On Lent and Marriage
Lent is a time of fasting. We deny ourselves an earthly good in order to, hopefully, receive a heavenly good. We fast to clear our minds and reset our hearts, to find balance with ourself and with God. Lent isn’t easy; it isn’t meant to be easy. It isn’t easy to say no, to turn your mind and heart toward God every time your flesh desires that earthly good you’ve denied yourself. It isn’t easy to enact your will–to make a commitment and stand by it– especially when you have committed yourself to a fasting.
This Lenten season I am giving up my marriage. I am fasting from my spouse. Let me be clear, I am not ending my marriage; in fact, I pray that this season will deepen and strengthen my marriage. However, for these 40 days my wife and I will be separated, in the full sense of that word. Let me attempt to explain why and how I hope to use this time to better my life, my faith, and my marriage.
Marriage is hard. I’d go so far as to say it is one of the hardest things a human person could endeavor to do. And I don’t just mean “marriage” in its simple everyday sense–two people who live together, are monogamous, and form a family unit. I mean marriage; I mean the commitment and the act of grafting your soul to another soul; I mean the pursuit of unconditional love; I mean the coming together of two people to form one. That kind of marriage is hard. But, I believe that kind of marriage is the most rewarding. That’s the kind of marriage worth fighting for.
Marriage is hard, and for me, that means specifically that being a husband is hard. It’s hard in ways I cannot even fathom. It’s hard in ways I didn’t fathom when I made my vows. It’s hard in ways I could never hope to communicate to you. It is hard. And, to be honest, I’ve failed at it time and time again. I would hope that in the simply everyday sense, I’ve been a pretty good husband. I would hope that the world would judge me at least a mediocre husband. But I’m not sure it would. That’s of little matter, however, because in the deep and true sense, I know that I have failed as a husband. There is no point in listing out my failures here. First, because I do truly believe that all sins are equal, but our minds are built to rank things. I also won’t list out my particular failings because they are mine. I own them. I am responsible for them. Nothing I say and nothing I do will change that. I confess them to God and make amends to man. I take steps to Pharisaism when I confess them to man and make amends to God.
Marriage is hard and I am a failed husband. In my life, at this moment, those two facts have now generated a third fact: my wife doesn’t love me. Again, I don’t mean “love” in a trite sense; we’re talking about deep, meaningful love. And love like that isn’t easy. This form of deep and meaningful love comes when you meet another person, another soul, and you see them. They grant you the ability to truly see them. And when you see them, when you meet them, when you know them, your soul changes. Your soul becomes a little bit more like them. You graft them into your soul and it changes you. Some part of them now is you, is a part of you. This kind of love is hard. It is hard to open yourself up to another person to allow them to love you like this. It is hard to receive another person if they have opened themselves up to you. It is hard to allow yourself to change because of another person. This kind of love is hard. My wife still likes me, my wife is still fond of me, we are still friends; but my wife no longer loves me.
Now, let’s briefly set two things straight. First, I don’t say this to gain your sympathy. 7 billion people on this planet do not love me in this way, do not love you in this way. No one has a right to this kind of love. It is rare and it is given freely. It is never earned and never taken. Marriage is hard and I am failed husband; I have no right to this from her. Second, she is under no obligation to give it to me. She is not “wrong” for not loving me. She simply doesn’t. This is not a matter to be judged or adjudicated; this simply is. We are responsible for our thoughts and our actions, not for our state. Now, our state will factor strongly in our thoughts and actions, but that is beside the point. I am not responsible for being a male, but I am responsible for how I think and how I act as a male. I am not responsible for being a husband, but I am responsible for how I think and how I act as a husband. The kind of love we are talking about is so deep, so low, that it is a state. I am not responsible for being a male husband who loves his wife. I simply am that. What I am responsible for is how I live my life as such a person. And as a male husband who loves his wife, I am responsible for my failings as well as for my successes. And as a female wife who does not love her husband, my wife is responsible for her failings and her successes. But in both cases, the state of our love stands outside of the arena of responsibility. And it stands outside this arena quite simply because we are not in control of it. I have no more control over whether or not I love my wife as she does of whether or not she doesn’t. Actions and thoughts affect our state, but they don’t control it. Certainly, my thoughts and my actions over the course of our marriage have some causal relationship to her current state, but I didn’t cause her to not love me. And certainly her thoughts and actions have some relation to her current state, but again those things did not cause them. There is no simple cause to low-lying states of mind and heart.
So, marriage is hard. I am a failed husband. My wife doesn’t love me. These are facts; these are states. This is the spilt milk not worth crying over (though I certainly have cried, about all three facts). The real question, the real challenge, the real point of this post is, what next? How do I respond? How do I think and act next? And my answers to this question are why I am giving up my marriage for Lent.
I am a computer programmer; I often like to break down complex problems by trying to isolate the constants and the variables. Constants are things that simply are, variables are things that can, have, and/or will change. So, we might say that “marriage is hard” is a constant. That is like a definition of marriage: it is hard. We could also say that “I am a failed husband” is a constant. It is a statement about the past, it cannot change. Likewise “my wife doesn’t love me” is a constant, insofar as it is simply a statement about the present moment. I would say that “my wife’s love” is a variable; that can and has changed. However, the statement “my wife doesn’t love me” is a constant; it simply is true right now. So, are there any other constants worth taking into consideration when thinking about what to do next. I believe so. First, I believe that I ought to continue to love my wife; this is an ethical constant. I believe that full and deep love is unconditional; this is a definitional constant. I believe that all human beings have the authority and autonomy to exercise their own wills; this is an ontological constant. I also believe that God exists and loves me; this is a faith constant. So, when I start to take all of these constants into consideration, it makes how I should respond to all of the variables a bit clearer. But before we get there, let’s take a moment to think through some of the things that are variables.
