Opinion | Sexuality

Is This What Love Looks Like?

Parsing mixed messages about the heart of marriage.
Is This What Love Looks Like?
Image: Puuung1 / Facebook

In a series of illustrations entitled, "Love is…" Korean artist Puuung attempts to “find the meaning of love in our daily lives.” Her vibrant sketches of amorous couples are homespun, pure, and familial. Lovers dance barefoot in their high-rise apartment. She trims his hair. He ties her shoes. Isolated from the bustling city pictured beyond the windowpanes, the couples indulge cloistered, innocent pleasures of shared books, afternoon naps, and steamy mugs of coffee. Only the cat bears witness.

Is this love?

I've heard the same question from my single friends, who are routinely given to premarital panic. Their fears betray our cultural anxieties about marriage. As one recently engaged friend related, she has been warned, "Enjoy the engagement—because this is the happiest you will ever be."

My husband and I have been married nearly 20 years, and because we live in a city (and attend a church) teeming with young, professional singles, we're often asked about marriage. There are things I wish to tell those eager for advice.

The first will seem obvious: marriage is good. This is worth saying when cultural views of marriage are so decidedly pessimistic. Take, for example, the prevailing view (for women) of modern marriage as career obstacle. In The End of Men, Hanna Rosin describes ambitious, young women gunning for the corner office. "Today's college girls liken a serious suitor to an accidental pregnancy." They don't need marriage for financial security. They don't need marriage for sex. They view early marriage as detrimental to professional achievement, and it, along with motherhood, is to be deliberately delayed, much like elective surgery. In the end, it may be good for you to finally do something about that toe of yours, but you must face the serious inconvenience it will cause.

My husband and I married the summer after college, and it is true that he has professionally "climbed" faster and higher than I. In the 12 years it took him to finish an arduous actuarial fellowship and graduate school, I bore the burden of the housework and childcare alone. And while bearing those burdens, I shouldered resentments. More than once, I began fights with the acrid phrase, "It must be nice to be a man."

But my sacrifices aren't the only things that are true about our marriage. It is also true that my husband has assumed burdens I haven't: the financial responsibility for our family, for example. With five children to feed and a writer-wife to support, his dreams have suffered small deaths. He won't start the small business he dreams of launching. He won't take the cross-country move he's been offered, though it would inevitably catapult his career skyward. He'll frequently refuse to attend after-work schmooze sessions, coming home to dinner with his family instead.

My husband's sacrifices may seem less consequential than mine, but that begs my second piece of advice: fairness cannot be demanded in marriage. Unfortunately, many refuse this advice, entering marriage today like collective bargaining. The parties demand parity. In Wendell Berry's words, today "marriage…has taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided." In 1970, Alix Kates Shulman published her postnuptial marriage contract, the first offered up so publicly. She would make the beds; her husband would strip them. (They eventually divorced.) Though our 21st century marriage contract is less task-explicit than Shulman's, from the books and articles I read, it's clear we expect bylaws of marital fairness. Responsibilities for dishes and diapers shall be equitably divided, so help us God.

But the only biblical model for marriage we have isn't equity; it's self-sacrifice. The profound mystery is that marriage reflects a greater reality, that of the relationship between Christ and his church (Eph. 5:32). In betrothing himself to us in limitless love, God never insisted upon fairness. He gave beyond what could be repaid—and what would he now withhold (Rom. 8:32)? This love of God, from which neither "death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation" can separate us, is a sustained act of self-giving. God has suffered unfairness, and we have been the beneficiaries. Marriage mirrors this gospel dynamic: sacrifice and benefit. It's just that we aren't guaranteed to be on the "favorable" side of the ledger.

When my single friends ask for advice, I'm tempted to quote John Stuart Mill:

Marriage is really, what it has been sometimes called, a lottery: and whoever is in a state of mind to calculate the chances calmly and value them correctly, is not likely to purchase a ticket. Those who marry after taking great pains about the matter, generally do but buy their disappointment dearer.

I'm not nearly so fatalistic as Mill. Marriage, as God-intended it, is a means of joy. But I do worry about the long, inviolable lists singles make in an attempt to define the compatibility that will make marriage less difficult—and happier. ("I'm a firstborn; he's a middle," a friend once lamented. "The books say it will never work.")"Compatibility" matters much less in marriage than we moderns think. And it's never a lifetime guarantee on love

Is this love? The elusive search for compatibility is just one evidence of the "crushing burden of expectation" we moderns put on marriage, which Tim and Kathy Keller reference in their book, The Meaning of Marriage. Before the Enlightenment, marriage was less about private fulfillment (individual happiness) and more about public good (character development and raising children). Unfortunately, our new, self-actualizing view of marriage "leaves us desperately trapped between both unrealistic longings for and terrible fears about marriage," the Kellers write.

And this leads to my final piece of advice: love, in marriage, doesn't always look like the tiny, contented circle of two, which Puuung portrays. Often, the circle widens, welcoming children. Always, one "submits to the loss of thrill," as C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity. "Being in love is a good thing," Lewis writes, "but it is not the best thing.

After 20 years of marriage, I am grateful to say that I love my husband and continue to admire him more than any other. But it is not our enviable compatibility that is keeping this marriage together. It is commitment—for better, for worse, in sickness and health. "If love is the whole thing," writes Lewis, "then the promise can add nothing; and if it adds nothing, then it should not be made."

Love, in marriage, is keeping our promises. By God's grace—before the witnessing world—we'll keep them like Christ.

[Image by Korean illustrator Puuung, whose work is shared on Facebook and Grafolio.]

October
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