Love and marriage on Valentine's Day

Marriage | Two life stories become one in an ongoing conversation
by Peter J. Leithart
Posted 2/13/16, 12:41 pm

Peter J. Leithart, who received a Master of Theology degree from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1987 and a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1998, is ordained in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches and president of Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Ala. He has been involved in theological controversies concerning the Federal Vision, but he also has written biographies of Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Athanasius. Leithart’s Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience (Brazos Press, 2015) includes a lovely description of love and marriage, which we present with the publisher’s blessing as a Valentine’s Day present. —Marvin Olasky

The romantic paradigm of modern love is so well known as to be trite: strangers meet, “fall in love,” and decide to spend the rest of their lives together. In many cases, the worlds they inhabited before meeting did not overlap at all. My parents knew my wife’s parents for years before the two of us met, but we had never met until we were three years into college. None of my four married children knew their spouses before young adulthood. Most come to marriage with a life story, an ongoing conversation about the world that does not include the other.

Falling in love means revising that life story and ongoing conversation so that it includes the new loved one. The man starts telling his story in a way that includes his first sight of his wife, their friendship and romance, the proposal scene, the wedding. Wives do the same, only better, because they recall all the details guys forget. Each begins to indwell the narrative of the other.

This can’t be a single addition to a story that remains unchanged in other respects. Because the man and woman end up married, their first encounter and conversation become fraught with possibility. On that enchanted evening, he saw a stranger and heard her laughter across a crowded room. He had seen beautiful strangers before, and heard them laughing across crowded rooms. Nothing is more common. Yet this becomes a critical moment in the story because of what happens after. The whole story changes because one new character is added. What used to be a straightforward melody line becomes a fugue, line intertwined with line. What used to be a simple melody line gets harmonized; it turns polyphonic. His life dwells in hers, and hers in his. He is hers, and she is his.

In a number of his books, the late philosopher Robert Solomon described the dynamics of romantic love as a process of redefining the self. We have a particular identity, but when we meet that special person, we redefine who we are. Our hopes and dreams now encompass a partner and are encompassed by his or her dreams and hopes. Solomon thinks that this accounts for the confusion and disorientation, the palpitations and nausea that accompany the process we call “falling in love.” What scares us is not only the reality and near presence of another. What scares a couple is that each is becoming a new person. Each person’s life expands at least enough to include the other’s. Each is present to the other “in nearly all the horizons of everyday conduct.” This happens over time, in ongoing conversation, as the two lovers combine and integrate the separate conversations of which they had previously been a part into a single, unified conversation. It takes time, a lifetime, for one life to fully indwell another.

Sexual love is a desire to dwell in a person not only physically but emotionally and personally as well. It is a desire for the mutual indwelling of sexual union to become a figure of a life lived together as one complex entity, one story line, with a hero now joining the heroine.

It’s not just the two lovers that get redefined and reperceived. Because they are each entangled with others and with the world, when each is transformed by a unique mutuality with a lover, their world changes. The beloved gives new color to everything. The beach where they spent their honeymoon, the restaurant where he proposed, the moment of their first kiss or their first night in bed, every place they go together is sanctified by association with their love, and in their imaginations, each place is tinged by the beloved. The world is experienced afresh in the light of their mutual love.

Robert Alter has noticed two sorts of romantic or erotic poetry. In much of the world’s erotic literature, “the body in the act of love often seems to displace the rest of the world.” The lover sweeps his beloved o+ her feet and out of her place, whisking her to a private world just for the two of them. The world is lost to lovers. In some romantic poetry—Alter is writing about the Song of Songs—”the world is constantly embraced in the very process of imagining the body. The natural landscape, the cycle of the seasons, the beauty of the animal and floral realm, the profusion of goods afforded through trade, the inventive skill of the artisan, the grandeur of cities, are all joyfully affirmed as love is affirmed.” Solomon is no courtly lover who abandons the world and all to chase after his bride. When he turns from the world to dwell in his beloved, he rediscovers his world in her.

That sounds slurpily poetic, but it is as practical as can be. Sociologists Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner note that a man’s relationships with his male friends “rarely survive the marriage, or, if they do, are drastically redefined by it.” This is not (necessarily) the result of any malicious sabotage by the wife. Instead, “the husband’s image of his friend is transformed as he keeps talking about his friend with his wife.” Even if the two don’t talk about prior friendships, the “mere presence of the wife forces him to see his friend differently.” Whether the wife likes or dislikes the friend, the husband’s image of his friend changes. The conversation that takes place within the marriage so dominates the world of the two married partners that all the world is remolded in it. Everyone and everything the couple encounters are talked through, and by those conversations everything and everyone become part of the mutual story weaved by the lovers. As the lovers indwell one another’s lives, so they envelop the world into their mutual story. The world that surrounds them is brought into the conversation that makes up their identity as a couple.

