Perhaps what contemporary Christians need is less romance and more love — and we mean real love, not “perfect love.” Real love is unitive and community forming; it weaves people together into familial and churchly networks of mutual care and dependence on one another and on God. Husbands and wives, neighbors and friends, children and grandchildren, widows and orphans, all are adopted by God into the household of the church and invited to love and care for one another in ways that certainly include the bond of marriage, but include as well a range of other human relationships — all of which involve real connection, real intimacy, real enjoyment of other people and a real participation in the redemptive work of God in the world.
Real love has more than one possible object, which means that you do not have to wait for love until you meet your future marriage partner. Intimacy is bigger than romance, and marital love has enough in common with other human loves that you can practice on people like your parents, your siblings, your neighbors and your friends. And the more you practice, the better off you will be. People learn to love precisely by loving and by being loved. You will be much better equipped to learn to love a spouse if you have had practice ahead of time in knowing and being deeply known by others. Real love grows through use. You do not have to worry that if you spread it around, you will run out. Nor do you have to worry that if you enter into an intimate friendship with someone whomyou do not end up marrying, that person will abscond with part of your heart and there will be less of you than there was before. If you hope to marry someone and do not, of course you will be disappointed. But a great deal of the pain of heartbreak comes not from disappointment in love, but because partners have not, in fact, treated one another lovingly. If you and your friend really do love each other, and really do treat each other well, you will grow in and through the relationship, whether or not it moves toward marriage.
Real love develops into deep, meaningful intensity. It does not start with it. The time to look for sparks to fly is after you know one another well enough actually to mean something to one another. When real love is dramatic, it is less like the overproduced, spotlit drama of the Broadway musical, and more like the drama of a neighborhood theater production — homemade, improvisational, full of laughter and the pleasure that comes of making something for one another.
Real love assumes that you are not perfect, and neither are any of the people you know. In a culture that encourages us to demand perfection in everything and everyone, this can seem very counter-intuitive. We live in a consumer society in which, we are told, we can have exactly what we want if only we are willing to shop long enough. But even where consumer goods are concerned this is seldom true, and where relationships are concerned it is never true. The fantasy of perfect love, with its insistence that we settle for nothing less than perfection, thus requires that we believe a lie.
Real love, by contrast, allows us to tell the truth. Giving up the quest for the perfect mate is not equivalent to “settling,” if by settling we mean settling for second best. Giving up the quest for the perfect mate can mean an embrace of the truly best: the truth that while you are not perfect, you might be the right person for some- one else, and that someone else, while not perfect, might be theright person for you. Real love invites us to look at the woman or man who bears no resemblance to the photoshopped models on magazine covers and see the real beauty of the real woman, the real strength of the real man, the real qualities of character and personality that could make this person a wonderful match for you.
Real love has room for the fact that life is not perfect, either. Perhaps your family is seriously troubled. Perhaps you have an illness or a disability. Perhaps you are strapped for cash or burdened with debt. Perhaps you have family or other obligations that limit your options. It is still possible that you might find real love with someone who is willing to share these burdens with you. And it is possible that, even if none of these burdens are yours, you might find real love with someone who is thus affected.
Real love is actually much easier to find than perfect love. The fantasy of perfect love is focused exclusively on one person, that perfect partner with whom all your desires for intimacy and love will finally be fulfilled. A person who is looking for perfect love can be disinclined to develop any meaningful friendships with anyone he or she does not view as a marriage prospect. Friendships with single persons of the opposite sex can seem dangerous (what if you fall into sin?), and friendships with anyone else can seem beside the point (since romance is presumed to be by definition the only source of intimacy). It is no wonder that single people who take this approach to life and relationships are lonely.
Real love, on the other hand, can be found in differing depths and intensities, and sometimes in seemingly unlikely places. Real love values friendship with people who are like you and people who are unlike you, with people who are already members of your family (parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins) and people who are unlikely ever to be members of your family (friends, neighbors, schoolmates, coworkers, little old ladies from church). Invite any person in any of these categories out for lunch, ask a few questions, listen attentively and see if you don’t find your life enriched.
Real love allows you to be honest about your desire to find a marriage partner. “I detest when people say that after they got their priorities in order and truly ‘gave dating and finding a mate up to God,’ then God provided a soul mate,” wrote one woman. “It puts terrible guilt and pressure on a single person who is not in a relationship: not only must there be something physically wrong with them to turn off members of the opposite sex, but something must be spiritually wrong too.”
