We are living in a secular age. Consider marriage: we’re told that there is no longer room in the public square for an approach to marriage clothed in even the most modest trappings of religion. Marriage is about feelings—not religion, institutions, or any sort of covenant. But there are consequences to our secularization of love.
Consider this Friday article in New York Times entitled, “To stay in love, sign on the dotted line.” The article’s author, Mandy Len Catron, explains her approach to relationships, in which she utilizes a “relationship contract” to organize and maintain her love life.
The piece is both biographical and sympathetic. Catron spent nearly a decade in a difficult and unhealthy relationship. Upon its dissolution, she took stock of her experience and realized that she had yielded too many things in the name of love, most importantly her sense of self. She writes, “It wasn’t until I moved out that I began to see that there hadn’t been room for me in my relationship.”
Is Romance About Our Sense Of Self?
Doubtless, most adults have had trouble with unhealthy relationships. Many of us can identify with the harmful effects of toxic love. But listen to the words Catron uses to describe her experience of liberation: “At 20, I gave myself over to love, and it wasn’t until the relationship ended, when I was 29, that I discovered what it meant to fully inhabit my days and the spaciousness of my own mind. It was such a joy to find that my time was mine, along with every decision from what to cook to when to go to bed.”
After finding her “self,” to forestall a similar romantic experience in the future, Catron determined to employ a relationship contract to govern her future romantic endeavors. Including a commitment to monogamy and an annual re-up, the contract spells out everything from chores, to sex, to finances, in considerable detail. “Writing a relationship contract may sound calculating or unromantic, but every relationship is contractual,” Catron writes. “We’re just making the terms more explicit. It reminds us that love isn’t something that happens to us — it’s something we’re making together.”
True enough, every relationship is predicated upon essential conditions. But Catron’s contract doesn’t just redefine the essence of love—it defies it. Love is, in its most basic form, selflessness for the sake of the other. Love that seeks its own good isn’t love at all.
But in the age of autonomy, nothing matters more than the freedom of the individual. So for many people, Catron’s words are sure to resonate. Why shouldn’t we approach relationships with the goal of preserving our autonomy? Can a relationship even be considered healthy if it fosters dependency?
Love Is About Sacrifice, Not Selfishness
Sadly, Catron recounts an experience in which she—motivated by love—allowed herself to be taken advantage of. That is tragic, and the experience is all too common. But the solution isn’t found in artificial barriers intended to hedge against the loss of autonomy: it’s found in a better vision of sacrifice. Because that is what love does. It leads to sacrifice. The proper vision of sacrifice is always mutual, and always seeks the other’s good. It is never intended to be one-sided and precludes all forms of abuse. This is the reason that love is culminated in marriage.
Marriage is a mutual commitment to selflessness. It is arduous and challenging and purposefully constituted by vows. Traditional wedding vows affirm nothing less than selfless commitment for the sake of the other, because that is what love is. More than that, the vows affirm that this commitment is intended to remain unbroken, because that is the way love is supposed to be.
Marriage is a solemn commitment, predicated upon love, which must be approached with the utmost seriousness. It is a pledge to a lifetime of service and selflessness. Truthfully, the aim of “self” preservation is unworthy of marriage. Marriage as an institution is about the formation of a union that transcends autonomy. Its aim is mutual satisfaction, but this is only achieved through mutual sacrifice.
Love Isn’t About Contracts—It’s About Vows
Catron is right about one thing. Love isn’t something that just happens to people. Anyone can experience the fleeting pleasures of infatuation. Most of us can even tolerate the obligations of a relationship if we are happy. But love is something else. It begins with the affections, but love that lasts is built upon commitment. And that kind of commitment isn’t sealed with a contract. It’s sealed with a vow.
The tragedy of this contractual version of love is that it is little more than a failed attempt to replicate the original, and better, contract for intimacy: marriage. Our view of marriage is so distorted that advocates of “modern love” are sadly and even comically trying to recreate what they have deliberately destroyed. But it’s never going to work. Almost-marriage isn’t marriage. When we say the words, “I love you,” we think about a person—not a piece of paper.