Two things happened this week that have put me in a reflective mood. The first was a day with a bunch of people from Knox Evangelical Free Church teaching about what it means to have a relationship with God, and what it means to relate to the opposite sex. The second was that Leeanne, my wife of 21 years, had a birthday.
I love teaching about love and sexuality, both because it is such a huge issue that is largely avoided in the Christian church and also because l have spent the last 21 on a journey trying to learn what it means to be married. It was interesting to be reflecting on our journey while I taught at Knox.
I have written before about how I love Leeanne. Loving someone though doesn’t mean that the relationship will be simple. I haven’t yet met a person married for more than 6 weeks who would say their relationship was simple.
Marriage is complicated and marriage is a commitment.
One of the big ideas I am always keen to communicate in a discussion about relationships is the difference between what the movies call love and what love actually is. Movie love can kill a marriage.
Movie love is primarily a feeling, which is not necessarily a bad thing… in fact at the time it feels wonderful: the air smells fresher, the grass is greener and everything is wonderful. Movie love, though, comes and goes and is primarily based on your own unfinished psychological issues.
Harville Hendrix in his book Getting the Love you want says:
The ultimate reason you fell in love with your mate, I am suggesting, is not that your mate was young and beautiful, had an impressive job, had a “point value” equal to yours, or had a kind disposition. You fell in love because your old brain had your partner confused with your parents! Your old brain believed that it had finally found the ideal candidate to make up for you psychological and emotional damage you experienced in childhood.
This is disturbing news, but time and again I see the truth of this insight as I chat to different couples.
I first came across this idea when a man I miss very much, Bob Adams, was teaching about relationships. He shared an experience he had in a course he took in psychology. The lecturer asked for volunteers to demonstrate something about why people fall in love. Because the course cost so much money, Bob said he had done a deal with God that he would volunteer for anything that would help him make the most of the investment, so he put up his hand.
The lecturer invited him down to the front of the auditorium and sitting him down asked him four questions about himself. I wish I could remember what those questions were, I know one of them was “what do you want written on your gravestone”? After listening carefully to Bob’s answers the lecturer said, “Now Bob I want to demonstrate something but I need you to be clear, have I ever met your wife or have you ever spoken to me about her?” Bob affirmed that he hadn’t. The lecturer then said, “O.K. on the basis of the answers you have given to the four questions about you, I will now describe your wife to the class.” Bob said he was so astonished that he just sat their with his mouth open as the lecturer proceeded to describe his wife, Di’s personality, almost exactly.
Bob comically related the Professor’s next transaction: “I was sitting there thinking ‘but I thought God had brought us together’ when the lecturer said, ‘I bet some of you Christians are resisting this, thinking that God brought you together. It shouldn’t surprise you to discover that God wired you to fall in love with someone who would cause you to face the issues of your history.”
We are wired to fall in love with people who will very accurately bring up most of the painful and unfinished business from our childhood.
In the moment that this “movie love” kicks in, it feels wonderful. Finally it feels like someone sees us and understands us. Movie love seeks someone who “completes me”, someone who fits into who I am in a way that fills the void.
Our society says that we should trust this feeling and look suspiciously on anyone or anything that would put boundaries around it. As C.S. Lewis points out, we tend to treat love and sexuality in a way we don’t treat any other aspect of our lives:
When I was a youngster, all the progressive people were saying, “Why all this prudery? Let us treat sex just as we treat all our other impulses.” I was simple-minded enough to believe they meant what they said. I have since discovered that they meant exactly the opposite. They meant that sex was to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilized people. All the others, we admit, have to be bridled…. But every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is ‘four bare legs in a bed.’ It is like having a morality in which stealing fruit is considered wrong – unless you steal nectarines.
– C.S. Lewis
If there is one thing I have become convinced of in the last 21 years, seeking to base my marriage on my emotional world is a recipe for disaster. Movie love is nice in the moment, but feelings come and go, and it is true love that holds a marriage together, not movie love. This is how the bible describes the kind of love I’m talking about:
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,
Love never fails
(1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV)
Nothing about this kind of love is easy. Every aspect of it requires a choice to put another person’s needs above your own. You go into marriage because you think your needs will be met, only to discover that the purpose of marriage is not so much about you.
The paradox of marriage is that the less you focus on yourself, the better life gets. M. Scott Peck wrote:
“Call it what you will, genuine love, with all the discipline it requires, is the only path in this life to substantial joy. When I genuinely love I am extending myself, and when I am extending myself I am growing. The more I love, the longer I love, the larger I become.”
Because we fall in love with someone who will focus our unfinished business, every bride and groom will ultimately be faced with one of three options: to give up, to make a silent contract to live parallel lives or to do the hard work of giving up their own needs for the sake of the other, and as a result becoming bigger people.
As I have mentioned, I feel as though God has “stuck” me in Ephesians chapter 4 at the moment. One of the core insights of the chapter is that the purpose of the church is to help people become mature. I don’t think its too big a leap to also suggest that the core purpose of marriage is to help me grow up, to face the things that hold me back and to learn how to love.
I am so grateful that Leeanne and I have taken the journey of the last 21 years together. We are both so different to the two young people in the photo. I can say categorically that Leeanne has helped me to grow up, and I’d like to think that I’ve helped her a bit too.
Marriage isn’t easy, but true love is so much richer than the anaemic imitation that we see on the silver screen.