How Do We Handle Change Without Drifting Apart?

He marshaled all of his know-how to construct the raft that could withstand the vicious ocean breakers offshore. He had food and water for the journey; he even had a sail that he had managed to rig together. Most importantly, he had Wilson, a soccer ball painted to look like a human face. Tom Hanks’ character, Chuck Noland, then launched his raft, leaving the island that had nurtured and imprisoned him for the past four years. He was not far into his journey homeward when he once again faced the power of storms at sea; their assailing winds and tormenting rains battered his little vessel, leaving Chuck without provisions, without a sail, and without much of his raft. After battling the storm, exhausted, he fell asleep, and, without his awareness, Wilson quietly slipped into the sea and began to bobble away from the raft. When Chuck opened his eyes, he spotted Wilson drifting away. In desperation he dove into the ocean to retrieve his friend, in fact, the only friend he’d had for the last four years. Swimming as hard as he could, he watched in horror as Wilson drifted away; Chuck could not reach him in time. Aboard his raft now — alone — writhing in agony over his loss, Chuck cries over and over, “I’m sorry, Wilson!” He could deal with losing provisions. He managed alright without his sail. He even made do with a pared-down raft. But it was the loss of Wilson that tore him apart. Few scenes in Cast Away evoke such raw emotion.

The Reality of Drifting

How many relationships have ended simply because two people drifted apart? “Drifting apart” seems like such an innocuous phrase. It is not like storming off or hitting the road or bailing out or severing ties; those phrases are filled with intention and energy. But this harmless little word, drifting, conjures up scenes of lolling on an inner tube on a lazy river, basking in the sun, not paying much attention to your whereabouts. The very point of drifting is passivity, not actively engaging the world around you.

So when couples say, “We just drifted apart,” some of them mean, “Neither one of us is responsible for what happened to our relationship. Things happen, and this is just one of those things.” Others are like Chuck Noland, filled with grief and despair. “How could this have happened? I remember we fell in love. We married. Then there were the kids and work and the expectations of life. Now suddenly (it seems sudden when it is realized) we are on opposite sides of a very broad river.” In my experience most “drifters” are these type-two drifters, the remorseful. Even those who behave like type-one drifters, the comfortable adapters, in my opinion are likely defending themselves against the grief of such a loss by feigning coolness; seldom have I talked with one of the comfortable adapters and not heard the real story of the unbearable loss and what it is doing to them.

An Ounce of Prevention

One approach would be to warn people to be vigilant about their relationships, to remind everyone that no relationship is immune to the erosion of passions and purposes, to encourage everyone to look around for their “Wilson” and see where it really is right now. I recall a television commercial when I was a child, “It’s 11:00. Do you know where your children are?” Well, do you know where the heart of your husband is? Where is your wife’s heart? I mean, right now?

Today, I want to spend some time with those of you who feel like your Wilson has drifted beyond your reach and you feel powerless to do anything about it. I am not addressing post-divorce situations at this point, though sometimes an unmarried ex-spouse can find his or her way back home. I am talking about the couple who is truly sad that they have drifted away from each other.

The Currents That Pull Us

I grew up on the east coast of Florida, spending countless hours at the beach, surfing. I always found, even on the calmest days when the water was glassy, I had often drifted hundreds of yards from my point of entry. Forces out of my control carried me far away from my original position.

“You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:3-5a, NIV). What my patients say in therapy, what my surfing experience showed me, and what the words of Revelation (above) tell us are very similar: Most often the currents that pull us away from intimacy are, in themselves, good. Work is good. Caring for children is good. Taking care of the house and yard is good. Exercise and hobbies are good. Likewise, notice the currents that Jesus pointed to in Revelation: perseverance, endurance, and tirelessness. Those are all positive qualities! It is possible to lose the “best” by being swept away in the current of the “good.”

But in Revelation when Jesus tells John to write to His church, it is because they had drifted! Jesus notices when we have drifted from Him. We may be persevering and enduring and working tirelessly, but we may have drifted in the process. For Him, it is not the behavior; it is the heart, always the heart. It is the same in your marriage.

Swim Back!

