The phenomenon of being “in love” is an experience nearly every person yearns to have realized in his or her life. As a child, I savored depictions of love in art and music, organized weddings for every possible combination of my stuffed animals, prayed dutifully each night for my future husband, and found an outlet for my inchoate mothering instincts by trussing my cat up in diapers and bonnets, explaining to her that her father (my imaginary beloved) was “off to war”. It was all delightful play, simple and free.
The idea of falling in love seemed to imply a state of heavenly rapture, in which all of one’s heart was shared with another, and likewise the other’s heart became one’s own: all of creation smiled upon you and your beloved, united as you were in a mysterious joy which arose from a single pulsing heart. To be in love, I surmised, was surely a most wondrous thing — the artists, poets, and philosophers have spoken of it, sung of it, and depicted it in various ways for thousands of years as being sheer elysium; an attitude of eternal ardency which vows to never grow dull.
Today, twenty years later, the golden aura which inscribes the thought of “being in love” remains, and this ideal is still relentlessly advertised; though of late it has become more apparent that perhaps the shining image of “inlove-ness” (to borrow a phrase coined by Sheldon VanAuken in his book A Severe Mercy) does not provide us with an accurate glimpse of the reality of what happens in the unfolding of true love. What I mean to say is that, for all the “bells and whistles” that accompany it, this being in love is not the experience of love in the fullest: it is not the fulfillment of, but rather the stepping-stone to, that realm of divine, mutual true love which transcends the ravages of time and the insecurities of the heart. My childhood fancies were what they ought to have been at that tender age: but they have, thankfully, matured and deepened thanks to God’s grace: and thanks to experience. I’m going to attempt to reflect on this in light of married love, and consider the various ways in which a proper understanding of the experience of being in love (Eros) can positively affect a marriage, as well as the negative effects a misunderstanding of this experience can have.
Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being. All love, no matter how it may be understood or manifested, craves union. One aspect of love’s nature which makes this tendency toward union particularly evident is found in the relationship between men and women: this aspect of love is known as Eros. Eros is “something akin to poetic rapture, and in fact to artistic enthusiasm in general, a state of being carried out of the normality of everyday existence” (So said Josef Pieper, a favorite of mine). It is an attraction which, in the Platonic understanding, draws people to all that is good, true, and beautiful, and it is first and foremost of a sensual and emotional nature. When a man perceives beauty in a woman, he is moved: he is drawn out of himself and awakened to a universe of goodness which he seeks to unite himself to, and, if the woman has been moved in the same way, she makes a mutual response in the direction of attaining said union. They desire to draw closer to each other — not only through getting to know everything about one another, right down to the smallest details, but also with their bodies. Indeed, it is this emotional and sensual experience which most people identify as “being in love.”
People in love will insist upon their everlasting fidelity to one another with remarkable ferocity. Question them, even casually, about the longevity of their sentiments and they will look upon one another with a patiently pained expression, obviously mutually lamenting your ignorance on the nature of their devotion to one another, but tickled nonetheless with the mystery their shared phenomenon presents to the average human. You can’t possibly understand the force which sustains their uninterrupted gravitation to one another, and you are unable to comprehend the depth, uniqueness and thrill of their delightful new reality. The old self of each is dead, decidedly dead, and in its stead now stands a selfless, fully awakened human being, freed from every strand of egoism and indolence, and animated with an irrepressible buoyancy…
But, for all the lingering looks, ardent promises, freakishly similar senses of humor, effusive songs and poems, exchanges of secrets and dreams, and seemingly eternal springtime of this “being in love” — can such an ecstasy persist? Is it really as impervious to human weakness and sinfulness as they say? Can two people remain in a state of self-less libation, bounding about forever in the golden fields of “heaven on earth” for as long as they both shall live? I must be frank at the risk of sounding callous: hardly.
Now, I love marriage, and I recommend it heartily. I also love the varying stages and seasons of falling in love with my husband, and I am anything but a stoic: just ask him! (Or, just consider how often I embolden or italicize phrases in this post. Seneca would be theoretically repulsed by such flagrant displays of emphasis.) It’s crucial to be drawn emotionally and erotically to the person you marry. Marriage is too tough to embrace if you’re not into the person you’re marrying. All I’m saying is – it’s so much more than just that, even though it relies on that and draws enormous grace from that. So before you peg me as one of those embittered kill-joys who refer to marriage as “the old ball-and-chain,” and who insist marriage makes people miserable (a weakly disguised example of transference: misery loves company), hear me out.
