I’m reading a book by G. K. Chesterton called “Orthodoxy.” It’s a very philosophical book, a work-out for my mind, and like the best exercise it is both difficult and enjoyable. It is also, I confess, not the place I expected to gain any insight into feeding and nurturing the romance in my marriage.
And yet…there it was. In laying out the purposes and direction of his book (which is primarily a defense of his Christian faith), he touched on a broad definition of romance that – without doing violence to his meaning – I think applies at an individual level as well.
“I wish to set forth my faith as particularly answering this double spiritual need, the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance…. nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and and idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.”
This struck me as particularly insightful and relevant to conversations my wife and I have had recently, about the growing challenge – after fourteen years of marriage – of keeping various aspects of our relationship fresh. Of finding new things to do together, new challenges to present for ourselves, new goals to set. There is nothing wrong with our relationship; as a matter of fact, I find it to be more satisfying and delightful than I ever imagined marriage would be. Yet still, there was a desire in us to keep infusing it with a healthy vitality and newness.
Chesterton, in describing romance from 10,000 feet (philosophically speaking), also seemed to have pinned it down to the ground precisely. This desire, that our marriages “combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome,” brought into focus an important part of what we all mean when aspiring to “build into our marriage” or “strengthen it” or “bring it to maturity.”
We need both parts. A relationship that is always and ever “strange” and “unfamiliar” is like the twenty-something that goes to a bar every Friday looking for a weekend bedmate. Morality aside (and this twenty-something has certainly put it there), there is no denying the wonder and excitement of this person’s Friday and Saturday nights. Nor the unsettled feeling they have at finding themselves a sometimes-homeless wanderer: clothes here and there, an apartment that is either often abandoned or often invaded by strangers, the task of “getting to know” one’s partner over and over again as each new face presents itself.
Alternately, a relationship that is always and ever “comfortable” and “familiar” might be the couple who has been married for thirty years and find that the routines and expectations of their lives together have worn a very deep rut into which nothing unexpected ever falls. Just as we cannot watch the same movie over and over – no matter how excellent it might be – or read the same book time and time again, our human brains are wired so as to need a healthy sprinkling of the new and novel. Otherwise boredom sets in. It may be a very welcoming, comfy-cozy type boredom, but certainly not a satisfying one.
I think this idea of wonder and welcome is a healthy pursuit for marriages at whatever stage. For the newly married, all is fresh and fun…and sometimes awkward and unsettled. Their plows are running furrows all over the field and happiness will increase as the lines get straighter and more predictable. For the long and successful marriages, those which we most admire, the grooves are deep and cool and pleasant, but need the soil to be turned over now and again.
For those of us in the middle, I suppose the challenge to maintaining a healthy marriage is transitioning from one end of the spectrum to the other. We would do well to pay close attention to the romance in our home, that it might continue to be a healthy “mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar.” And that, I think, sounds terribly satisfying.