Chick flicks teach people to have affairs. Before you roll your eyes and move on, allow me to clarify. I like some "chick flicks," and romantic love is a good thing. I bring my wife flowers regularly, I take her on dates every week, and I have even watched the six-hour long BBC version of Pride and Prejudice with her. Nonetheless, my point stands: chick flicks teach people to have affairs.
How many movies can you think of that deal with life after marriage? How many of those honor marriage, rather than mocking it or glorifying infidelity? The list is short. How many movies have you seen that deal with dating and falling in love? That list never ends: it is filled with dozens of romantic comedies, dramas, sob stories, and breakup-hookup-breakup-hookup tales that never, ever go a moment past the kiss at the altar. In short, our culture is obsessed with falling in love. It knows little of staying in love, and nothing at all of the pains of committed love.
We should hardly be surprised, then, that people soon grow tired of the relative monotony of faithfulness, that they begin to long again for the thrill of the chase. Mystery and novelty are the guiding lights of our romances; they are all we have ever known. Marriage has neither in its favor, and brings with it the solemn weight of commitment. Little wonder that it is on the rocks; we have no idea how it works—much less how glorious and beautiful it is.
We are witness to a strange convergence of historical ideals about romance and marriage (from late medieval courtly love right up through 27 Dresses) and the opportunity for such ideals to be realized. Modernity affords us the luxury of choice in spouses much as it does in all other areas of life. Our culture is not unique in prizing romance. Unlike other times, though, when romantic love was often idealized but less frequently realized as a basis for marriage, it is now the decisive factor in most decisions of whom to wed. In earlier times, people generally married within their small communities and made a life together. Romance was a perk; financial stability and the ability to carry on the family name were the real necessities.
There were, without question, downsides to this. People often found themselves married to people they did not like, had little in common with, and would never have chosen for themselves. By the same token, these marriages never suffered the illusion that a spouse would somehow provide ultimate happiness and satisfaction in life, and they certainly did not entail the expectation of constant emotional highs.
Few people today are obligated to marry anyone at all. Women in particular are no longer economically shackled, and our world at large is far wealthier and far more economically mobile than that of earlier times. People thus have little or no financial incentive to marry someone they do not like. With the steady march of urban- and suburbanization, they have little geographic incentive either; for most people, an alternative romantic partner is nearly always available. Accordingly, people generally marry for romance.
Unsurprisingly, movies have continually pushed romance to the forefront of popular thought on marriage. This is nothing new; popular media has emphasized courtship and falling in love for centuries. (Read anything from Shakespeare to Jane Austen if you're unconvinced.) Movies are but the latest to take up the fashion. Like the many media before them, they portray the glories (and woes) of romance, courtship and pursuit—but never the very different glories of marriage.
Movies are hardly alone in this. Popular music (from country to hip-hop) emphasizes the same basic approach to relationships and romance. Think: how many songs mention, much less dwell on, the quiet struggles and triumphs of daily life with someone? How many, in contrast, emphasize unfulfilled longing, the insecurity of dating, and the ultimate happy ending of a proposal or wedding? Again, the examples are too numerous to mention; just turn on the radio. The same is true of novels, television shows, and even video games.
Christian nonfiction has been just as guilty of perpetuating this view. I have read numerous books instructing husbands that their wives simply need to be pursued. The art of marriage, it seems, is simply the art of the chase: make your wife feel as though you are seeking to attract her attention as though you just met, and your relationship will be perfectly healthy. Marriage will never be boring, because it will feel just like dating. Infidelity will never tempt—because the same thrills can be had in marriage itself.
The problems with this idea, wherever it is communicated, are significant.
First, this view promotes a deeply abortive understanding of relationships. Courtship itself fits the narrative perfectly, of course: it is the narrative. Boy meets girl, boy and girl like each other, boy and girl flirt, boy and girl get married. The narrative cannot fit the sequel, though: marriage is no longer the object of the relationship. A man is no longer seeking to earn a woman's trust and affections; he has earned them. A woman is no longer seeking to win a man's heart; she has won it.
