A sobering article in The New York Times written by Alain de Botton came out recently, titled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” As the seemingly pessimistic title states, the article proposes that no matter who we end up marrying, we will ultimately find ourselves disillusioned, disappointed and if not unhappy, bereft of the unadulterated joy we had hoped for and downright expected. To de Botton, the remedy for such discouraging news is to denude our culture of the pervasive romanticism that has haunted it for the last 250 years: a collective lowering of the marital bar. Then, with such ringing hopes dulled and diluted, we can better go about our business when it comes to the institution of marriage.
There are obviously elements of truth to the article. In the piece, de Botton discusses the inherent impossibility of any one person to fulfill us in the way we so ardently desire:
“The person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste (he or she doesn’t exist), but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently — the person who is good at disagreement.”
Theologically speaking, this is sound. No creature, no matter how wonderful or beautiful, can fulfill our longing for the original source of wonder and beauty: God. Our desire for such goods are infinite, and creatures in their meager finitude fail tragically to deliver. Still, most of us want to be proven wrong, even if only unconsciously. And the result: we slog blindingly down a path of rampant, romantic idolatry.
Of course, de Botton speaks of marriage as a social institution, not as a sacrament instituted by God. While no marriage will be perfect — and our spouses will disappoint us in ways we lament — the Christian view of marriage does offer a mystical and beautiful dimension that the article fails to touch on. We learn to love through this sacramental “institution,” a love that is responsible for one of life’s greatest gifts: the creation of life. I think de Botton’s article treads closely along the banks of despair, while the Christian understanding of marriage — fallen human beings notwithstanding — is more hopeful.
No one is called to seek perfection in their potential spouse, but there may be a “right person” (or group of potential “right people”) whom God invites us to marry for his purposes. Again, this person is not a flawless mate, but a companion with whom to experience joy, sorrow, love and disappointment while working toward heaven. Not only is this a more hopeful understanding of marriage, but also it’s — rather ironically — a more romantic one. Marriage is much more than a medium for solidifying an emotional high or having our egotistical needs met; rather, it’s something that allows us to love like God does. As hard and burdensome as that can be at times, it’s an understanding of marriage that should prevent us from labeling the gross inadequacies of our spouses, shrugging our shoulders, and muttering, “it is what it is.”
But let’s move beyond marriage, and take a look at that longing for another person to “save us” from the internal throbbing with which we are all familiar. In other words: our loneliness. It’s something many of us don’t often admit to, for by such a concession we are giving light to something that is defective within us. Like revealing a sordid past or a mental illness, exposing our loneliness seems ill advised.
De Botton’s article mentions the tendency for some to rush into marriage because the pain of singleness outweighs the perceived risk of incompatibility. In fact, the sentiment could be expressed as follows: I may be miserable, but at least I won’t be alone!
“We make mistakes, too, because we are so lonely. No one can be in an optimal frame of mind to choose a partner when remaining single feels unbearable. We have to be wholly at peace with the prospect of many years of solitude in order to be appropriately picky; otherwise, we risk loving no longer being single rather more than we love the partner who spared us that fate.”
Coping correctly with our loneliness must be taken seriously, otherwise it can lead to a life of unnecessary suffering and heartache. The writer Olivia Laing, in her work The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, speaks of the tortured relationship many of us have to our loneliness:
“So much of the pain of loneliness is to do with concealment, with feeling compelled to hide vulnerability, to tuck ugliness away, to cover up scars as if they are literally repulsive. But why hide? What’s so shameful about wanting, about desire, about having failed to achieve satisfaction, about experiencing unhappiness? Why this need to constantly inhabit peak states, or to be comfortably sealed inside a unit of two, turned inward from the world at large?”
We have to be clear about the difference between loneliness that flowers from not feeling at home and one that stems from an unhealthy disconnection from others and God. We should seek whenever possible a sense of solidarity and community with others — a spouse, children, friends, and so on — in order to foster a healthy and fulfilling life. Our lives are made more bountiful and blessed through the connections we form with others in love, and we must work to overcome the natural barriers of our sinfulness, fear and flaws to form these relationships. But still, if we are truly made for another home — for union with God in his eternal kingdom — then no matter how wonderful our marriage or family or friends, we should have a prowling sense of unrest. We won’t be able to satisfy that pang of hunger within our souls for complete union with another: of being loved and understood perfectly in every way.
C.S. Lewis recognized this aching and unfulfilled desire — an ache we can safely label a type of loneliness. As he said, we find that our longing for sleep, food, water and sex are fulfilled in this world. And if those desires are fulfilled by some tangible good, then it’s reasonable to believe our longing for perfect love and acceptance can also be fulfilled by some good, though not in this current state of existence.
“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” – C.S. Lewis
While there are surely insights to glean from de Botton’s article — a need to temper our expectations, to not idolize our romantic partners, to accept our spouses’ inevitable failures, flaws and sinfulness with humility — we must remember there is more to the story. Our desire for such a union is not something to deal with through knee-high expectations, but something worth acknowledging as a type of trailhead pointing us toward our ultimate and perfect spouse: God. It’s a grace that keeps us seeking, searching, wondering, never content with the goods on this earth — no matter how plentiful or wonderful.
In this way our loneliness takes on meaning, which can lessen the burdensome weight. It opens the way to greater liberty and freedom: inviting us to stop placing so much pressure on others and focus instead on simply loving and accepting them.
This post was first published at Bishop Robert Barron’s Word On Fire blog.
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