Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Love: Marital vs. Romantic

Some may think it takes chutzpah for a bachelor to write on marriage, But just as a medical doctor doesn't need to have cancer to diagnose a patient's illness, I hope my detachment will aid my objectivity.

Before anyone misunderstands the title of this post, I need to be very clear that I'm not trying to say that marriage is necessarily opposed to romantic love. What I am trying to say is that they exist in tension. To the modern mind, romance is the only justification for marriage. But when one looks at marriage itself, the reasons for it are much more practical and earthy.

What brought this subject to mind is a book I recently read, Captain from Castile by Samuel Shellabarger—an entertaining novel, but by no means a literary classic. The story is about Pedro de Vargas, a young Spaniard nobleman from Jaén who accompanies Cortez in his conquest of the Aztec Empire (Mexico) after a frightful run-in with the Spanish Inquisition. Pedro has two love interests. On the one hand, there is Luisa de Carvajal, a young noblewoman, who is his romantic ideal. On the other hand, there is Catana Pérez, a common girl who works as a barmaid and entertains as a dancer, whom he also loves.

These two women don't respectively represent the two sides of love that are the subject of this post, but rather two perspectives on love, one of which divides the two sides, while the other unites them. On the one hand, there is the upper-class perspective, represented by Luisa. For the rich, (romantic) love is a game, an entertainment, while marriage is for the practical purposes of children, allying families, and securing societal station. The poor, meanwhile, lack the luxury of "playing" at love, but must find whatever (romantic) love they can in their spouses.

Of course, from our modern perspective, "love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage," so the separatist perspective is incomprehensible. Despite the fact that the song attributes that opinion to the "local gentry," a large part of our belief comes from the democratic, egalitarian times in which we live: we're all commoners; we lack the cultured detachment that plagues the wealthy.

Despite this incomprehensibility—in fact because of it—it is especially important to make an effort to appreciate the merit of the position. Please don't mistake me to be advocating adultery or making love a game. I am not here advocating a line of behavior, but simply an appreciation of a lost perspective.

The Divine Romance

Romantic love is prefigurement of the Divine Love. This was plainly realized by the time of Plato's Symposium, which praises love as divine.1 In Michelangelo's "Creation of Man" on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Eve hides under God's arm; Adam extends his finger in longing as much to Eve as to God. There's something similar being shown in Karol Wojtyla/John Paul II's The Jeweler's Shop when Anna encounters the Bridegroom (Christ) with the face of her husband Stefan, even though their marriage is suffering grave difficulty: it is through her human bridegroom that she will reach her Divine Bridegroom.

Francis Schaeffer, in his video series How Should We Then Live?, takes issue with the separation of the romantic ideal from one's spouse, particularly in reference to Dante's love for Beatrice, whom Dante may never have met and who was definitely never his wife. (He says the idealization of Beatrice degraded Dante's wife to "a dray horse of a woman."2) But there's something Schaeffer is obviously missing here: Dante's love for Beatrice drew him to God in a particular way.

In the mysterious, inexhaustible "otherness" of an unfulfilled love, don't we catch a glimpse, albeit fleeting, of the mysterious, inexhaustible "otherness" of the Love that will be fulfilled only after death?

True, no finite creature can fully re-present the goodness of the Creator. God is always much more than us and we will never exhaust his goodness, whereas a human lover cannot help but fall short and cease to draw us effectively to God. The shortcomings of someone with whom you consort on a day-to-day basis are so much more familiar.3 (Familiarity breeds contempt, the adage goes.) The sacred is set apart from the mundane. This is why it's so much easier for a near-stranger (like Beatrice) to represent the sacred.

Loves' Perils

Of course, there is a danger of seeing in romantic love, not a reflection of eternal love, but the eternal love itself—and this may be an error to which many practitioners of courtly love fell prey. The key is to understand that this world is a pale reflection of a greater world. Realizing this difference, we can use the longing human love puts in us to understand more fully and draw us to love God, as it is clear that Dante did with his love for Beatrice.

But there is also a danger of confusing marital love for eternal love.4 I think this is the danger to which we are particularly prone today. Marriage is a very practical societal reality and it may be that one's spouse will not stir one's heart forever. That spouses should be perpetually head-over-heels "in love" is a false ideal; along with the human failure to live up it, this expectation is the culprit behind the staggering divorce rate in this country. It's also the reason so many young people cohabitate instead of marrying: they realize (usually from the example of their divorced parents) their own inability to live up to this unattainable illusion. Of course the degradation of marriage to a legal formality instead of a lifelong commitment (a commitment based on the continuation of love beyond feelings of love) is why homosexuals think they can wed: if marriage means simply benefits from society without real commitment, they are as capable as anyone else!

At the root of confusing marital with eternal love is the confusion of marital love with romantic love: the idea that the two are necessarily identical. Certainly it is best for spouses to have feelings of love to assist them in their duties to one another. Marriage is not always going to be a heart-stirring affair. It's hard work at times. What we need nowadays is to reaffirm the practicality of marriage: it is the cornerstone of human society. The difficult truth is that, whether there's romance involved or not, we need to have marriage. There is a human need for romance, but romance will come and go, and humans can learn to live in its presence or absence. The unavoidable truth is that no society can long endure without marriage to raise up the next generation.

Along similar lines, here's a though-provoking article by Sam Schulman I ran across on why homosexual "marriage" cannot bear the weight of that name.


1. Procreation is one divine aspect of love, as it allows finite creatures to participate in the eternal. Is it any surprise that we would have feelings of eternity in an act that allows us to participate in it?

2. Quoted from memory. Cf. p. 58 of the book version.

3. I mean "consort" in multiple senses.

4. It's probably truer to say that we today confuse all three loves (romantic, marital, eternal): we have such a one-dimensional ideal of love today. C.S. Lewis's book on The Four Loves is an apt antidote.

Samuel Shellabarger, Captain from Castile (Garden City, NY: The Sun Dial Press, 1946).


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