“I was nauseous and tingly all over. I was either in love or I had smallpox.” — Woody Allen
How do you know the you should marry? So far we’ve looked at all of the reasons you shouldn’t marry someone: to feel successful, to find self-fulfillment, or to gain status. But what are the right reasons to marry someone? And how do you know when you’ve met the right person?
I often felt overwhelmed in my twenties by the immensity of this question. How do I know who to marry, given all of the options around me? And what if I choose the wrong person, I thought, and end up stuck in a miserable marriage? Whenever I’d asked older people how they knew whom to marry, they’d politely reply, “You’ll just know,” which told me nothing at all.
As I dated in my twenties, I unknowingly followed our society’s embedded instructions for how to know who to marry: go out with someone you’re attracted to and see who you fall in love with. But after a few heart-wrenching rounds of this, I thought there had to be a better way than this to figure out whom to marry.
learning how to fall in love
“Hey, Mom!” I shouted as I scurried out the door, “I’m going up to the library to read for a bit.” I was in middle school, and had an embarrassing new interest: I loved reading Nicholas Sparks’ books. I felt too ashamed to read them at home around my brothers, so I’d sit in the corner of the library and speed through the pages, soaking up their romantic plotlines as I daydreamed about what it would be like to fall in love.
All of us, whether we know it or not, grow up in a culture saturated with romantic love. Whether it was watching Simba nose-nuzzle with Nala, listening to Taylor Swift sing about her latest crush, or waiting for the Bachelor to hand out his roses, we’ve all been made aware of the importance of romantic love for all of our lives.
Our romantic love culture has drilled into our minds that the best way to choose a spouse is by following your feelings and see who you feel the most love for. Every romantic story teaches us the same principles: if you listen to you heart, it will guide to you the perfect person for you, which you’ll know when you fall irresistibly in love with them. You’ll marry, and be guaranteed to live happily ever after.
how did we get this way?
It’s no accident that we marry this way, but rather the result of Romanticism, a movement among artists and creatives during the late 1700s that rejected getting married for practical reasons, and instead emphasized using your feelings to determine whom to marry. The Romantics believed a person’s feelings were inherently good and pure, and could be trusted to always guide you to the perfect person for you.
The Romantics taught that if you wanted a happy and passion-filled marriage, you needed to trust your feelings and follow your heart. Because of this, romantic love, as these feelings became known as, became the key way to discern who you should marry. If you found someone who you fell in love with, you should get married, and expect these feelings to only grow over time, since true love will overcome anything.
romanticism’s impact today
While most of us have never even thought about Romanticism, we continue to live in a Romantically-influenced culture, which tells us what we should expect to feel as normal at every step of a relationship. So how do relationships work under Romanticism today?
Our romantic culture tells us that when you meet your future spouse, you should instinctively be drawn to them and feel something special. You’ll be instantaneously attracted to them, both physically and emotionally, as a sort of calm and inner peace settles over you. Lots of young people, especially guys, mark this initial attraction down in their minds, later telling at their wedding how, “I knew she was special the moment she walked into the room.”
If you’ve truly found the right person for you, our romantic culture says the dating and relationship process should be not only exciting, but easy as well. You should feel an effortless connection, where you both are amazed at how much you have in common and how easily you’re able to communicate with each other. As the relationship progresses, you be amazed at how great the other person is, and surprise at how smoothly things are going. Whenever you’re together the hours just fly by.
Eventually, if you’re feelings continue to increase, you’ll come to the most important point of a romantic relationship, the moment you profess your love. Romantic love isn’t seen as a choice, but a spontaneous thing that happens to you when you’re around the perfect person for you. You fall into it, after all. The more time you spend together, the more you feel attracted to, passionate about, and infatuated with this perfect person. If they reciprocate your feelings, then you’re officially in love, the greatest feeling in the world.
should we get married?
