Moods and Modern Marriage
I looked forward to seeing the movie, 500 Days of Summer. The critics have almost uniformly loved the movie (89% Fresh at RottenTomatoes). Friends have enjoyed it. Even Christianity Today’s film critic raves: “this is a movie that is enormously fun to watch.”
I agree. It is fun to watch. I enjoyed it and would go again. Yet, after watching this movie and The Proposal (which stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point), I am wondering if people really swallow the preposterous Hollywood premise: Love is simply something that happens to you. If you’ve got it, you’ve got it. If you don’t, you don’t. We are all hapless seamen in the hands of oceanic passions. (In the case of The Proposal, there is an additional preposterous premise: a trip to Alaska can fix anything including selfishness, a bad temper, and a history of disastrous relationships.)
Summer, the charming title character in 500 Days, enjoys Tom immensely. Yet, despite her great appreciation of him, she is resolute that she will not make a commitment to him. She will have fun with him but she will not be lured into the pick-and-shovel work of marriage. Apparently she just doesn’t have that “feeling” she considers requisite for marriage.
The idea that love is a feeling that is outside our control is a Satanic lie. It is popularly used to justify creating a relationship because of a “spark.” It is also used to justify leaving a relationship “because the fire has simply gone out.”
This is poppycock. It is worse! It is a family-destroying, covenant-demolishing lie. It leaves the most sacred relationships at the mercy of the most flimsy moods.
What is the truth about feelings and relationships?
Powerful romantic attractions are intended to get us together. But those strong feelings were never intended to make our decisions for us or to sustain relationships over the long term. Our decisions should engage reason with passion, experience with enthusiasm. Anyone considering a relationship commitment should consult head as well as heart.
As for sustaining a relationship, it is companionship rather than romance that has the power to hold us together over the decades. Any effort to keep feeling as we felt in the beginning is doomed to exhaustion and failure.
God’s process for relationships
God declares that marriage is ordained of Him (See D&C 49:15). It is intended to teach us the vital–even central–lessons of eternity as we work toward godliness. Consider the typical trajectory and the intended lessons in marriage:
1. We start out with high hopes and lofty dreams. We are energized by the possibilities. In a sense, God has given us a vision of the incomparable blessing of oneness within two-ness. He has shown us the potential for joy with another person. While this revelation will not sustain us over time, it should not be forgotten nor dismissed.
2. Irritation arises. Things start to bother us. We wonder about parts of our partner that we didn’t see before. We wonder if we have been tricked. We are tempted to demand change as a condition of continuance. We may feel cheated or disenchanted.
This is the first place where God’s invitation to godliness becomes most evident. He seems to say, “Yeah. You get irritated with your spouse. I would get quite irritated with you if I were a natural man. But I am not. My nature and my name are love. As a result I see you-and your spouse-redemptively. I see every fault and limitation as an opportunity for helping, strengthening, and saving you. When you see your spouse as I do, you will be on the Path. And your marriage will be a joy to you.
3. Boredom sets in. There is a sameness in a continuing relationship that can lull us to boredom. We start to think of our partners are tediously predictable. We chafe at the bonds. At such times, vibrant others outside our marriages can seem very attractive. (We may not recognize that boredom will settle into any relationship in which we are not actively investing. It is simply a matter of time.)
Elder Maxwell (I miss him!) expressed a sublime truth related to boredom: “The lowly in heart [are not] inclined to see themselves as being ‘above’ all the seemingly routine duties of discipleship. Duties are not to be rejected on the basis of ‘I’ve done all that before,’ as if God were required to supply us with new thrills. Mortality has been described by the Lord as being like working in a vineyard–never as an afternoon at a carnival.” (“True Believers in Christ,” BYU Speech given October 7, 1980; Read the entire remarkable talk here.)
While God gladly grants moments of glorious exultation in marriage, there is also the trodding of the winepress. We spend hours pressing the sustaining juice out of the experiences God grants. Yet, even such routine duties are a blessing when we sing and laugh with our partner as we trod the winepress.
4. We get discouraged. After years of an imperfect relationship, even the best of saints may suffer fatigue. We may resign ourselves to weary slogging. The spark is gone! We wish we could be released.
The solution to discouragement is not a challenging discussion with our partner or even a week in Hawaii. The solution is closer to “home.” We need a change of heart.
Do you see God’s perfect purposes? We can never navigate life joyously unless and until we take Him, His power, and His mindset into our lives. There really is only one Way to get from irritated imperfection to joyous love without being filled with and changed by Jesus. He is the Way.
We must have faith in Him. We must believe that he can transform our painful experience and imperfect souls into a glorious outcome. We must repent; we must humbly turn our lives over to the One who removes sins and changes hearts. We must make covenants with Him; this is the sacred invitation of the temple. Covenants tie us to God and growth. We must seek the informing, inspiring, and transforming influence of the Holy Spirit.
A friend of mine shared the following story that illustrates the role of commitment in a healthy marriage:
When I was 23, I was close friends with a couple that had been married several years. They seemed to have the kind of wonderful marriage I hoped to have someday. Once we attended a social event together. At one point I noticed the husband staring across the room at his wife with an expression of complete adoration. The next day I told his wife what I had observed. I said to her, “You are so fortunate to be loved like that. When I get married it would so amazing to have my husband continue to look at me that way after years of marriage.
To my surprise, instead of basking in the complement, she said, “We need to talk.”
She sat me down and said, “I don’t want you to think that it has always been like that for us. Because if you do, you will go into marriage with dangerous expectations. There have been times when he has been annoyed, frustrated or bored with me. There have been times when I have felt the same way about him. And there have even been times when we really did not like each other very much.
What you saw was real-he does love me dearly as I love him dearly. But what you saw last night was the result of commitment and effort. It was the result of remembering during the challenging times what we were capable of achieving with each other if we continued to choose to love each other, be patient, forgiving and supportive of each other and never stop investing in our relationship. Because we always made the choice to do those things, what you saw last night was earned. Our marriage is everything we ever hoped for and much, much more. But don’t you dare think it just happened because we were lucky.”
While I attend and enjoy movies even with their inane messages about relationships, I yearn for the day when the truth is portrayed, when all the children of God recognize that He has provided the way for us to be at one with Him and each other.
I have been invited to teach three series of classes for BYU Education Week. If you are planning to attend BYU Education Week and are interested in thinking more about the ways the gospel of Jesus Christ can help us in our lives and families, please come join me.
Tuesday through Friday, August 18 through 21:
I also welcome your comments at my blog: www.drWally.org
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful contributions to this article.