“Real marriage begins the day you look across the breakfast table and think, who is that cretin who eats with his fingers and why did I marry him?” a wise pastor said once upon a time. Romance is a small part of a grown-up relationship, and if you can’t live without a constant current of romance, then stick to dating, because you’re not ready for a REAL relationship.
Think about the word romantic. Some of its dictionary definitions include “without a basis in fact; fanciful, fictitious,” “not practical,” “often used in a derogatory manner, with implications of unrestrained sensuousness, vague imagery, lack of logical precision, escape from the realities of life, etc. “ In art, it means an “emphasis on feeling and originality” with less emphasis on realism and detail.
Romantic love – that feeling that you and your partner are one person, passionately sharing thoughts, feelings and time – is merely one phase in an ongoing relationship. It is during this phase that we are dedicated to showing our lover the best part of ourselves. We are inclined, indeed blinded by love, to see only the best parts of them. This “honeymoon” season provides an important foundation for a long term, shared life.
Then the relationship begins to mature, as it should. Reality and its messy details can no longer be overlooked. It becomes clear that the idealized portrait we have of our partner – and of ourselves when we are with them – is in fact closer to fantasy than reality. Our partners are fallen, as are we; inclined to hurt the other intentionally and unintentionally. Routine sets in. Suddenly it’s too much work to hand wash the negligees and the flannel jammies take over. The bathroom is always a mess, someone overdrew the checkbook, and you can’t ever seem to agree about which iPod playlist to listen to. He insulted your mother by mistake. She had the four-day stomach flu. You both forget to call when you’re coming home late. More seriously, jobs are lost, children get ill, parents die, and we get old. Personality traits that remained safely hidden in the romantic phase become our default settings under stress and our fragile defenses get in the way of intimacy. You may feel more like roommates than lovers, or as if you no longer even recognize the person you married.
As my pastor friend said, this is when real relationships begin. The intersection between life events and our humanity create situations that are disconnecting, frightening, injurious and ugly. However, a relationship can be threatened by these events or embrace the opportunity to grow with circumstances. A mature marriage is not one in which painful things don’t happen – it is one that can process these issues, clean up the mess together, repair the injury, and reconnect, despite circumstances and our anxious responses to them. It requires humility and a willingness to be vulnerable in a new way. Commitment to a person and a vow takes precedence over feeling, and feeling is the dominion of romance.
Perhaps, though I am stumbling over the definition of “romance.” If romance means occasionally generating good feelings in a marriage that is fundamentally rooted in reality, then bring on the flowers and champagne. If it’s about creating and sustaining a life that is more fantasy than reality, then romance becomes a shallow substitute for the adventure and commitment of mature love.