Happy Valentine’s Day

(8 of 8 in a series for National Marriage Week)

Pretty clever to end National Marriage Week on Valentine’s Day, right?  This might be a good day to rethink what we mean by romantic love.

Photo by Vinicius FujiiIn November of last year, blogger Seth Adam Smith wrote a post that quickly went viral.  Bearing the provocative title, “Marriage Isn’t For You,” the essay opened with these words: “Having been married only a year and a half, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that marriage isn’t for me.”

No, he didn’t mean it that way.  That was just the hook.

Smith was referring to a conversation in which he told his father he was having pre-wedding jitters: would his bride make him happy?  His father responded, “Marriage isn’t for you.  You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy. …  It’s not about you. Marriage is about the person you married.”

It was an eye-opening moment for Smith.  He knew right then that he was marrying the right person, and that he wanted more than anything to make her happy.  You have to appreciate a dad who has such warm wisdom to pass on to his son, steering him away from selfish ideas of love and happiness that could undermine the marriage.

But was he right?

We need to be careful with our language.  Some women, for example, have been taught that their proper role as wives includes subordinating all their needs to those of their husbands.  In such cases, “It’s not about you” doesn’t just mean “Don’t be selfish,” but something closer to “Don’t have a self in the first place.”

Perhaps that’s why Smith later told ABC News, “Obviously real, true love does stem from loving yourself and who you are first, and for that love to grow, it has to go beyond you and extend to those you love.  In my mind that was implied, but in hindsight, some people needed that spelled out.”

I’d like to suggest an alternative.

Let’s start by acknowledging the obvious: people don’t generally marry to be un-happy (it might turn out that way, but that’s not the plan).  Think of the exuberant, giddy joy of weddings.  The bride and groom aren’t there simply to make each other happy in some sacrificial way.  They’re marrying because the relationship already brings them happiness, and they’re hoping for a lifetime more.

Wanting happiness out of marriage isn’t inherently selfish, any more than it would be selfish to expect better health to come from improving your eating habits.  Happiness, though never guaranteed, is a legitimate by-product of everything that makes marriage right, including the mutual rhythm of unselfish giving and grateful receiving.  Selfishness in a marriage is not just the cause, but the defensive result of the breakdown of a healthy give and take.

The language of “Marriage is not for you” and even “Love yourself first” is too individualistic, an unfortunate habit of American thought.  Instead, we need the image of two becoming one: when God joins two individuals in marriage, something new is created — it’s no longer just you and me, but us.  I don’t just do what’s best for me, or necessarily even for you: I do what’s best for us, for the relationship.  That’s the kind of love that survives the inevitable waning of romantic enthusiasm.

True: selfishness is bad for marriage, and in those moments, for Christians in particular, remembering and emulating the selflessness of Christ can be just what we need.  But marriage should model the kind of mutuality God desires for the whole human community.

It’s not about me.

And it’s not about you.

It’s about us, together, in community, demonstrating the truth that we were not created to be alone.

Happy Valentine’s Day.