Something I’ve noticed over the last year or two is that some of the stuff that we’ve had since the beginning of our marriage is wearing out. Things that we received at wedding showers as gifts we’ll need to replace not too far down the road. We’ve broken numerous drinking glasses. A few plates and bowls have been lost; even more have been chipped. Some of our bath towels are fraying. Our house-wares are, so to speak, wearing thin. A decade of use will do that.
Yet at the same time, despite all the frayed linens and damaged dishes, our marriage doesn’t show the same wear and tear. That’s saying something, too, since over the course of our time as husband and wife we’ve probably been through more than our cutlery and everyday china. Our relationship is hardly perfect but I can honestly say that my wife is my best friend and that I feel closer to her now than I ever have. Rather than wearing more and more thin, our love has grown stronger and more resilient over time.
Our popular culture’s definition of love tends to have more in common with infatuation, with sentiment and physical attraction, than with a love that is self-giving. Think of most of the rom-coms you’ve seen over the years. Ask yourself: how many of them are predicated on the philosophy of “follow your heart”? Basing your relationship with someone on attraction or even on feelings of being “in love” almost guarantees that disillusionment and disappointment will set in, spelling disaster for the couple in question.
In the Bible the greatest expression of love is described by Jesus himself: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus, ultimately, did this on the cross. His actions were that of love. And marriage—strange though it may sound—is to model precisely the same sort of love. Paul the apostle, writing to husbands, tells them in Ephesians 5:25 to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” How might some marriages improve if more husbands took such words to heart?
Of course, no man (or woman)—no matter how decent, how loving, how selfless—can love this way on his (or her) own strength. Only with God’s help is it possible. And even then our efforts as husbands (or wives) may seem meagre at times and sporadic at other times. And never are we as selfless as we ought to be. Apart from the love of Christ at work in my own heart, I know I couldn’t be the sort of man I should be for my wife.
Loving my wife doesn’t mean I will always feel like bringing her a coffee in the morning. But doing so is the loving choice to make. And there’s the rub some people just don’t get. Love is a choice, a series of decisions to commit yourself continually to someone else’s well-being, to place their needs above your own. Marriage, being united to someone for life, for good or ill, is the perfect classroom for such love.
All I know is that if I were to have based my relationship to my wife on feelings, on whether or not I felt “in love” or particularly romantic from one day to the next, I wouldn’t have much of a marriage. The funny thing is that some people look to such feelings as being what sustains a marriage and what makes it possible to endure more difficult moments or circumstances. Being “in love” provides the strength and impetus to love someone even when they don’t seem especially lovable.
In reality, I find the opposite to be true. If at the core of my marriage is a commitment in which a word like “divorce” has no place, then I live in such a way as to do all I can to care for my wife regardless of how I might feel on this day or that day. And it’s in living this way that feelings of being “in love” arise. Those feelings that may have initially drawn you to your husband or wife—that physical attraction, those butterflies in your stomach, the indescribable sense that this person is for you—grow in the soil of selfless, sacrificial love.
Erosion of this sort of mature, committed relationship is nearly epidemic in our culture. Narcissism abounds. Life is about “me.” Trends suggest that emerging adults are putting off marriage and serious relationships for longer periods of time. Whereas once most young adults began marriage and family life in their early to mid-20s, it is becoming all the more common wait until one’s early to mid-30s.
Given the fact that serious relationships are seen more and more as a means to personal fulfillment, many are instead locating such fulfillment in career advancement or elsewhere. And this only raises the question of what happens when a relationship no longer fulfills that function—what if I fall out of love? What if a career opportunity conflicts with remaining committed to this person I wake up to each morning?
More profoundly, what if our significant other goes through changes that alter the shape of our relationship? Think of married couples who have faced the unexpected challenges of a health crisis or a disability that had been wholly anticipated? What if my wife has an accident and becomes paralyzed? What if your husband undergoes radical personality shifts due to Alzheimer’s or a serious depression? Do you stick it out or get out as soon as you can?
How we answer these kinds of questions all hinges on how we approach our marriage—is it a contract I enter in order that I might have a more fulfilling life or is it a covenant that I enter in order to give myself selflessly to another no matter the cost? Surely, this is what the traditional vows intend: “in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, as long as we both shall live.”
Ultimately, God intends marriage to be a symbol of the sacrificial love of Jesus. This is the reason Paul draws the analogy between marriage and Christ’s relationship to the church. And it’s this kind of love that lasts—love that weathers the years, whatever challenges and changes they bring.
These words from the Song of Solomon capture well what such love looks like: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of one’s house, it would be utterly scorned.”
Eleven years in, and my wife and I are still going strong. We’ve been through a few things and we’re not exactly the same people, but thankfully all of this has led us to draw nearer to one another. That our relationship is as it is we owe to the grace of God. Lord willing, at times our marriage does reflect Christ’s love, even if in a fragmented and imperfect way. In any case, the seal that binds us has yet to be cracked much less broken, unlike some of our dishes.