The Labor of Love

Imagine a man who quits his job and moves across the country for the woman he loves. This act is either incredibly beautiful or incredibly stupid. One critical fact makes the difference: how she responds.

“Love at first sight” only works for those who have not learned the labors of love. For how can one love another when he does not yet know how to love the other? The greatest love is less like a disembodied hook-up and more like one striking image from John Green’s The Fault in our Stars (the tragically funny book, which I saw as a movie and laughed when I wasn’t supposed to—sorry, fellow movie-goers!). The protagonist reflects, “I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.”

A love which is truly for the other is a slow love, because it is a patient love. It does not demand that the beloved immediately open himself until he is ready. And it is a love that constantly adjusts itself as more of the other is revealed. It constantly adjusts its giving according to the beloved’s need. And if the beloved is not prepared to receive love, it will not thrust itself upon the beloved.

You can only “love at first sight” if you’re in love with an idea. Loving a person requires something more. Each person requires a particular love. So if you’re going to love a particular person, you’ll have to learn who that person is, what that person needs, and how you can fit into that. And as the person grows, so will the way you fit into that person’s life. Love is a lifetime work.

This is one reason why I find the contemporary “romantic model” unhelpful in developing intimate relationships. The contemporary “romantic model” is self-oriented, grounding itself in a distorted form of self-gift, a form of “self-gift” that loses its façade when the relationship breaks down. It is a flame on a short fuse. This is one reason why I don’t suggest that gay Christians seek to “sublimate” their desires by simply pursuing same-sex romantic relationships. A boyfriend is someone who can be broken up with, but as St. Jerome teaches, “A friendship that can end was never true.”

This is not to say that friendship should be without affection. It is to say that we ought to be wary in looking to contemporary romance culture for ways of modeling affection. I’m skeptical of the “romantic model” for friendship, because I’m skeptical of this model for any relationship. If more marriages today end in divorce than succeed, why would gay Christians model their friendships off of the relationships preceding these marriages? Something else is needed. I’d recommend this book.

Chris DamianChris Damian recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame and is currently pursuing degrees in Law and Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas. He can be found on Twitter @UniversityIdeas.

11 thoughts on “The Labor of Love

  1. More marriages don’t end than succeed.

    The 50% divorce rate is very misleading. All it means is that in a given year there are a number of divorces equal to half the number of marriages. But those marriages are all from one year, whereas the divorces are drawn from ALL prior years.

    So it really has nothing to do with the probability a marriage will end in divorce (since the population changes). Heck, in a given small town there might be one marriage and two divorces in a given year. This is a 200% divorce rate. But it doesn’t mean anything like that there’s a “double certain guarantee” that you’ll get divorced.

    To get a true “divorce rate” in the sense that people imagine, you’d have to do a study whereby all the marriages from a given year (like 1970) are tracked to see how many eventually end in divorce. This is tough because this number will increase every year until all couples married in 1970 are dead. However, we can estimate pretty well by using past trends and watching how the numbers approach an asymptote as get statistics like “half of all divorces that will take place…take place in the first seven years.”

    By using methods like this you can get a much less misleading statistic, something like “probability a marriage will eventually end in divorce” (which is entirely different from divorce rate, which misleadingly makes a ratio of marriages in a given year to divorces that year from ALL previous marriages). The more helpful statistic reveals something like only a 25% ultimate chance of divorce.

  2. Chris,

    Thank you. This is so true. Romance and Love have little to do with each other. You are so right all over and you are right on target when you say “You can only “love at first sight” if you’re in love with an idea.”

    There is no such thing as “love at first sight” or “soul mates”. All of it is a mirage.

    And this metaphor is perfect: “(romantic love) It is a flame on a short fuse.”

    I do enjoy very much all of what you write. Thank you for you great insight.

  3. I dunno about all this.

    I think there is love at first sight, or at least very quickly. You can say it can’t possibly be love for a person (since you don’t know them), that it must just be infatuation.

