As a single woman navigating the world of relationships in the 21st century, I was intrigued by the tagline of yesterday’s Boundless article — “Courting and choosing a spouse in the age of Google.” I quickly clicked my way to the Webzine and found myself reading the opening paragraphs of “What If She’s Not the Right One?” by David Lapp. The article resonated with me on many levels, especially Lapp’s assertion that we have become consumers of relationships.
As one of America’s top marriage therapists, William Doherty notes the market model has increasingly invaded every sphere of life — including marriage. Whether it’s at work, church or marriage, Doherty suggests that “[i]n a generation we have moved rapidly from being citizens to being primarily consumers.” In other words, we’ve moved from being citizens of marriage who ask, “What can I do for my marriage?” to being consumers of marriage who ask, “What can marriage do for me?” The problem, as Doherty notes, is that consumers are inherently disloyal which is why it’s so rare for us to stay at one job for a long time or even to stay in one church for a long time. When one takes that consumer attitude into marriage, the consequences are pernicious. Instead of asking how he is called to sacrifice, he says “I deserve better.”
The consumer understanding of marriage distorts what marriage is really about: a gift of self. Marriage isn’t a supermarket of goods, ready-made for our consumption. If the supermarket down the street stops selling our favorite ice cream, no problem. We buy ice cream at another supermarket. But marriage is a vocation more rigorous — and more heroic — than that of the consumer. It’s more like a garden that calls us to pick up a spade, get our hands dirty and — after much patience and persistence — to enjoy the fruit of our labor. Even then, with growing a garden, sometimes crops wither. But it doesn’t mean we abandon the garden. It just means we plant the seeds again and keep tending the garden.
The culture of casual dating has been criticized for years. Speakers like Joshua Harris and Eric and Leslie Ludy founded their early careers on the promotion of courtship, an alternative to the norm. Teen after teen signed up for the “road less traveled” on the way to relational fulfillment and marital bliss. But the ship that promised smooth sailing turned out to be sinkable after all. Disappointed and disillusioned, we gaze at our floundered Titanic and wonder what went wrong.
In truth, we needed to change some of our methods. But simply shopping at Courting-Mart instead of Date-Way isn’t going to do much good. We need to stop being consumers and, as Lapp says, start becoming lovers.
So how do we get out of the consumer mindset and start loving people? Lapp suggests that we stop seeing people as means and start recognizing them as ends.
(T)he mystery of marriage invites us to adopt a particular orientation in dating, a way of discovering the person — their unique personality, life dreams, character, quirks — that does not reduce the person to a means to our own fulfillment, but encounters those qualities in “Ryan” or “Ashley,” a distinct person who is an end. Rather than primarily seeing Ashley as a way for me to feel good about myself, I see her as a person with whom I can share my life.
Gary Thomas caught his readers’ attention with the subtitle of his book Sacred Marriage: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More That to Make Us Happy? I had friends balk at such a suggestion. We may not want to admit it to ourselves, but many of us think marriage is about me.
So, when it comes time to choose a spouse, we do so subjectively. We think mostly about I. Am I attracted to this person? Do I have chemistry with this person? How do I feel around this person? Can I have fun with this person? Can I accomplish my goals with this person?
Instead of getting to know another person, we get to know me around that person. Rather than looking for someone to love, we look for someone through whom we can love ourselves. And in doing so, we reduce love to narcissism.
Lapp writes that marriage calls us to something more.
(M)arriage calls us to discover the other person. And that process of discovery may involve asking difficult questions about the truth of the other person: “Has Ashley indicated by her character that she will respect the integrity of what marriage is and love me for better or worse, for richer or poorer, until death do us part?” “Has she demonstrated by her conduct that she will be a loving mother to our children?” There is a subtle — yet vast — difference between a discernment that asks, “Will she be a loving wife and mother?” and “Will she make me happy?” The former is a discernment focused on the objective truth about the other person, whereas the latter is a discernment focused on how she makes me subjectively feel. Lovers should ask hard questions of each other and of themselves. But, again, that’s all a part of discovering a person — a person who is an end, not a means to our own happiness.
As Christians, we are called to die to ourselves and live a life of love, for God and for other people. In marriage, we are given the opportunity to display this kind of love daily in the tangible act of living as husband and wife. When we lose ourselves for another, Lap writes, we gain what we were looking for all along.
Marriage is heroic in that it calls a man and woman to give the gift of “I” — a gift so radical that it constrains our choice, but also so creative that it creates a “we” (the one-flesh marriage union) and other little “I’s” (children!). The decision of marriage at once narrows the horizons (you can’t marry anyone else) and extraordinarily expands them (you raise your own family).
In other words, in marriage, we discover another paradox: the paradox of gift. The paradox is that in giving the ultimate gift (our self), we gain what humans throughout the centuries have described as “the meaning of life” (the love of one’s spouse and children). When it would seem that we lose ourselves, we find ourselves.