The Western Romantic Ideal

Men and women seem to believe – according to the romanticized ideal of marriage in western culture – that when they marry they become number one in the other person’s eyes: the most beautiful, most interesting, most desired, most fun to be around, etc. The role of “wife” becomes a permanent assurance of value in the eyes of the “husband”, and vice-versa. This is “wedlock”, in the sense of the one’s values and appreciation being locked, or fixed, with respect to the other; it is the “marriage bond”, in terms of binding the eyes of one to a particular valuation of the other – which valuation must always, of course, regard him or her as the highest value.

This fantasy takes place independent of any actual values. The course of infatuation, unfortunately, tends to produce such inflated valuation of the other party that it seems not only possible “to love and to cherish” forever, but even feels like that must be the case. Once the infatuation passes, one finds that others do act in ways that are neither deserving of love nor of cherishing. One may still love and cherish the potential for the other to have such qualities, but if their behavior does not have them, these profound feelings cannot be faked.

So the wife, for example, after cooking her first meal and finding the husband doesn’t like it, may burst into tears. The ideal is already giving way to reality. The “marriage bond” promised that he would love and cherish her always, and already he in neither loving nor cherishing her cooking. I believe these strong words regarding marriage refer to the souls involved, but the romantic ideal has taken them to refer to the self and its actions and attitudes.

Thus the husband cannot find his wife to be ugly or fat, he cannot appreciate the beauty of other women, etc. The charade of guaranteed value – from “husband” to “wife” and back again – must be maintained at all costs, lest the ideal on which their marriage was founded be utterly destroyed.

When the husband or wife is no longer number one, and one finds they have more passionate interests elsewhere (I refer to hobbies here), these can easily cause jealousy and anger. Even if they are “allowed”, they weaken the ideal. They prove that the husband, for example, has an independent sense of value as expressed by his interests. Why is the wife not as interesting, if she represents the highest value? Because of the truth – the death knell of the ideal: she is not.

This shouldn’t be surprising, because God is the highest ideal and He is manifested in His creation. Those things that are truest to their nature will reveal His light in the purest form they are capable of. If the wife or husband is not true to their nature, clearly they will not be to the other what “wedlock” was meant to ensure. One cannot exhibit a lesser value and still expect to be valued highly. This is a mythical belief in the power of marriage to get a strange-hold on the other person’s values – to fix them in the state of infatuation – that has no basis whatever.

Everyone, at some point or another, complains that, “He or she doesn’t love me like when we first met”. This expresses a wish to be over-valued: for the other party to return to the inflated values they expressed during infatuation. It is even said as though the other should do this: as though he or she had failed the promise of marriage by letting their values find moral ground again and pursuing their interests where they lay.

This explains, too, why arranged marriages can be successful, and why marriage in Western society – free marriage based on “love” – is a travesty: because couples in arranged marriages never agreed to value the other as an absolute. They were put in a situation and had to make do, so they sought value where it could be found and satisfied their needs in other ways. This is not an affront to either party, because it makes sense: Why would someone value a person for anything other than their good qualities?

Idealized marriage turns this statement completely around. It asks: How can he or she not value me completely at all times? When the other does not anymore – as must happen – that is when adultery – an attempt to recapture that promise of absolute adoration independent of merit – becomes a great danger. Or, simply, a divorce to allow both parties to “find what they were looking for” elsewhere. But it cannot be found, anywhere. No one can offer the mercy of a baseless valuation forever, unless their needs are being fully met in some other way.

Couples that survive drop the ideal. They present enough value to each other that it is worth the time and energy to stay married. Otherwise, it will lead to divorce or terminal unhappiness. After the first few years, one would hope, husband and wife stop beating on each other with the shillelagh of “wedlock”, and start to recognize that value is what value is – and that each person’s needs and capacity for appreciation of it differ. False valuation always comes to an end under the pressures of communal living; it simply requires too much energy to keep up the pretense with little return. The only time it remains imaginable is when superlative value is being offered in other ways. Then the continuing lies might have a pool of energy to draw from, to keep them going.

How to restore a lifeless marriage, then? There is only one way, and this applies to any kind of relationship: Offer more value. There are many ways to do this: find new values, increase old ones, become better, lessen flaws. All of these will increase the quality of a relationship.

What will not work is asking the other party to see value where they do not. Changing a person’s moral compass – that is, how they determine value – is not to be attempted for any reason but re-orienting them toward God. To do it for the sake of a marriage or a person is like asking them to be placed on God’s throne instead. Idols are to be cast out from the temple – not put there intentionally.

So interest may not be dictated. Dull conversation cannot be re-interpreted as interesting. If conversing is dull, the couple will have to do other things to find value. Those other things may even liven up that conversation, in which case it is the value of conversation that has changed, and not the perception of its value by either party.

Hobbies are a good thing in this respect, as well as other friendships. They take the strain off, and make lower levels of value acceptable by satisfying one’s needs elsewhere. However, they do not make the marriage itself more interesting, simply more acceptable. For the marriage to improve, it must find a greater value of its own.

Nothing, I believe, causes a greater increase in the value one offers to others than self-perfection. By the soul’s becoming educated, it grows more beautiful. This imparts value.

The danger in our idealized culture is that one party may become so disillusioned by the promise that was held out to them, that they give up on the marriage altogether. The other person is at fault, and until they receive the absolute valuation they had expected, they are not willing to accept anything else. In this case, even if the spouse offers more value, it is actually an affront! because it only emphasizes why the other is not being valued as they wish: because they haven’t offered enough value.

In this sad state, value itself becomes the enemy because what they wife or husband wants is not value, but proprietary ownership of the other’s sense of value. Aren’t they, after all, entitled to such ownership by the title of “wife” or “husband”? But unless they give up this fantastic demand, no help is possible. What they want cannot be given. The marriage must fail, or become a continual, living misery. Every avenue of survival is cut off, and even what would ordinarily help becomes poison. If the ideal is not given up, it destroys those involved, or their marriage.

If the above is true, then the road to finding a healthy marriage must begin by removing this ideal. Infatuation in the beginning cannot be helped, but there is no reason to believe in every value seen. With this in mind, one can find ways to discover the truth – especially in seeking the counsel of others.

Once married, value alone provides a foundation for happiness, just as with any aspect of life. Both parties must recognize this, and not expect values to appear which were not visible at the beginning. What needs to be known can be seen well before marriage, if one is looking honestly for values he or she is interested in. What that person offers to the other only the other can judge; but if it is not sufficient for them, there will not be the kind of love and cherishing one might expect. It is all about value.

If both parties do recognize and honor value, if they both offer substantial and numerous values to the other, if they know that marriage offers no special rights other than the legal, and if they have no expectation that they will ever be valued in ways they do not deserve – solely owing to the title of “wife” or “husband” – then it is hard to see why it would fail. This is, after all, how all good and lasting friendships are formed.