Common Wisdom: Won’t You Be My Valentine?

The other day, searching around on my shelves for a book old enough to seem new to me, I opened one and met a letter from a long-ago boyfriend marking the page. Moving down the shelf, I lifted another book and found a letter from another long- ago boyfriend serving the same purpose.

Romantic missives from my past do not litter my library; these are the only two I’ve ever met up with. But the conjunction of these two encounters, each sending up a pale bouquet of sentiment from the past, set me musing on what life would have been like — and what I would have been like — under such different circumstances.

The astonishing thing about “two becoming one flesh” is how true it is, despite the superficial frictions of a marriage. In the midst of life’s daily annoyances, assailed by the same habits or facetious phrases or uncongenial cinematic tastes of one’s spouse, it may seem that no more mismatched pair ever existed. And yet, sometimes even at those very moments, a husband and wife become conscious of how well the two of them have grown together, how much their marriage resembles a pair of shoes worn to fit the shape of two feet. Even a couple’s problems are, well, their problems, suited to them, familiar, almost congenial. It’s not that they are pleasant to deal with — at times one regrets most their nauseating familiarity. But, like our own individual faults — like the petty commonplace sins we confront in confession — they seem scaled down to our level. We have taken their measure; they are like an opposing general we have met often in battle.

When I try to imagine what life would have been like with someone else at this point, at this stage, with children my children’s ages, I am strangely at a loss. It seems strange that someone I once knew and loved and fretted about could be such an unknown quantity. Yet that is where the mystery of marriage and of growing together comes in. We would have changed each other. We would have let ourselves be changed — not against the groove of our characters, true, unless something had gone badly wrong. But one’s character allows for a wider latitude than one realizes.

When I consider how deeply and continuously a husband and wife alter and adapt to one another, I understand why so many people, out of fear, I suppose, delude themselves with talk of the inviolacy of the individual. My husband and I have affected each other in matters of politics, religion, music, the news items we take note of, food, and the uses of leisure time. We change each other even — perhaps especially — in areas where we started off close together.

Some of the people I used to date I thought I knew rather well. Yet when I try to imagine how they would have reacted to some household crisis or child-rearing problem, I am guessing without much conviction. But then, I didn’t know very much about how I would react to this or that child-rearing crisis back then either. Like most people, I was taught what I thought about child-rearing by my children — and by my husband, just as he has been influenced by me. Because we learned together, we also taught each other. If either the spouse or the children had been different, the lessons would have differed here and there too.

Parenthood is a collaboration rather than an independent project. What one does and how one does it depend heavily on where and in what way and to what degree one is supported or encouraged. Because I will never walk through parental on-the-job training with anyone else, I understand how nonsensical conjectures about “what if?” are. Introducing another person would introduce so many variables that there wouldn’t remain enough constancy for comparison.

What if I had married someone who had a different job and came from a different background and introduced a different gene pool and. . . . To know yourself as a partner in a marriage is to realize how different you could be under different circumstances without breaking out of the continuum we call “being yourself.” I could retain most of the same tastes, talents, enthusiasms and convictions and still live my days very differently from the way I do now, just as one does at different stages of one’s life.

I used to have very ethereal notions about the way married people help or hinder each other in their progress toward heaven. Now it is plain to me how routinely and continually spouses make each other and themselves better or worse or different. It is not that they set examples for each other in some abstract instructional sense. Nor do they often explicitly preach or expostulate — nor do they do much good when they do! But continually, unconsciously, and almost helplessly they undermine or reinforce, encourage or discourage, inspire or corrupt or sap the moral strength of one another. They are two poor skaters pulling one another down and holding one another up. They are tied together like contestants in a three-legged race — useless to talk of dependence or independence; they constitute “one flesh” as a couple. If one hinders or helps the other, he is hindering or helping the whole, the marriage, the married couple — a thing both separate and identical to himself.

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis painted a striking picture of friends as people side by side gazing at a common object or interest that unites them, while lovers face one another, absorbed in one another. Marriage moves young lovers to diversify from that single-minded absorption in the other. Each looks to the other still, but a third entity has been introduced, the union itself. A husband and wife think not “just” selfishly of themselves or selflessly of the beloved, but with a blend of selfishness and selflessness of this thing the two of them make up together. When you are married, you have the two of you (and, strong cement, your children) in common. Even in pre-romantic eras of arranged marriages, this thing the two spouses built up simply by living and breathing and working and aging together — working on each other like ingredients in a recipe — usually proved strong stuff.

This is why divorce is so wrenching. It is not only the admission of failure or rejection. It is the separation of people who have profoundly, however unsatisfactorily, grown together like Siamese twins. The modem efforts of married women to remain pointedly independent, financially and intellectually and emotionally, from their partners, as a cushion against failure, are inimical to marriage. Either they “succeed” by preventing a genuine marriage from forming, or they provoke a crisis fatal to the marriage. This is because moderns confuse the accidents — financial independence, separate friendships, time alone — with the substance; they aspire to an existential independence that would allow each ego to float in suspension around the other.

To try to cheat that process, to try to hedge one’s bets, is to deny the meaning of what one does on the wedding day. There must be a submission not perhaps of the will but of mere willfulness, a relegating of your obstreperous private preferences, not to second place behind your mate, but to second place behind the unity the two of you are achieving or have pledged to achieve. How else can marriage be an image of Christ and His Church?

That is why the scorekeeping approach to marriage, the contractual approach that jealously watches the spouse for evidence of failure to live up to his end of the deal or harps on one’s own brownie points, misses the point of marriage. If two are attempting to become one flesh it is distracting to keep announcing which bits of the composite belong to which of the pledged partners. Harping on what-I-did/what-he-didn’t-do forces attention on the separateness and even the isolation of the partners. It misses the point, and threatens to make the married couple miss the boat.

All spouses are guilty of some of this. We are not perfect creatures even in combination, and at best we are all-too-inferior reflections of Christ and His Church. When we think we have been most thoughtful and self-denying, that is likely to be when our spouse feels least appreciated and loved. Because then we are concentrating on ourselves and exalting our marital performance implicitly or explicitly over that of our spouse. Never mind. There’s plenty of time — a shared lifetime of time — to work on that and all other barriers to the union we have chosen.


Ellen Wilson Fielding is a writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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