Several comments on my recent post identified an important question worthy of greater reflection. I wrote, “It [marriage] should only be pursued when there is a strong spiritual, emotional, and physical attraction between two people.” The question: How is a man who is sexually attracted to men to qualify his physical attraction to a woman? Is it tied to spiritual and emotional attraction?
I initially offered the tripartite physical/emotional/spiritual grid for attraction in an attempt to demonstrate that any romantic relationship operates on more than just the physical or sexual level. It seems to me that the nature of attractions themselves are actually much more complicated than this, to the point where trying to make clean distinctions between these three categories may prove problematic. I personally feel this difficulty when I try and describe how my attraction to Christy moved from being primarily emotional to substantially physical, as well as the place that spiritual attraction fit into that process.
In her book Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women’s Love and Desire, Lisa Diamond presents her findings from a longitudinal study of women analyzing the extent to which they experience sexual fluidity. While Diamond’s conclusions are exclusively about female sexuality (often in contrast to male sexuality), she observes that sexual attractions which are inconsistent with one’s orientation typically form in the context of individual relationships that begin as emotionally deep bonds.
To use C.S. Lewis’s distinctions from The Four Loves, here we have a type of philia begetting eros. Friendship forms the foundation for the development of something further. And yet even here we should tread lightly as we seek to distinguish between the loves. The fallacy of the beard reminds us that while we can tell the difference between sexual and emotional attraction, it is exceedingly difficult to define the line where one begins and the other ends.
So back to the question, what amount of attractions ought to be present to move toward marriage? On the one hand, it is impossible to answer this question categorically. Every relationship is different, and so the amount of physical attraction that must be present will likely be different for each relationship. Some relationships may require a substantial amount of attraction in order to compete with what is a very strong sexual drive toward the same sex. Other relationships may function quite healthily without as much attraction because sexual attraction is not the end all, be all of marriage anyway. We often equate marriage to sexual attraction when it is but one part of the picture, and perhaps not even the most important part. Marriages built on mere sexual compatibility are marriages built on sand, at least compared to those built on the more solid ground of deep emotional connection and shared spiritual vocation.
We ought to avoid both errors: the error of elevating the importance of sexual compatibility to the point where it becomes the definitive factor in evaluating the potential success of a marriage, as well as the error of simply assuming “everything will work out” without actually working through the implications of what might happen if it does not “work out.” Based on my own experience and the stories I’ve heard from others in similar situations, the resilience of a marriage has less to the do with initial level of attraction than it does the level of honest communication which occurs either side of the wedding night. A more moderate position might be to say that sexual attractions form one variable among others in evaluating whether or not one may be called to the vocation of marriage. That variable is not necessarily definitive, nor is its application the same in all relationships.
Kyle Keating is a M.Div. candidate at Covenant Theological Seminary and teacher of Bible and Theology at a small Christian school in St. Louis, Missouri where he lives with his wonderful wife Christy. He can be followed on Twitter: @KyleAKeating.