The substantial reality of the entanglement of lovers is most clearly evident when they are pried from each other at death. For a year and more after my mother died, my father would look up from his paper to tell her some interesting tidbit he knew she would enjoy. When my wife’s uncle died, his widow said that she felt as if she had lost half of herself. She wasn’t exaggerating. Her husband had lived in her so long that pulling him out was like having a heart transplant.

Romantic drama often turns on the inability of a man to reshape his world and network of relationships around his relationship with his beloved. In Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, Claudio’s superficial attraction to Hero is shattered when he thinks that she has been unfaithful. The villain, Don John, convinces him that Hero is a strumpet, and Claudio viciously rejects her during her wedding ceremony. The drama of the scene obscures its unreality. Any sane Claudio would talk to his Hero to get her side of the story. Claudio never does. Unrealistic as it is, Claudio’s eagerness to reject Hero is thematically appropriate. Despite his protestations of love for Hero, he has not become a new man. She does not dwell in his life powerfully enough to redefine his relationships with his male friends. His male friends, the boy’s club of the military company, still dominate his perceptions. His world hasn’t been rearranged in conversation with Hero. His world has not become Hero-colored.

After the wedding where Claudio summarily tosses Hero aside, Beatrice and Benedick finally profess their love for one another. Like the lovers he has always scorned, Benedick professes that he is willing to do anything for Beatrice. When she says, “Kill Claudio,” Benedick comically backpedals: “Not for the wide world. We’ll be friends first.” But Beatrice will not settle for anything but a complete overhaul of Benedick’s loyalties. She refuses to settle in the suburbs of his good pleasure. If she is not the most important thing in the world to him, if he does not find his whole world in her and see it through her, then she wants none of his passionate professions of love.

The mutual indwelling of lovers is a kind of mutual possession. Each has ownership of the other, because each has become so much a part of the other that the two can barely be distinguished. Mutual possession can go badly wrong. Possession can become domination. The desire for assimilation can turn cannibalistic, so that the other gets absorbed and ceases to be other. Mutual indwelling by which two become one can be perverted into an erasure of difference.

Christos Yannaras has movingly described the tragic tendencies in our hopeless thirst for relation: “Lacking the knowledge of how to exist in the mode of relation,” our desire is “constantly disappointed.” We don’t know how to share, don’t know how to give ourselves. We are self-protective. We don’t want to lose ourselves in the other, so we cannibalize the other and digest the other into us. The tragic potential of love is this: “If the taste of fullness is a communion of life with the Other, our natural drive destroys this communion, turning it into a possessive and demanding domination of the Other.” Our demands, our “voracity” and “need,” are all forms of resistance to the life-giving communion we long for: “The instinct for self-preservation, the drive to possess, the thirst for self-assertion” all “alienate the relation, set limits to coexistence, destroy participation.” All “fight against love.”

To love truly, one must not only move ecstatically out from himself to dwell in another, must not only open up a home in himself for the beloved, but must do so in a way that preserves the irreducible otherness of the beloved. Lovers penetrate one another only when they do not eradicate the individuality that makes their love possible. Love must ingest without digesting the other. Love only exists as a union of mutual indwelling, signified by the kiss that is the kiss of the mouth, by the folding of each into the other that is signified in sexual communion.

We’ve climbed high enough on this path to see quite a bit of the landscape. It’s not all the same. It’s richly varied and tangled as a jungle. But if we stare long enough from our current vantage point, the whirl and twirl begin to make sense. We begin to see a recurring configuration and a repetitive contour. The world is coming into focus in all its knotted glory.

From Traces of the Trinity: Signs of God in Creation and Human Experience by Peter J. Leithart. Published by Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group. © 2015. Used by permission.

Peter J. Leithart
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  • Pjoywes's picture
    Posted: Fri, 04/15/2016 12:51 pm

    Wonderful writing. I will consider buying this book. I also recommend to anyone interested in reading more Peter Leithart to subscribe to Touchstone Magazine.

  • careyrowland
    Posted: Fri, 04/15/2016 12:51 pm

    Rapturously entangled for life; nothing better on this earth. No wonder our Lord compared this arrangement to His with His Bride.