It is hard enough to navigate feelings about so complex a thing as marriage without having your relationship status turned into a magnifying glass trained on your spiritual condition. And it is hard enough to wait for a relationship you deeply desire without being made to feel that you will only get what you want if you can persuade yourself and God that you can be happy without it. Living with longing and uncertainty is part of what it means to be a human being. Real love allows you to tell the truth about what you want and what your feelings are.
Real love allows for the possibility that not every dating relationship should lead to marriage. “I’ve heard people say that God wouldn’t allow them to love one another if he didn’t mean for them to be together,” wrote one man. But it is easy to fall in love with someone who for one reason or other is not a wise choice. The mere fact that you love someone is not evidence either that this is God’s chosen mate for you, or that you would do well to marry him or her.
The fantasy of perfect love, by contrast, assumes that you are dating this person precisely because you believe he or she is God’s choice for you. Every relational difficulty thus becomes a test of faith: God brought you together, God wants you to stay together, and so the only faithful thing to do is to stay in the relationship and work on it. People spend months and years in relationships that are going from bad to worse, because it just doesn’t seem Christian to call it quits. Real love does not require that you do this. Real love is compatible with wisdom and prudence.
Real love in fact requires that you act wisely. “I was reading books that told me, ‘Follow Jesus, pray for your husband, and God will give you the man of your dreams,'” wrote another woman. “So I went looking and praying, and when a boy came along I grabbed him.” Unfortunately, she did not notice a number of red flags until it was too late and she had been badly hurt. Trusting God does not negate the need to use your own good judgment.
Real love has room for the good judgment of others as well. There are, one hopes, a number of people in your life who want the best for you, whose judgment is sound and whose lives will be affected by the choices you make. Your decisions about love and marriage are not just about you; they are elements of a larger network of relationships of which you are already a part. You are likely to be able to make better decisions if you seek out conversation with others about these things.
Not everyone’s advice is equally good. Some parents, for example, are truly wise, and their children do well to take their opinions very seriously. Other parents are for one reason or another not so able to guide their children well. If this is the case with your parents, you need to listen for other, wiser voices, trusting that you will be able to find good conversation partners who can help you come to a nuanced and honest evaluation of your relationship and of your options.
Real love gives you the freedom to consider your own feelings and desires. Do you wish to marry a given person, or not? It can be easy to conflate a desire for marriage in general with a desire to marry a particular person. If you have always wanted to be married, or you are approaching a time in your life when it seems that you ought to be getting married, you may suppose that any person who is willing to marry you is the right person for you. It can likewise be easy to fear that if you don’t marry this person now, you will never have another chance.
It is true that you cannot know what other opportunities for marriage you may ever have. For this reason, any decision not to marry a particular person is a decision to remain single, at least for now, and maybe forever. But while there may have been times and places in which any marriage was better than no marriage, this is not the case in contemporary American society. If you have to make it on your own, you can. Real love frees you to do your best to make a good decision about this person and this relationship, and to leave your future in God’s hands, where it belongs.
The Good News
Martin Luther draws a contrast between what he calls a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. A theology of glory finds God in sunsets and cathedrals and anywhere else that seems magnificent and triumphant. A theology of the cross finds God in a cradle in Bethlehem, in a garden at Gethsemane, on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem. A theology of the cross, in other words, finds God not as we might imagine or desire him to be, but as he actually is, taking upon himself the frailties and sorrows of humanity and transforming them by the mysterious power of his death and resurrection.
Too many of the judgments about marriage found in Christian romantic advice books are, in essence, theologies of glory. While the authors of these books may say that they believe in marriage “for better or for worse,” in actual practice they promise bliss, pure bliss, if only we will follow their advice about finding romance with the perfect partner who, they assure us, is part of God’s plan for us. A Christian romance, a Christian wedding, a Christian.
• Also see Marriage Preparation
Taken from Are You Waiting for “The One”?: Cultivating Realistic, Positive Expectations for Christian Marriage by Margaret Kim Peterson and Dwight N. Peterson. Copyright © 2011 by Margaret Kim Peterson and Dwight N. Peterson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com.