiker held out his hand to shake my dad’s hand! It was awesome to watch dad explain why he couldn’t stand up to shake hands. To this day I cannot believe that someone recognized him in the middle of the wilderness.

Although swimming in the river was exciting (and humiliating for my dad), the best part of our trip happened next. After getting dressed, we started fishing near a beaver dam. The fishing there was unbelievable. We were catching something each time we threw our lines out. This is when dad suggested that we stop and have a Bible study. I looked at him like he’d just had a mental breakdown. “NOW!” I barked at him, “You want to stop fishing in order to read the Bible. Those hikers must have done something to you.”

Although I didn't want to stop fishing, I conceded to dad’s request. We must have sat on the beaver dam for an hour reading the Bible and praying together.

During that time, dad even confronted me about some things that he'd been noticing happening in my life.

“Son,” he said, “There are some things that I need to say. You might not like them but I want you to be aware what I'm seeing in you.”

“Okay,” I responded nervously, “What is it?”

“Lately,” he began, “You've stopped going to church, you're arguing more with me and your mother, and your principal said that you got into a fight at school. What is going on with you?”

My lip began to quiver. I’m sure dad could see that I was trying to hold back much pain. “I didn't want to tell you because I didn't think it was a big deal,” I began to explain, “But a kid at school, who's also in my youth group, has been acting bizarre. He's been calling me names and trying to pick fights. I don't know what to do.”

Instantly dad understood why I didn't want to attend church.

“Son, why didn't you tell me about this guy?” he asked.

“I don't know!” I shot back, “I just felt stupid that I couldn't stand up to him.”

We spent the next 30 minutes talking about my ordeal. I felt extremely valuable as dad listened to my pain. As difficult as it was, he even resisted the temptation to solve my situation. We ended our time with communion and turned the problem over to the Lord.

Unexpectedly, this experience turned out to be one of the highlights of my life. Even more special, I still have a chewed up piece of beaver wood I found sitting on my shelf at work. It serves as a reminder of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned. Better yet, what happened to me that day is the key to intimacy in any relationship—especially a marriage.

Creating the Ideal Environment

How many relationships can you count on both hands where you feel safe to open up and share who you really are and share your deepest thoughts and dreams? Do you mostly feel close to or distant from other people?

People are designed to hunger for intimacy and deep connection. God created us to connect with others and experience relational intimacy, especially in the key relationship with our spouse. This design causes us to have a basic desire for intimacy that can feel like a deep yearning.

If you are like me, you long for relationships in which you feel completely safe. You want to feel free to open up and reveal who you really are and know that the other person will still love, accept, and value you—no matter what.

Yet, many of us struggle with various aspects of intimacy because it requires openness, and openness makes us instantly vulnerable. We’re not quite sure what they will say or do or how they’ll use what they learn about us. This is why a lack of desire to connect—or an avoidance of intimacy in general—usually has more to do with attempting to avoid being hurt, humiliated, embarrassed, or just plain uncomfortable.

As a way to lessen the risks involved, we come up with many strategies to try to connect without getting hurt. We spend so much energy trying to hide. We put up walls and try to project an image we think people want so that when they look at us through the camera lens, they like what they see. We may keep parts of us closed and protected. We may ignore or deny how we actually feel. We may get angry or demanding as a way of distracting ourselves, or our spouse, from our own vulnerability. There are a whole host of options we may use to attempt to avoid relational risks. Unfortunately, these strategies usually limit the quality of the intimacy in our relationships because it’s hard for people to get close to us if we’re standing on the other side of a thick wall or a false mask.

In spite of the risks, the potential benefits of an intimate relationship are many. Intimacy creates the ideal opportunity to: love deeply and be loved; experience a significant sense of belonging; have a clear sense of purpose in life; have the ability to make a major difference in another’s life; and have a way of fully expressing the best of who we are.