People who are blessed enough to experience falling in love with one another often fall prey to the trap of believing that the thrills and enchantments they discover and share with the other person will last forever, even if they’re convinced they’re intellectually impervious to such a thing – such is the nature of Eros, which naturally leads lovers to reject as impossible the thought that their sentiments for one another could be transitory. But no matter how strong and good the emotions and sensations which accompany the experience may be (and indeed they are good, for love for another person cannot exist solely in the intellect but rather insists upon a holistic response), they are, as Karol Wojtyla wrote, just the “raw material” of love: though they provide a good setting for it to take root, they cannot be regarded as its fulfillment — for “love as an emotional experience, even if it is reciprocated, is very far from being the same as love completed by a commitment of the will…transient erotic experiences must not be confused with love.” The idolization of “inloveness” often leads to an incorrect view of what is to be expected in married love, as professed by the vows made therein. Granted, when two people make such vows, they do so sincerely believing they shall live them out in their entirety; the discrepancy here, according to S. Vanauken, is a serious lack of understanding that saying “till death do us part,” means just that, quite literally; it does not mean, “for as long as this high and holy feeling shall remain.”
It is this mentality, which equates love with a thrilling feeling, which has lead to the unraveling of many a marriage. Feelings, emotions, and sensations come and go. When couples who are unduly attached to the honey-like sweetness that comes along with the initial stages of their love cease to feel these sentiments, they find themselves looking at someone they’ve never known before. This is because, tragically, (as Vanauken goes on to say), “it wasn’t a person qua person they had been in love with, but a person as an evoker of a feeling, a thrill. Their vows had been to the feeling.” Vows on this level — that is, vows to feelings — are easily transferable amongst people; indeed, people who live on their feelings stay devoted and true to these vows — just not to the people who are attached to them, necessarily. Soon enough, when the shattering loveliness of being in love vanishes, the ego reasserts itself in both parties, and “lover snaps at lover.” Each becomes overly ravenous to receive, and immovably set against giving; and jealousy, resentment, estrangement and pettiness enter in. Before either knows it, the same eyes which once gazed dazedly in devotion at the other now glower coldly at “the stranger I married” while settling things in divorce court on the grounds of ‘incompatibility.’
(Emotions spring from the limbic system. They are frequently poor interpersonal leaders, while being dangerously convicting. If I’m being brutally honest, the most intense emotions we experience can send our mind into its most instinctual stance: eat or be eaten. This works if you’re a wolf. Not if you’re someone’s spouse. Know thyself, and the truth will set you free. ‘Specially if you’re a melancholic-choleric. Or a human being whose nature can be transfigured by cooperation with grace.)
So, then, this is all rather grim, you’re thinking: what can be done to prevent this cycle of the seemingly heavenly gestation of love followed by a heart-hardening stillbirth? I believe that a better understanding of Eros, as well as a deeper seriousness toward the things (or vows) the passions of Eros impel lovers to commit, will allow for a more fecund, stable relationship grounded on true love, which “alters not when it alterations finds.” (Shakespeare, baby. 16th Sonnet.)
One thing we must make ourselves aware of is the fact that, as C.S. Lewis points out, “Eros is driven to promise what Eros himself cannot perform.” As I stated earlier, Eros is a force which moves a person out of himself and awakens him to something that goes infinitely beyond that which is immediately apparent. What happens in erotic love is not a quenching of a desire but rather an opening of the sphere of existence to a limitless satiety which cannot be obtained here and now. Eros, then, is not meant to gratify but rather to “set things into motion”: it is a stepping-stone to Divine Love. It points to something more, something deeper. This deeper reality to which Eros tends can only be revealed through sincere communication with the other on a level which probes courageously into the depths of the beloved’s God-given being. Thus it is of utmost importance that lovers seek to keep the truth about the other person ever in mind, realizing that the emotional-effective responses connatural to Eros can lead to an erroneous perception of the beloved, pinning upon them god-like values which actually have no real substance. A purely emotional love often becomes an equally emotional hatred for the same person. One must never make a god out of Eros, for in so doing, he or she immediately loses sight of the beloved person to whom they seek to be united, and inevitably ends up grappling fecklessly for an increasingly inchoate ideal existing primarily within his or her own isolated ego.
It is only when Eros is recognized as being inseparable from Divine Love that it is experienced appropriately and is properly integrated into the love-life of married couples, or those with high hopes for marriage. To relegate Eros into a little box labeled “Emotional-Affective-Sensual-Sexual Experience” is to disregard the beauty of this love, which is paradigmatic of the totally committed love of God and also gives substance to the word Charity! Charity, or Agape, is commonly understood as Divine Love — and it can never be completely separated from Eros. The more these two loves find a harmonious unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love is revealed and upheld. Christopher West describes the maturation of Eros in conjunction with the will when he writes of it as being “concerned more and more with the beloved, [bestowing] itself and [desiring] to ‘be there’ for the other. The element of Agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise Eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature.” It is natural, then, that Eros tends to take flight in an ecstasy of sorts, seeking the Divine through the love of another and jolting us out of our muteness of heart; but for this very reason it requires a “path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.” (Benedict XVI: God is Love, pgh 5)
This means that two people in love, who have been moved to make vows to one another, must be aware that the ecstasy they experience in the springtime of their love is not the true ecstasy for which they have been made. The true ecstasy comes only after purification through tribulations, perseverance through mediocrities, and uninterrupted efforts at self-renunciation for the sake of the beloved. If love is identified with this Divinely directed ecstasy, which seeks to love for the sake of loving — not for the sake of a feeling — the deepest wish of romantic love will be fulfilled, which is union and endurance.
