To understand marriage, we must first understand love.
Saint Thomas Aquinas had a simple definition of love way back in the twelfth century: To will the good of the other.
When people say “love” today, we seem to mean an overflow of pleasant emotion. It’s similar to “like," just stronger.
This new definition of love is much more flexible than that crusty old definition, as it can apply both to people or pizza.
This fundamental, perhaps unconscious, redefining of love has led to a disconnect in our culture. We are still told it is good to love everyone, but let’s be honest, we can’t even like everyone, and we cannot force ourselves to do so any more than we can force ourselves to enjoy the taste of kale.
When love is merely a feeling, it is no more in our control than our appetites or insecurities are.
When love is an act of will, it is left to our higher faculties. Loving someone, or willing their good, when you don’t necessarily like them, is an act of self-mastery, but not impossible or contradictory.
Society’s Most Fundamental Institution
If we look at how marriage used to be understood, the definition would sound something like this: a lifelong union between a man and a woman ordered towards the bearing and raising of offspring.
If I were to try to define marriage in our modern context, I would say it’s a dissoluble partnership of two people who "love" (i.e., have strong, in this case, sexual feelings toward) each other.
For now, let’s avoid the question of who can get married, and instead focus on the question of how a marriage can end.
In the first definition, a “lifelong” marriage can only be ended by the death of one of the spouses. This makes it more than a contract, which is an agreement to the exchange of goods and services. It is a covenant or an agreement of exchange of persons.
You are agreeing to love each other until “death do you part.” You and your spouse are giving your whole lives to each other.
Modern marriages are not a covenant or even a contract. How many contracts can you think of where either party can call off their end of the bargain for any reason?
Both modern and traditional marriages agree that love is essential to marriage. But if we define love as a feeling, that feeling is going to ebb and flow throughout the marriage, as it should.
Could you imagine if husbands and wives always felt the same way they did on their wedding day? The average marriage would have enough children to make a Catholic blush.
Quite simply and obviously, feelings don’t last a lifetime. If that feeling is all that holds your marriage together, then your marriage won’t last a lifetime either.
This is why I scoffed at what was supposed to be a heartfelt scene in the TV show, Ted Lasso. For those of you who do not know, Ted Lasso is a charming show about an upbeat American football coach who goes to London to become a soccer coach.
Part of the reason that Ted moves is because his wife wants a divorce. Why does she want a divorce? Because she no longer feels the same way toward him as she did on their wedding day.
I realized that the writers wanted me to feel sympathy for Ted’s wife, but the only sympathy I felt was for the fact she grew up with such a shallow stupid idea of what marriage is.
She abandoned her husband and her child because she didn’t FEEL the same anymore?!
The truest kind of love is sacrifice, or to will the good of the other even beyond the good of yourself. With that definition in mind, who gives a crap about how you feel? Ideally, those who love you care about your feelings, but your feelings are no excuse to abandon your duty as a wife and mother.
Being a wife is, in a sense, a job. And you can’t just give up on it any more than a firefighter can just decide he doesn’t feel like going into a burning building.
Notice how when love is reduced to feelings, soon, other feelings override it.
And if love is just a feeling, then the man who cheats on his wife is perfectly justified in doing so provided that the other woman provided a stronger feeling to him than his wife does.
But if love is a duty that he has committed to, that other woman can be the daughter of Chris Hemsworth and Helen of Troy and she may want him. And guess what, he may want her as well. Marriage isn’t this shield that makes us immune to attraction of all other compatible sexual partners.
If your marriage is rooted in sacrificial love, then you put aside your own desires for the good of your wife. And since you and your wife are spiritually and emotionally intertwined, what is good for your wife is good for you.
This is not to say that if you just try really hard, your marriage will be perfect. But when there are no ejector seats like “no-fault divorce,” you may find yourself becoming a better driver.
In that same episode of Ted Lasso, Ted asks his assistant, who has been married for decades, if marriage was ever difficult. His assistant actually tells him no, and that if you’re with the right person, things are easy.
You just have to wonder if the writers had ever talked to anyone with a long successful marriage.
Marriage is a struggle! Once that feeling is gone, when you’re no longer getting butterflies every time you look at each other, when you have just had an argument, when your child cries so much that you feel more like shaking them than rocking them: if you are still able to fully desire what is best for your spouse and children through that, then you have achieved a greater degree of love than you ever did the day you met on an altar.
But, oddly enough, even as our culture is becoming more materialistic, there’s one spiritual idea that just won’t go away even though it was never one that traditional Christianity taught: the soulmate, or “The One.”
Whether we believe in a higher power or not, we just seem convinced that there is that one special someone for us, and our quest is to find that someone.
In fact, that someone is so special, that if you marry someone else, then you should throw that marriage away to instead pursue your destiny with this angelic agent made just for you.
This idea is manifest in The Office, where Pam’s parents get a divorce because they realized they were not “soulmates.” How did they know they weren’t soulmates? Because they never got the same feelings Jim and Pam had for each other.
Your soulmate is the one you marry, not the one you “should” have married.
With all these stupid ideas we have floating around about love and marriage permeating our society and pop culture, it’s no wonder that people are starting to believe it impossible, despite millennia of humans somehow managing to pull it off.
If there is a hope of recovering the value of marriage and saving it from its near fifty-percent divorce rate, or if we want to convince young people who are increasingly not getting married that we’re not full of garbage when we speak positively about marriage, we have to actually stop being full of garbage. We must be honest about what marriage really is.
Or we can just do what we have been doing: promise people a false sale of goods of everlasting satisfaction and sexual gratification.
And when we look out and notice that most marriages end in divorce, children are developmentally stunted from not having both parents in the home, the number of incels and MGTOW are rising, and people are either extracting sexual gratification from one person to another or from their computer and some lotion, we can safely say that this is simply due to the fact they have not found “The One” yet.