My wife loving me is a variable; it could change in the future. My wife being my wife could change. Me loving my wife is variable; that could change. Me being a failed husband, that could change (not in a true ontological sense, but in a true practical sense). These are the key variables in this situation. However, in life, most things are variables. Life is flux; things change. And few things are as dangerous to living life well as treating variables as constants (another danger: treating constants as variables). This is, to my mind, the main reason not to “cry over spilt milk”; milk being spilt is a variable. You can clean up the milk. You can buy new milk. You can take care not to spill the new milk. Cry about constants.
So, I feel like I have some sense of what key things are constants and what things are variables. How does that affect my thinking and my action? If true and deep love is unconditional, and if I ought to continue to love my wife, then I ought to love my wife unconditionally. Now, how do I do that? As I hope you sense, this is far easier said than done. I have, in fact, thought this for years. I have believed that I ought to love my wife unconditionally as long as we have been married. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I have never loved her unconditionally. My love always has conditions. I frequently don’t see them in the present, but they always come out, creep to the surface. One of the things I have been wrestling with lately is whether or not loving someone unconditionally was even possible. Am I barking up the wrong tree here? Is this a fool’s errand? My answer today is, no. It is possible to love someone unconditionally, and I really only have one piece of evidence to support that. I believe that we can love someone unconditionally because we love ourselves unconditionally. The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes. I fully believe that I have failed in my role as a husband, yet I still love myself. In fact, it wasn’t that hard. I wasn’t always happy with myself, I wasn’t always satisfied, but I can’t remember ever not loving myself. And the reason seems pretty simple. If love, true love, is the other side of true empathy, then how could we ever not empathize with ourselves? I am me, therefore I understand what it is like to be me. I am in my own shoes, so to speak. And certainly it is harder to love another person unconditionally, but I do believe it is possible. I can’t imagine that it is possible to do all the time, to do perfectly, but what is? I’m not searching for perfection, I’m searching for deeply meaningful love.
My goal in this Lenten season is to come to love my wife unconditionally. That is my true goal. “Giving up my marriage” for Lent is merely the means I am attempting to reach that end. And the reason I chose that means, that path, is simply because I have come to realize one of the deepest conditions of my love: returned love. I feel slighted, I feel wronged when I love and that love is not returned. “That is unfair”, I say to myself (maybe even to others at times); or even, “That’s just plain stupid”. Why give out love for nothing? I’m devaluing my love. I’m selling my stock short. If you want my love, you have to give me something back in return. And when it comes to my wife, what I want back is deep love. I want her to accept me, to see me as I truly am and to accept and love me. I want her to know me, I want her to join with me in living life. I want to become one. I want her to want me. I want it, I need it. And every time I act out of love and I don’t feel that her response is up to snuff, I feel victimized, hell, I feel dehumanized. I have reached out in love, I have tried to see you and to know you as you truly are, and this is what I get in response? Like a petulant child, I cry foul. This isn’t right, this isn’t fair! Well, one of the constants I laid out earlier states that all human beings have the authority and autonomy to exercise their own wills. I also stated earlier that I have no right to my wife’s (or anyone’s) love. It is not owed to me, regardless of what I do or don’t do. Thus, I feel I must give up my marriage for Lent. I must spend 40 days in an emotional desert in the hopes of finding the grace to love without requiring love back. As long as I feel wronged by not being loved by someone, I am utterly incapable of loving that person unconditionally.
This brings me, finally, back to the season of Lent. We Christians spend 40 days in fasting as we prepare for Easter, the day that signifies Jesus Christ’s rise from death. And while I do believe that the variables and constants outlined above, the behaviors and thoughts that I espouse, are true for anyone, regardless of religion or faith, these things make the most sense, contain the most truth, when viewed within the light of the Christian faith. Within that light, we see that there are in fact two instances of unconditional love. Not only do we, as humans, unconditionally love ourselves (“love your neighbor as yourself”), but God himself, incarnated, loved each and every one of us unconditionally. He did not require love in return, he simply loved. He loved fully and he loved deeply. He loved to the point of death. He loved in ways and to degrees that I cannot and probably will never fathom. And yet that is my desire. I want to love as Christ loved. But how? How can I ever possibly hope to love like that? I know for a fact that I will never love in that manner on my own. I’ve tried, and every time I have failed. It is beyond me. I am too selfish, too self-centered; I am too me. I am ontologically, at the core of my being, incapable of giving out love without receiving love. I must be loved. I, my self, my ego, is nothing, is undefined, until I am loved. There is no subject I until there is the object me. My identity, first and foremost, exists as an object in a sentence with some other subject. I can do nothing until He loved me; I am nothing until He loved me. You see (but do I?), I am already loved, I already have all that I need. I can give love to others because I have received love from God, from Christ. I know this. This Lent, I pray that I will feel this. I pray that I will feel God’s love so fully, so deeply, so truly that I can love others unconditionally as easily as I love myself. And so, this Lent, I am giving up my marriage in the hope and with the prayer that by giving God the space, finally, to be the source of my “belovedness” (and not my wife, or my family, or my peers, as it has been in the past), I will grow able to love others (my wife, my family, my peers) as Christ loves me.