    But two things:

    A) humans make subconscious judgments about people with sometimes stunning intuition. Sometimes, if a person already has self-knowledge and a clear picture of their own needs, a first date IS enough to know “this is what I’ve been looking for,” or at least enough to know it might be (and infatuation need not mean more than an excitement at the very possibility that a match has come along at last and clicks). Of course, sometimes it ends in a huge disaster. But sometimes it doesn’t. The point is that interpersonal chemistry, if it’s there at all, will probably be there “from the start.” Yes you can learn to really like someone you got off on a bad foot with, or earn their respect through adversity. But generally…people click or they don’t.

    B) even if infatuation isn’t love in the sense of something achieved through seeing each other’s dirty laundry and negotiating a shared identity and narrative or dynamic as a couple…it can be a HUGE emotional motivator to put in the work required to do so. Non-romantic friendship is great and all, but few people are quitting their job and moving across the country for it. So it’s not “either/or.” Love at first sight might only be “proven” in retrospect IF it succeeds. But that sort of limerent obsession is at the very least a big initial spark or boost to putting in the work required later when things get tough.

    Socrates showed that a lover infested with the “divine madness” was better than one whose motives were more tepidly rational. Posts like this can make you sound bitter and afraid of emotional frenzy in favor of a “safe” model in which people try to jump from the friendzone into romance later, even though if attraction (and yes, a big part is physical) is there, it’s almost certainly there from the start and so whatever courting model one chooses, that premise, wish, desire, fantasy, or at least possibility…will be lurking from the start and informing the decisions made.

  4. Chris, very good thoughts on Love. I particularly resonated with the quest for marriage. I have continued to wonder why one would demand to emulate heterosexual marriage. I also like the notion of slow love that can lead to permanency, where one can truly appreciate the individuation of another soul.

  5. I fancy myself a romantic by nature but I would agree that too often Romance is mistakes for real love. Romance is a condiment to love and infatuation both. Love at first sight is infatuation and that can grow into love though it often doesn’t. One need not fear romance as if it were some sort of monster stealing into your home through the shadows to ruin anything. Like any tool, it can be used for good and evil.

    I would like to meet someone special of the same sex to spend my life with, even if chaste. The words “romantic love” as I have used it shouldn’t be mistaken for romance as the article describes. I am merely using “romantic love” to mean “the same life long unitive love that would be experienced between my sister and her husband, only with same sex partners”. You say that love and romance can be weak and you can break up but I tell you that, having worked in a retirement home, friendships are just as weak and such communities are sick with lonely older folks who have lost friends over the years to death or changes.

    Friendship is fragile and friends come and go. Infatuation is fragile as well. Friends won’t move with you across the country to help care for you while you get cancer treated. A healthy, proper relationship with a life partner will.

    • Perhaps you can write a letter to Pope Francis and tell him about your sentiments? Hearing more from people like you might help him understand people’s lives and hearts even more deeply and aid his ministry. You might even write to a few bishops, particularly the president of the bishop’s conference of whatever country you live in.

  6. A nice piece Chris. I would query though about what the basis is in the friendship model you propose if romantic attraction is to be rejected. It would seem to me that natural attraction, whether sexual or not, is the instinctual and God-given basis for forming bonds with another person. Certainly, other factors come into play, but natural affinity seems to underlie many of the deepest relationships. I believe people with same sex attractions can sublimate their affinity towards the same sex as the starting point in forming deep bonds. I just posted about how these same sex attractions arise in my blog Confessions of a Gay Evangelical Christian.

  7. “For how can one love another when he does not yet know how to love the other?”

    I wonder if there are certain universal ways to love (i.e. deference, posture of humility, etc.) that do not require a deep knowledge of another person. If deep knowledge is always required of another, then my task to “love my neighbor” seems overwhelming at best impossible at worst. How does finitude factor in here? I’m only one finite person, does that mean I can only “truly” love a small amount of other people? Or can I still have a posture of love towards others despite my inability to have deep knowledge of them?

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