We all love to love. It’s so romantic. But the problem with marriage today is that there is no foundation for it other than eros [romantic] love. Although there is nothing wrong with romantic love, it is entirely inadequate as a basis for a permanent life commitment. We may have no personal objections to car CD players, but they alone are an inadequate basis for travel. If we want to travel we may want a CD player, but we also need a vehicle to put it in! The vehicle is the most important part of the whole equation —the central thing we need for travel.
Likewise, Christian [Agape] love rather than eros is the central thing we need in marriage. Like first-century man, for whom eros was the basis of mystery religions, modern man has believed in a mystical love notion as the basis for marriage. In both cases, eros has proven to be inadequate. If, on the other hand, our marriages are based on Christian love and the principles of God’s Word, they will not fail.
“Love… bears all things… endures all things. Love never fails.”
(1 Corinthians 13:4,7-8)
How can you know if you are being influenced excessively by the romance myth in your dating or marriage choices?
Here are a few indicators:
• If you ever ask the question “Is my love for my partner ‘the real thing’?” it strongly suggests you believe in the eros myth described above. There is no answer to such a question. That’s because there is no such thing as “the real” eros love in the sense the word is being used here. This question implies that if your love is real, it will not fade in the future. Yet this feeling, like all feelings, will fade at times.
The usual answer to this question is, “You’ll know when it happens, so if you’re still asking, it hasn’t happened yet.” This self-validating answer is untrue and misleading. Christians should consider the fact that this teaching is simply not found in the Bible. What a startling omission this would be in God’s Word if such a love were the true basis for marriage!
On the contrary, the Bible does give us detailed information on the nature of true Christian love and how to practice it. Today, many young Christians are engaging in an unfruitful search for “real” love instead of developing the basic relational skills they will need in marriage. Others, already in a struggling marriage, are wasting time looking for lost eros feelings. Or they could become involved in erotic extra-marital affairs instead of setting about the task of learning to love as Christ loved us.
• When considering the reasons for wanting to marry or date someone, what comes to mind the most prominently? Is it a movement of his eyes? A memory of her body? The scent of her hair? The warm feeling you get when you’re near him? These criteria of all fall into the category of the erotic and, as such, are unrelated to the issue of Christian love.
This is not to say they are incompatible with Christian love, but they should not be confused with it. If these areas of attraction are your sole, or even your main, criteria for marriage, it suggests that romance is your final guide to marriage decisions. Have you considered that virtually every divorced couple probably felt the same sense of eros attraction for the one they eventually divorced?
Likewise, when we judge the quality of our existing marriage by the presence or absence of strong romantic love of this kind, disappointment is sure to follow. We would be judging our marriage by a standard alien to the Bible and contrary to the way God made us. Before long, those who rely on eros as their standard for marital happiness will find other people who can deliver eros on a level their spouse cannot. The resulting adultery proves nothing except that we should have gone by God’s standards to begin with.
• Do others complain that you are dropping your friendships and responsibilities?
“You’re never around anymore!” Of course, some of your friends might be jealous, or your coworkers or bosses might be too picky. But, especially if you hear this kind of feedback from different sources, you should take heed. Eros is like a strong narcotic. Unless you have the maturity to exercise self-control, it tends to usurp other important areas of your lives. And because it is so pleasurable, those under its sway find it easy to rationalize their critics as people who “just don’t understand what it means to be in love.”
For this reason, dating couples should make a commitment to each other to stay involved with their friends and to keep up with their school, work, and ministry responsibilities. They should also carefully consider criticism in this area and be willing to decrease time together if this problem arises.
• Do you tend to become very intimate with your dating partner in a short period of time?
This usually means you’re experiencing eros —a pleasurable, even thrilling experience. But it can also create an illusion of intimacy: Strong feelings of attraction lead us to believe we’ve found our soul mate, when in fact we hardly know each other. On this shaky foundation couples initiate increasing intimacy to perpetuate and deepen their romantic feelings for one another. But many forms of intimacy are dangerous in a new dating relationship when we have no way of knowing whether the relationship will progress or fail.
Sexual intimacy, of course, should be reserved for marriage. In addition, wise Christians are cautious when talking about the relationship-how great it would be to be married, how much we love each other, how badly we want to be together —because we could easily be projecting implied promises that tend to build a momentum of their own. We end up feeling pressured to move ahead even if we sense it may be unwise. Some kinds of intimacy should be reserved for much later in a relationship after it has demonstrated real maturity and health.
• Are you unable to articulate your dating partner’s weaknesses?
