My teenage daughter is very interested in the question, “What is love?”
Well, aren’t we all? She’s heard that love isn’t just a feeling, but then what is it—what kind of thing? I first floundered around with some disastrously hippie-dippie-sounding definitions: love is a force, an energy, a power. Then I overcompensated for that vagueness by making it sound like all love is tough love: love is a decision, love is doing the right thing even when it feels bad. True, but woefully incomplete.
Finally I gave up trying to tell her what kind of thing love is. Instead, I said, let’s focus on what love does.
Love moves outward. Love overflows. Love refreshes. And love is creative—it makes something new. The love the Persons of the Trinity bears for each other is creative: God is love, and so He made the world, so there would be more love, more to love. I told my daughter that true human love is always a small reflection of this divine love.
Then I wondered, how do my husband and I measure up? We’ve all heard that a couple is happy when each person fills in where the other lacks: where one person fails, the other steps up; where one excels, the other makes way. Sort of a jigsaw puzzle view of marriage, where the whole picture is revealed only when all the pieces are locked into their proper spots.
To some degree, this is how we do work: I’m good at some things and lousy at others, and he’s lousy at some things and good at others. If one spouse is willing and able to be in charge of a certain task, then, in the words of Bugs Bunny, “Iggity-aggity-oo. . . it’s YOURS.” This system works as long as one spouse isn’t significantly lazier or more selfish than the other. (Lucky for us, we’re both extremely lazy and selfish, so it’s fine.)
But I’m starting to realize that the parts of our lives that run the smoothest, and which seem to get better and better, are the parts in which we don’t stick to our assigned seats. Making decisions about our children’s upbringing is one of these areas. It used to be that I was the one who was constantly saying, “What’s the rush? Why push these kids? How will it hurt them if they don’t do such-and-such for another few years?” And it used to be that my husband was constantly saying, “This is so cool! This is so awesome! The kids will LOVE it—let’s do it NOW!”
Typical male and female stuff, right? And we could fill in each other’s gaps when necessary: I’d push for prudence where he was hasty, and he’d push for courage where I was fearful. But this issue, it turned out, was about more than a mama’s idea of raising kids vs. a daddy’s idea of raising kids: it was about how husband and wife relate to each other. In other words, it was about love.
Sure, I had my kid’s best interests at heart—but there was also the tiniest whisper: “I don’t trust you. We both know you will ruin our children unless I keep a close eye on you. These are my kids, and you better not mess them up.”
Pretty much the worst thing you can say to a man.
And he had our kids’ best interests at heart, too—but there was always the hint of, “Ugh, the last thing I want is for them to grow up to be someone like you! I mean, I can tolerate you, but let’s break this cycle of snobbery and prudishness before it rubs off on my kids.”
Pretty much the worst thing you can say to a woman.
We weren’t even conscious of sending these subtle messages, but they did their damage. But gradually, over the years, we started to learn how to love. As we did, we both began to bend a little—to stop trying to change or work against each other, and instead to look for value in traits that were foreign to us. And in doing so, we both have changed—and we’re both better parents because of it.
Now I’m often the one who pushes, and he’s the one who wants to think twice. But our disagreements aren’t contentious—they’re almost pleasant, as we feel our way forward in foreign, interesting terrain. We’re both facing the same way: not squared off against each other, but standing side by side, squinting into the light, pointing out different landmarks on the horizon, trying to figure out the best road to take.
It’s not just that we both give a little, and have learned to switch places in some areas: it’s that the two of us are so intimately tangled up with each other that we’ve become something that didn’t even exist before we were married. That “they shall be one flesh” line? That wasn’t just a pretty thought, any more than it’s just a cute image to say that hydrogen plus oxygen makes water.
What made the difference? Well, it isn’t enough to stop being selfish. You have to be willing to let go of even good and reasonable desires, sometimes. Love means opening yourself to change. When we listen to each other with love, we each become, in a small way, something new. Love is creative—it makes something new.
I still don’t know what love is, but I see what it does. I like it!