Many New Testament scholars debate what Jesus meant by “first love,” but frankly, many expositors approach the text intellectually more than relationally. Anybody who has ever been in a love relationship has a pretty good idea what Jesus is saying to this church: Your heart is not in it the way it once was! This church was once filled with worship and miracles and the close intimacy between God and His people. Now, what is left is ritual without relationship. Blah! Jesus says. I want all of your heart! I want to be close and intimate with you like it was at first. But you have drifted! For every spouse who complains about the distance that has crept into your relationship, you are in good company: Jesus notices drifts in his relationships as well.

Perhaps your marriage may not contain all of the sizzle of the initial romantic fire, but it can always be intimate and powerful. In fact, the intimacy can always grow deeper. If Wilson could only have swum back toward Chuck, what a difference that could have made! The problem is less that you have drifted and more that you have given in to inertia: it is just easier to drift. But you are not a soccer ball! Swim back!

How God Longs For Intimacy: A Picture of Marriage

Let us now take a look at how God made us for connection. From Genesis to Revelation we hear God’s passionate longing for intimacy with us, beings created in His image. We see a God of intimacy:

“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8-9, NIV).

“Where are you?” From the very beginning, we see that God made us for intimate fellowship, to walk with Him, to enjoy Him while He enjoys and loves us. Such intimacy was apparently the norm in the beginning, and is God’s design for us.

In Revelation, the Apostle John tells us of a magnificent — and mysterious — vision of and from heaven. Before he begins the bulk of this prophetic work, Jesus Himself tells John to take a letter, in fact, take seven of them, each to the angel of one of seven churches in what was then Asia Minor, now western Turkey.

The first church Jesus addressed was the church at Ephesus, which was established by the Apostle Paul on the second of his three missionary journeys. He stayed there for more than two years and the church flourished. In fact, we read, “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them” (Acts 19:11-12). Not just miracles, mind you, but extraordinary miracles! The presence of God was a daily reality: The new church felt the power and love of God. God wasn’t “up there somewhere,” but right here, right now! Ephesus was a remarkable church, a beautiful example of the love relationship between people and God, and a model of intimacy between husbands and wives.

What Intimacy is Not

To the church at Ephesus, Jesus says, “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary. Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love” (Revelation 2:3-4). Here is a church that continues to persevere and make sacrifices for the Lord and is committed to Him. The Lord recognizes this: He is aware that they are working hard and tirelessly, sometimes painfully. Shouldn’t that be enough?

This is what I hear in couple’s therapy: Many husbands will say, “Haven’t I made a good living? Haven’t I provided for you? (I realize this is a “traditional marriage” model here and I encourage you to substitute your own words or situations.) Even when I don’t feel well, I still go to work. And I don’t feel like you are holding a gun to my head; I do it because I love you.” And the wife will sigh.

Many wives will say, “Haven’t I kept a nice house for you? You don’t have to worry about the kids or a lot of stuff around the house because I take care of it for you. And I am glad to do it! I love you and the kids.” And the husband will just sigh. (Please forgive the stereotyping!)

What can you say? You are feeling the distance between you. You are pretty sure your spouse notices the distance as well, but on paper everything looks just fine: each of you is living out the roles you somehow agreed to when you married. But something is missing. So you both agree: Yes, I see how hard you work; “you have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.” But the relationship is lacking.

Wake Up!

The word “repent” has a lot of negative connotations associated with it these days. It is a simple word, however, that literally means “change your mind.” The noun used in Greek is metanoia: meta (after) and nous (mind), literally the “after-mind.” So the meaning is, come to your senses! Remember where you once were and how far away you have fallen — or drifted.

So, husbands and wives, what did you do at first to cultivate intimacy with your spouse? Couples often tell me that at first, regardless of what someone’s “love language” might be, “we couldn’t get enough of each other”; “we couldn’t bear to be apart from each other”; “the hours we spent together seemed like seconds.” Intimacy! Tenderness! Longing! It was there once.

When I am working with a couple who have drifted apart, who do not seem to realize the stakes involved, I often find myself envisioning the emptiness and grief each will feel if something does not change. It is as if Jesus is firing a shot across the bow of this “church”: wake up! Wake up!

The heart of the Christian message is that God is about restoration: He invites us to walk with Him and be with Him, and with each other, in intimate relationship. The good news is that relationships are healed every day; couples in worse shape than you are finding love again. Husbands and wives once overwhelmed with bitterness have found forgiveness once again. So can you!