By Gary Moore
If I were to ask you, “What makes a good marriage?,” according to the research 90 percent of you would say “Being in love.” Nobody thinks about getting married in hopes that love will eventually show up.
Do you realize that for most of history, love had very little to do with marriage? Love wasn’t the motivator. Historically, people married to form alliances between families, gain economic support, or expand the family labor force.
Today marriage is seen as a bond that’s all about love and intimacy. Romance is the essential precursor to marriage. It is seen as a precursor and a requirement. For most, it is paramount. And, according to Stephanie Coontz, Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families, most see marriage as a means to more happiness. In fact, it holds a magical key, many believe, to “living happily ever after.”
And that’s the problem. If you’ve been married very long at all, you know marriage, no matter how loving, isn’t a fairy tale. The “perfect person,” your “soul mate,” eventually lets you down.
Marriage is not an elongated honeymoon. The late Dr. Dan Wile, founder of Collaborative Couples Therapy, put it this way, “When choosing a long-term partner, you will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems.” Marriage takes sacrifice, hard work, and the ability to put up with disappointment and cope with frustration. Not only that, every good marriage, no matter how good, eventually bumps into bad things. And romantic love, no matter how idyllic, is not enough to sustain it.
If you ask people to define what love is, they can’t. They don’t know what it is, they just know it when they feel it. And we all understand that. When people say “being in love” is the key to marriage, according to Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, knowingly or not they equate it to romance. And the more someone relies on romance to support their relationship, the more deluded and disappointed they become.
When neuroscientists Bartels and Zeki examined the brains of people in romantic love, they found that the areas of the brain involved with decision-making and judgment become impaired. A person who claims to be “truly, deeply, and madly” in love activates brain regions associated with delusion, drug craving, and addiction.
When we’re dating, we are in the sales and marketing business. We’re selling an image of a person we hope the other one will buy. In turn, they are doing the same. And when romantic love, initiated by this “sales transaction,” is mistaken for lasting love, we marry an idealized image of our partner. Only that person does not exist in real life. And in time, marriage asks us to look reality squarely in the face and reckon with the fact that we did not marry the person we thought we did.
Each of us constructs an idealized image of the person we marry. That image is painted by our partners’ eager efforts to put their best foot forward and to sell us. And then the image takes root in the rich soil of our romantic fantasies. We want to see our partner at their best. We imagine, for example, that they would never become irritable or put on excess weight. We believe their body is exempt from the forces of gravity. We focus on what we find admirable and blank out every blemish. We see them through the lens of romance as more noble, more attractive, more intelligent, and more gifted than they really are. But not for long. Why? Because, as a married couple, we’re now living in closer proximity for extended periods of time in a less controlled environment. Romance is fueled by feelings. And as the real person begins to emerge, our idealized images begin to shatter and our feelings begin to change.
Romantic love, by its very nature, is fleeting. There are two main schools of thought here. One school believes that the half-life of romantic love is about three months. The other school believes romantic love stays at a peak for two to three years before it starts to fade. Whichever school is correct, the reality is that mutual idealizing gives way to mutual disillusionment. No human being can fulfill an idealized dream. Letdown is inevitable.
Strangely, the moment a couple realizes this, is the moment they find what they were hoping for all along. Their disenchantment, once accepted as a sign of growth, not despair, enables them to move into deeper and enduring intimacy.
The late English writer Beverley Nichols put it this way, “Marriage is a book of which the first chapter is written in poetry and the remaining chapters in prose.”
Love is more than a feeling.
Gary Moore served as associate pastor at Cloverdale Church of God for 15 years. He does couples’ coaching and leads couples’ workshops and retreats called MUM’s the Word. He does a weekly radio program called Life Point Plus on KBXL 94.1FM at 8:45 a.m. on Fridays. Monday mornings at 10 a.m. he does live relationship teaching called MUM Live on his Facebook page Mutual Understanding Method. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.