My marriage of nine years, one mortgage, and three insanely young children often seems to read more like a construction punch list than a Shakespearean sonnet: three daily loads of laundry, two car payments, one long meeting on Tuesday night.
Even this week's "buy Rob an anniversary card" loses sparkle, flanked as it is on the list by "fix hole in ceiling" and "remember multivitamin."
If not stoked, passion will get lost in the mundane.
To remedy this, many of us modern Americans turn to novelty. In my native state of Connecticut, a glass-paneled truck drives through the city of Hartford during normal business hours. Inside, two women perform an exotic dance for pedestrians and commuters.
And millions of otherwise traditional, married women have downloaded E. L. James's erotic fiction series, Fifty Shades, to their Kindles and Nooks, making the first book of the series one of the fastest-selling of all time.
Above all, the Fifty Shades trilogy promises readers an escape from boredom. New Yorker writer Jessica Weisberg interviewed a group of women about why they liked the book. They said reading the books took them back to a less responsible time in their lives, "when you can do whatever you want and have as much sex as you want and don't have to walk the dog."
In a recent Atlantic article about the series, James Parker posits that today, in matters of sexuality, "Above all, we fear numbness. We fear deadness."
Compared to exotic dancers and erotic fiction, married romance may seem dull. But to a culture seeking to flee sexual boredom, God's design actually provides the necessary spark for sustained passion.
Miss Manners calls that spark "tension." The white-gloved matriarch of etiquette may be the antithesis of Fifty Shades, but even she acknowledges that human beings love a challenge.
In her advice on dinner parties, she writes, "Contrary to popular belief, a good party atmosphere is not 'relaxing,' but the opposite. It should be full of tension." She goes on to explain that tension is what makes dinner party guests dress up, tell their best stories, and "live up to the occasion."
She could have said the same about romance. Tension is intrinsic to a love story. Romeo and Juliet had it. Every knight on a white horse saving a girl in a tower had it. Every hero and heroine of every romantic comedy on the big screen has it.
And in God's good design, Christian marriages have it too.
The First Love Poem
A marriage is not a fait accompli: Check it off the list and then go unclog the toilet. Rather, marriage is an ever-evolving challenge, and the tension created by meeting that challenge is the key to its passion—and its success.
It all started in the Garden of Eden. After the creation of Eve, Adam, the first man, composed the first love poem:
This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.
(Gen. 2:23, ESV)
She is like me, says Adam. And she's not like me at all. Even before there was sin, there was a love story, filled with difference and holy tension. Gender is a challenge to which married couples rise every single morning.
My husband is tall and blue-eyed and scratchy. He can do complicated calculations in his head at an amazing speed. He is logical where I am intuitive, absent-minded where I am organized, and concise where I am wordy. He laughs loudly, snores louder, and preaches like no one else.
He is like me. And he is not like me at all.
For other couples, sadly, differences become the font of conflict. Each spouse's strengths become weapons. Each weakness is an opportunity for blame. The very tension that should ignite love instead ignites a civil war.
But romance can be fueled by an honest acknowledgement of that potential to fail.
Nine years seems significantly long. Long enough to sprout gray hairs, gain and lose a few pounds, save a few dollars for someday. Long enough to outlast the marriages of others.
My husband and I, like other couples, have spent years in covenant together, regularly taking out the trash of each other's sin and neglect. But, tragically, we have seen dear friends tumble from here into recriminations, bitterness, and divorce. That could be us.
When our marriage bed sinks low, barely visible under crumpled laundry and half-read books, the Evil One scores a victory. So we meet the challenge. We persist in writing tender notes, and giving gifts, and making love: strategic maneuvers against the Devil's drift. We hold the marriage bed high, honoring our pleasurable commitments there, to buttress ourselves against marital malady and nothing less serious than its death.
Marriage is a challenge; the stakes are high.
And the possibilities are endless. When we were dating, the possibility of something more, something permanent, fueled romance. Is he the one? Is this true love? Now, years and vows later, some possibilities are established reality. (He is the one. This is true love.) But another world of possibility—on a much grander scale—is still present.
It is not good to be alone. Two are better than one.
Two can multiply, fill, subdue. Two can spur good works. Two can sharpen as iron with iron. Two can reason together. Two can gather the Spirit.
Why We Cleave
Love has produced abundant poetry and metaphors (and, yes, clichés) perhaps more than any other human experience. The urge to compare the beloved to a strong tower or a summer's day is evidence: The gestures of romantic love are symbolic.
We haven't come so far from the stilted gestures of the Middle Ages' courtly love. Everything in romance—each wink and flower petal—is brimming with meaning. Romantic tension is in the thrill of playing the coded game.
After all, what is the point of red roses purchased and delivered in the dead of winter for an extraordinary price if not to communicate that something bigger is happening? If it comes to it, even the act of sex itself is an attempt to give shape to the incomprehensibility of oneness.
For non-Christians, the ultimate meaning of these symbols is love itself. Love: part emotion, part fantasy, part pleasure. A passionate equivalent to the iTunes Cloud, to which all human love songs and poetry and feelings are collectively entrusted.
For Christians, the symbols mean so much more. This mystery is profound.
In the tenderness, the holy jealousy, the delight, we mean to show Christ and his church. In the oneness, the sacrifice, the nourishing and cherishing, our weak symbols become something greater.
For this reason we have left, cleaved.
It is never easy. But then, we wouldn't want it to be. My husband and I have begun our tenth year of inheriting the grace of life. The tenth year of electric bills, dentist appointments, and morning coffee, yes.
But also the tenth year of a passionate tension so vital it is fed, not diminished, by the passing seasons. Because we are always facing a challenge. He will always be like and yet unlike me. And we will always be fighting against the strong lure of sin, and symbolizing Someone stronger.
Megan Hill lives in Mississippi with her husband and three young sons. She writes regularly for Her.meneutics. Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for "Marriage by God's Design," a Bible study based on this article.
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