By this point, both people should wonder: should we get married? Our romantic culture encourages us to decide by again evaluating the strength of our feelings. The indicator of a happy and successful marriage in our culture is how much passion and romantic love you feel for each other while dating. Alain de Botton, who writes about Romanticism and its impact on relationships, says we know we have to marry this person when we feel the following four things about them:
You think they’re amazing.
You can’t stop thinking about them.
You’re sexually obsessed with them.
You want to talk to them all of the time.
If you feel all four of these, you need to get engaged and be married. And so young people, excited for their wedding day when they’ll celebrate with their friends and families that they’ve found love. As you leave for the honeymoon, you can’t wait to spend the rest of your life in this euphoric feeling of love, with this perfect person for you.
the problems with the romantic approach
While every love story differs, this is the common narrative that we’ve been told over and over again in our Romantic culture. There’s a problem with it, though. Real life and a real relationship can never fulfill on all of the feelings that our romantic culture promises to give you. Many young people, whether while dating or marriage, become frustrated and disenchanted with their significant other when they can’t meet the expectations Romanticism has given to all of us.
To be clear, the problem isn’t with romantic feelings, but rather with our culture’s insistence that following your feelings will always lead you to the best for you. God created romantic feelings for us to enjoy, and even put a whole book into the Bible, Song of Solomon, about a passionate love affair between a husband and a wife. Romantic feelings aren’t all bad, but when we treat them as an infallible guide to direct to our perfect, we run into the following problems:
You’ll struggle to find someone who meets all of your romantic expectations: Our romantic culture promises that if you wait, you’ll eventually find your soulmate who meets every one of your expectations. In reality, many young people turn down lots of potential relationships that could be great, just because they don’t meet every one of your superficial romantic expectations. Everyone says they want to get married, but they don’t, because they can’t ever find someone who meets all of their romantic expectations.
You’ll follow your feelings into questionable or unhealthy relationships: While our romantic culture promises that strong feelings can overcome any problem, in reality, they often blind you to major problems in your relationship. When you let your romantic feelings lead you, you’ll pursue relationships with people who have major character flaws or are a bad personality fit for you, all because they make you feel the right way. This might work while you’re dating, but once you’re married it will be exposed, after it’s too late to change.
You’ll choose someone because they’re fun to date, rather than good to marry: Our romantic culture promises that marriage will be a continuation of dating, but in reality, it’s different. It’s easy to fall in love with someone who’s fun to date, only to find out that they don’t have the maturity or character to sustain a healthy marriage over the long haul. Marriage isn’t a 24/7 date, but rather a partnership centered around ordinary life, especially if you have kids.
Your romantic feelings, no matter how strong, will eventually fade away: Our romantic culture promises that if you’re really in love, you’re feelings will last forever. In reality, romantic love isn’t a feeling in your heart, but rather a chemical reaction in your brain that will slowly fade away. During your first few years of marriage your brain will pump out chemicals that give you that buzzy “in love” feeling, but as you grow familiar with each other, you’re brain will chill out, leaving couples perplexed and frustrated: had they fallen out of love?
If you use how the other person makes you feel as your main criteria for marrying them, you are dangerously making a lifelong commitment on the basis of fickle, ever-shifting feelings. Feelings are great, but they’re still affected by sin and can lead us astray. If you choose someone primarily because of how they make you feel, what will happen on the days when you feel the following about your spouse?
You’re amazed at how terrible they are.
You’re tired of having to think about them.
You’re sexually bored by them.
You’d rather talk to anyone else but them.
Every marriage has hard times where you won’t feel over the moon about your spouse. If you choose to marry someone because you feel in love with them, on the days you don’t, you’ll be tempted to wonder, “Did I marry the wrong person?” Marriage can be hard, and if you want yours to last 50+ years, you need to base it on more than how you felt at 25.
so how should you choose?
As I went through my twenties, I followed this romantic script, albeit unsuccessfully, using my feelings as a thermometer to tell me whether I should date someone or not. I kept waiting for that a-ha moment, when things would click and I’d fall in love. But when that moment never came, I began to look around at the marriages I admired and respected. It was then I noticed something that our romantic culture never tells us:
The best marriages aren’t based on strong feelings, but great friendships.
