Commenter Dale provided a reminder recently of an important concept that deserves more attention:
“Dalrock, on his blog, has somewhat regularly been hitting the idea that we have love and marriage totally backwards. We think that a relationship of romantic love is the correct place in which to have sex and create marriage. A consequence of this ‘love first’ attitude is that we think it is reasonable, and even necessary, to end the marriage if I no longer feel romantic love. Another is the idea that it is fine to have sex with various people, without “rushing” into the marriage commitment first, as long as we are ‘really in love’.”
I realize this may sound strange since as the old song, Love and Marriage says, “you can’t have one without the other.” Given the popularity of this idea, it seems almost foolish to question whether love begets marriage or marriage begets love — as long as both are present, who cares? Whether the chicken or the egg came first really doesn’t matter as long as one gets to eat, right? Ah, but it does matter.
A language problem?
Part of our problem stems from a limitation in our language. As I have written elsewhere, unlike our Greek ancestors, we who speak English only have one word for love. And most often when we think of love as it relates to marriage, we think only of romantic or erotic love.
This is a bit of a category error — we are confusing a part of something for its larger whole. And the problem with regarding love as superior to marriage is that ultimately we come to regard marriage as more of a commodity, a consumer good, rather than an institution.
It takes all kinds
Romantic love (eros) is part of being human, and it is a very good thing. The initial surge of attraction and excitement between men and women is a gift from God. It helps men and women overcome their shyness to meet and begin their courtship. They “fall in love.” But this initial euphoria has to lead somewhere — and ideally, it will mature into a marriage that includes phileo (friendship), storge (familial) and agape (unconditional) love while retaining its romantic spark. This fully realized love within marriage provides the basis for a stable home and the rearing of children, as well as maximized contentment for the husband and wife.
Marriage contains love better than love contains marriage. I hope the following word picture will help to explain it.
Cobras and carpools
Think of marriage as a racetrack and of love as a race car optimized for the track. The car will always run best — and realize its purpose most fully — on the track. All that acceleration, all that handling, all that braking and all the safety equipment is meant for the track and would simply go to waste anywhere else.
Since a race car is still a car after all, one could drive it to work, downtown, on the freeway and on the streets of a subdivision. But it is hard to imagine sitting at a stoplight or waiting in the carpool line at the kids’ school as a satisfactory experience for the driver — especially compared to the experience of the track.
Marriage is the track on which love finds its fullest expression. By contrast, trying to run marriage on the track of love places feelings — most notably those feelings of attraction or being “in love” — in a place of supremacy they do not deserve. And with predictably bad outcomes.
Running under caution
The idea that love begets marriage leads to the error that being in love makes sex moral.* And as Dale notes above, when we adopt this idea, the cooling of desire becomes justification for ending a marriage.
In my first post, I said, “Despite all the ways both institutions are imperfect, I am pro-marriage and pro-church.” I’ll stand by that. Meanwhile, I encourage you who are reading these words to consider whether you are over-exalting romantic love. It isn’t too late to get on the right track.
So how about you? How do you regard romantic love? Add your comments below.