Love is something that I have a shaky understanding of. My parents are practical, grounded scientists and I don’t recall talking much about love. Not as a child. Though by the time I was a teenager, I was getting some intense messages about it from the culture around me.
No, I don’t mean American popular culture. I mean the spiritual organization I grew up in.
In the general American culture it seems that the way people understand love is that it is a feeling and it needs to be stars-in-your-eyes blissful all of the time. What happens when the feelings mutate or fade or dip for a day or two? People panic and give up on their relationships. At least, that’s what I’ve been told is the cause of so much divorce in modern life.
Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s propaganda. I’m really not sure.
I saw a video interview recently with a woman who had been married for something like 80 years. Asked the secret of their success she said, “In my day, when something was broken, you fixed it.”
And there was much cheering to that.
Yet it left me feeling angry. Some things don’t deserve to be fixed. Some things are broken beyond any fixing. Struggling through a bad marriage and choosing to finally end it when it is clear that no amount of work is fixing it is not a failure.
That isn’t what I used to think. I grew up with a very strong idea that divorce is always bad and it basically shows a woman’s moral failing.
It is a woman’s job to serve her husband, to adore and worship him, to take care of him, to never criticize him, and her own happiness is completely irrelevant. The more subservient she can be, the closer to God she is. (Technically the men are also supposed to adore their wives, but there was a lot less emphasis on that. Caring for your wife mostly seems to mean bring in the money and see her as a pure angel creature instead of seeing her for her).
“Happiness” is giving to others, is being selfless. “Pleasure” is a dirty word. If you think of yourself and your own joy, you’re being selfish and there is no greater sin.
I was told that I just needed to marry a “good man.” Nothing else about him mattered. Morally upright and a respectable job is what “good” meant, I think.
I was taught to iron, to clean, to sew buttons so that I could take care of my husband. I polished a wife-resume throughout my teenage years.
By the time I joined the modern world, I was completely unprepared for dating.
I thought it didn’t matter who I married. As long as he wasn’t hooked on drugs, then love would grow. Love comes from service and so you have to find someone to start giving that dedicated service to. I felt like I had a lot of love built up inside me, but no idea how to express it.
I scared the hec out of a bunch of regular American guys with my wife-resume.
It took me many years and some pretty bad relationships (and some so-so ones) to finally meet someone who redefined for me what love was.
I learned that it was okay for me to express my love by allowing him to take care of me instead of ironing his shirts (What glee I take in telling him that I’m never going to iron his shirts! It makes me giggle because I actually have a choice and he loves me even though I won’t iron anymore.)
His love has made me flourish. I was a tight, hard little seed until he came along and now I am spreading my petals to the sun.
I think sometimes we overcompensate for the flaws of our own childhood and go so far the other way that our children end up back on the other side. If I dismiss all the messages I got about love and focus on the opposite, will my children end up disillusioned with the modern idea of love and go back to the old fashioned notion that it is hard work and not about your happiness at all?
There were so many wonderful things about my childhood and the lessons I learned growing up. I don’t want to throw it all out: learning to enjoy physical labor as an expression of joy in life; learning mediation that allows me to be at peace within potential boredom; the belief that all human beings are expressions of one divinity. I want to give my children all of that.
But I also want them to know that they deserve love that is adoring and fun and that it will come to them when they focus on developing the wonder of their own passions.
I want to tell them “Don’t go out looking for love, trying to force it, trying to make someone love you. It will come when you give it the space to find you.”
Though I keep hearing about the success rates of arranged marriages and how marriage is about work and that modern ideas about love and relationships are causing the decay of civilization, I refuse to give up my modern relationship. My love-match is a beautiful gift from God. It is not destroying family life.
Maybe if I tell my children these details, they will understand what I feel:
- Love is the sense of well-being and contentment that swells around me when I lay on the bed next to my husband scrolling through Facebook on his smart phone.
- Love is letting myself be as childish as I feel when I’m in a bad mood and having him bring me ice cream and put me to bed.
- Love is laughing together at the same jokes on Scrubs.
- Love is him cooking me dinner because he enjoys making me happy and never expects me to do the “woman” jobs.
- Love is him snuggling up to me in the middle of the night and clutching me tight because he knows that my heart expands like an umbrella to shelter him.
- Love is showing him something that made me think of him during the day.
Love is messy and wild and free. It carries us when we are sad and it quickens our heartbeats when we’re happy. Love is bigger and grander and also more intimate and quiet than all the platitudes you will hear about it.
Yes, love is sometimes work, but it also brings you joy much more often than it’s hard.
Yes, love is an action, but it is also a feeling. And once you find its current, it will always be there. Sometimes the river is obscured under branches for a moment, but real love is always there.
It is the magnet of love between my husband and me that allows me to love others. It is the platform from which my love spreads and it is the context in which I understand love. Because he loves me, I am able to give love to others. He fills me with the love that goes out into the world around us. Love is a vapor that uplifts the lives of those who are near it.
Our love is greater than the sum of its parts. The actions of love that we put into our relationship multiply in such a way that we both always feel like we’re getting the very best end of the deal.
I want my future children to know that magical love is possible even in the modern world.