On Marriage, Love, and Whether the Two are Compatible

Love and Marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage,

This I tell ya brother, you can’t have one without the other.

-Frank Sinatra

With all due respect to the immortal Frankie, this song is wrong. You most certainly can. I wonder sometimes whether it would be better if you did.

English (and most other languages of which I’m aware) needs a new word to distinguish the emotion of love from the action of it. The two are occasionally, but fairly randomly, coincidental, it seems to me. The affection two people have that leads them to contemplate marriage to one another is nothing like the reality of being married – not terribly unlike the two halves of a politician: the campaigner and the legislator. It’s very rare to find someone that excels at both; it’s very common to regret electing the former because of his subsequent terrible performance at the job for which he auditioned so brilliantly.

Marriage can be a foundation for a loving relationship, but doesn’t have to be. This is not just poorly understood, it seems to me from recent conversations I’ve had and things I’ve read to be completely ignored, and even sometimes flatly rejected. One of the greatest lies of the twentieth century (and this started in the nineteenth) is that falling in love is the reason people should get married, and that falling out of love is good and sufficient reason to end the marriage.

As someone married for over 20 years to the same woman, it might seem a bit odd for me to be writing that love isn’t necessary for marriage, but that might be because (in this case) I use love in this sense the way the world does – meaning a feeling of affection one has for someone else. That sort of love is a catalyst for marriage these days, but it’s almost completely irrelevant to marriage being successful. The destruction of marriage as a permanent institution coincides perfectly with the rise of the idea that marriage is like a protective shell you put around the attraction two people feel for one another. Then the attraction goes away – which at some point it absolutely always does – and all that is left is the shell, and what’s that worth?

But really, to marry someone for this reason alone is insane. These days, you wouldn’t buy a vacuum or a pair of pants this way. Can you imagine someone buying a really sketchy laptop based on the feeling he got when he was walking by it? Based on sharing a cup of coffee and feeling a powerful attraction? Without looking up the service record of the thing, and seeing what other people had to say about it, and weighing alternative options? But in this case, hey, we’re going to make a lifelong commitment – and more, we’re going to grant someone permanent access in perpetuity to our finances, privacy, and future – based on a really strong feeling we have and the way that person discusses Love Actually. Come on. This is flat nuts. Yet this is what modern culture tells us is the way to go.

If you started a business this way, your attorney would refuse to have anything to do with the paperwork. A marriage is a business arrangement that can last the rest of your life, and reach from your boardroom to your bedroom. It is, if anything, MORE important to do thorough due diligence on a marriage partner than a business partner. But we pick up marriage relationships like drive-thru fast food. No wonder we have buyer’s remorse so often and so fast.

The solution to this is not, as most advice columns seem to assert, long walks on the beach and “space to find oneself”. The solution is to realize that love is essential for marriage,  but not the sort of love that Hollywood is so fond of showing us. Not affection, not attraction, not the zing of meeting someone and being powerfully motivated to sleep with them. I mean love as a chosen action, not a chemical reaction.

Love is rarely spoken of this way. We are fond of speaking of “being in love”, roughly the same thinking as “having a cold”. One doesn’t choose such a thing. It comes on at inconvenient times and causes all manner of problems when it does. It is nonetheless spoken of in reverent tones (“I have to find the One for Me”), and it is given as the justification for dishonesty (Me and Mrs. Jones, a particularly repulsive song, being just one example), for infidelity, for homewrecking and behavior that ruins lives and reputations. The modern attitude is that one simply can’t help it, even that one shouldn’t help it. Love is paramount. It is what makes life worth living. Everything else must be sacrificed to it.

Again, I agree, but only when we talk of love as something one chooses. “You can’t choose whom you fall in love with,” I hear you saying, but that’s nonsense in the first place and irrelevant in the second. Not only can you indeed choose with whom you fall in love – or at least with whom you do NOT fall in love – “falling in love” with someone is beside the point. I didn’t marry Jeanette because I fell in love with her. Let me repeat that. I didn’t marry Jeanette because I fell in love with her. I did, indeed, feel very attracted to her before we were married (and, since we have eight children, you might well imagine that I continued to be attracted to her afterward), but that’s not why I married her. I married her because I decided that she was someone I could love, and that I wanted to love, and that it would make sense for me to commit to loving. The commitment was the most important part, not the feeling.

This distinction is important. I had half a hundred girlfriends before Jeanette, and none after. I cheated (to spare you imagining, in Mormon culture this almost never means sex) on every single one of them before her, and not one time after her. We’ve been married half my life. After I turned twelve, only when I was an LDS missionary did I go more than a couple of months without kissing a new girl; since I got engaged to Jeanette I’ve never kissed another woman. When I tell you that you can, indeed, choose love or choose not to, I’m not talking theory. I did it myself.

And my wife will tell you, it’s not because I’ve stopped being attracted to other women. I’m every bit as attracted as I ever was. The pheromones work. I’m a man. They work on me. But within the falling in love there is a point where one transitions to choosing to love, and I choose Jeanette, to the exclusion of all others, so no attraction to anyone else goes beyond the sort of admiration I feel for a fine three-point shot or a pretty sunset.

Our marriage is not perfect. It is often very hard. I am not an easy man to live with, being routinely selfish, always busy, and frequently broke. She is quite easy to live with, so I have much the better of the jobs in our marriage, but it’s also certainly the case that I am much easier to live with now than I ever was before, and that is a direct result of the work I’ve chosen to do as a husband and father. In other words, the emotion of love led me to date Jeanette, and the work of love has made me worth loving back. Marriage is the framework into which I have welded myself, and in doing so made myself someone else. When I say that Jeanette is half my soul, I mean that, not because of an emotion – though I feel that – but because I hold nothing back from her nor she from me, and therefore I cannot separate any of what I do from her. She is in and through everything I do, everything I am, all I have or ever hope to have.

