Happy Valentine’s Day. Four years ago, as I was eating my breakfast in a hotel lobby, I was reminded that it was the weekend we celebrate love and fill the pockets of the folks at Hallmark. A fifty-something husband enthusiastically called his wife away from the cereal bins and back to the table where he was sitting in front of the large-screen television. “Come watch this!” he said. He not only redirected his wife’s attention, but mine as well. I looked up from my paper and watched Hoda Kotb’s story on the making and debut of her “Little Romance” music video, featuring singer Ingrid Michaelson.
In a world where music video typically focuses on equating love with sexual activity, this one was a breath of fresh air. There was no entitlement, sexual bravado, explicit lyrics, objectification, or misogyny. Instead, what I saw was a fascinating and refreshing more-accurate take on love as a group of elderly fifty-plus-years married couples continued to act on the commitments they had made to each other so many, many years ago.
From my vantage point at my table, I was not only able to watch the video, but the husband and wife at the other table. Something told me that their marriage is one marked by commitment. They smiled and kept exchanging glances as they watched. And when the “Little Romance” video had ended, the wife wiped tears from her eyes.
The contrast between our understandings of love, sex, and marriage both then and now are striking. I wonder if fifty-plus years from now the pool of candidates for a similar music video will be markedly smaller? That’s probably a safe assumption judging from the different cultural narratives different generations are following.
We need to correct the cultural script for love, sex, and marriage. At the time, I was working through Jonathan Grant’s book, Divine Sex: A Compelling Vision For Christian Relationships in a Hypersexualized Age. Grant does a great job of unpacking where we’ve been getting it wrong, along with how the Author of love, sex, and marriage guides us to get it right. Grant says that the way we view and live out love, sex, and marriage in today’s world is largely dictated not by our commitments to God, but by our commitments to being individuals who are authentic to ourselves (“expressive individualism”). In other words, we endeavor to be true not to the Scriptures, but to our deepest feelings and impulses.
Grant says it this way. . . Living in an age of authenticity has placed heavy burdens on intimate relationships and has left couples striving to build security and meaning on its hopelessly weak foundations. Because of our culture’s move away from transcendence, or a belief in God as the source of reality, we have come to place the full weight of our personal identity on ordinary life – our material here-and-now existence. Rather than becoming free and expansive, our relationships have become narrow and constrained, having no purpose beyond themselves. This exclusive focus has seismically destabilized them in two ways: (1) the burden they bear becomes overwhelming because of the expectation that all of our psychological, emotional, material, and sexual needs will be met by one remarkable soul mate, and (2) the very bond we crave is undermined by the inwardly focused nature of the “authentic” self. We do not so much give ourselves to a relationship as expect the relationship to give to us.
Our most intimate relationships are looked to by each partner as a primary source of happiness and self-actualization, measured in narrow terms of personal gratification. Am I getting what I need from this relationship? Does it make me happy? Do the benefits outweigh the costs? The assumption is that a relationship may last until death if it continues to fulfill each person, but to make a lifelong commitment at the beginning makes no sense. The cruel irony is that contemporary men and women view intimate relationships as essential to their personal identity, but they struggle to commit themselves fully to those same relationships. We can only find genuine personal meaning by making strong commitments beyond ourselves. Because relationships are no longer seen from a transcendent perspective, they are divorced from any greater purpose than one’s own happiness and intimacy.
Tragically, Grant’s analysis is spot-on. This is how our kids are learning to live and “love.” This is how our kids. . . unless corrected. . . are going to live and “love.”
One of the most fascinating bits of information communicated by Grant in Divine Sex is some insight into the nature of romantic love as described by anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has observed that romantic love has been an essential part of every civilization we know of. Could it be that romantic love. . . understood and practiced properly. . . reflects the shalom of God’s created order before the fall? Certainly. Genesis speaks clearly to that reality. Because of that, Fisher’s insights are extremely helpful. Fisher says that there are three distinct stages of attachment in intimate relationships that can be tracked through neuroscience and brain scans. When understood within the context of the biblical order and design for love, sex, and marriage, Fisher’s stages are helpful and something we need to explain to our kids.
First, there is the obsession of early romantic love. Remember that? I sure do! This stage is one of infatuation. When people in this stage underwent brain scans, it was discovered that falling for someone impacts the same brain centers as cocaine, and with similar intensity. This stage has a short life span. Sadly, when we equate infatuation with love, we set ourselves up for disappointment and then “fall out of love” very quickly.
Second, there is the stage of sexual intimacy. While the cultural script encourages us to indulge our sexuality without borders and boundaries, the biblical script calls us to indulge our sexuality within the context of the covenant of marriage. It makes sense then, that God gave us the gift of sex to create and strengthen the “spiritual-emotional attachment” and the strong physiological attachment that also occurs. Fisher says that this is why we need to understand that there is no such thing as “casual sex.” Two become one flesh. . . just as God intended.
Finally, there is the stage of deep emotional attachment. Fisher describes this as the deep sense of peace, warmth, and security we can feel with our spouse.
If we mistakenly believe that Stage 1 is what it’s all about, we are only setting ourselves up for failure and disappointment. . . over and over and over again. Sadly, we see that happening all around us. But for the couples in the “Little Romance” video and scores of others like them, their unwavering commitment (even in the face of the difficulties that are sure to come when two broken people commit themselves to one another) is the glue that cements them together for life. And with commitment present, they are able to grow in their love by God’s grace, realizing that when things might start to break, they work to fix their marriage rather than throw it out.
The question for all of us and our kids is one that Grant asks: How do we envision practices and habits that help to foster fidelity rather than enslavement to the recurring cycle of infatuation?
We can start by knowing the cultural narrative on love, sex, and marriage. Then, we can offer the liberating corrective given to us in the Scriptures. That’s what’s needed to teach ourselves and our kids to love well to the glory of the One who loves us and has given us the gift of love.