To Cleave: Advice from the Ancients Part III
We can safely assume that gratitude toward parents has, throughout time, not been as readily given as they deserve. Why else were people specifically told to honor their parents as one of only ten rules to live by? However, we can also conclude that there has been conflict about the ordering of relationship priorities over time as well. The next piece of relationship advice we read in Genesis 2:24 is to “cleave” to our partner. This bit of wisdom is suggesting that while we are grateful to our parents, we will be best served as adults to construct our closest connection with our partner.
Cleave means to be stuck or glued to something so closely that there is no possible way to be closer. We have developed a social dread of this type of closeness to a romantic partner. We portray people as “glued” to a smartphone, or as “die-hard” fans of a local football team in a way that isn’t entirely good but we negatively characterize people who are totally committed to a romantic relationship as “lost” or “whipped”. While hyper-protective “helicopter parents” are given an obligatory eye-roll, but really seen as nurturing partners who are intensely connected are seen as needy or weak.
According to Genesis 2:24, a partner should be the primary relationship of our adult lives—closer than any friend, sibling, child or parent and more important than any job or hobby. Given the climbing contemporary divorce rate, we should consider what this piece of ancient advice could contribute to the health of our romantic relationship.
Before we talk about what healthy cleaving looks like, let’s talk about what it’s not. Relationships are unhealthy when we rely on people outside of ourselves for the bulk of our happiness. This is called codependence. Just as codependence in a parent/child dynamic is stifling, codependence in a romantic partnership does not allow us to grow individually or together in our full capacity.
We live in a culture that values personal achievement and independence. Neither are bad things on which to place importance. However, a relationship is strongest when it is made up of two people who are leaning into each other’s strengths, talents, and capacities in trust and vulnerability. Two individuals who are each relying primarily on themselves create a weaker partner relationship. I think about these relationship types a tent versus pillars.
In a tent relationship, two people who are capable of existing as happy and successful individuals chose to lean in to their relationship in a spirit of teamwork.
In a pillar relationship, individuals celebrate their separateness and stand alone—sometimes close together and sometimes far apart. What happens when a snowstorm hits or a boulder falls on either of these structures? Tents protect each other from the snow, and shelter those inside. A boulder may fall on either side of the tent or at its fulcrum and a tent with a solid structure will bounce the rock off its façade, or at least retain stability. A snowstorm can unload a snowpack that keeps things cold between the two pillars, and each pillar plus anyone between the couple is unprotected in the elements. A boulder creates a substantial barrier between pillars, and can weaken or even flatten the pillar that is directly hit while the other suffers little or no impact. Two pillars are independent. Two people forming a tent are interdependent. Members of a pillar coupling are separate in their happiness and struggles. They might share in the emotions of their partner on a sympathetic level, but do not experience the situations and emotions of their partner as their own. Tents are happy separately, but are empathetic. They feel the emotion of their partner as part of their own emotional constellation and because of this investment more naturally and eagerly work to promote the happiness and wellbeing of their partner. They share in the hopes and endeavors of their team member. Pillars exist relationally to one another, while tents are in an active relationship.
To cleave is to have a tent relationship.
It’s likely that each member of a couple has personality aspects of a tent and a pillar. It’s important to identify what sort of relationship structure goal you have as a couple, and then constantly work to create and maintain that structure. If you decide that each of you is a pillar and neither of you is interested in being in a tent relationship, start a conversation with that goal in mind and ask each other what this structure means in practice. How will you celebrate holidays? What happens if someone gets really sick and needs care? Do you want to bring children into this relationship and if so who is responsible for their care and wellbeing? Many people in our society have constructed marriage relationships that are two pillars, existing together only to find out that two resilient yet separate people do not share a structure beyond a legal binding. Never having prioritized the relationship over work, family of origin and friends, it is not difficult to undo a marriage because there is not a deep level of commitment and care. Pillars may not like the idea of divorce, but would take the loss of a job or the death of a family member much harder than the undoing of their marriage. Acknowledge that. Be open to discussing how you prioritize, and be honest with your partner and yourself.
A tent relationship, or cleaving to a partner is something that can feel scary. Giving up some of our control and placing some of our balance with another is frightening, but it is also freeing. Forming a true partnership that involves the constant participation of another is an act of courage. We can each think of a million things that can go wrong in such a situation, because we have been hurt before and we do not want to be hurt again. What if it doesn’t work? Fair enough. But what if it does? We talk of love as a type of falling. Falling is the stuff of nightmares, action movies, and playground fights. Real love supports us, it doesn’t let us fall. Support of this type helps us rise up to be better individuals and partners. Cleaving to someone offers us support in the strength of another, and allows us the opportunity to extend ourselves beyond our individual needs and be present for someone else. By growing our vulnerability and being compassionate toward another at a very intimate level, we become a better version of ourselves. If you are constructing a tent relationship, talk with your partner about your goals and see which of these goals you hold in common, or would like to make into a common goal. As one side of a tent, you gain the support of someone who will make your promotion at work part of their goals, for instance. The health of your aging father becomes a situation both of you are committed to handling. Having children is an adventure you take together, acknowledging your fears and supporting each other in the scaling of doubts and difficulties.
While pillar people are more socially celebrated, a tent relationship is ultimately more personally rewarding. The ancients might just be on to something.
 Parents, in this process, should be mindful of not just allowing their children to “leave,” but encouraging and resourceful in the process. Just as it can be difficult for children to leave the familiarity of a family that has supported them emotionally, financially, and spiritually to be with someone who is loved, but doesn’t have the same amount of “road testing” as members of a family of origin, it can be upsetting for parents to see the priorities of grown children shift. Parents who consistently acknowledge their original goals for their children keep healthy perspective. Instead of feeling jealous that her son took a couples’ holiday with his partner instead of vacationing with the entire extended family this year, a mother would do well for herself as well as the relationship she has with her son and his partner to remember that she raised her son to be a caring man who would be a good partner and father when it was time. In place of hard feelings, the mother should let the warmth of her success as a woman who raised her son to love and prioritize his partner fill her mind and heart.