Televangelist Pat Robertson is in trouble with just about everyone for comments he made on his 700 Club show in response to a 17 year old boy who wanted his father to pay more attention to his mother. He said:
A woman came to a preacher that I know, and she was awful looking. I mean, her hair was all torn up and she was overweight and looked terrible, clothes bad and everything. And she said, ‘Oh, Reverend, what can I do? My husband has started to drink.’ And the preacher looked at her and said, ‘Madam, if I was married to you I’d start to drink too.’ We need to cultivate romance, darling! … You always have to keep that spark of love alive. It just isn’t something to just lie there, ‘Well, I’m married to him so he’s got to take me slatternly looking.’ You’ve got to fix yourself up, look pretty.
Most commentators have focused on the outrageous sexism of Robertson’s statement, as well they should, but I’m interested in his far less controversial claim about keeping “that spark of love alive.” This, in fact, is something many Americans seem to believe. Countless magazine articles advise us to spice things up-change it up-mix it up in order to keep the romance alive.
A recent New York Times article, “New Love: A Short Shelf Life,” a psychology professor summarizes a multitude of studies showing that passionate love does not last:
When love is new, we have the rare capacity to experience great happiness while being stuck in traffic or getting our teeth cleaned. We are in the throes of what researchers call passionate love, a state of intense longing, desire and attraction. In time, this love generally morphs into companionate love, a less impassioned blend of deep affection and connection. The reason is that human beings are, as more than a hundred studies show, prone to hedonic adaptation, a measurable and innate capacity to become habituated or inured to most life changes.
Once our partners become familiar, the psychologist advises, they cease to be attractive. However, we need not despair because we can keep the spark alive by doing new things. “Key parties — remember ‘The Ice Storm’? — aren’t necessarily what the doctor ordered; simpler changes in routine, departures from the expected, go a long way.” So, instead of “creative cooking, visiting friends or seeing a movie,” couples should try “skiing, dancing or attending concerts,” or anything they find novel. After the first two years of wedded bliss, studies suggest that those who don’t keep an element of surprise in their relationship are likely to find themselves either bored or looking for love in other places.
Now there’s something to what Pat Robertson and the psychologists are saying. Marriage, like any relationship, requires attention. Intimacy doesn’t just happen by itself; it’s built through shared experiences. Date nights are a good way to nurture the romantic side of a marriage relationship. I’m a fan of them myself. But something is off here. It’s the impoverished understanding of marriage at work both in Robertson and the psychologists.
A great new indie movie called “Take This Waltz” does a lot better. Margot and Lou have been married for five years. They have an affectionate, playful, ordinary relationship, but when Margot meets a sexy stranger, she is drawn to him. The movie progresses as these movies do, and (surprise! spoiler alert!) Margot eventually leaves Lou for Daniel. But then a funny thing happens. After blissful sex in a hipster loft, there is more sex, and more varied sex, along with many other adventures, and then, before too long, Margot and Lou are walking around their loft with not much to say to each other.
The montage of their relationship harkens back to an earlier scene in the movie of women showering after a workout. As the talk turns to marriage, the camera moves back and forth between the younger, fitter group to the older, plumper group. A wise older woman says, “New things get old,” and the camera tells us it’s true. The movie stares this reality in the face without flinching, and without providing an answer. Or, if it has an answer, it is this line from another character, a recovering alcoholic, “Life has a gap in it… It just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it.” The implication seems to be that Margot failed to honor her obligations to her really decent husband and his big extended family, both of whom really loved her. And even still, she didn’t find happiness.
If we’re going to be honest about marriage, we have to acknowledge that passion ebbs and flows. We can’t pretend that fixing ourselves up or taking salsa lessons is always going to bring back the spark of the early years. As David Matzko McCarthy points out in Sex and Love in the Home, that’s a good thing. We shouldn’t be trying to return to our years of dating or being newlyweds because a deeply intimate marriage of five, or ten, or thirty years is a good thing in itself. Instead of trying to satisfy our desires for novelty, we would do better to embrace practices of marriage that take us more deeply into that reality, like talking, parenting, and, yes, visiting friends and doing some creative cooking.
If marriage has an edge on dating, it is intimacy and a sense of being committed together to something larger than romance. Yet, “life has a gap in it. . . .It just does.” Augustine named it a long time ago–“our heart is restless until it rests in you.” But loving and being loved by others is the best hope we’ve got this side of eternity of filling that gap. “We shouldn’t go crazy trying to fill it” with novelty, but we can turn toward each other instead of away, knowing that precisely because we have to take each other just as we are, new and old, beautiful and not so beautiful, marriage is one of the best places to find what we’re really looking for.