In the 1971 film Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, there is a scene toward the beginning featuring Veruca Salt and her parents. Veruca is raving at Mr. Salt that he is a "rotten, mean father" because he hasn't yet gotten her one of the the golden tickets, her current heart's desire. Her father pleads desperately with her, but is at his wits' end as to what to do. Suddenly, one of the girls in Mr. Salt's factory finds the ticket and brings it to Veruca. Mrs. Salt turns to her husband and says, "Happiness is what counts with children. Happiness and harmony."
I wanted to share this scene as a prelude to something I'd like to discuss that came up in the comments section of my post on no-fault divorce. What on earth does this story about a spoiled brat child have to do with marriage or divorce? Quite a lot, I think. Please bear in mind that I am not trying to compare anyone to the abysmally greedy and childish Veruca Salt or her foolish parents, but I do think that many people tend to have a Salt-ish attitude toward marriage in our culture. I will explain what I mean.
The question that was put to me several times in response to my no-fault divorce post, was, "Why would you want to stay married to someone who doesn't love you?"
In general, I try not to say too much about things that I have had no personal experience with. This is not because I believe that morality is relative to circumstance but because I don't wish to be presumptuous. Moreover, I find that people who give advice on subjects with which they have no personal experience are often immediately disregarded in our culture (for example, a priest speaking about sexual morality). This reaction dumbfounds me. Some of the best advice I've ever gotten during hard times in my life has come from those who have had no personal experience with my situation. Sometimes being on the outside helps you to keep a clear head and to consider things rationally and in regard to a larger picture. So, with the expectation that some people will criticize me for sounding presumptuous or simply disregard what I have to say because I have not found myself in a loveless marriage, I am going to take my best shot at responding to the above question.
Why would you want to stay married to someone who doesn't love you? Frankly, you wouldn't. But, that doesn't mean that you shouldn't. In fact, excepting cases where the lack of love leads to abuse, you should. Let's go back to the Salts for a moment. Happiness and harmony are what counts with children. In our day and age, happiness and harmony are what counts with marriage--at least that's what our culture tells us.
Just yesterday, I was speaking with a friend of mine who is a violinist and has played at a number of weddings this summer. She was telling me about the different marriage ceremonies she has encountered in the past few months and sharing with me how disconcerted she was by what she observed. At one marriage, she told me the couple's vows consisted of a promise to be "friends and lovers." Never once was the word "husband" or "wife" used in that ceremony. At another wedding, the couple vowed simply to "hold your love in my heart." That isn't even a vow! That's like saying, "I promise I'll hold onto what you give me." That isn't a commitment to anything except basic courtesy. The most recent wedding my friend attended was, she said, absolutely stunningly gorgeous...until you listened to the message that was carried throughout the ceremony: "Basically," she told me, "you walked away from that wedding with the knowledge that the couple was high on love." No solemn commitment. No sober consideration of choosing to face the hardships and challenges to come together as husband and wife. Just high on love.
This is what our culture says about marriage: It's about being high on love. It's about happiness and harmony, and if your happiness or harmony is in any way diminished or threatened, it's time to get out of the marriage. Well, if that's the case, then we'd best abolish the institution of marriage right now. Marriage is a lifelong covenant relationship between a man and a woman--two sinners who are going to give each other happiness and try to live in harmony and end up time and again making each other unhappy and creating discord in their lives. And, if marriage was about being high on love, forget it! No matter how in love you are, you cannot promise someone an emotion. Emotions are volatile and can turn a 180 at the slightest provocation. Building a lifelong relationship on an emotion is about as foolish as building a house on a foundation of Jell-O.
But, we (at least we who use traditional marriage vows) do vow to love, honor, and cherish one another until death, among other things. Didn't I just say you can't build a marriage on a feeling? That's true. But, the love spoken of here is not the noun "love," which refers to an emotion or a state of being; it is a verb. In this context, vowing to love someone until death means that you are vowing to exhibit love toward him or her. This is something that we are all capable of--and which we are all guilty of failing to do from time to time. You cannot vow to be in love with someone for ever. But, you can vow to love them.
