One in two marriages ends in divorce. Yet we still dream about the perfect relationship. Maybe we DO need it, or at least something that it perfectly embodies.
"Marriage — who needs it?"
That's what many of us single Gen-Xers are saying. Of course, that's what we say about love, parents, kids, friends — essentially every item or concept that causes us a moment of grief. The things that are closest to our hearts can hurt us the most, and we find ourselves wishing we could just do without them. But the very fact that we spend so much time and energy thinking about marriage is actually an indication that we do need it — or at least, we need something that it perfectly embodies.
* * *
It's my first evening out with Nick — who so far appears to be an incredibly accomplished, adorably sensitive 25 year old. In the mellow lighting of this four-star restaurant, I am enjoying listening to him talk about himself. He is clearly enjoying it, too. I forget the cares of my newly acquired "young urban professional" lifestyle as I listen to Nick's tales from his world. For a brief moment I recall the game of "house" that I used to play as a child. Nick and I are playing "romance," perhaps — but no harm done: It's just for fun; just for here; just for now.
Reality strikes: Nick is saying, "Here's something you don't know about me: I was married."
"Oh really," I say, trying not to show any particular emotion, and not sure that this revelation really affects me anyhow.
"Yes ... for four months."
I retain my listening posture, and he explains how he and this young woman both wanted to be Married. They both wanted to do right what their parents had done wrong; they wanted to give and receive love; they wanted to be every-kind-of-intimate happily ever after. Enter the evil Little Things (the way she squeezed the toothpaste tube or the way he folded his socks) which accumulated and soon became very big things. Genuine Big Issues came up, too, like her inability to understand and support his passions in life. After four months, they decided to just split up while they were still childless and hadn't yet merged all of their assets.
Or at least I think that's what he just said. As I am nodding along and trying to listen, I am thinking of my father. When he's on a date with a new woman, does his description of his brief marriage to my mother sound this way? "She and I were incompatible ... she couldn't understand my passions ... it was better to end it sooner than later." In the mind of a child of divorce, the questions abide and persist: Why couldn't you make it work? Whose fault is it? If it just wasn't "meant to be," why did you have to enter into it so hastily in the first place?
Nick's reflections are also ringing true when I think back to my own engagement, over four years ago. I had wanted to be in Love. I wanted to be loved. I wanted what I knew could be so right, and I wanted to do it better than my parents had done it. I wanted a guarantee that this would work, and I did everything I could to foster faithfulness and interdependence. For four years, we were "in love." We were as serious as high school students can be, and we were faithful. But "love" for its own sake is never enough. Little things that should have remained little began to bother me. I became a nag at the age of 17, and I didn't like who I was becoming.
I broke off my engagement before a date had even been set — but like Nick, I completely flung my heart and mind into this deep desire to "do love" properly. Why would either Nick or I have approached marriage — especially with little to no positive examples of marriage in our lives? There should be no reason why we'd want to try that love stuff — unless we are designed for relationships.
And so we are. No matter what our eyes have seen, it seems that our hearts just know that there is something inherently good in the love, surrender, obedience, responsibility and interdependence of committed relationships — and that the life-long commitment of marriage is the best and highest form of human relationship.
We humans were made for intimacy; we were meant to be truly known and truly appreciated. Ultimately, the highest and most fulfilling union for us is with our Creator. Profound theological writers have expounded on how the Trinity is the epitome of intimacy and relationship. Christ's atoning death provides for and proves God's desire for a heavy-duty relationship with us. Meanwhile, we can find glimpses of glory in sincere friendships with one another.
We can also learn a great deal about the nature of our hearts by observing the intricate dances we perform as we attempt to approximate the riches found in that one holy, God-ordained relationship called marriage.
Exhibit No. 1: Social scientists call it "cohabitation"; fundamentalists call it "living in sin"; Gen-Xers call it safe and sensible. It reveals plainly that we just don't want to be alone. Of course, we don't want to get burned, either — we don't want the pain we've seen our parents and peers undergo. So, we try a romantic yet pragmatic approach: Let's just live together, and enjoy each other, but avoid getting too attached — or at least postpone becoming legally inseparable. Nice thought.
In the 1950s, nine out of 10 new brides had never "cohabited" with their partners before their weddings. In the early 1990s, two out of three young women spent some time living with their partners before getting married. Does this indicate that women are getting smarter? Not necessarily. I think it shows that we are scared. In light of the unsettlingly high odds that we will get burned, why save ourselves for that "one special person"? After all, we've been told that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, and we've seen our families and friends go through the pain of separating. So we settle for a relationship that is almost what we want; we approximate that lovely relationship that apparently only exists in our childhood dreams. But the question remains: As we sacrifice our heart's desire, is the reward we get even worth it?
Not only do our hearts call for intimacy, they also demand commitment. For all the trusting we're willing to do, we want some security. Studies show that couples who cohabit and then marry are 33 percent more likely to divorce than couples who didn't live together before marrying. That figure doesn't even take into account all the couples who live together for a while and then part ways without ever getting married.
It doesn't take a sociologist to figure out the logic behind this. When you're investing in something that you know could end at any point, how secure can you feel? How much of yourself can you really reveal? How much would you be willing to sacrifice, with no guarantees of gratitude or safety? Merely "living together" pales in comparison to living together in a household that is established by mutual vows before God and a congregation of family and friends.
We crave the incomparable safety of being fully known and fully accepted. God is the One who knows us completely and loves us dearly. God-ordained marriage embodies an intimacy safer and truer than any other living arrangement on earth.
Exhibit No. 2: emotional promiscuity. I can't take any credit for this brilliant, biting term. I found it in an article I read over two years ago, and I was so convicted by it that I don't think I'll ever forget it. Among those of us who are morally opposed to premarital sex, some of us nonetheless pursue many consecutive dating relationships, giving little thought to preserving these emotions and experiences for the sacred canopy of marriage. We do all we can to attain some form of exclusivity with someone of the opposite sex, flaunt it in front of our friends, and float on an emotional high until we part ways over some difference that would probably seem petty if we hadn't been in such a rush to feel good.
Again, this dance reveals our desire for closeness. But it doesn't quite meet the demands of our hearts: It doesn't last, and our hearts are not made for serial monogamy. Couples who are still married and still happy after many years together will tell you that their love and commitment to one another deepened during the toughest times. If they had only been in a relationship for their own benefit, they would have split up long ago. The fact is (as a friend of mine is fond of saying), "I can ‘fall in love' with anyone in a four-star restaurant!"
Which brings me back to Nick. We're still talking; he's still fascinating; we've ordered a four-star dessert. He's treating me like a lady; the classical music is playing in the lower level of this elegant structure.
"Playing romance" — is that what I said we are doing? "Just for fun; just for here; just for now" — did I just say that to myself? Should I believe it? Knowing that I want to save my body, mind and heart for my future husband, I suddenly realize the need for caution. How do I know what Nick's intentions are? How do I know that he's not looking to "fall in love" again?
As much as I have debunked the value of any substitute for the Real Thing, my own tendency to seek emotional intimacy in the here-and-now is still strong. As long as I am human with a heart made for God's perfect love, it shall always be. I wouldn't have it any other way.
I also won't give up anything that belongs to my future husband (whoever that turns out to be). When I recall this resolution, it matters less to me what Nick's intentions might be; I know Whose I am. I know where true fulfillment is found, and I know the proper context for human intimacy: A covenant with a person whom time has proven to have godly character. I won't settle for less. My heart will never let me.
Copyright 1998 Laurel Robinson. All rights reserved.