- Religion and Philosophy
The Mary and Martha Syndrome
Thinking about relationships
Mary and Martha Syndrome
In the amazing event recorded in Luke 10:38-42, we see an insight into human behavior that reflects clearly human differences in personality. Mary and Martha are two different people who stand in strong contrast with each other. We can apply these principles in this account to the marriage relationship and to friendships.
Martha is the practical person who quietly gets on with doing what is necessary and important to ensure that people are fed and taken care of. Her heart is the heart of a servant. I would imagine her to be organized and hard working. With Martha around one would not have to worry about how clean the house is or what is to be prepared for the next meal. The good wife in Proverbs 31 would also be a perfect description of this person.
Mary, however, is cut from a different cloth. She is not concerned about the things that she knows Martha is already taking care of. To Mary they are a distraction to what to her is really important. Here is the heart of a dreamer, a meditator and a searcher. Someone else will have to organize and take care of the mundane everyday things of life. Someone else will have to clean and cook and worry about the guests while she spends time with the guests discussing important spiritual matters of the Kingdom.
In this incident, the important question is who is wrong and who is right. The answer however, is perhaps neither. Obviously Martha, under the burden of practical reality, is frustrated that Mary is not helping her and so she gives vent to that frustration. Jesus seeing reality from aneternal perspective that no one else at that time can see it and understand it, gently reprimands Martha. He is quietly telling her that sometimes what seems so important and urgent needs to be set aside for a moment.
The mistake that Martha makes is a classic example of the urgent taking the place of the important; a trap we all fall into, often on a daily basis. We often get so caught up in what seems so important at the time that we in fact miss out on the opportunities to engage in and enjoy what is really important. As parents we often make this mistake as we get caught up in the need to support our family and perhaps even our own need to be successful that we forget about what is really important. To the child time spent with someone who listens and plays is more important than the things we seems to spend our lives chasing after.
Mary shows that sometimes we need to let go of those things that seem so urgent at the time and rather enjoy the moment or opportunity. Martha however shows that someone needs to also take care of the practical reality of day to day life. There needs to be a balance and so we often can balance out each other.
In relationships we can often identify Mary or Martha personalities. When opposites are together the same frustrations will be felt that underlie the situation in Luke 10. On the one hand a need for organization and order and on the other hand the search for adventure and new experiences. Both are vital for some kind of order to exist and so sensitivity to those differences can lead to understanding and compromise.
Even in an individual person there needs to be a balance between the two. Living in Mary’s world of dreams and visions needs to be balanced with a good portion of Martha's hard work and practical day to day reality and vica-versa.
When two people live together who both have the same personality types then the picture will be different. Imagine the chaos of a Mary/Mary relationship but also the excitement. Imagine also the organization of a Martha/Martha relationship but could it perhaps be a bit boring. Somehow it seems that a balance of the two would work best.
No wonder they say that opposites attract. In a good, healthy relationship each partner understands that everyone is different and so space is given to each other to be who they are. At the same time each individual needs to be lead also by the needs of others, and not only by what they want. Then, and only then, can a relationship grow and flourish.