Is Love Really Essential to Marriage?
We ask ourselves to fall in love many times, always with the same person.
Posted Apr 07, 2014
The notion that "love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage" is still widespread, but the arguments against it are gaining strength. Addressing such arguments requires clarifying what we mean by profound love.
The Recent Connection Between Love and Marriage
"The older I get, the less time I want to spend with the part of the human race that didn't marry me." —Robert Brault
The prevailing ideal that passionate love is essential in marriage is actually recently new. In her book on the history of marriage, Stephanie Coontz (2005) shows that this ideal became prevalent only about two centuries ago: "People have always fallen in love, and throughout the ages, many couples have loved each other deeply. But only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married.” Coontz further argues that "in many cultures, love has been seen as a desirable outcome of marriage but not as a good reason for getting married in the first place."
Similarly, Pascal Bruckner (2013) argues that in the past, marriage was sacred, and love, if it existed at all, was a kind of bonus. Now that love has come to be seen as essential in marriage, love is perceived as sacred, and marriage as secondary.
Accordingly, the number of marriages has been declining, while divorces, unmarried partners, and single-parent families are increasing. Bruckner notes that love has triumphed over marriage, but now may be destroying it from within.
Considering passionate romantic love as essential in marriage has upgraded the value of marriage, making it a top priority in our lives. It has also, however, made marriages more volatile and uncertain. The issue of whether to leave a marriage in which love is not passionate becomes alarmingly central for many couples, and romantic compromises become a major concern.
Objections to the Connection
"I never knew what real happiness was until I got married. And by then it was too late." —Max Kauffman
There are two major types of objections to considering love as the essence of marriage:
1. Marriage is a framework of living that includes other important factors besides love.
2. Passionate love is a relatively short-term experience in our lives, and so the long-term aspects of love are of greater importance.
The first set of objections indicates that marriage is a social framework that exists within certain socioeconomic circumstances—and that the well-being of the couple requires this fact to be taken into account. The second set of objections suggests that passionate love is unstable, exciting, and brief—and that this is contrary to the stable, routine, and long-term nature of marriage. The combination of these objections leads to the claim that considering love as the essence of marriage is bound to lead to disappointments and romantic compromises.
It is obvious that as a framework of living, there is more to marriage (or to other types of committed relationships) than just love. Getting married should take into account additional aspects—for example, whether a partner is likely to be a good provider and a good parent. Indeed, throughout history, marriage has been regarded as a kind of "deal" that should improve, or at least not harm, either person's status or economic wealth. (For this reason, despite a variety of stories on the Cinderella theme, marrying "below oneself" has typically been infrequent.) Marrying for love may make a person blind to these additional aspects—there's a saying that, "He who marries for love has good nights and bad days." Coontz notes that the Enlightenment gave rise to the view that "love developed slowly, out of admiration, respect, and appreciation of someone's good character."
Socioeconomic considerations are related to all kinds of external circumstances that carry weight in the decision to get married. In our society, it appears that the value of such considerations is decreasing while that of love is increasing. The importance of love for both the establishment and the maintenance of marriage is greatest in Western and Westernized nations, which tend to have higher economic standards of living, higher marriage and divorce rates, and lower fertility rates (Berscheid, 2010).
In light of the general improvement in living conditions in modern society, it's understandable that the value of socioeconomic advantages is given less weight than that of love. However, these advantages have not disappeared—they have become part of the factors that increase love. It is easier for many to fall in love with people who have a higher socioeconomic status; to them, these people appear to be more desirable and therefore sexually attractive. Although the socioeconomic considerations for marriage may be losing ground as more people are able to maintain and even improve their socioeconomic situation without them, external circumstances still influence the decision to form any committed relationship, including marriage.
I believe that all of the above objections can be met once we distinguish between intense and profound love.
Establishing the Connection
"There is no substitute for the comfort supplied by the utterly "taken-for-granted" relationship." —Iris Murdoch
Establishing the connection between love and marriage requires the distinction between the acute emotion of intense passionate love and the different sentiment of profound love. A sentiment does not merely consist of experiencing a given acute emotion repeatedly—it also shapes our attitudes and behavior in a permanent way. A flash of intense sexual desire might last for a very short time, but profound love resonates constantly, coloring our moods, our demeanor, and the way we relate to time and space.
Romantic intensity expresses the momentary value of acute emotions. Romantic profundity embodies frequent acute occurrences of intense love over long periods of time, along with a life experience that resonates in all dimensions, helping the individuals flourish and thrive. Romantic profundity involves shared activities which fulfill essential needs that foster a couple's long-term flourishing. The profundity of a romantic experience is different from how intensely it is felt. A short sexual desire may be more intense than a longer experience of romantic love, but it is less profound.
The above objections to considering love as the essence of marriage are valid concerning the acute emotion of intense, passionate love—but not concerning the sentiment of profound love. In a Psychology Today post on why marrying for love is not wise, Susan Pease Gadoua suggested three reasons:
1. Love is a changeable emotion.
2. Love does not make for a strong enough foundation.
3. Love is far from “all you need.”
I believe that the notion of profound love can persuasively meet these objections.
1. Intense passionate love is indeed a short-term emotion, depending to a great extent on changeable circumstances—but the sentiment of profound love is a phenomenon that can last for many years.
2. It is true that intense, passionate love, limited in scope, does not provide a strong enough foundation for living together for many years; however, profound love, based upon a profound compatibility between two lovers, enables them to share many activities together and to promote their flourishing.
3. Intense passionate love is indeed far from "all you need," but profound love nurtures each lover's flourishing as well as their common flourishing. In this sense, it enables the two to fulfill other needs as well. In this context, Augustine's claim—"Love, and do what you will"—is quite proper. In profound love, all activities will naturally nurture the lovers' flourishing.
Marrying a person on the basis of merely intense passionate love while ignoring, say, the person's low intelligence or lack of kindness may be considered in the short run as a very romantic decision. However, when long-term considerations of profundity are taken into account, the decision will typically prove to be a romantic disaster, involving misery and the feeling of having made a romantic compromise.
Love should have a central place in our life and our decision to marry or enter into other types of committed relationships. However, long-term happiness and meaningfulness cannot be based upon intense passion alone, but should involve profound love, which includes shared activities and profound care and reciprocity, as well as at least a moderate level of intensity.
As Mignon McLaughlin put it: "A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person."
Berscheid, E. (2010). Love in the fourth dimension. Annual Review of Psychology, 61, 1-25.
Bruckner, P. (2013). Has marriage for love failed? Cambridge: Polity.
Coontz, S. (2005). Marriage, a history: From obedience to intimacy or how love conquered marriage. New York: Viking.