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All of us who are hopeless romantics want a love like that of Romeo and Juliet, right? Until we recall their version of love was immature, foolish, reckless, and led straight to their destruction. Maybe Antony and Cleopatra is a better example. But wait, that relationship ended in mutual destruction, too. How about Paris and Helen? That little romance started a war so bloody that an epic poem was written about how excessively violent it was. There’s a lesson here: Romantic desire is a passion that burns white hot. Don’t get burned by it.
As a priest, I regularly speak with engaged couples about the nature of love. I always caution them. There’s a type of love that throws itself wholeheartedly into the relationship in an unhealthy manner, like a ship dashing itself against the rocks. It’s a love that accepts no boundaries and is totally given over to an emotional, romanticized ideal. Romeo and Juliet suffered from it, and were so obsessed with each other that everything else in the world slipped away. They became lost in each other to the point that, when one died, the other saw no point in living.
There’s something about this sort of star-crossed love that appeals to us. It seems to show a total commitment and the all-encompassing power of romance. A lot of young, engaged couples have this conception of what love is in their own relationships. This is why, after a period of time, they become disappointed in their marriages and worry that they made a mistake.
It sounds heroic to imitate a famous, romantic couple like Romeo and Juliet, but it makes me ask myself: Do I really want my wife to be so dependent on me that, if I died, she would desire to destroy herself? Do I want her identity to disappear so she is lost without me? Do I want her so reliant on me that if I let her down in any way, no matter how small, that it would disappoint her to the point of wondering if our marriage is a sham? I ask the engaged couples I counsel to consider the answers to these types of questions, to ponder more deeply the nature of love and what it means when two become one.
The unity of marriage is real, but true love doesn’t consume us as individuals. It shouldn’t cause us to become codependent. A successful, long-term marriage doesn’t cause us to lose ourselves — it’s actually the opposite. It may be surprising, but when two people are bonded together by marital love, each individual is guarded in their solitude.
I’ve been reading the letters of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke recently, and he has a lot of interesting insights into the nature of love, the connection between marriage and solitude among them. Collected into the book Rilke On Love and Other Difficulties there is a specific letter to a friend about the balance a successful marriage will achieve between togetherness and self-identity. Rilke writes, “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”
Here’s an image he uses that I find particularly helpful: If you attend, say, a sporting event in a stadium, you become a part of the crowd. Essentially, you’re a nameless fan, interchangeable with any other fan. There’s no solitude needed or given because the crowd isn’t interested in individuals that compose its members. A marriage is not like a crowd. Not at all. The crowd builds togetherness by tearing down boundaries, but in a marriage a greater gift is given. Rilke writes, “Each appoints the other guardian of his solitude, and shows him this confidence, the greatest in his power to bestow.”
A married couple will naturally desire to guard each other because they first came to know and love each other as individuals. “When a person abandons himself,” Rilke writes, “he is no longer anything, and when two people both give themselves up in order to come close to each other, there is no longer any ground beneath them and their being together is a continual falling.” Neither partner would want that for the other.
Every day, I want to encourage and assist my wife in being the best possible version of herself, and I know she wants the same for me. It’s a paradox, I am more fully me when I am with her. I don’t meld into her or become codependent, but at the same time the gift she gives me is irreplaceable and only she can give it. She gives me space to be myself and let my guard down, and in that vulnerability I am most honest about who I am, both the good and the bad. At the same time, she motivates me to be sure that, to the very core of my being, I am the sort of person worth loving. I don’t want to disappoint her or make her think less of me in any way. These aren’t expectations she’s placed on me, I’ve freely chosen them.
There’s a push and a pull. Nuptial love is like the gravity between two planets, an unshakable force that bonds two people together who remain very much planets in their own right. Love doesn’t tear down. It builds up. Building is hard work. Love is hard work. That’s why it’s so valuable. It isn’t a crazy, romantic fling that reaps a whirlwind. It’s a lifetime of faithfulness, of waking up next to each other for the 10,000th day in a row, of a husband making two cups of coffee each morning — one for him and one for his wife, and sitting next to each other in the same room reading books in comfortable silence.
True love isn’t crowded or claustrophobic, it is spacious. I guard my wife because I value her for exactly who she is and don’t want that to be lost. She does the same for me. What could be more romantic than that?
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