Of course, this maturation of love is easier said than done, and, as Soren Kierkegaard puts it, requires a “truly heroic soul…[in marriage man is given a chance of discovering that it] requires a great soul to save one’s soul out of the petty.” He continues, saying that romantic love, though a gift, is elusive; and it tragically seeks to go on forever but is caught in the webs of the time. Lacking a factor of the will, it is tossed about in the shallow tide-pool of man’s capricious moods and whims, and is unable to attain the fulfillment it promises. It is this factor of the will, arising from the inner-life of man, which guides Eros from a stage of affection for outer appearances and charms and into those inner depths of true beauty which embody the Divine.
Love involves a definite decision made by the will: by this love we decisively choose a person, not an “evoker of a feeling.” Love is a deep unity maintained by the will and consciously bolstered by habit. Erotic love cannot stand on its own, and its transience requires that it be submerged in the healing current of Agape in order to be drawn up and into its fullest realization. This requires a conscious effort on the part of the will, and a mutual, reciprocative desire to choose, again and again, to love the other person: not as a god, but as a flawed human being who must be reminded that they are loved and lovable: even if it takes years for that message to get through. This may entail some of the following (get ready, my choleric friends – here is a list full of CONCRETE ITEMS):
1. Identifying destructive patterns or tendencies within the context of individual and couples’ therapy (which, ideally, would be begun in a couples’ individual lives before committing to a long-term relationship, if needed: examining one’s own life before laying it down for another is often one of the best things a person can do for their future marriage. Be responsible and start grappling with your mommy-daddy stuff now);
2. Striving toward mutual vulnerability and encouragement;
3. Forgiving one’s spouse even when a situation or behavior appears dire; and
4. Being willing to change for the good of the other: even at moments when it may appear that they aren’t responding in kind. There will be times when it seems that one spouse is stronger than the other – times when one person is called to abide while the other wrestles beneath the transfiguring grace of proximity: this is love in action, and it can hardly be romanticized.
Our present-day poets, philosophers, and artists still sing the praises of love. But as any thoughtful observer of our current society will agree, there is a disconcerting conflict between the attractively presented ideal of love and the undeniable erosion of the institution of marriage, the very union in which the love of a man and a woman is meant to be sanctioned and made perfect. This is, I believe, due partially to the fact that the popular idea of love, which idolizes Eros (and reduces it to sensation and sex) as the greatest and highest form of love, is commonly accepted as the truth of love, which it is not; and it is also due to a cowardice of will which, coupled with ignorance, fails to transcend the temporal realm with its multitudinous whims and fancies. Taking these fallacies into a marriage will lead to disillusionment and heartbreak (or at least, much more disillusionment and heartbreak than necessary), for love cannot survive unless it embraces the whole of love — not just one aspect of it; likewise it must embrace the whole person, not just one aspect of them.
Love looks to the eternal. It is indeed an ecstasy — not in the sense of a moment of inebriation, but rather as a pilgrimage out of the closed, inward-looking self towards its emancipation through self-gift, and thus towards true self-discovery and indeed the discovery of God (God is Love, pgh 6).
To truly love another person in marriage is a deed of daring. Those who experience the fullness of “being in love” know that its sweetness is made richer by hardship; that it necessarily includes factors of duty and responsibility which exist far beyond the aesthetic sphere; and that it is an encounter of persons who have been created for an eternal reality. Love is a response of both body and soul: not to any particular charms, gifts, talents or features of the beloved — but to the beloved person himself, in his entirety, for better or for worse. Love involves a deeper understanding of the beloved in their totality – it seeks the innermost person who shines, albeit imperfectly, through many weaknesses and inconsistencies.
Being in love is not infatuation. Rather, it constitutes in itself “the climax of [the] full spiritual realization of the beloved person,” and places man and woman in the “only truly awakened state” (Both quotations from Dietrich VonHildebrande). To be in love is to express, with all of one’s heart, will, mind, and body, the Incarnational call to make love the aim of every action, to choose self-gift over self-preservation. It is far, far more challenging – and infinitely more beautiful! – than the movies, songs, poems, and Instagram feeds make it out to be: and best of all, it isn’t an end in itself. The best thing ever is yet to come.
PS. I originally wrote this post as a philosophy paper in college, during a time when I was being immersed in the writings of Josef Pieper, Karol Wojtyla, Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Buber, Dietrich von Hildebrand, etc. I recently re-read it and was struck by the accuracy of the assessment of married love and its unique challenges, given that I am a married woman now and have learned a great deal since I was a Junior in college. I updated it here and there to make it more personal and relevant. I am thankful for these scholars who have left a legacy of wisdom and truth behind them, and whose years of diligent prayer and study have helped me and countless others draw closer to the mysterious plan of freedom inherent within God’s self-revelation, as expressed through human love.