Marriage relationships require three things, the absence of any one of which will cause an imbalance that in most cases results in a failed marriage.  While there are a number of different ways of labeling/describing the three, i prefer to call them attraction, empathy, and conviction.

Attraction is the most obvious and often seems like sorta the ’cause’ of marriage.  Attraction we understand instinctively without a lot of need for definition.

Empathy is certainly emotional but it also includes the concept of feeling together.  Emotion by itself can just as easily harm marriage as help it.  But feeling that is for our partner and with our partner is an essential element of successful marriage.

Conviction is the backbone, the element that provides stability.  Both attraction and empathy tend to have cycles and waves.  Conviction (our set of beliefs about our marriage and our partner that are based on knowledge of them, ourselves, and what is important to us) provides the value system or context in which we can understand our attraction and emotion/empathy and choose to act based on knowledge and values rather than purely in response to instinct and impulse.

It is tempting to try to create a hierarchy or order of importance for these things.  Most religious traditions including Christianity in it’s more orthodox forms tend to downplay the importance of attraction and emphasize the other two.  I’m not at all convinced it is necessary or even important to decide which are most important.  I think the most important point is that all three together make for the most healthy and, frankly, enjoyable marriage relationship.

Let’s take conviction first, as it’s the one most often left out in decisions to marry someone.  What happens in most cases of a marriage with little or no conviction behind it?  This one is obvious and constantly observable in marriages all around us (or maybe i should say in divorces all around us).  If there is attraction and empathy without true conviction that this marriage is the RIGHT one for me and this person is the right one for me or, better yet, i BELONG with this person (which is a very different conviction indeed from i LIKE being with this person – which in the end is no conviction whatsoever but rather just an observation of our own emotions), this attraction and empathy will wax and wane.  And sooner or later the will to stay in the relationship during the periods of less empathy and less attraction will evaporate.  The marriage is very, very likely to fail without conviction.

What about empathy?  Certainly a marriage can last with just conviction and attraction can’t it?  I think we’ve probably all seen (and maybe do see) examples of this –  relationships with a good belief system, strong physical attraction, but little emotional content.   It is true, but quite painful, that marriages can survive in this condition for a long time.  However, no one with much sense would describe such a relationship as successful.  More like, painful and distant.  And in most cases like this, one or the other partner eventually will get to the point where the lack of empathy overwhelms the conviction and attraction put together and . . . it’s over.  Or, what is probably more common, the lack of empathy can very easily lead to an attenuation of the attraction as well (since our bodies are directly effected by our emotions).

Finally, can a marriage be healthy with just conviction and empathy with no attraction?  How to put this delicately . . . this is a healthy friendship relationship but it isn’t a healthy marriage.  With all due respect to the puritans in my spiritual heritage, why get married at all if attraction is irrelevant?  Friendship in marriage is essential, vital.   But marriage is also supposed to be more than friendship.

Healthy marriage is one-ness.  Oneness of mind, soul AND body.  Trying to take any two of those three and be one in just those areas while leaving the other element out creates an imbalance or gap in the marriage relationship and prevents it from being all it can and should be for both partners.

So, assuming you buy all of the above, what can be done if any one of the elements is weak or missing? – That will be Part 2 of this topic.