The statistics have been reported in many places, and for many, about half of all marriages will fail. This is not another heavy for those who have been kicked around the Church because they’re divorced. The reality is life happens, and I don’t believe for a moment anyone decides to get married intending they will one day be a statistic. There is, however, a growing belief that as many of us will have many careers in a lifetime, so we can expect to have a couple of marriages too. This pessimism is no doubt influenced by the statistics but also the growing sense of consuming - including consuming other people to meet our personal needs, and whenever the other persons fail to do so, or we think we can get those needs met elsewhere, we are more likely than ever to end our marriage.
It has been on my heart for some time to write a brief article on love in the context of the marriage relationship. This is just a brief reflection which is a part of a larger marriage workshop. I have prepared this in an effort to inspire and cultivate passionate, deeply loving, lasting marriages. Often, this is by excavating authentic, life-giving love from the superficial cultural imitations, to strip away the cultural graffiti which has so distorted love, and how we can live authentic love in the every day of life. My heart in this brief piece is to point to something deeper, where both parties in a marriage can together cultivate a relationship that is safe, stimulating, lasting and deeply loving.
The kind of love I am speaking of is very different from the kind you have for grilled cheese sandwiches, football or a good story. The Apostle Paul once wrote to a community of Jesus followers in Corinth about the kind of love I am talking about. He wrote:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.”
Many of us may have had this read at our weddings. It is such a beautiful picture of love in which Paul reminds the young community in Corinth how to live together as a community, and it also applies to our marriage relationship. There is a great deal of insight packed into the few lines, but let's follow a just a couple of themes.
Love is as much a commitment as it is an emotion - more so actually. As I am sure anyone who has lived and loved has experienced, there are passionate and impulsive seasons within a relationship, and seasons where we hang on for dear life! Emotions are certainly an important part of love but emotions, as powerful as they can be, cannot alone Love is as much a commitment as it is an emotion
Love is as much a commitment as it is an emotion
Authentic love and the resulting intimacy are a deep desire we were created with. We all are born with a deep desire to be known as we really are and still loved. Love has been so mangled, but love at its source is God - the Three in One community we call Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Without going into the nitty-gritty of it - this community of the Trinity is a community of love. There is a mutuality of love for one another. They are of one heart, preferring each other over themselves and in so there is more than enough love to go around! So much love in fact that it spills out and over, and the result is humanity! We were also created for intimacy with God, our source. We were created to live in a vibrant, life-giving mutual relationship of love. As we allow God to work in our lives, He cultivates authentic love in our lives by helping us to experience His authentic love for us. It is a process of learning to respond to the love of God in ways that are more authentic to who we were created to be.
A quick word about unity and intimacy; we have misunderstood this relationship with God and each other. Union and intimacy are the giving of ourselves as a gift to the other unreservedly. This gift has been called surrender, laying one's life down for another. Sounds scary eh? Well, it should because we have learned the hard way to protect ourselves or we’ll get hurt. However, with God through the eyes of love, there is no one anywhere who is safer. This kind of intimacy doesn’t imply that we lose ourselves rather in healthy intimate love we find unity in love itself not the domination of one will over another. St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote of this union suggesting we are a drop of water in a large river of wine. We continue to be the drop of water, and at the same time, we become one with the wine, a part of the river. This is true in a healthy maturing marriage as we come together in union with each other as individuals to become a part of something bigger than ourselves. As our marriages grow in safety and deeper in intimacy, we learn that we can truly begin to offer as a gift more and more of ourselves to the other. We do this because we have developed a trust that we know the other is not likely to hurt us. In giving ourselves to each other in love, we find a deeper sense of unity or union where there is plenty of space for our individuality that is expressed in a way that is uniquely authentic within the context of the marriage relationship.
A key aspect of authentic love and creating a safe intimacy is fidelity. Fidelity is another word for faithfulness and suggests a deep loyalty and support of another regardless of the situation. A key here is that this loyalty and support is of the person not everything they say and do - it is broader but deeper at the same time. It is faithful from beginning to end. Committed relationships start with the fireworks, but the depth of passion goes much deeper and is only forged by time.
