Christian Marriage: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

It was rumored that Tina Turner hated her mega-hit, not so much because it exposed her as a victim of spousal abuse but rather, because it seemingly elevated the pleasure of carnal physical desire above attainment of emotional happiness.  “What’s love got to do with it” could also be a significant question in understanding, more deeply, the meaning of Christian marriage.  Love certainly has something to do with it but, according to the Catholic Church, it is not the central reason for marriage.

When a young couple comes to church to tell the priest that they want to get married, the two begin a marriage preparation process wherein they are reminded of four aspects of the Christian union: that it be unitive, procreative, exclusive, and permanent.  The priest often asks the couple why they want to get married; and they usually say “Because we’re in love,” and then they give him a look as if he’s an idiot for asking such an obvious question.  Though love is an essential element in marriage it is probably not a very good reason for marrying.  Well-adapted individuals love lots of people; they fall in and out of love many times for many circumstantial reasons.  But the only good reason to get married, according to the church, is because of one’s well developed intention to commit oneself to another for the remainder of his or her life.  The marriage covenant, based on God’s covenant of love, is eternal.

Marriage in the church is called the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony while marriage in society is called a Civil Union.  The former is between two individuals, a male and a female, as told to us in sacred scripture, while the latter can be between whomever the society permits, currently between people of the same gender, in times past and in certain territories by more than two individuals.  The latter is a contract, a fifty-fifty agreement, which can be broken by divorce when the parties decide to end it; the former is a covenant, in which one gives of him or herself one hundred percent to the other, and it cannot be broken—the Catholic annulment which some erroneously call “a religious divorce” is a statement that it was not sacred (not that it was not a union).  Annulments deserves a blog entry of its own another time.  My point, here, is that there is a clear difference between the way our society views marriage and the way our church does; our church holds that marriage should be modeled after the covenant relationship of the Hebrew Scriptures between the Creator and creation, and exemplified in the Christian Scriptures through Christ’s love for his bride, the church (those that follow His way).  It is about far more than love.  It is about giving oneself in totality for the sake of the other and for a greater good.

Part of our problem is language.  In English, we have only one word for love but in the language of the Gospels, there were many: philia—brotherly love, eros—romantic love, caritas—charitable love, agape—sacrificial love…  Tina Turner’s words may have lamented that the level of intimacy that two individuals express should correlate with the level of commitment that those same two individuals make to each other but often it is not that way; we all know that the fifty-fifty contract is rarely fifty-fifty.  Love has something to do with it but the love that motivates a couple to marry is usually not what sustains them in difficult times.  That blissful feeling often evaporates when well-paying jobs suddenly vanish or when a child is born with severe mental or physical handicaps or when individuals grow in different directions.

Friedrich Nietzsche once remarked that it is not the lack of love, but the lack of friendship, that makes marriages unhappy.  He was probably right.  Jesus spoke to His followers about friendship and informed them that friendship would bring forth a more purposeful union.  Such a union allows two people to fall deeper in love—sacrificial love—and deeper into the Beloved—love that is divine.  It’s what some spiritualist call “falling upward.”  In that upward fall, they might discover that, by dwelling in each other’s heart, they dwell together in the heart of God.  Yes, love has something to do with it but the best reason to marry still has to do with one’s desire and willingness to enter a covenant relationship with another whom you are willing to give of yourself in totality, in agape love, forever, just as God gave to the world and Christ gave to us.