From an early age we are enculturated to believe that the quest for romantic love is perhaps the most important aspect of our lives. We are bombarded with stories of romance in movies, popular songs, books, television shows and fairy tales. Whether it is Snow White or Cinderella and their handsome princes, Ross and Rachel on “Friends” or “Sleepless in Seattle” we are taught that our whole lives are driven by the need to find that one person, that soul mate who will satisfy all of our needs. We believe that we are incomplete without that person. Everything in our culture tells us that we should be willing to make any sacrifice, go any distance and do whatever it takes to find that great romantic love. Every Romeo must find his Juliet and every Juliet her Romeo.
Have you ever considered that perhaps we have gotten the whole romantic love and relationship thing wrong?
Common sense and basic logic tell us that the idea of a soul mate is mistaken. If there was really just one person out there, meant for each of us – preordained by God to be our one and only spousal match – what would happen if he or she were to marry someone other than ourselves? Then, he or she would end up with the wrong person, and we would likely end up with the wrong person, and the people meant for our spouses would marry the wrong people and so on, until everyone was mismatched.
So, where did this notion come from? A quick review of classical literature indicates that it is a predominately western and relatively modern idea. Deeply committed monogamous love was held up as the ideal in the works of Homer (Odysseus and Penelope), but the Greek poet made no judgment as to the morality of Odysseus’ extra-marital affair with Circe. Why should he? The Greeks were polytheists who did not share our modern Christian morality. In many ancient cultures, monogamy was optional. Monogamy (although sometimes viewed as the ideal) was often the lot of the lower classes. A poor man could only afford one wife, while a rich man could afford many. A king could have dozens of wives and concubines.
Sexual morality differs greatly over cultures and times. In the Bible we see Judah consorting with a woman who he believes to be a prostitute (but turns out to be his son’s widow), so we can infer that the early Hebrew morality did not seem to judge prostitution as immoral (Genesis 38). However, Moses forbade prostitution. Polygamous Hebrew kings were favored by God and viewed as moral, but St. Paul (a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures) teaches that while monogamy is preferable, not marrying at all is the ideal. Somehow, we have to square that teaching of St. Paul with God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply”. Thank goodness we have the catechism to sort it all out. It must have been very confusing to know what was truly required by God regarding marriage and sexual morality before the Catholic Church.
But, all of those complicated examples of love and marriage (plus myriad other Biblical examples) still don’t explain the proper role of romantic love in dating and spousal relationships. The simple reason for this is that until recent times, many marriages were arranged. Marriage was as much a contractual relationship entered into by families for economic and political reasons as it was a matter of love. Often times, children would be promised to each other from infancy. Although the Catechism and canon law make clear that coercion may invalidate the sacrament of marriage and is grounds for annulment, nothing in Christian teaching condemns arranged marriage as implicitly immoral.
The first example of an arranged marriage was Adam and Eve. God simply presented Eve to Adam and told them to marry and populate the earth. One may wonder if romance even entered the equation. However, this was before the Fall, before human nature conflicted with the will of God. What God wanted, Adam and Eve wanted. So, if God wanted them to marry, they wanted to marry. We never read that Adam asked Eve out for coffee to see if they would hit it off!
Later on, we see Isaac marry Rebekah (Genesis 24). Again, there is no basis to infer a romantic relationship. Rebekah was apparently chosen because she was Isaac’s cousin and she was “fair to look at”. We are told that she was brought to Isaac; he immediately took her into his tent and married her. Throughout the Old Testament we see examples of physical attraction, and contractual arrangements between parents, as the reasons for marriage. We also see physical attraction leading to lust and adultery. Through it all though, we find very little evidence of modern ideas of romance.
The ancient Hebrew culture (as well as its contemporary cultures) viewed women more as property than individual persons with rights to self determination. Christianity raised all people, regardless of gender, race or class to equal levels of freedom and worth. Therefore, the Catechism teaches us that spouses must be able to freely choose to marry each other. However, there are still very little criteria on which such a choice should be based.
Returning again to the Bible and literature, we often see romantic passion as being almost synonymous with lust–it is a more of a destructive passion than a positive quality. The destructive nature of lust can be seen in King David’s seduction of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. It can also be seen in the wars fought over Helen of Troy. The destructive nature of romance can actually be seen in the play that stands as an ideal for romantic literature, Romeo and Juliet – so convinced are the teenage lovers that they “cannot live without” the other that they commit suicide. Similar themes run through scores of tragic love stories, plays and operas.
It is no wonder that our ancestors believed that arranged marriages made more sense than romantic love. Consider Romeo and Juliet; they shared that kind of obsessive, passionate, romantic love that strikes most teenagers. In Juliet’s eyes, Romeo was the most handsome, intelligent, brave, capable and talented boy on earth. In Romeo’s eyes, Juliet was almost angelic, a perfect girl whose beauty and grace surpassed all persons living or dead. They simply had to be together, and knew that their married life would be one of absolute bliss and perfection. Of course, had they married, their faults would have become all too clear and their beautiful love story would have ended as mundane and routinely human as any other.
A convincing argument could be made that romantic love is a form of temporary insanity. It causes us to see people through “rose colored glasses”, ignoring their faults and assigning positive attributes to them that they may lack. It causes us to do stupid things, say silly things and think foolish thoughts. It is absolutely irrational. It can cause very irrational emotions, but it can also feel absolutely wonderful. In many ways, it is like a narcotic drug – in its proper role it can have positive uses, but when out of control it can lead to destruction.
All things considered though, I am not advocating for a return to arranged marriage. I certainly don’t want anyone interfering in my love life, nor would I wish to live out the rest of my life without the hope of romance. However, I am saying that perhaps romantic love should not be the only consideration in choosing a spouse. Consider the staggering number of marriages that end in divorce. How many of those marriages were rash decisions based entirely on romantic love?
Perhaps romantic love should be balanced by less flashy concepts such as commitment, familiarity, duty and family. Perhaps instead of rushing into relationships with all of the enthusiasm of love-struck teenagers, we should choose our partners more carefully. Perhaps we should advocate longer courtships, so that we really have a chance to learn the character of the person once the first blush of love has worn off. Certainly, as Catholics, we should remember that marriage is not a thing to be entered into lightly; it is a sacrament.