I realized that the healthiest marriages, whether they’d been married four months or forty years, weren’t based on strong feelings, but rather great friendships. These marriages were thriving not because they had the most romantic story, the most passionate dates, or the most beautiful wedding, but because their relationship was built on an enduring friendship. As I watched these couples interact, I observed some key characteristics that marked a great marital friendship:
They enjoyed spending time together, even when they weren’t doing anything exciting. While they still liked romantic dates and fun activities, they enjoyed doing nothing together.
They each felt comfortable being their true selves around each other, and didn’t merely put up with the other person, but actually enjoyed their natural quirks and curiosities.
They spent more time focused on serving and meeting the other person’s needs, than in constantly evaluating how happy their spouse was making them feel.
They weren’t blind to their spouse’s weaknesses and flaws, but still cared about them and were committed to the long-term task of graciously helping them become the best version of themselves.
While every couple’s different, when you get around the best marriage, you quickly see a strong friendship that supports every aspect of them. Romantic feelings will come and go throughout a marriage, but great friendships last. Every relationship has its ups and downs, but if you have an enduring friendship at the core of your marriage, it will act like a mountain spring, causing fresh feelings to bubble up even during the driest seasons.
so how should you date?
When I began to understand the wisdom of building a relationship off of a friendship and not my feelings, it completely changed who and how I dated. Instead of asking “Who will give me the strongest romantic feelings?” I began to ask, “Who could I develop a deep friendship with?” It’s so tempting, yet so dangerous, to develop a romantic relationship with someone you would never be friends with otherwise.
When you think about a relationship or marriage with someone, always look past your feelings and see if you have a friendship at the foundation. While it’s fun to have feelings for someone, if you want to build a strong and healthy marriage, make sure it is grounded on something more. Henry Cloud, a writer and counselor, puts it this way:
Romance is great. Sexuality is great. Attraction is great. But here is the key: If all of those are not not built upon lasting friendship and respect for the person’s character, something is wrong.
Enjoy your romantic feelings, but make sure they grow out of a friendship, and don’t take the place of one. Cloud has two suggestions for how to do this:
Begin every relationship with an eye towards friendship: Don’t allow yourself to fall head over heels for someone romantically until you have developed a friendship with them. Make sure you’ve developed a real friendship with them and have seen their character in real life before you let your romantic feelings run wild.
Get to know the other person in non-romantic ways: Spend time with each other in non-romantic ways, to make sure you actually enjoy being with the other person on the basis of who they are, and not just how they make you feel. If you don’t enjoy doing ordinary, non-romantic things with them,
This doesn’t mean, though, that you have to date or marry a friend even if you’re not attracted to them. That would be an over-application of what I’m saying. While a great friendship is the foundation for a great marriage, romantic feelings are an important part of every healthy marriage, so don’t force something if one or both of you don’t want to be more than friends.
so how do you know who to marry?
It’s easy to follow our romantic culture and marry the person who makes you feel most in love. But if you follow this path, don’t be surprised if you romantic love breaks down. Why? Because at its core, romantic love isn’t about the other person, but rather how the person other makes you feel. This means that romantic love, and those who marry for it, are feeding their own natural selfishness, which eventually makes two people becoming one almost impossible.
The Bible talks about the importance of love in marriage, but defines it differently. Marital love in the Bible isn’t a feeling in you, but rather an action for someone else. When Paul describes marital love to the Ephesians, he doesn’t talk about romantic feelings or an overwhelming sense of attraction, but rather Jesus’ willingness to give up His life to secure an eternal friendship with His bride. When Jesus demonstrated His love for His bride on the cross, He didn’t ask Himself how the relationship made Him feel, but rather acted on the love He had for you.
Real love isn’t always feeling the right way or finding someone who meets all of your romantic expectations, but is rather serving and supporting someone because you care about them so much. Marriage isn’t a celebration of how you feel, but rather a promise to your spouse that through all of the unpredictable events of life you’ll always be their friend.