In honor of Matt’s thought-provoking post last week (how could it be otherwise, with needling statements like, “Husbands and Wives Can’t be Friends!” or eye-stopping suggestions that singles would “do better (oddly) to cultivate friendships with their same sex while viewing the opposite sex through a strictly romantic lens.”), I thought I’d highlight another discussion touching on divorce and marriage.
Chesterton once said that, “The obvious effect of frivolous divorce will be frivolous marriage. If people can be separated for no reason they will feel it all the easier to be united for no reason.” While the Cherub sounds, as usual, witty and insightful in his assertion I was pleasantly surprised by the perceptive—albeit slightly cryptic—response of one of Mere Orthodoxy’s readers who suggested that Chesterton had things backwards. The comment, “Ah, but my dear fellow … the problem is that they have reasons. And this is exactly what blinds them”, re-ignited some of my own thoughts in the same direction and, conveniently, since this particular reader felt no obligation or inclination to elucidate his short reply, I’ve taken the liberty to do so on his behalf.
The current emphasis on compatibility and “finding the right match for you” in relationship counsel underscores the present obsession with having reasons, and lots of them, for marrying a particular person. The usual reasons for marrying tend to be those sorts of things that sound good, noble, and even prudent but are not sustainable, cannot be guaranteed to continue over time, and were never meant to be the foundation for a enduring covenant between two individuals. While it might be important on some level to discover that your potential mate shares your values, fits with your idea of the good life, and even loves B-horror flicks from the 80’s as much as you do, these (or any other of E-Harmony’s 29 dimensions of compatibility) cannot provide a foundation sufficient to bear the weight of a permanent covenant.
The problem with basing marriage on compatibility is that those things that make two people compatible today might easily change over time—and they usually do (who really expects, or wants, to be the same person they are today, ten years from now?). We all assume that we will change, grow up, and grow old and there is a good possibility that our current self-concept will not bear a significant resemblance to who we become.
Founding an enduring commitment on changeable properties is almost certain to end in something other than either endurance or commitment. An enduring commitment must be founded on something that is enduring and unchangeable itself—something like Love or Duty or God. My sympathies lie with the latter (especially if the God in questions is Love and is the Being whose existence grounds obligation and Duty), as the pagan Love and Duty turn out to cause other relational problems, but for the sake of the present argument any of the three will do.
An emphasis on compatibility provides little room for the freedom necessary for love to develop. A constant fear hangs over the heads of the perfectly compatible couple that, should one ever-so-slightly adjust himself, their entirely harmonious relationship might admit a speck of dirt that could bring the well-oiled mechanism of relatedness to a jarring, grinding halt. If he loves her because she’s intelligent, she will always be afraid to reveal the parts of herself that appear silly, foolish, or plainly stupid. If she loves him for his wit, the inevitable day when no jest arises will loom over him with a nearly paralyzing force.
The happily incompatible couple is free from such dread and free to get on with the task that every couple must face if their relationship is to endure—the task of learning to love. To be united for “no reason” is hardly frivolous, it just might be the way to save marriage from the crushing impossibility of being compatible and while liberating men and women to live with a “perfect love [that] casts out fear.”