Romance & Intimacy

In my previous posts I have suggested that marriage was designed to provide companionship in the context of a committed relationship where both parties choose to unconditionally love the other. The fuel for these sorts of relationships is a bit different from our popular culture’s model for happily ever after.

Don’t Settle for Romance…

Conversations with singles who would like to  be dating or married inevitable leads to discussions of what they are looking for. I often hear women talking about wanting to find someone they have a “spark” with. When I have asked  what this spark is, I typically haven’t gotten a clear definition, one of those “you know, spark” answers. I suppose if I watched “The Bachelor” I won’t have to ask the question. When I ask guys I get a variety of answers, typically not as concise as the women, but often it boils down to finding someone they share a romantic attraction with. This is mirrored by a study that looked at how selection criteria for wives changed from 1937 to 2007. According to this survey, the number one thing guys now look for is mutual attraction and love.
I believe our culture’s focus on spark, attraction, romance, chemistry, pick your favorite word, leads many people in the wrong direction, and maybe make it difficult for them to find what their heart truly longs for. Our culture encourages us to look for what I would called natural happiness or pure romance. Pure romance is the idea that we can find our perfect soul-mate, the person that completes us, and once we find that person, everything will be great. We will know when we meet this person, when we have found “true love”, because we will feel it, sense it.  Unfortunately, this sort of love is based in circumstances and positive emotions. While this is a wonderful experience, this pure romance doesn’t have staying power to last a lifetime. The first problem is that circumstances and emotions can and do change. Any relationship based primarily on these things will have struggles, if not fail, as life brings change. Second, these sorts of experiences are subject to what is called adaptive hedonism, or the law of diminishing returns. The first bite of an exotic dish can be amazingly tasty. The 6th bite, while very good, doesn’t have the same impact as the first bite. The food hasn’t lost it’s flavor, it’s that we have gotten used to it. Natural romance works the same way. Of course, it doesn’t fade so quickly. Depending on the study, the intoxicating aspects of romance have been found to typically last between three months and two years. While the length of time varies between the studies, every study shows a drop off after a period of time. Why? Because eventually we get to know a real person rather than being infatuated with a fantasy, a dream. We begin to see  flaws in our love that we original glossed over. We  experience conflict when we want different things. For the relationship to do well, there is a need for something more than the initial romantic feelings. That doesn’t mean that after a few years marriages will be dry or romance less.  It means that romance will need a more substantial fuel to continue to burn hot.

… Seek True Intimacy

I would like to suggest that rather than asking “Who am I attracted to?” a better question is “Who is, or who do I think will become, my best friend”. Look for someone who is a kindred spirit. Someone cares about you and the things that are closest to your heart. Start by looking for a friend. Romantic feelings will come and go, but a friendship, true intimacy can not just survive, but grows throughout a shared life.  In many cases, if there is intimacy and a desire for romance, the romance will bloom as well. If not, you have a life long friend. I think that the Kellers’ made this point better than I could in The Meaning of Marriage:

I’m not saying that you should marry someone when you feel no attraction. The Bible does indicate that your spouse must be more than your dearest friend, but not less. Most of us know that there is some truth in the stereotype that men overvalue beauty in a prospective spouse and that women overvalue wealth in a potential mate. But if you marry someone more for these things than for friendship, you not only are setting yourself up for future failure—wealth may and sexual appeal will decrease—but you are also setting yourself up for loneliness. For what Adam in the garden needed was not just a sexual partner but a companion, bone of his bones, and flesh of his flesh. If singles accepted this principle, it would drastically change the way people seek a marriage partner in our day.

It is typical for a single person to walk into a room and see a number of people of the opposite sex and immediately begin to screen them, not for companionship but for attractiveness. Let’s say three out of the ten look appealing. The next step is to approach those three to see what rapport there may be. If one of them will agree to go out on a date, and you get romantically involved, perhaps you’ll see if you can turn that person into a friend as well. The problem is many of your best prospects for friendship were likely among those you ruled out because they were too tall or too short, too fat or too skinny. We think of a prospective spouse as primarily a lover (or a provider), and if he or she can be a friend on top of that, well isn’t that nice! We should be going at it the other way around. Screen first for friendship. Look for someone who understands you better than you do yourself, who makes you a better person just by being around them. And then explore whether that friendship could become a romance and a marriage. So many people go about their dating starting from the wrong end, and they end up in marriages that aren’t really about anything and aren’t going anywhere.

I have repeatedly watch a funny pattern among college students. There will be a girl and a guy who are good friends, often best friends. If you would ask them, there is no romantic attraction, they are just friends. While their friendship develops they are often dating other people and will  ask the other for advise with their love life. One day, one of them will wake up and realize that while they have felt attracted to other people, there is no one that they trust or care for more than their friend. All of a sudden they realize what a gem they have, what a great friendship they are enjoying, and realize that they would like more. Yet there is a fear, what if the other doesn’t feel the same way. They worry that they might lose the friendship if they reach for more. Often this realization happens as they are considering dating someone else. One day they are asking their friend for advise about a person they are attracted toward, and the next they are asking their best friend out for a date because they realized there is no one they would rather be with. I have seen many marriages start this way, though this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes nothing is ever said, they go through life as good friends and many people wonder why they never dated or married. Sometimes they will talk and realize that while they are best friends, that’s as far as it will go. Maybe the interest is just one way or they feel called in different directions. Maybe they see areas in life, or fundamental values that would prevent them from enjoying a rich marriage. Talking with someone about changing a friendship into a dating relationship is awkward and can put stress on the friendship. If both people are honest it doesn’t have to damage the friendship so long as both are willing to be content with what is mutually agreed to.

I had the privilege to experience real intimacy, deep love in my relationship with Libby who died last year. Through our dating and marriage there were times of intense romance, were we both felt that intoxicating attraction and pull toward each other. There were also difficult time, especially early in our marriage when we both struggled in our personal lives and with each other. During this time even the slightest spark of romantic attraction departed. But the story doesn’t end there. I also saw the sparks come back and turn into a blaze as we healed and turned toward each other, cherish one another. The times we were deeply, romantically in love were wonderful, but even the best of those moments don’t hold a candle to the times where deep, abiding love was seen and responded to as we connected and worked through difficult issues. When Libby offered to sacrifice her happiness to stand by me, even if I was about to do something stupid, and I responded, change my mind, we both experiences deep intimacy, joy, love. As I cared for Libby in the last days of her life, and she barely had the energy to smile, we both experienced a profound sense of love, connection. I wouldn’t trade that last week, painful as it was, for the most “romantic” moments we shared. It might sound odd, but I can’t express how much I felt loved, by being able to take care of Libby in those last days, knowing there was nothing Libby could do for me in this life. I think finding the true romance, deep intimacy, is beautifully captured in Sarah Groves song A Different Sort of Happy. Of course, how we seek intimacy has a great influence of whether we find it. I have suggested in another post that your perspective in dating will effect whether you will find the intimacy you seek.

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.  — Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

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