As a result, they will look for ways create that experience. In order for intimacy and deep connection to occur, hearts and spirits must be open. Therefore, the typical strategies that people use to achieve intimacy and deep connection are to try to get open or to find ways to create intimacy (like fishing together). For a moment, think of all the ways you try to create intimacy in your marriage. We learn about each other’s love language and emotional needs. We partake in romantic activities like flowers, cards, candle-lit dinners. We go on date nights with our spouse. We attend relationship conferences and read marriage books. We join small groups and talk about our marriage. And the list goes on.

While, on some level this appears to seem reasonable, in reality these are unnecessarily difficult strategies due to our inherent resistance to the dangers of emotional vulnerability.

An easier approach is to focus significant time, attention and energy into creating an environment that feels safe. I’m not talking about safety in terms of do you feel physically safe. I’m talking emotional safety—safe to truly open up and be known at a deep, intimate level.

The foundational component is a truly safe environment—one that is safe physically, intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. As mentioned, people are, by nature, inclined to want to be open and connect. Logically, openness can be understood as the default setting for human beings. No state of being takes less energy to maintain than openness which involves being yourself and just relaxing. Maintaining defenses, walls, and fortresses takes tremendous energy. Working to get people to see you a certain way, by projecting images or trying to get them to like or accept you, requires significant energy. Simply expressing who you are and “being” does not. As a result, when people feel truly safe, they prefer to be open and use their life energy to live and create and enjoy life.

When people are together in a state of openness, intimacy naturally occurs. In its most basic sense, intimacy is the experience of being close to another person and openly sharing something with them. This may or may not include words. It doesn’t necessarily require work or effort. The mistake many make—knowing they want to experience intimacy and that openness is required—is to focus on trying to be open or to create intimacy. Either focus makes getting to true intimacy harder than necessary. The easier approach to intimacy is to focus on creating a safe environment for yourself and for your spouse. When both of you feel safe, you will be naturally inclined to relax and be open. Then, intimacy will simply happen.

Focus on Creating Safety

Let me say it again: When people feel safe they are naturally inclined to open their hearts and spirit. Intimacy occurs effortlessly and naturally when hearts and spirits open to one another because that state of openness requires less energy to maintain than all possible states of being. For that reason openness is the default setting of our hearts. Openness was the natural state of being in the garden, and is the natural state of being in the Promised Land. As a result, when people are open with each other intimacy just happens. It does not require effort or conscious attention.

Therefore, I have found that the only way to enjoy a close, open, intimate relationship is to create a safe environment where two people who want to stay in love and harmony feel very safe with each other. Over the years, I’ve thought about why I opened up to my dad that day by the beaver dam. I’m convinced it was because I felt safe with him. In the moment, I didn’t feel he was trying to judge me or fix the problem. He just wanted to listen to my hurt and pain.

The good news is that you can create an open atmosphere in your marriage that will allow both people to be their true selves. But the focus must be on creating safety.

Safety will help you create a climate in which you can build open relationships that will grow and flourish. It will help you build relationships in which you and the other person will feel cherished, honored, and alive. It’s almost as if this sets a soothing tone that will allow you to feel relaxed in your relationships.

If that sounds like paradise, it’s maybe because Eden was a supremely safe place. Adam and Eve felt no fear there. Before their sin, they enjoyed an amazingly intimate relationship with God, themselves, and each other. The couple felt so close to one another that God described them as “united into one.” Nothing came between Adam and Eve—not insecurities, not sharp differences of opinion, not even clothes! They were completely open with each other—no walls, no masks, no fear. Their relationship blossomed.

In your quest to have the “best of the best” in your life and marriage, I want to encourage you to make creating safety in your marriage a top priority. Start this process by answering some basic questions:

  1. 0-10 (with ten being the most safe), how safe is your marriage for you and your spouse?
  2. How have I made it unsafe for my spouse?
  3. How do I damage the safety of my marital environment?
  4. What do I do in response to feeling unsafe?

To have a foundation of safety built into a marriage, especially emotionally, makes opening up significantly easier. When you and your spouse know that both of you are committed to creating a safe marriage, you avoid things that would cause hurt in either of you, and you begin building a foundation for a great relationship. Ideally, your home should feel like the safest place on earth.

Greg Smalley, PsyD
Website | + posts

Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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