The Nature of Marital Romance
It is widely believed that marriage is a romance killer. It isn't. Even kids are not a romance killer. They are definitely a mood killer from time to time, but they actually enhance romance. C.S. Lewis once said that "the storm of emotion we call love" is part of a normal human experience called "undulation." That is, in all of human experience, things go up and they go down. Sometimes we’re happy, sometimes we’re sad. Sometimes we feel energetic, and at other times we feel blue and lethargic. We have seasons where concentration seems easy, and others where we seem constantly distracted. And this is as true for love as anything else. Love undulates. The enrapturing storm of emotion that grips us from our earlobes to our loins when we are terribly in love is not something that lasts—at least not in consistent crescendo. It undulates. It does this, partly because it's meant to, and partly because it has to.
The intense rapture of being "in love," as a consistent experience tends to wear off in 8 to 24 months. Some people have asked, "Why did God make it this way?" I encourage these young lovers to do a thought experiment: what if he didn't cause the feeling of love to undulate? What if you felt that every second for the rest of your life? And what if everyone else did, too? I imagine we would live in a world with billions of children and yet no food or buildings. One of the great characteristics of being in love is that it makes you virtually useless for anything else.
The preliminary stage is meant to draw us together in permanent commitment, and the reoccurring feelings of enraptured passion are necessary in order to see to it that the grubby little bundles of neediness we call children are in fact conceived despite all the work and disruption they impose on an adult life. People often realize how worthwhile children are in retrospect, but focus on how obviously a nuisance they are in normal human foresight. We can perceive the sleepless nights, the explosive diarrhea, the elimination of all discretionary spending, the teenager with the terrible attitude, and so on. The things that make parenthood worth it are harder to imagine beforehand and are even harder to believe when our elders tell us about them. And so, the hormonally induced altered state of consciousness associated with conceiving children is something critical to the continuity of our race.
Love is meant to undulate optimally between a calm enjoyment, appreciation, and acceptance of our lover, and the periodical heating up of our passions to points sometimes far beyond their original level when our love was in its puppy stage. The engaged couple that are about to be newlyweds, upon hearing that their passion will undulate, must wonder, "So how do you keep that fire warm and make it burn?"
First, here is what not to do:
Do not think that focusing on the particulars of your personality will greatly enhance your feeling of love and desire for each other. Don't let yourself think that it is "me and my particularities, and you in your particularities, and therefore us in our love affair that makes us interesting. We will be great lovers because we are totally unique.”
It is actually a fallacy to think that uniqueness makes something interesting. Imagine snowflakes for a moment. Now most people know that every snowflake is unique. If you look at a snowflake under the microscope, you will see thousands, if not millions of interconnected glasslike crystals shining in all sorts of ways. To see a highly magnified snowflake is intensely beautiful. Now, if you look at two-thousand individual snowflakes under a microscope, which one would give you the most pleasure? The answer is simple, the first one. But how can this be, since every single snowflake is one-of-a-kind? The thing that is of exquisite beauty doesn’t change from one snowflake to the next. It is not the particularities that are interesting, but what is completely the same.
This principle holds true in romance. It is not our particularities that rouse and strengthen the romantic impulse between us and our lover. Thinking that it is our particularities, the little things about ourselves that we think are unique about us (which actually aren't), will lead us not to romance, but to misery. Our particularities just aren't that interesting. If anything, our spouses may just as easily find those things annoying. And even if we are particularly interesting now, most young couples don't realize how dramatically both you and your spouse will change over the next ten years, much less the next forty. Sometimes when young men tell me they find the concept of monogamy impossible, I tell them, "I know what you mean, but I have never been monogamous. Even though I've been married to Alexi for twenty-four years, I've been married to about five different women. They have just all been Alexi." That always gets something of a quizzical look. But the 21-year-old Alexi that I married in 1999 was very different from the nearly 200-pound creature enormously pregnant with my first daughter, and she was very different than the mother of a two-year-old in Florida to whom I had been married for five years, and she is very different from the seasoned homeschooling mother of four that I adore today.
Seeking to keep romance burning in the unique particularities of our character, or the idiosyncrasies of our love affair is not a road to a long, deep, burning romance between a man and a woman.
Second, here's what you should do:
Start by looking at yourself as a plain man or woman, and your spouse as a plain man or woman, who have come together to have a plain and ordinary marriage. In Genesis 2, Adam sings the first song in the Bible when he meets Eve. He seems enraptured and astonished at her, and all he knows about her at this point is that she is a woman, and that God has made her for him. He finds her absolutely fascinating, not yet as Eve, but simply as a woman. Proverbs 18:22 says, "He who finds a wife finds a good thing and receives favor from the Lord." It doesn't specify much about the wife. She is apparently a woman, and she is apparently his. That's all we know, and it turns out, that's all we need to know. In Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 we find listed the great beauties of covenantal friendship:
1. Two get a better return on their work
2. They are there when each other falls to help the other one up
3. They can lay down together and keep warm
4. They can fight together and defend themselves
5. They are stronger when woven together like a rope
You see, none of these are particularly dependent on the personalities of the people involved—whether in friendship or in marriage. The thing that is important is that another human being has bound themselves to you for all the difficulties of life in a chaotic world. The thing that makes your wife special isn't that she is some kind of unique and unrepeatable anomaly, though technically she is. The thing that is special about your wife is that she is your wife. That she is there to help you get a better return on your work. That she is there to help pick you up when you fall. That when you lie down together you can keep warm. That you can defend yourselves together, and you are stronger when you are woven together in covenantal love. This is why people who have good marriages love each other more deeply over time, even though physical attractiveness may wane. It is because the things that make your spouse a blessing all have a story. Romance is the kind of plant that flourishes with deep roots.
So don't be drawn into the "uniqueness fallacy" when it comes to romantic love. Don't believe that your love affair is completely different from everyone else's, God forbid. Hope that it is just like most people who have loved each other well. When Solomon tells his son to not commit adultery by saying "drink from your own well," he assumes that the thing in everyone's well is water. His wife isn't a well of honey, while everyone else's is a well of water. The important thing is that his well is his, and not someone else's. The thing that is special about romance is that we have what everyone else has with the one with whom we have it.
Be romantic about your spouse as a man or as a woman. As your husband or your wife. Romanticize about them as a husband or wife, father or mother, breadwinner, domestic wonder, fixer of stuff. Be even more romantic about what they are to you than who they are uniquely and specifically.
Furthermore, be more romantic about the institution of marriage than about your marriage in particular. By being more romantic about marriage in general, you will find yourself more moved by your marriage in particular. You will see it as a beautiful story of choice and constancy instead of wondering if it was a "perfect match of destiny."
In the end, the less self-involved, the less arrogant, the less naïve we are about who we are as women and men together, and the sort of thing that marriage is, the more we will find ourselves warmed over the smoldering coals or the raging fire of romance. And instead of finding it fleeting and unsure, we will find it solid and certain through all the chaos of life's uncertainties. As we walk together with Christ, we will find that a cord of three strands is not easily broken.