I’m usually a muter or channel-changer when the radio stops cranking out music and starts the litany of advertisements. But sometimes I half-listen, half-daydream, as commercials for the juiciest burger or the toughest lawyer spill forth from the speakers. The last couple of weeks, floral shops and candy stores have joined the fray, hawking their romantic wares as the fourteenth of February has drawn nigh. Turn on the radio station and, within a few minutes, you’ll hear it. Buy a beautiful dozen roses at this store. Purchase a delectable assortment of chocolates at that store. Win a Valentine’s Day divorce from this radio station. Wait. What?
I was certain, at first, that my ears were experiencing an audible illusion. But, no, as I listened on, it was true. They were actually doing it. The Billy Madison Show, aired on KISS-FM, San Antonio’s rock station, had created a whole new kind of prize on the holiday that’s all about hugs and kisses; they’re giving away a divorce this Valentine’s Day.
Here’s how it’s billed: “Valentine’s Day is on the way. Not feelin’ it anymore? Then we’ve got the perfect present this year…A SIMPLE AGREED DIVORCE!” And here’s how it works: Those lawfully wedded folks who just aren’t “feelin’ it anymore” need to fire up the nearest computer, register online, and present their argument as to why they should win this prize. The lucky soon-to-be-ex-spouse will receive “legal services toward one simple agreed divorce from the Law Offices of Carroll and Hinojosa.” The radio station will weed through all the tales of wedded woe to narrow it down to the top ten qualifiers. And the Grand Prize Winner will be announced on the Billy Madison Show on Valentine’s Day. Re-quiver your arrow, Cupid. This is the age of lobbing legal grenades.
Love, As Mere Emotion, Is Not Enough
Now it’s tempting to shrug off this contest as a relatively isolated example of shock-jock advertising from radio stations constantly clamoring for more listeners. Let the other stations give away a romantic weekend for two in the Texas Hill Country, we’ll carve out our own niche in the marketplace by awarding a fistful of cash to those who want to put asunder what God has joined together.
Rather than dismiss such a contest; rather than view it as one more eye-rolling, disheartening example of the rise of divorce and demise of marriage in our culture, perhaps instead we should first stop to think about how sadly apropos this contest is on this particular day. For given how romanticized and emotionalized love has become in our society; given how those who espouse such shallow conceptions of love often find themselves distraught in marriages that are no longer “sweetness and light”; and given how no other holiday institutionalizes love-as-romantic-emotion more than Valentine’s Day, perhaps KISS-FM has unwittingly helped to underscore a significant problem: love, especially love as mere emotion, will never be enough to sustain a marriage.
Unlike the Greeks, who parsed the various forms of love into several distinct words, we English speakers, despite our gargantuan vocabulary, somehow managed to remain stuck with a single word. So we “love” everything. We love popcorn and football. We love our children and siblings. We love our boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses. Ironically, within that last category, where love should have the deepest, broadest meaning, the tendency within our culture has been to shrink it to the shallowest, narrowest meaning. And that has had dire consequences, especially for marriages.
Rather than understanding love as an all-encompassing gift of oneself to another, it all too often entails merely a deep, emotional attachment that one feels for another person. “I love you,” in this sense, means that when I’m with you, I feel good, I feel right, I feel alive. You stir in me a desire to be with you, touch you, have sex with you, cohabit, who knows, maybe even put a ring on your finger someday. To love is to “feel it,” to have my emotional needs met by another person, and to want to meet theirs as well. Scan the poems and quotes on just about any of those heart-shaped Hallmark cards and you will see verbalized this myopic view of love. Read, and behold, the valentiniation of love.
Love, to be sure, is not a bloodless thing shorn of emotion. Humans are emotional creatures, so when they love, emotion is certain to be involved. But sometimes that emotion might be sorrow or disappointment. There are times those we love might make us mad enough to spit nails. What we feel when we love won’t always be good; it might be downright terrible. But as emotions rise and fall, elicit tears or laughter, those emotions never render love null and void, for love, real love, is not contingent upon emotion.
