Thursday, March 27, 2014

Friendship, Romance, Marriage, and the Journey of Love

Romance. It’s what drives American movies. It captures the heart of our western minds. We want romance. We want to be desired by a significant other. We want to be pursued. We want to feel “in love.” Traditional societies don’t work like that. I recently spoke to a friend of mine, a missionary in Africa, about the traditional culture he serves. “They don’t have any concept of romance as Americans would understand it,” he said,  “‘Why would you want that?’ they wonder! Love to them is utilitarian. You marry to get work done and have children. You don’t marry for romance. It doesn’t make any sense to them.” It caught my attention.

In December my wife had a heart issue that sent her to the hospital in an ambulance with difficulty breathing. She’d nearly passed out on her job. Her speech was slurred. Her blood pressure was super high, and her heart was racing. I received the frantic call, with that description as I remember it, from my oldest daughter while sitting in an airport, of all places. (One of these days I’m going to make a post of airplane/airport stories) The point of the call was pretty clear. “Dad, this may be the end.” My first thought was, “Oh, no. What I feared, is happening to me. It’s happened to one of my friends. Now its happening to me. What will I do?” That’s a totally selfish response, I’ll admit it. I thought I was going to be single again, and it wasn’t pleasant. Very dark. Fortunately I got a grip on myself and started thinking rationally. Reactivity is never helpful. It wasn’t a false alarm because there really are issues and, at this posting, we still don’t know what they are. But Jan is very much alive and has been allowed to cross country ski, etc. so it can’t be all that big a deal—we hope. One of my life long friends wasn’t so fortunate!  

It’s been on my mind ever since and made me ponder marriage, lean into Jan, and appreciate the gift of life. So while I actually try to fuel the emotional side of our relationship (I really do, believe it or not), it’s not really romance in the sense that western people seek romance. It’s the romance of choice. It’s rooted in more than a feeling but definitely involves wonder and emotion. It’s the choice to love another person really really well over the long haul. After years of marriage, while the romantic and emotive side of things is still a reality, it’s tempered by reality, familiarity, and sometimes fatigue. Let’s face it, its exhilarating but exhausting to operate on a romantic kind of emotional level for a long long time especially when there are children involved. Loving well doesn’t have to be romantic—I want to love lots of people well and I don’t want it to be romantic with them all—which is probably a good thing. But I do want to nurture the emotive side of my marriage relationship.

I think Christianity actually lends itself to that. Here’s why: Christianity uses the joy of a wedding to describe the consummation of the relationship between Christ and the church—the bride groom and the bride—at the end of the age as we know it. It’s the start of something really really good that gets increasingly better over time. Weddings are romantic. Everything is so fresh, so alive, so full of joy and future hope and love and emotion and fun and the expectation of fulfilled desire, etc. Now that’s romance! So marriage, and frankly all of life, lived under the Christian gospel actually points to what romance is and what it can be; the celebration of a life that flourishes over the long haul as it should. Furthermore, marriage lived under this gospel, will be full of grace, forbearance, and forgiveness, all of which lends itself to romance. It’s life giving to have someone say with total sincerity, “Hey, you screwed up but that’s okay. I mess up to and I love you anyway.” That can be said in a cheesy, or even false, way which stifles romance, friendship and love, but when said with integrity, it does something to someone. It’s life giving, which leads to deep emotional attachment.

Furthermore, marriage as it’s supposed to be, points to what our relationship with God is supposed to be. I believe that this theology lived out, over the long haul, can feed romance in a marriage because marriage is a pointer to God. So while we are far from perfect, it tells us that there’s a lot more to come and motivates me to discover it, to pursue it, to seek the wonder of it all at all costs in the life of my spouse. So while the freshness of new love may be absent after ten or twenty or thirty years of marriage, the challenge to love deeply, and plumb the depths of another person’s soul can always be fresh to the brave soul who wants that kind of joy. It will take a little work, and creativity, but it can happen. And, that is motivated by the future reality of Christ’s kingdom—the ultimate marriage. It’s thought provoking.

Here’s some things to create romance in a marriage. This will also work on the development of deep friendships that need not have all the bells and whistles of a marriage:

1. Look for the fresh and the new. To plumb the depths of another person’s soul and personality will always be new. There’s just too much there. Look for it. 

2. Be others absorbed, not self absorbed. This means you treat “the other” as primary, not secondary, in your life.

3. Laugh a lot. Look for the humor in the relationship and celebrate it. 

4. Be generous with praise and gratitude. No one likes to be critisized all the time. There’s not a person on the planet who is perfect or doesn’t struggle with things. Overlook it. Be forbearing and forgiving. 

5. Celebrate the past but look forward to, and plan for, the future. You can’t live in the past but you can celebrate the joy and beauty of the past! My experience is that when people just live in the past, its like an anchor around their present and future relationships. 

6. Own your stuff. Be aware of your issues and work on them. Quit blaming your stuff on others. Really! Stop it. It will kill a marriage or a friendship.

7. Get creative and try to surprise people. I’ve been able to do this over the course of my marriage and frankly, even as a young man I did it in dating relationships and even just ordinary friendships. Planning surprise outings, vacations, and get togethers that are creative is a lot of fun and builds deeply into a friendship. For the life of me, I don’t know why people don’t do this more. 

8. Keep your promises. If you say, “Hey, I’ll call you.” Then call. If you promise to do work around the house, do it. Integrity goes a long way towards building a marriage and a friendship.