I recently heard Ingrid Michaelson’s catchy pop song “The Way I Am”:
It encapsulates the “I love you because you make me feel good about myself” idea that Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage repeatedly refutes (see especially chapters 1 and 3). Keller rejects the contemporary idea that love means finding your perfectly compatible thrill-inducing soul mate:
[S]exual attractiveness was not the number one factor that men named when surveyed by the National Marriage Project. They said that “compatibility” above all meant someone who showed a “willingness to take them as they are and not change them.” “More than a few of the men expressed resentment at women who try to change them. . . . Some of the men describe marital compatibility as finding a woman who will ‘fit into their life.’ ‘If you are truly compatible, then you don’t have to change,’ one man commented.” (pp. 30–31)
It would be wrong to lay on men the full responsibility for the shift in marriage attitudes. Both men and women today want a marriage in which they can receive emotional and sexual satisfaction from someone who will simply let them “be themselves.” They want a spouse who is fun, intellectually stimulating, sexually attractive, with many common interests, and who, on top of it all, is supportive of their personal goals and of the way they are living now. (p. 32)
[O]ur culture makes individual freedom, autonomy, and fulfillment the very highest values, and thoughtful people know deep down that any love relationship at all means the loss of all three. You can say, “I want someone who will accept me just as I am,” but in your heart of hearts you know that you are not perfect, that there are plenty of things about you that need to be changed, and that anyone who gets to know you up close and personal will want to change them. And you also know that the other person will have needs, deep needs, and flaws. (p. 36)
It is possible to feel you are “madly in love” with someone, when it is really just an attraction to someone who can meet your needs and address the insecurities and doubts you have about yourself. In that kind of relationship, you will demand and control rather than serve and give. (pp. 75–76)
What you think of as being head over heals in love is in large part a gust of ego gratification, but it’s nothing like the profound satisfaction of being known and loved.
When over the years someone has seen you at your worst, and knows you with all your strengths and flaws, yet commits him- or herself to you wholly, it is a consummate experience. To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us our of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.
The kind of love life I am talking about is not devoid of passion, but it’s not the same kind of passion that is there during the days of naiveté. When Kathy first held my hand, it was an almost electrical thrill. Thirty-seven years later, you don’t get the same buzz out of holding your wife’s hand that you did the first time. But as I look back on that initial sensation, I realize that it came not so much from the magnitude of my love for her but from the flattery of her choice of me. In the beginning it goes to your head, and there is some love in that, but there are a lot of other things, too. There is no comparison between that and what it means to hold Kathy’s hand now, after all we’ve been through. We know each other thoroughly now; we have shared innumerable burdens, we have repented, forgiven, and been reconciled to each other over and over. There is certainly passion. But the passion we share now differs from the thrill we had then like a noisy but shallow brook differs from a quieter but much deeper river. Passion may lead you to make a wedding promise, but then that promise over the years makes the passion richer and deeper. (pp. 95–96)
Spouses [or non-married couples], out of “love,” can enable destructive behavior in each other. The reason this happens is that we are above all afraid of the displeasure of the beloved. We are afraid that he or she will be angry and say harsh things, and we cannot bear that. This only affirms that we don’t really love the person and his or her best interest. We love the affection and esteem we are getting from that person. (p. 99)
I can guarantee that, whoever you marry, you will fall “out of like” with them. Powerful feelings of affection and delight will not and cannot be sustained. It is quite typical to lose the head-over-heals feelings for your mate even before you get married, because our emotions are tied to so many things within our physiology, psychology, and environment. Your feelings will ebb and flow, and if you follow our culture’s definition of “love,” you may conclude that this can’t be a person you should marry [or stay married to]. (p. 104)
When we first are attracted to someone, we think, “I want it to stay like this! I don’t want to lose this passion.” But as we have said, that ego rush cannot be sustained and cannot take you very far down the road of learning to love the person you really married. To use Lewis’s metaphor, you must let this more immature incarnation of your love “die” if it is to rise again and live. You must stick to your commitment to act and serve in love even when—no, especially when—you don’t feel much delight and attraction to your spouse. And the more you do that, slowly but surely, you will find your more ego-heavy attraction being transformed into a love that is more characterized by a humble, amazed reception and appreciation of the other person. The love you will grow into will be wiser, richer, deeper, less variable.
Sadly, many people never let this happen, because they have accepted the culture’s definition of marriage, and when the thrill wears off, they feel it is time for a change. This view of things leaves married people very vulnerable to affairs, since it is quite natural that you will meet others who are attractive and who will hold out the promise of getting the thrill back that was there in the beginning of your relationship with your spouse. (p. 105)
Western culture tempts us to put our hopes in “apocalyptic romance,” in finding complete spiritual and emotional fulfillment in the perfect mate. Innumerable Disney-style popular culture narratives begin telling life stories only when two parties are about to find True Love and then, once they do, the story fades out. The message is that what matters in life is finding romance and marriage. Everything else is prologue and afterword. So both traditional and Western cultures can make singleness seem like a grim and subhuman condition. (p. 197)
Contrast the pop song above with Andrew Peterson’s “Dancing in the Minefields“:
Related: Tim and Kathy Keller talk about their book on marriage: