I was recently remembering a few shocking conversations I had about love in the months leading up to my engagement to Trey. As with everyone seriously considering whether or not to marry a particular person, I was having a challenging time really knowing if I loved my boyfriend, so I occasionally asked married friends when they knew they loved their spouses. Most of the answers I received were pretty standard, pat answers. And by now, I've forgotten every one of those answers. Except for two.
My brother got married a year before I did. He had been pursuing the same girl for seven years, since the middle of high school. I figured that if anyone understood knowing when you love someone, it was him. So one summer afternoon while I was feeling particularly stressed over my relationship, I found him out on my parents' hot and stuffy third floor and asked when he had known he loved my now sister-in-law. In typical fashion, my brother cut straight to the chase. "I knew I loved Bethany when I asked her to marry me."
I was shocked and incredibly displeased with the answer. I told him to make sure Bethany never heard him talk like that, but he laughed at me. I pushed for for further explanation and he struggled to go into more detail. But eventually he landed on telling me that you don't really love someone until you decide to love him or her. Romance and dating have uncountable feelings associated with them, but love doesn't exist without the decision to love. His answer didn't really satisfy me, but I left with a lot to mull over.
Sometime later that summer, I was out for coffee with an acquaintance. We weren't close friends, but we talked for a long time about my dating life and whether Trey and I would get married. I asked her the same question - when did she know she loved her husband? Without any hesitation, she bluntly answered, "I fell in love with him when we got married." Again, I was shocked. If I remember correctly, I almost choked on my coffee.
How could anyone give such an answer? How could anyone give it as shamelessly as she did? She wasn't embarrassed to make such a statement. She didn't blush and say, "It's kind of sad, and one of my biggest regrets, but sadly, I didn't really love my husband until we got married." No, instead she was honest, forthright, and giggled! This was her experience and she wasn't shy about it. Along with my brother's answer, I was now very confused. But I didn't immediately dismiss these thoughts. I continued to contemplate these answers and ponder over their meaning.
By the end of the summer, I had agreed to marry Trey. I still didn't feel like I had great insight to the definition of love, and I sometimes felt fearful that I didn't know what it meant to love someone enough to marry him. But I knew I wanted to marry Trey, even if I still felt confused. I didn't doubt that I wanted to marry this particular man and spend my life with him. But I couldn't quite put a finger on whether I knew, really knew, that I loved him. Marrying my husband was the single greatest step of faith I have made thus far in my life. Not because I didn't deeply respect, or enjoy, or feel attracted to him. But because, as with all skeptics, I didn't feel like I could know what love for him really was.
Looking back on the first six months of our marriage is looking back on one of the strangest times of my life. In so many ways, those six months were magical. Truly some of the best times of my life. We were long-distance for the entirety of our dating and engagement, so simply being in the same place brought with it a certain kind of heady joy. Everything seemed so relaxed now that we could just sit next to each other on the couch and watch TV, rather than talking on the phone every night. Being in each other's physical presence was a treat. Discovering sex together was incredible. Not incredible because it was instantaneously everything it would ever become, but because it was the entrancing exploration of virginal youth. Even fighting together was good. It was painful, and at times bitter, but it was good, so good to be working towards unity and understanding, laying the foundation of our lives together fight by fight.
And yet, throughout all of this wonder and growth, I was still nagged by the question, "Do I really love Trey? And if I do, how do I know I do?" This question that lingered on in my mind was the single most difficult part of my first year of marriage. I didn't think about it often, but sometimes it would enter my head late at night as I tried to fall asleep. Or when I felt incredibly homesick and wanted to go home to my family. Or when a fleeting attraction to another man crept across my consciousness. It wasn't rational, and it wasn't predictable, but every now and then this question would arise and it would leave me deeply disturbed, sometimes for days.
I wish I could tell you about the one spectacular thing that completely erased this question from my mind. Instead, it was a totally random and quiet night. I can't even recall what took place that day. But one night about six months into our marriage, I lay in bed as Trey fell asleep as I asked myself the same question I had been asking for almost two years. "Do I love Trey? Do I know that I love Trey?" And without any hesitation or any explanation, I knew that, yes, I loved this person more deeply and more truly than I had ever loved another person before. I knew that this new certainty didn't invalidate or belittle the love that I had felt for him before. But as an intense warmth of emotion washed over me, I knew I had reached a new place in our relationship. I wanted to love him, not just be married to him, or have sex with him, or enjoy life with him, but I wanted and decided to love him. And so I did.