Do your friends say you react with excessive defensiveness to those who offer a criticism? Couples who are “in love” often say that because they never fight or disagree their love is the “real thing.” Eros is notoriously blind to a lover’s weaknesses, and those under its spell tend to respond with outrage to any who poke holes in their idealized image of the other person. Some Christians spiritualize this blindness by claiming that God has “shown them” he approves of their relationship in spite of overwhelming objective evidence that they are in trouble.
By contrast, dating couples who are forging a relationship based on Christian love temper their feelings of attraction with realism. They will not feel compelled to ignore or defend their partner’s character weaknesses, because their love is a commitment to do good to the other person rather than an emotional state to be maintained at all costs. They make constructive criticism, along with encouragement, a part of their relationship from the beginning.
Developing Christian Love
Eros can easily be confused with Christian [agape] love. In both, we may be willing to give unselfishly. In both, the level of communication may seem quite intimate. The key difference is that our giving and communication in romantic relationships is motivated by the good feelings. In excitement we constantly derive from the relationship. If these feelings disappear, the basis for giving also disappears.
Stated differently, with eros, when we no longer receive good feelings, we no longer feel able to give as before. We begin to focus on the fact that we are not experiencing love feelings anymore. Although we may explain our problems in terms of behavior rather than love feelings (“She just nags and overeats these days”), we are actually expressing the absence of present love feelings.
Married people often complain their spouses no longer communicate or behave like they did when dating. But this change, whether real or perceived, isn’t the issue. The real issue is that we no longer feel the surge of eros feelings like we used to.
We can be sure our spouse had problems when we were dating, but they either went unnoticed or seemed unimportant in light of overwhelming eros desire. Later, without constant eros stimulation, we begin to notice the irritating aspects of our spouse’s behavior. The faults we were willing to overlook before seem to have become worse. We may experience pitiful suffering and confusion as we wonder what went wrong.
Here is the exciting truth:
The Bible teaches that practicing Christian love is a learned ability. Therefore, Christians need never be the victim of “love” that comes and goes. According to 1 John 4:7, no one practices Christian love naturally apart from God’s power. The New Testament also teaches that a Christian who consistently practices Christian love is living at the highest level of spiritual maturity. (See Romans 13:10; John 13:34; John 15:12; 2 Peter 1:5-8; and 1 John 2:10.)
Ideally, we should develop the ability to love in this way before we attempt marriage. In cases where this has not occurred, couples must learn Christian love under the sometimes severe pressure of marriage itself. It’s a project that may be uncomfortable but is definitely possible.
Expressing Christian Love
Christian love can be expressed at various levels of friendship. That is true whether casual or intimate. But in marriage we hope to be able to love at the deepest, most intimate level. The closer the relationship, the more demanding sacrificial love becomes. We find it relatively easy to protect ourselves from an uncomfortable level of sacrifice in more distant friendships. At most, we may have to give for a limited period of time. But we can always withdraw afterward. But in marriage, we’re usually together on a daily basis in the most trying circumstances. There is little room for retreat.
No wonder many newly married people find themselves confused. Why were they able to get along with their spouses before marriage but not after marriage? The answer often is the lack of real intimacy in the previous relationships compared to that required in marriage. Real closeness and commitment will test the love-giving capability of both partners.
How Will I Know?
Popular singer Whitney Houston poses the question, “How will I know if he really loves me?” The Bible can’t answer a question like this because it relates to the eros myth. A more important question is:
How can we know before marrying that we have the ability to practice Christian love at the most intimate level?
The only way to know for sure is to ascertain that we already practice Christian love in non-romantic intimate relationships. In such friendships, there will not be any chance of confusing Christian love with erotic love. If we succeed in building intimate non-romantic relationships outside marriage, we will almost certainly be able to practice Christian love in marriage even when the eros feelings subside.
If you’re already married, probably no one needs to convince you of the importance of learning a deeper form of love-giving. On the other hand, those who feel fatalistic despair need to submit to the truth of God’s Word. God can and will teach us what we need to know in the area of self-giving love.
If you’re in a distressed marriage, you should realize that the pain you’re feeling is the pressure God wants to use to lift you up to a higher level of Christian maturity. (See 1 Corinthians 10:13 and James 1:4.) As a married person, you can also learn how to practice mature Christian love in other relationships outside marriage. These other relationships usually have less tension and lower expectations initially. The skills you develop in non-erotic relationships can, as a rule, be successfully applied to your marriage relationship as well.
This article comes from the book, The Myth of Romance by Dennis McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt. It is published by Bethany House Publishers. Unfortunately, this book is no longer in print. But if you’re able to find a copy of this book somewhere we recommend that you get it.
— ALSO —
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