When I fell in love with my wife, and we decided we wanted to share the rest of our lives together, I didn’t think I could possibly love another person that much. The experience of young love over twenty-nine years ago was so intense, passionate and at times overwhelming. As we started our life together, the honeymoon stage was wonderful, but as life progressed, the young love and its passion subsided as life; careers, finances and learning to live together took on the inevitable challenges. As anyone who has been married will tell you, there are seasons where being married is darn tough. There were seasons where each of us were unable to contribute the 50% (110%) of what we were told marriage was. Cliche’s aside; there were seasons where the other had to do the majority of the heavy lifting in our marriage and sometimes where we both had to contend for our marriage and literally will and pray our relationship through. These dry seasons were hard - darn hard but a natural part of a relationship. This is where love takes on a heroic fidelity.
"Heroic fidelity is a contending, overcoming love."
Fidelity is the underlying aspect of love that underpins our marriage, especially during the hard times. Fidelity is recognizing the spark of love we have for one another and making a choice to contend for it. A very practical ‘laying down of one's life for the other.' The choosing to talk things out, to learn to apologize (often) and really mean it, and to realize that a marriage is never about winning or losing an argument. You can be right and win every argument, but you can “win” yourself right into a divorce.
The seasons of life provide a context, a process and a journey to love. Love grows, love matures and deepens as it is forged in real life. I am in no way taking away from young love - just to say the reward of fidelity, the long faithful walk with your spouse can provide all the ingredients of a deeper faithful, amazingly satisfying love.
A quick note about fidelity; fidelity is not just a physical faithfulness but faithfulness emotionally and in our fantasy life. It is a common trap for many that when things are dry and tough with our spouse that we develop emotional relationships with another person. We then share our hearts in ways that are most appropriate with our spouse only. An emotional relationship can develop as the other person can seem so easy to talk to and be such a support, but they are not living real life with you in the context of everyday, mortgage, kids kind of life. It is important to learn and resolve to communicate with your spouse. If this is difficult, by all means, find someone to help you communicate, translate and mediate.
Infidelity by way of fantasy is another kettle of fish. It is where we engage with a fantasy life, pornography, living intimately vicariously with stories, images, and ideas that are not actually real in an attempt to get something that we aren’t getting in real life. This includes pornography and other kinds of erotic material. The reality is, the only healthy sexual arousal and intimacy should be from your spouse. Many often impede their marriage relationship with the use of unhealthy fantasy and inadvertently set themselves up for further disappointment as their spouse cannot possibly live up to the perfect man or woman who exists only in our imagination, a computer screen or the pages of a novel.
Creating intimacy is an art, but the key factor in healthy intimacy is creating safe places for one another to be truly vulnerable. A place where we can let down our defenses and be who we truly are and then offer that to the other as gift. When both partners in a marriage are committed to this, it cultivates an incredible intimacy - a oneness that doesn’t diminish either person, for it is not a consuming of each other for our own gratification. Sexual intimacy is not utilitarian, nor consumerism - it is the physical expression of union, of oneness. It is intended to be a picture of divine intimacy - the giving of oneself as gift to another who is doing the same. Sexual intimacy that involves violence, humiliation or the unhealthy use of power or domination over another is the antithesis of what sexual intimacy was intended. This doesn’t create a safe relationship for authentic intimacy, and while we can do-the-deed, employ the mechanics, it lacks the divine intimacy which leaves us unsatisfied deep in our being. While it may be a pleasurable experience physically, it lacks the transcendent experience of knowing another and being known. It may have a physical nakedness but not a soul nakedness. Perhaps this is the reason so many people express a lack of satisfaction in the intimacy department.
The consumption of others as means to our own pleasure and physical gratification may seem fine if it is consensual but don’t forget, if you are using someone else, they are using you, and this is why there is often a sense of shame, pain, and hardness of heart that accompanies this kind of physical intimacy. Sadly, all this combines to inhibit authentic intimacy.
It is not my intent to impose some puritanical moralism here. My heart is simply to suggest there is so much more to authentic love and intimacy than perhaps we realize or are currently experiencing. Like almost everything else that is intended to be lovely and beautiful, it is often marred and twisted by power and control, and at the core of every broken relationship is an abuse of power and control. Love is quite different. Love lays down its life for the other, is not violent or domineering. Genuine self-love is discovered in genuinely loving another, in allowing ourselves to be loved and allowing this love to change us. This kind of transformation is never more profound than discovering and accepting the love of God. I have found that our primary relationship with God in Christ is the catalyst (and the source) of deep, meaningful marriage relationships and the source of grace to endure the dry and difficult times and contend for deep, truly satisfying intimate relationships.
Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Michael Rose is available to lead Marriage Enrichment retreats and seminars for your Church. Contact Us