My favorite love poem hardly reads like a love poem at all. In Seamus Heaney’s “Scaffolding,” the late Irish poet compares the marriage he shares with his wife Marie not to a rose or a Spring or birdsong but to the scaffolding that masons erect when starting construction on a building.
Masons, Heaney writes, “Are careful to test out the scaffolding; / Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points, / Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints;” — work that’s not spent on the edifice itself but supports the greater work to come. Their care only pays off “when the job’s done,” when “all this comes down” to reveal “walls of sure and solid stone.” Such, he implies, is love: if you put in the hard work, lover and beloved can “let the scaffolds fall / Confident that we have built our wall.”
I love much about this poem — its solidness, its succinctness, its simple, workmanlike clarity. Most of all though, I love how utterly unromantic it is. In five crisp couplets, Heaney reminds us that love — and marriage especially — isn’t mysticism. It’s not guesswork. It definitely has nothing to do with stars aligning. No, love is labor, and like any good work, it takes a long time to build.
Not that I’ve always thought of love that way, mind you. Growing up, I (like most of us) drank deeply from the well of what I call the “Romance Myth.”
The myth goes something like this: Somewhere out there, there’s a One for you. That One is amazing — so amazing, in fact, that when you meet them your mutual One-ness will manifest itself in an instantaneous and unmistakable connection, something akin to what we call “chemistry.” Your pupils will dilate. Your heart will beat faster. If you’re lucky, you’ll kiss (maybe). It will be magical. You will be smitten — and as you and your One enjoy your One-ness together, you’ll realize what you’d really known all along: You’ve fallen head-over-heels, over-the-moon-for-life in love.
It’s a charming story. But if the realities of love and marriage are any indicator, I suspect it’s also a pack of half-truths and outright lies.
My Unromantic Love Story
My own love story unfolded very differently. Throughout high school and the first year of college, I was resolute in my determination to find my One. I knew God wanted me to find her, and since all I had to go on was a weird mixture of Christian divination and pop psychology gobbledygook, I looked for signs and chased “chemistry” like my life depended on it. I had a series of relationships, each of which started off with fireworks but quickly fizzled. And when they ended, they ended badly, leaving me unable to reconcile the pain of my disappointment with the assurance of God’s care for me. If God really loved me, why would He mislead me? Why would He let me feel the thrumming of One-ness in my heart, only to tear it away?
It also was during my freshman year of college when I met Brittany, the woman whom I would eventually marry. At the time no two words were more distant in my mind than “Brittany” and “love.” I was a quiet introvert; she was an explosive extrovert. Her energy and immaturity annoyed me (and, I later found out, my reservedness and aloofness annoyed her). She was a good friend — someone I could confide in when my dating relationships went south. But she certainly wasn’t girlfriend material; my heart didn’t do cartwheels when I was around her. There just wasn’t any chemistry there.
I’d like to say I was the first one to wise up, but that’s just not true. It was after four years of genuine, platonic friendship that she — not I — broke the unspoken rule and brought up the possibility of dating. “I don’t think we’d be as bad as we say we’d be,” she said. “I think we should give it a shot. And we don’t have to, like, go on dates or hold hands or anything. We can just hang out and play board games like we always do.”
Well, I thought, I’ve dated some crazy people. And for all the ways we’re different, Brittany’s at least not crazy. Plus, board games! So we noncommittally committed to giving dating a try.
That was eight years ago; this August, we’ll be celebrating our four-year wedding anniversary. I’m no veteran in the field of marriage, but I’m an expert at our marriage, and I can tell you that if I’d known then how happy I’d be now, I would have given up trying to find chemistry a long time ago.
The Problem with “Chemistry”
You can learn a lot about what we think about love by looking at the language we use to describe it. The phrase “falling in love” has always struck me as pretty unromantic. It encourages us to imagine love as a kind of stumble, an unexpected accident you blunder into when you’re not paying attention. It removes the crucial element that makes love truly meaningful — namely, the choice you make to be with a person over literally every other person on the planet.
“Chemistry” is the same way. The term feels exciting and empowering, but it’s also misleading. While it comes to us from the predictable world of science, we use it to describe an essentially mystical experience, something that points to knowledge of compatibility that exists beyond reason, beyond the apprehension of the intellect. In practice, this makes chemistry a confusing mess. What feels like attraction one day can turn to cold indifference the next. We can feel drawn to others who we know will not help us flourish, who are unwilling to die to sin every day for their love, or we can fail to recognize a worthy partner because we’re prematurely looking for a feeling that grows best when it grows slowly.
The notion of love-at-first-sight makes for good stories; in reality signs and wonders of the heart simply can’t sustain the real weight of love. We can’t expect the choice to self-sacrificially serve another person to be made for us by forces beyond our control — not if we want to have a happy, healthy marriage that can withstand the vicissitudes of being a fallen person in a fallen world.
This isn’t to say God has nothing to do with love and marriage, of course. In fact, He’s given us plenty of guidance on the kind of person who makes a good partner and spouse. Interestingly, the qualities of romantic relationships that Scripture highlights have less to with feelings of a “spark” and more to do with the kind of virtues God has cultivated within each partner. Beyond that, the choice is ours to make, the work ours to undertake.
Let Love Grow
With this in mind, I’d like to suggest a different approach to chemistry, one in which we see deep and meaningful romantic attachment as the product, not the catalyst, of a loving relationship. As my brother reminded me at my wedding, “If you do it right, this’ll be the worst day of your marriage.”
A sense of chemistry may be there in the beginning, but if it’s not — or, more importantly, if it wanes at times — it’s not time to throw up your hands and call it quits. Instead, the decision of whether to start or stay in a relationship may best be made by looking at the choices and actions of the one you’re with. Do they respect you? Do they serve you? Do they admire you? Do they care for you with words, hands and feet, as well as their heart?
Because if they do, there’s good news: the scaffolding is already being put in place. Soon, you can start confidently building your wall.
Copyright 2016 Adam Marshall. All rights reserved.