Marriage is not the creation of love
To speak specifically of a husband and wife, love is the decision they make to give themselves, whole-bodily and wholeheartedly, to each other, committed to a lifelong devotion of service one to another. Their love is a choice, it is an action, it is an exclusive gift of themselves to their spouse. Even if they’re “not feelin’ it anymore,” they go on loving, for emotions are subservient to love, not its master.
But let us take this a step further to add greater clarity to our understanding of the place of love within a marriage. It is a commonly held assumption that the only way a couple will make it to their first, fifth, or fiftieth anniversary is by continuing to love one another. And, no doubt, there is truth in that. But there often lurks within that assumption a misleading understanding of marriage itself: that love is what made the marriage to begin with, and therefore it is love that will sustain it.
Marriage, however, is not the creation of love. Even if the love of a man and woman were pristine and perfect, and they willfully and joyfully bound themselves to one another till death they parted, they would not by their union bring into being this thing called marriage. For love does not a marriage make; marriage is the creation of God. I speak, obviously, from a religious perspective, a Christian one, but a perspective that is shared by a broad swath of other traditions. Marriage is a gift divinely bestowed upon humanity, an objective, external reality into which a man and woman enter, that they might therein find love, companionship, and a mate with whom they can—God willing—conceive and rear children.
Just as love does not make a marriage, neither does love sustain one. Yes, of course, spouses should, in their words and actions, continue to care for one another. Physically and emotionally, they should give themselves wholly to one another in love. But “should” is a word of responsibility, of demand, a calling to which fickle humanity frequently falls short. Honeymoons last only so long. Untold, unforeseen challenges arise that test the bond twixt husband and wife. When they do, the full range of emotions are likely to surface, some of which will be rather unpleasant to endure. During such hard times, had the couple simply been cohabiting, enacting the farce of a pseudo-marriage, they would probably pack their bags and say their goodbyes, for all that had held them together—love—had devolved from endangered to extinct. But in wedlock, such weak times reveal the true strength of marriage itself. It’s objective quality can survive the subjective struggles through which every couple passes. It’s external nature provides the context within which internal emotions can wax and wane. Because marriage is the creation of divine love, and not of human love, it provides a haven within which human love, when it dies, can possibly rise again. In other words, to quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love,” (Letters and Papers from Prison).
Passing through the pains of divorce
This is not some pie-in-the-sky, naively optimistic view that assumes we can altogether eradicate divorce from our society simply by getting our heads screwed on straight about love and marriage. Even within biblical tradition, both in the New Testament and in the Hebrew Bible, there are allowances made—albeit very narrow ones—for the dissolution of a marriage. As no doubt some of my readers have, this author too has passed through the pains of divorce. I wish I could write as one who bears the moral credentials of the survivor of a troubled marriage. But I cannot, nor can I alter the mistakes of my past, part of which involved embracing the very false conceptions of “love” against which I now warn others. No, I cannot rewind my life to undo what has been done; I can, however, speak as one whose present is largely shaped by what I have learned from my past, and whose future is directed toward steering others away from misconceived notions about marriage and toward a right understanding of the divine creation of marriage and how human love and fidelity can flourish therein.
We live in a culture of snapchat relationships, appearing and vanishing all too quickly. And why should they not, if love be defined by emotions, and emotions be characterized by instability? When marriage is thought to be the creation of love, and love is culturally understood to be nothing more than a feel-good fixation for another person, then radio stations giving away a divorce for Valentine’s Day will have no shortage of applicants.
This, however, is no time for despair, and certainly no time for a mute acceptance of the inevitable, ongoing failure of marriage in the modern world. Rather, it is time for parents to teach their children, and to model for them, what true love is and does, as well as what marriage is, and to rid them of the misleading, romanticized notions of love-as-mere-feeling. It is time for religious institutions to continue, or to begin, to address publicly and zealously the same topics, and to provide a spiritual culture within which troubled marriages can find counsel and healing, not judgement and ostracism. And let the government, rather than continuing to denigrate marriage by a vain attempt to “redefine” an unalterable divine creation, buttress and defend this institution which remains the best context for young citizens to be reared.
This Valentine’s Day, by all means, give roses, give chocolates, give hugs and kisses. But more importantly, this day, and everyday, give voice, in whatever context you find yourself, to the truths about what love and marriage are.
Find Chad’s poetry and musings at Flying Scroll.