On this day my wife and I celebrate our 52nd anniversary. When we married, we had scarcely any idea what we were doing. I am glad to announce that even as boneheaded as we are, we have learned something.
Everyone knows that the matrimonial union requires work and faces difficulties. In traditional marriage vows, the lovers promise to love each other “for better or for worse” and “until we are parted by death.” Today these words are often repeated with the mental substitution, “so long as it shall be cool for us both.” In the decade in which we were married, some people actually used those words during the wedding ceremony. No wonder so many see no difference between marrying and shacking up.
Trust me, it gets easier. Only hang on, and you may wonder why you ever considered putting an end to your union.
The basis of the marital friendship is not primarily affection, or even sexual desire. C.S. Lewis said that lovers look into each other’s eyes, but that friends look ahead to the task. With appreciation for his great book on The Four Loves, I think Lewis missed something important, for husbands and wives look into each other’s eyes and look ahead to the task. Feelings may change, and sexual desires may wax and wane, but matrimonial union is a partnership in the hope and intention of making family, in bringing the future into being.
This partnership cannot be revised or redefined. It transcends the feelings, desires, and even personal intentions of the spouses. So true is this that if the hope and intention of family are missing, the lovers should not be surprised to lose interest. That’s how we are made. Even when, through no fault of their own, a couple are unable to have children, they will naturally desire to be spiritual parents to their young relatives or godchildren.
After all, if not for making family, then what on earth would the sexual powers be for? People say “for pleasure,” but that is absurd. Of course sexual intercourse produces pleasure; the exercise of every voluntary power produces pleasure. Eating does. Looking around does. Flexing the muscles does. Pleasure is certainly a strong motive for employing our powers, but why we have them is another matter altogether. We may eat for pleasure, but eating, as such, is for nourishment. Besides, pleasure vanishes if pursued as an end in itself. Gratefully accepted as a byproduct of doing something worthwhile in itself, it becomes surprisingly strong.
Because matrimony brings the future into being, it must be permanent. I give some credit to thinkers like John Locke, who wasn’t strong on teleology, but at least recognized that since matrimony concerns children, the marital bond shouldn’t be dissoluble at will. Yet Locke erred in thinking that the bond would need to endure only so long as the children were young. This view ignores a number of reasons for permanency, which are obvious once our attention is drawn to them, but easy to overlook. For example,
(1) The procreative mission doesn’t end when the children grow up, because grown children need the continuing help of their parents in establishing their own new families. Children need not only parents, but also grandparents.
(2) Intimacy requires security. How can the spouses expect to have a robust confidence in their shared life, when in the back of their minds they harbor the thought that either one of them may exit at any moment? If you expect failure, you will get it; if you hold the back door open, you will use it.
(3) It isn’t true that if only the husband and wife have a strong friendship, they will stick together and be faithful. Say rather than if only they stick together and remain faithful, they will have a strong friendship.
“But what if we don’t love each other any more?” True, romantic feelings may dissipate or fade. But although love is accompanied by feelings, the essence of love is not a feeling, but an enduring will to the true good of the other person. You can continue to love the other person – to rejoice in her existence and will her true good every day -- even if, at this moment, you are not feeling romantic or finding much joy in her presence.
And here is the thing about lost joy: If you keep loving, it comes back. Often it comes back deeper than before. And that is very cool for you both.