Being the internal processor that I am, I never told Trey about any of this until sometime this past year. One day I tentatively told him that I didn't think I really, truly loved him until after we were already married. It didn't surprise him and he kind of laughed when he heard it. He knows me in ways he himself often doesn't understand.
We celebrated our third anniversary in May. I've been thinking a lot about how hard it was for me to know if I loved my husband and how simple the answer to that question now is. I've been thinking a lot about the difference between knowing you want to marry someone and knowing you love them. I've been thinking a lot about my culture's inability to distinguish between the two and how much that stunts my generation's ability to healthily consider marriage. I've been thinking a lot about how previous generations lauded the growth of love, describing it as a blossoming flower - there, in existence, but needing to grow beyond the bud into its full glory. Love is not something that comes upon you, but rather it is something you choose, and once the choice is made, it springs open into a radiant splendor.
I love you, Trey Nation. I know I do.
When I got engaged at the end of August, I wondered if it would open a door onto a world of deep thoughts concerning womanhood. It didn't. Granted, much in my life has been changing. But those changes have not made me inherently wiser or more thoughtful about my identity and place in society. Life goes on and I remain mostly the same. Now I find myself wondering the same about marriage. My suspicion is that it might have some small impact on my observations and thoughts, but overall nothing earth shattering will change. I still ask the same questions; I still struggle with the same doubts; I still get irritated by the same signs of brokenness.
While my personal changes have not yet caused much writing, the world around me remains much the same and continues to provide much food for thought. I worked briefly for a woman as a "mother's helper," and I find myself pondering something she once said in conversation.
I consider this woman to be very typical of a certain American demographic. She is in her mid 30s, but looks and acts younger than what older generations would assume of her age. She and her child's father have been together for more than a decade, but are unmarried, and the baby was an unexpected surprise after many years chasing careers and enjoying life with friends. Their lack of preparation for or pursuit of creating a family has not deterred from their love for their child and they now dedicate all of their time and energy to giving him the most perfect, protected, and politically correct childhood in their power to give. They have and want "family," but in untraditional ways.
I found out they are not married through an awkward conversation about my own upcoming wedding, and it was in this conversation that she sparked food for thought. After answering many of her questions regarding my wedding, I nervously asked about her own wedding and she laughed and replied there had never been one. Her laughter eased the whole situation and we were able to talk more freely. I asked if they had ever considered marriage assuming assumed the answer would be "no," but was surprised when she replied that actually her partner really wanted to get married while she did not. I asked more about why he wanted marriage and her response went something like this, "...well, I think he believes it's something sacred," but as an atheist she just could not see any deeper significance to marriage since they already knew they were a committed family. From my understanding, neither one of them have any particular religious commitments, and yet, here she was, telling me that the only point of discussion they had concerning the value of marriage was its possible sacredness.
In the midst of our conversation, this point of sacredness was interesting to me, but it was until I drove home that the full weight of it settled through the silence of my car. Here was a couple with no real interest in or connection to the theological arguments for marriage stating the whole point of the union. It struck me that in all the "culture war" debates concerning marriage, we tend to focus on and speak to the practical or natural needs and reasons for marriage. I believe the rational is that those reasons are the only space in which Christians can speak a common language with nonbelievers, the only areas in which we even have a hope to persuade. But maybe that is not the case. Maybe the younger generations are more open to arguments based on the spiritual aspects or "sacredness"of marriage?
The more I think about it, the more interesting it is to me that faith communities are relying more and more on "practical" arguments for marriage while this very secular couple focuses more on more on the spiritual arguments for it. And it makes me mourn that the church thinks it must neglect what it believes to be the most central truths about humanity in order to speak to the broader culture. The centrality of sacredness in the meaning of marriage should be the starting point of the church in speaking to the culture about marriage, not something that is left for those who already accept the reality of a God who created marriage and therefore has something to say about the institution. I believe some are focusing on this, but the overall voice of Christianity in America does not emphasize the sacredness of marriage when arguing for it. We talk about need for commitment and the goodness of the family, but those two things are only byproducts of understanding and knowing the sacredness of marriage. It is not commitment that we should mourn the loss of in marriage. For who can remain committed to something purely secular? Who can find within themselves the capability for it? The lost meaning that should be mourned and fought for is the rich and deep meaning of marriage that goes beyond commitment and family.