This is obvious to us in all our other relationships. The beginnings of a friendship are far more exciting than its steady continuation—but most of us enjoy having friends more than we enjoy trying to make friends. We value the commitment inherent in long-term relationships with each other. We appreciate the security in knowing that someone will continue to stand by us as they have in the past. We enjoy having someone who understands us well and values us as we are. Generally speaking, we do not spend our days longing for the rush of finding new friends; we simply enjoy the time we have with our existing friends.
Only in romance do we think that the emotional rush of uncertainty and the thrill of the new are normal. But they are not normal. No one can perpetually sustain the sort of emotion that characterizes the early stages of romantic involvement. Marriage entails a commitment that, at its best, is inviolable, and much of the emotional rush of dating is the insecurity inherent in the absence of that commitment.
However carefully one treads, there is always the chance that one's significant other will break off the relationship and move on to someone else. This may not be a particularly pleasant thought, but it serves to heighten all the emotional aspects of the relationship. Even as low moments are crushing, happy moments cause the heart to soar with hope and expectation.
Further, hope and expectation are two of the primary positive emotions of courtship. They are not primary characteristics of marriage, however. Courtship's hope and expectation are toward marriage itself. Marriage, by definition, has already fulfilled those hopes and and expectations. Various desires remain, of course: dreams of what the future holds, of children and family, and of a happy life together. These are not the point of the relationship in the same way that the hope of marriage is the point of dating, though. The defining characteristic of marriage is not longing but commitment.
Finally, at a purely practical level, sustaining the level of emotion experienced in courtship is impossible. Gestures that once stirred the heart to rapturous happiness now produce contented smiles and tender hugs. We grow accustomed to each other's ways of communicating love. Holding hands may remain delightful and a helpful way to demonstrate togetherness, but it never thrills quite the same way as it did the first time. Much as a woman loves being gently kissed, she will never feel the same rush she did on being kissed the first time. It is well worth the effort to keep these gestures fresh and appreciated. Nonetheless, no amount of effort can maintain the emotional heights of courtship.
These media model for us an entire set of relational expectations which are ultimately unrealistic. Pursuit cannot continue forever. Moreover, it should not: marriage is not a continuous pursuit, but a steady commitment to remain. Marriage cannot thrill as dating (or infidelity) does; obedience to God's word is never as exciting in the moment as sin. The antidote to infidelity is faithfulness, plain and simple and boring though that answer may seem.If indeed the thrill of novelty is not normative for marriage, what is? Are we to throw away romance entirely and content ourselves with dull and dreary days and lackluster love? Not at all. We must, however, begin to reorient our conception of love.
As has often been emphasized, love is not an emotion; it is a choice. However helpful affection is, love shows itself most powerfully when affection is at its lowest ebb. Loving someone when your heart overflows with warm emotion toward them is easy. Loving someone when you are both tired, your days are frustrating, nothing exciting is happening, and then something goes wrong—that is hard. Such moments expose us. They reveal whether we really love each other, or whether we simply enjoy the benefits we have from each other's company. Men and women who love each other will show it a little more all the time, in the worst of circumstances as well as the best.
In large part, the advice offered by the Christian nonfiction I decried above is good advice. The problem is one of terms and the expectations they engender. When the wedding ends, the pursuit ends; what remains is the far less exciting but far more meaningful and important project of remaining. This by no means indicates that the time for romantic gestures has likewise ended—such gestures are a part of remaining well. Wherever we continually set our wills, our affections usually follow. People who start running to exercise often end up as runners. People who pick up a hobby stave off boredom often find themselves outright hobbyists. And people who choose to offer and gratefully receive romantic gestures as demonstrations of love for each other often find that they continue to grow in affection for each other.
Chick flicks can only (and barely) teach us how to begin loving each other. They cannot show us how to continue loving each other. At best, they give us false expectations of marriage as an endless pursuit; at worst, they lead us to hunger for that chase elsewhere. We learn the joys of contentment from watching those who have gone before us, and by practicing it every day. Romantic love is good, but it cannot sustain us. It can only be sustained by real love—the kind that is willing to sacrifice, to stay when it hurts, to endure anything for the good of someone else at great cost to self.