I was recently counseling a young man on the nature of adult dating relationships. His first serious one was in difficulty and it got me reflecting on my own relationships and world view. While I am on some levels a romantic, I am a deeply pessimistic one because I believe that all love is tragic in the end. You leave them, they leave you or in the best case someone usually always dies first. It sounds pretty grim and I admit it.
But there is a deeper level to that, because we as a culture often use the words love and joy interchangeably. Who doesn’t say “I love tacos” because eating them brings joy to the palate? But while love can be joyful at times, love is about fulfilment of our life’s goals, of our love’s life goals. That’s a heavy task, the Eiffel Tower of our existence, and no such task comes without pain; the suffering is not only inevitable it is essential. So many people end marriages because their marriage doesn’t make them happy. But it is not the goal of marriage to be happy, it is for two people (in my country anyway) to build something better than themselves, to make the world a better place through service to one another. Despite whatever Disney told you it isn’t about happily ever after, the best Prince Charming can hope for is to be as happy in his old age as Miracle Max in The Princess Bride, as his wife knows his every weakness but helps coat the pill in chocolate.
This is not to say that I am against Divorce. I am divorced myself and my ex-wife and I are probably both happier for it because our life goals were incompatible. A long-term relationship should be joyful at times, but it should also bring growth to both parties. Sometimes you need to part ways but it should be done for the right reasons. If your partner is hurtful yes please read this and leave as soon as you can- just so we are clear. I am not talking “divorce as necessity” but rather “divorce as a cure for ennui”, which is so common in my generation.
I woke up at four this morning thinking this, and as I struggled around to find my glasses and make coffee I went back to the local church sermon I attended. Going to church here does not give me what I get from the church at home but it reminds me of something. Like eating tomatoes in February, it doesn’t actually taste like tomatoes but it is evocative of tomatoes and so you eat them to remember the summer garden and sitting on the bare earth eating Yellow Brandywines like apples. The sermon was all about Jesus’s love, and while I don’t discount that, I find many Christians forget the other half of the sentence, which summed up to me is “Jesus loves you so much, and he said be kind to others, to love them as you love yourself.”. Many speak of Jesus’s love but not his commands; to protect the helpless, heal the injured, “whoever has two coats must share with those who have none”. The Bible even refers to this dilemma, showing that it is older than the mega-church; “What good is it if you say you have faith…but no works”. But when the Pastor says “Remember Jesus loves you”, in my heart I hear “so try not to be an asshole this week.” And it stays with me.
I urged my young friend to be kind, to himself, to his partner and understand that loving people invites loss but it also brings much joy and growth. In being loving we are building the garden of our life’s work and it takes some heartache and dirty hands to get there.
So I ran this all by my wife, because before you make bold pronouncements about marriage it makes sense to talk to your spouse about it, and her response (written over a series of text messages across several time zones) was:
“Marriage (speaking of cishet marriages here) is so hard, not ours specifically but just in general. It’s hard to make statements that are applicable to both parties because the institution of marriage, the cultural expectations that go along with it are all so gendered. How many women have never been able to live to their full potential because they’re told marriage isn’t about being happy, it’s about doing what’s right? I think it’s generally good advice for men, if that’s who you were counseling and something that most men should hear more of, “it’s not all about you, sometimes you make sacrifices that don’t feel good, sometimes that not feeling good lasts a long time, much longer than the satisfaction you receive from doing what’s right and the ego boost you get from feeling like a good person.” I’m just wary about telling young women that they should set aside their “happiness” when that happiness is often intimately tied up with their own self-actualization and autonomy and self-determination. There are so many things (maybe particularly in Christianity?) that I feel are just and good and true, and when I do them I feel like I’m living a better life, more in line with my values, but when suggested in a prescriptive way to others start to subtly reinforce oppressive messages and lend credence to unhealthy, often toxic, power dynamics. In marriage but also around money and poverty, simple living, non-violence, pacifism, turning the other cheek etc.”
This from a person who says that I am better at “expressing ideas in words”. Hmm.
All marriages are different, and even the same marriage is seen differently across the kitchen table. Nothing in my advice is meant to allow a marriage to consume one person for another. There clearly comes a time when you have to cut bait because the relationship is not going to heal. At my age I have been through many things (and given my life I don’t judge, well I don’t judge as much as I once did) break-ups, make-ups, re-break-ups, on and off, good and bad. But I don’t think the “Happily Ever After” myth is strictly a male issue either. It is a cultural product of the latter part of the last century and needs to go the way of the polyester leisure suite, orange shag carpet, avocado-colored appliances and cocaine. There has to be a better way to view relationships than this dichotomy of an unrealistic ideal or the consumption of one person’s soul to feed another.
Rather, marriage should be seen as a beautiful house that can be built by two people; the construction will be slow and more difficult than you can imagine. As the house is used things will wear out and cease to work, and need to be repaired or replaced. Work never ends, but if you cherish something the labor is of value. It will leave a mark on humanity that can outlast you in the form of love and goodwill. You do not get married into a palace, you work together and build it.