This still doesn't answer the question, though. Nobody wants to be in a marriage where their spouse doesn't love them--whether we're referring to the noun or the verb. It is a horrible thing to exhibit love to someone who doesn't reciprocate that vulnerable self-giving. It hurts. It's exhausting. It is agonizing. And, it's exactly what Jesus did for us.
Christian marriage can and is fully intended to survive when one or both spouses falls out of love. In all cases I have witnessed where the marriage was not dissolved, this stage of being "out of love" was only for a time. It was a hard and excruciatingly painful time for both partners, and in some instances it lasted for a number of years, but it was only a time. And, at the end of it, in every case, I have found the couples who stuck it out to be exceedingly grateful that they did.
I'm not talking about marriages that were in a bit of a blue funk here, either. I'm talking about affairs and separations and sleeping in separate rooms and sleeping in separate residences and husbands who said, "I don't love you anymore" and wives who said, "I never loved you." I'm talking about the real down-and-dirty pain of failing marriage. And yes, marriages like these were able, through time and perseverance--sometimes on the part of only one spouse--these marriages were resurrected. Today, they are thriving. Simply because the couple did not divorce. In some cases, because one spouse refused to give their spouse a divorce.
Marriage is not supposed to be terrible. It's not meant to be painful. There is meant to be love. Even if we "fall out of love" for a season, we are intended to choose to love our spouse. And the truth is that couples do fall out of love. And, some of those spouses who cease loving in the emotional sense will stop loving in the verbal sense. And, that is a tragedy. Without Christ, such a relationship could not survive. But, with God all things are possible! You may not want to stick around to see what He can do, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. In fact, if you are a Christian, you must! Because marriage is not about happiness and harmony. Ideally, marriage should reflect and evoke and nurture happiness and harmony. But, Christian marriage is not, ultimately based upon these things. Christian marriage is about holiness.
Does that sound unromantic? Well, it is. Whoever said romance was the most important thing in life? If that were true, woe betide the single folk out there! Do you think God didn't have a plan for their lives, or wanted them to suffer the "unimaginable agony" of not "being in love"? I'm being facetious here, but seriously. Our culture idolizes romantic love. It's the big, glaring Asherah pole of our age--blaring at us in all its extorted and distorted glory from every television screen and billboard from sea to shining sea.
Don't get me wrong: Romantic love is an amazing gift--one that I am eternally grateful to have, that I am blessed to have the responsibility of nurturing. But, it is not the only thing! It is not even the only thing that constitutes a marriage. When I married my husband, I vowed to love, honor, and cherish him for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, through good times and bad, forsaking all others until death. Those vows stand even if he breaks his. You see, it's not only about keeping your vows during the bad times or the lean years or if your spouse becomes ill. When you marry somone, you are meant to keep your vows even if they fail to love, honor, and cherish you back.
I would never wish such circumstances on anyone, and I pray often for marriages all over the world, even the marriages of people I don't know, that they would be spared this by fully living into the vision of conjugal love that God intends for His children. I myself have never experienced the rejection and brokenness and heart-wrenching agony of being in a marriage where my spouse did not reciprocate my love, though many people close to me have. I pray that I never will. But, when I made my vows to Brian in a little church in Los Angeles over three years ago, I did so having seriously considered whether I could keep them if such circumstances were to come to pass.
Would I be able to if that day of reckoning were to come? I don't know. I'm sure that, in many ways, I would fail. But, whether or not I would want to, I know that I should keep my vows and remain married to this man whom I swore myself to in the sight of God, until we are parted by death. And, no matter how hard that would be, no matter how unhappy it would make me, I trust that God would see me through it and that, through it, He would make me holy. And that, after all, is what life is all about: becoming more like God.