Encouraging young couples to cultivate trust is a bit like exhorting a teenage boy to develop healthy eating habits: it’s rarely front of mind. However, like health, trust takes time, intentionality, and effort to develop and guard. So whether you’re engaged, or early in your marriage (or years in, for that matter), how are you and your spouse deepening and strengthening your trust in marriage?
Traditional marriage vows include the phrase “forsaking all others” as a promise of exclusivity “for as long as we both shall live.” In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken includes an image that offers both a sober warning and a powerful insight into marriage, one my wife and I have benefitted from personally.
As unbelievers, Sheldon and his wife, Davy, so cherished their relationship that they did not want anyone or anything to come between their love for one another. They therefore committed to maintaining a “Shining Barrier” around their marriage to preserve the exclusivity of their love. They vowed to never have children, lest rambunctious little ones invade their shining barrier. Lest death break that barrier, they even promised to one day sail out to sea to sink their sailboat so they could die together. In retrospect, the converted Sheldon judiciously titles the section on their young, distorted commitment to one another’s vows “Pagan Love.” As Christians, we recognize in their marriage a sober warning: a relationship so devoted to itself excludes and replaces God.
Nevertheless, Sheldon and Davy’s commitment to radical exclusivity in their marriage highlights a powerful insight: marriages thrive on trust. Sheldon and Davy prized their “in-loveness” and feared broken trust would destroy it. They therefore sought to cultivate and encourage trust. My wife and I seek to do so too, while wary not to resort to Sheldon and Davy’s extreme exclusivity. We do so by pursuing one another in three distinct but overlapping modes: face-to-face intimacy, back-to-back partnership, and side-by-side friendship.
Face-to-face trust grows when spouses seek to know and be known by one another. Such intimacy may happen on weekly date nights, or during prayer before bed, or on morning walks, or with playfulness around each other throughout the day. And, yes, in sexual foreplay and consummation too. We’re naive, though, to reduce intimacy to sex. For, as lovers come to know, sex is merely part of a much greater beauty. “To be in love, as to see beauty, is a kind of adoring that turns the lover away from self,” Sheldon observes (A Severe Mercy, 43). Thus, face-to-face intimacy is a beholding of the beloved — a looking up from self and away from the world to truly see another.
Beholding our beloved will look different in different seasons of marriage. In every season, though, intimacy is an opening up of yourself to your spouse emotionally, physically, and spiritually. This requires vulnerability from both of you. In fact, trust and vulnerability run parallel in intimacy. Thoughtfully and consistently sharing your joys and burdens, fears and successes, and then seeking to hear the same from your spouse, engenders the kind of trust out of which healthy marriages are made.
For many couples early in their relationship, emotional and physical intimacy may come easily. A gentle touch. A whispered word. A quick glance. Eros makes us eager to give ourselves heart, soul, mind, and body to our beloved. And in most marriages, you will quickly rack up more face time with your spouse than with anyone else. But it takes work to develop deeper and lasting intimacy.
In his song “World Traveler,” Andrew Peterson describes how his small-town younger self dreamed of traveling the world to discover “the great beyond.” He had “hardly seen a thing,” though, when he “gave a golden ring / To the one who gave her heart to me.” And he became a different kind of world traveler as “she opened the gate and took my hand / And led me into the mystic land / Where her galaxies swirl.” For deep and lasting trust to take root, we must travel each other’s souls with a kind of patient, unhurried attention that is willing to wonder and delight.
In beholding our spouse, we’re seeking to give and receive the true reward of face-to-face intimacy: being both genuinely known and truly loved. We will ultimately find this only in communion with God, and yet he ordains marriage as one picture that points to such a future heavenly reward (Ephesians 5:25–33). Such face-to-face trust, though, is fragile and requires a different kind of posture to guard and protect it.
When couples, knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, seek to guard and protect each other, they develop a kind of back-to-back trust. We all have blind spots, besetting sins, and frailties that our spouse comes to know through the consistent face time of everyday life. And spouses can use those sight lines and their own unique strengths to protect each other. Sin crouches at the door (Genesis 4:7), Satan roars like a lion (1 Peter 5:8), and both seek to devour your marriage. Like two heroes with circling enemies, couples turn back-to-back, trusting the other to call out threats, shout encouragements, and celebrate even the small victories together.
Couples, of course, can partner back-to-back without an obvious enemy like sin or Satan. External pressures from difficult circumstances, a challenging boss, high expectations from extended family or friends can all create a setting where a couple needs to practice back-to-back partnership. The in-laws come into town, and their casual, make-it-up-as-we-go style disorients the wife’s thoughtful, well-planned itineraries. Her gift for planning is unwittingly ignored by the husband’s parents, and after day one with them she feels exposed and frustrated. She’s tempted to unload her frustration on him, and he’s tempted to shrug off her concerns as being oversensitive. Both spouses are tempted to start shooting at each other in the very moment they most need to care for the other, building mutual trust by standing back-to-back. In recognizing the urge to attack him, she can instead generously acknowledge the qualities worth praising in her in-laws — while he can initiate a frank conversation with his parents about following the plan for day two.
As we recognize and protect against threats to each other, we reap the fruit of stability and endurance. Back-to-back trust strengthens marriages to bear the heavy burdens we carry together in a fallen world. Yet the intimacy from face-to-face and the strength from back-to-back can both be undermined if we neglect another posture for cultivating trust.
Couples who seek to behold and pursue something together cultivate side-by-side trust. This side-by-side posture is marriage as friendship.
Friendships form around a mutual beholding of a shared delight. When you discover another who shares your interest in something dear to you, you declare, “You too?! I thought I was the only one!” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, 248). Your friendship may include many mutual pursuits or only just a few, but any side-by-side time fosters the kind of trust that comes from holding something in common beyond your relationship itself.
Many couples’ relationships initially form around something they pursued together. Perhaps you two met because of a love for music, or a shared academic interest, or a business venture. Often, however, the demands and trials of life act over time like a centrifugal force, pushing those once-shared pursuits to the periphery. I’m suggesting that, as much as you can, pursue interests held in common, whether old or new, in the regular rhythms of your life together.
Perhaps you host the annual fall festival in your backyard, or serve on the worship team together, or play Terraforming Mars with those other board-game fanatics. Whatever the common pursuit, invest in it together. And if you object that you do not share the same interests, then find one of your spouse’s interests that you can learn too. Sheldon loved literature; Davy excelled in music. Out of love for the other, they “became at home in both worlds” (A Severe Mercy, 38).
Finding Intimacy on the Way to God
Investing in side-by-side trust is essential because a “creeping separateness,” Sheldon and Davy rightly warn, is frequently a “killer of love” (37). And as they later discovered in their conversion, the greatest resistance to that centrifugal force is no mere common pursuit but the greatest pursuit: beholding God together. So even if shared hobbies and interests feel sparse, seek always to go in a Godward direction together. For Christian marriages are built not around mere eros or philia, but around a shared receiving and giving of agape love for God and one another. Therefore, together as a couple we must prize worshiping God at home and with God’s people.
The beautiful thing about these three postures for cultivating trust is their mutually reinforcing nature. You can’t grow in intimacy if you are not working to protect each other from temptation and sin, disappointment and burnout — or just simply protecting your own time together. The reverse is true as well. You can’t grow in your ability to help each other see your blind spots if you do not grow in face-to-face fellowship. And both face-to-face and back-to-back trust flourish in the consistency of a side-by-side friendship set on God.