A Starbucks barista’s photo of a ridiculously complicated drink with 13 different special instructions went viral on Twitter Monday morning. Under the extra caramel drizzle, extra whipped cream, cinnamon dolce topping, and five pumps of banana (banana? five??), there’s no way you’re actually tasting the coffee. (Which, for Starbucks, isn’t much of a tragedy because the coffee is mediocre anyway).
This customer’s tedious drink order reflects how many Americans approach much more than just coffee. If we just arrange the perfect recipe of good friends, an enjoyable job, a picture-perfect family, paid vacation, and the keys to a two-story suburban home, we think we can construct the magical Frappuccino of a happy life.
Some of those are good goalposts to strive toward. But they can also feed a deadly gospel of self-gratification. For relationships and marriage, we can fall into thinking of people like made-to-order Starbucks drinks, instead of — like black coffee — something to develop a love and appreciation for.
As a kid, I insisted to my mom that my future man had to be blue-eyed and a tri-sport athlete, one of which must be football. The idea that he might not be a sharp, preppy dresser was totally a dealbreaker. Another of my friends remembers praying at 14, “Please make him 6 feet tall with broad shoulders and rich enough that I get to travel to Europe. Amen.”
My high school friends and I would make lists of all the character traits we wanted in our future husbands. They were important, godly attributes and it was helpful for us to recognize what we valued. But there is also a danger in making lists of all the sugary “add-ons” you want pumped into your drink, err, potential spouse.
Type “10 things every” into Google’s search bar and the first result is “10 things every woman wants in a man.” As John Tierney joked in a 1995 article for the New York Times, “My own requirements in a woman were perfectly reasonable — all I wanted was a nice novelist/astronaut with a background in fashion modeling.” Tierney also recounts a personal ad in which a New York woman sought “a man over 5 foot 10 who played polo,” and another encounter where a woman explained that her last relationship failed because “He’s a partner, but it’s not a big firm. And he wears these short black socks.”
Cosmopolitan came up with a list of “31 Signs You’re With The Person You Should Marry,” by which you can evaluate a potential spouse. The list — with the disclaimer that “your partner doesn’t necessarily need to check off all of these boxes, but they should just check off what’s most important to you” — includes criteria like “you trust him to run your errands for you,” “he plans activities that he knows you’ll enjoy,” and “he tells you, out of the blue, that you look hot.”
One blogger on Pinterest published a “Single Ladies’ Checklist for Mr. Right,” complete with 129 bullet points. Next to “Christlike character” and “fruits of the Spirit” were things like “willing/adventurous eater,” “appreciates architecture,” “loves history and exploring,” “writes notes and communicates love regularly,” and “rugged and appreciates nature and beauty,” as well as “flexible, but determined,” and “confident but not arrogant or cocky or unhealthily charming.”
On top of these things, this man must be “not domineering or manipulative” and willing to lovingly honor the author’s differences, despite her apparent hesitation to do the same for him.
Since when did we start treating potential partners as completed checklists, dished out by a cosmic espresso machine with a dollop of whipped cream and a brown paper napkin? There is crucial value in recognizing and prioritizing non-negotiable qualities, like spiritual leadership, kindness, and faithfulness. I’m not suggesting we deemphasize those — far from it.
But when the way a woman dresses, the kind of job a man has, or the way he sets the table becomes a box to check, love becomes a self-serving enterprise. What if, instead of an instrument for our own gratification, we saw the other person as a soul to sanctify and be sanctified?
Like any friendship or relationship between human beings, marriage is a process of two people making each other better, refining one another, and choosing to make sacrifices. The baselines are vital, but more helpful than a magic formula are hard work and a mutual commitment to serve.
As a young woman observing my parents’ and other friends’ successful marriages, I’ve seen that loving another person well requires investment. Sacrificial love doesn’t come naturally — a successful relationship with another imperfect person has to be intentionally tended to, worked for, and cultivated.
Like black coffee, it requires patience to appreciate. But without the mask of sugary syrups, you can taste the quality of the real thing.
Black coffee makes me think of mornings at my grandparents’ house, sitting around the living room or the back porch drinking coffee out of cracked and stained mugs. Married for more than 50 years, my grandparents took care of each other until my grandma’s death. They lived simply but happily. Their relationship was never one of whirlwind romance or Hollywood perfection, but they met each other’s strengths and flaws with grace.
Yet to appreciate the complicated richness of a good black coffee or plain espresso shot, you have to stop expecting 13 pumps of caramel-banana-dolce-mocha-twirl syrup. Before enjoying the deep reward of growing alongside another person, we have to quit expecting them to single-handedly complete us. Only the gospel can do that; and it is out of that love that we can mirror the sacrifice, grace, and companionship with which Christ first loved us.