There is no way to have this kind of marriage without the commitment to love. Not the affection – that’s far too weak to last through what we’ve seen over twenty three years together – but the commitment, the choice. A friend a day or so ago lamented that his parents have a loveless marriage. Okay, I said, but I wish they’d chosen not to. Right, he said, I’ve been telling them to divorce for years. No, I said, you misunderstand me. I’m not saying to end the marriage, I’m saying to end the lovelessness. He looked at me like I’d sprouted antlers. You can’t just end it, he said. They don’t love each other. Precisely, I said. They should start. He never could see what I meant, however I tried to explain.

But you can, absolutely, love anyone you choose to. I’m a Christian, and I believe that when Christ said to love God and love your neighbor, what he called the two great commandments, the ones on which all the law and the prophets hang, he wasn’t talking about manufacturing some kind of emotion toward God and our neighbor. He was calling for us to LOVE them, meaning doing things for them, caring for them, paying them attention and concerning ourselves with their well-being, making their wishes more important than our own. Many will tell you that if you do this, you’ll feel the emotion all right, and I’ve seen it myself and won’t disagree, but the emotion is the by-product, the icing, not the cake. I choose to love God, so I do love Him. I choose to love Jeanette, so I do love her. It isn’t complicated, though of course it is difficult to do. I’m not very good at it. But I’m good enough to know that it works, and the better I get at it the better it makes my life and my marriage.

Lost in the modern debate about gay marriage and the meaning of marriage itself is that marriage never was much more than a practical union throughout history. To marry for love was even seen as a type of mental instability, though people always did it anyway. More often, though, far more often historically, is the marriage of “Do You Love Me?” from Fiddler on the Roof. Arranged marriages work. They work every bit as well as any other kind of marriage, and for exactly the same reasons. I have a child getting married now, and I’ve never asked him whether he loves his fiancee. I don’t care. The question isn’t does he love her, but will he love her? Will he commit to her? If he will, the marriage will likely work (she, of course, will need to do the same), and if he doesn’t, it won’t. Commitment can do all that affection can and so critically much that it can’t.

It’s not very romantic, I’ll allow, to tell Jeanette that I choose her, that I am not out of my mind with love for her, that I am not helpless to resist her charms. I am actually quite capable of resisting them, even when she employs them to the full, and she resists mine without a second thought. But we have chosen to love each other, to express love to each other in a thousand ways large and small. That choice is far more powerful and permanent than any attraction we might have felt for one another. When she is sick and eight months pregnant, with the remnants of an overflown diaper on her robe, at two in the morning, she is not very attractive. I love her anyway – meaning, I get up and rub her back, and take the baby, and offer to get her clean clothes and wash the dirties, not “I swoon at her touch.” Personally, I prefer that. She seems to, as well. It’s an awful lot more reliable than the alternative. And since I am not very attractive even at my best, I would far rather have her commitment than her deep sighs and fluttery eyebrows.

So on Valentine’s Day, you will find us going out to dinner, but you’ll also find me at work and her at the washing, me making the bed and her making sure the kids get to school. Maybe there will be notes hidden in pockets and maybe there won’t, but whatever she does, I will know she is loving me by doing it, and I’ll do all I can to make sure she knows the same about me. That’s what a marriage means – it’s the best place for us to love each other. We will, that day and every day. Anyone can.

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One Response to On Marriage, Love, and Whether the Two are Compatible

  1. Melanee says:

    I knew my husband respected, enjoyed, and liked me when we were first married, and I knew he deeply trusted our shared purpose in life, but I didn’t sense that he was “in love” with me. I didn’t sense the adoration I’d frankly known from many previous suitors, and it troubled me, so I asked him.

    “I’m sorry, but I’m not in love with you like that,” he flatly told me, having no skill at gratuitous compliments. “I love you, but the kind of love you speak of will grow for me in time.”

    I cried, and he took a 3×5 index card out, which he affixed with packaging tape to the bottom of his dresser drawer, reminding him of his promise to eventually adore me. After 18 years of marriage, I think he finally does.

    I realized that the desire for someone to “be in love” with me was purely selfish, quite unlike the indescribable selfless, guileless, generous, thoughtful, other-centered love that my husband has offered me since the day we were married. As it turns out, his not being “in-love” with me has taught me the true physics of what it means to love.

    It seems that when we focus on the faulty engineering of our marriage like the necessity of cupid’s arrow and the drug of new love, the structure we are building is bound to struggle. But the moment we look back at the true physics of the thing, we realize we have the choice to commit in the labor of love, and everything changes. Which is why I loved this comment: I’m not saying to end the marriage, I’m saying to end the lovelessness.

    Some friends and I were discussing this scenario recently: You have two identical Tiger Woods with identical golf swings standing side by side. One Tiger Woods is up in his head and has a lot on his mind. The other Tiger Woods is completely present. Which Tiger Woods is going to have a better swing?

    Most people said that of course the Tiger Woods with nothing much on his mind would have a better swing, because of course our inner state of mind and emotion matters to the game. But if you look at it, that’s not actually true. They both have the exact same swing, and while one may or may not have a different emotional experience, they will both get the same result.

    Someone once asked a famous Wimbledon champion, (can’t remember who), if he ever lost his “inner game” and how that affected his play. He basically said that he loses his “inner game” all the time, but he doesn’t pay much attention to it and just plays the game anyway to great success. What I heard in his story is that while emotions come and go like the clouds in the sky, the principles of tennis remain, and if played well, will yield a win.

    Thank-you, Chris Jones!

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