Most conceptions of human love in today's world focus on romantic attraction. If romantic love is understood properly it can lead to great blessing; if understood improperly then marital dysfunction may result.
Solomon sets out the beauty of romantic love in the Canticle of Canticles (Song of Solomon or Song of Songs). Solomon's words have been applied to individual spousal relationships as well as the love that God has for His people. Interestingly, as important and influential the Canticle is to both Jewish and Christian scholars, almost nowhere in the scholarship is the romantic dimension of the poem emphasized. Rabbinic sources as well as Christian writers such as St. Gregory of Nyssa (Musurillo, 1979) focused on the allegorical or symbolic aspects of the love poem as describing the love of God for his people.
Why is there such relative silence on this romantic dimension? Again, looking at the commentaries, we discover that the Church Fathers saw the poem as an allegory of a deeper kind of love than what a surface reading of the poem first reveals. They taught that the theme of sexual love between man and wife replicates in some measure the nature of Divine Love, particularly the element where such Love is shared between the One who loves and the one who is loved. Love, in other words, is a participatory event that consists of being loved and loving in return. The Canticle reveals both the real nature of love as well as the nature of Christ's love towards His Church.
St. Maximus the Confessor pointed out the connection:
The beautiful is identical with the good, for all things seek the beautiful and good at every opportunity, and there is no being which does not participate in them. They extend to all that is, being what is truly admirable, sought for, desired pleasing, chosen and loved. Observe how the divine force of love -- the erotic power preexisting in the good - has given birth to the same blessed force within us, through which we long for the beautiful and good in accordance with the words, "I became a lover of her beauty" (Wisdom. 8:2), and "Love her and she will sustain you; fortify her and she will exalt you" (Proverbs. 4:6-8) (Philokalia II).
At the most primitive and human level, love begins with the sensual, attractive, and beautiful dimensions and then progresses to faithfulness and commitment. Reading the Canticle solely on this foundational level alone obscures its deeper and more profound message: that the higher level of love is true commitment.
It could be argued, then, that the sensual aspects of human love are the starting point and foundation of a fullness of love yet to be achieved. For example, in the first chapter of the poem we read: "Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth: for thy breasts are better than wine, smelling sweet of the best ointments. Thy name is as oil poured out: therefore young maidens have loved thee" (Canticle 1:1-2). Here the imagery is sensual, erotic and beautiful. This attraction leads to a caress, the lover invites his beloved: "His left hand is under my head, and his right hand shall embrace me (Canticle 2:6).
The poem continues so that when separated, the woman will seek out her lover and bring him to the bridal chamber: "When I had a little passed by them, I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him: and I will not let him go, till I bring him into my mother's house, and into the chamber of her that bore me" (Canticle 3:4). Her lover reaches out to her and responds to her beauty in expressive terms: "How beautiful are thy breasts, my sister, my spouse! thy breasts are more beautiful than wine, and the sweet smell of thy ointments above all aromatical spices" (Canticle 4:10).
Further, when separated, the lover suffers painful longing and grief: "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him that I languish with love" (Canticle 5:8). Despite having many others who could be lovers, the spouse is committed to his one true love: "There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and young maidens without number. One is my dove, my perfect one is but one, she is the only one of her mother, the chosen of her that bore her. The daughters saw her, and declared her most blessed: the queens and concubines, and they praised her" (Canticle 6: 7-8).
The blessing of being united with the spouse is reflected in ravishing imagery: "Thy navel is like a round bowl never wanting cups. Thy belly is like a heap of wheat, set about with lilies. Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins" (Canticle 7:2-3). Full and everlasting commitment of the spouses to one another is expressed: "My vineyard is before me. A thousand are for thee, the peaceable, and two hundred for them that keep the fruit thereof. Thou that dwellest in the gardens, the friends hearken: make me hear thy voice" (Canticle 8: 12-13).
These are deep themes and won't be grasped by someone who has an immature notion of the nature of love - which includes many people today unfortunately. Prevailing conceptions about love never get beyond the primitive and foundational level of sensual attractiveness (described in chapter five of the Canticle). Love is perceived solely as romantic arousal of the kind that a couple might feel in the initial stages of their relationship.
In psychological terms, the misimpression is called a dysfunctional cognitive factor which means an idea about the nature of the love that may prove debilitating in a marital relationship. If a couple really believes that love is no more than experiencing the initial attractions over and over again, then when those feelings subside (and they will), they tend to believe that the value of their marriage has declined as well.
When the idea takes hold, the couple becomes susceptible to feelings that undermine deeper commitment. Disappointment ensues, and the couple may find it increasingly difficult to enjoy activities together. Sometimes anger arises leading to more conflict and even greater disappointment. Sooner or later one or both of the spouses concludes that the love is gone and the marriage is over. Researcher Aaron Beck (1988) described this corruptive cycle:
There are several kinds of expectations that operate at different stages of a marriage. The early, romantic expectations concern loving and being loved -- continuously. One of life's cruel deceptions is the myth that the intense idealization and infatuation that draw a couple together will guarantee a loving relationship over the years.
The cognitive dysfunction often consists of three distortions (Morelli, 2006a,b,c):
- Selective abstraction -- Focusing on one event and excluding others. In this case focusing on the conflict and not considering the times the couple are getting along.
- Magnification or Catastrophizing -- The perception that something is more than 100% bad, terrible or awful. In this case the conflict is not rationally assessed.
- Arbitrary inference -- Drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. An alternate 'conclusion' is that conflict resolution can lead to marital growth. Accepting of differences is just as much a part of marriage as celebrating sameness. As long as the "differences" are not legally or morally objectionable (e.g. one's partner wants to sell drugs, be allowed to have an affair, etc.), some differences can and should be expected and respected by the spouses (Morelli, 2007a,b).
Only when the dysfunctional cognition is confronted can the cycle be reversed. The unrealistic expectations and the faulty perceptions must be healed. This begins with understanding the changes that take place in marital emotions over time. Many marriages do indeed start with intense, highly erotically charged emotions. As the marriage progresses, these emotions can develop into an intimate bond of contentment, security, and trust. The changes do not negate the sensual dimension of the relationship but rather overlay and enhance it.
Marriage involves determination, work, and commitment. The couple has to love enough to stay together and persevere, especially in the face of problems. Paradoxically, working together to solve problems often brings the couple even closer.
The Canticle beautifully describes the deeper dimension of the marital bond in its later chapters. For example, in chapter six the author recounts what we would see as problems and perhaps even barriers to the relationship. Temptations mount on the outside, particularly queens, concubines, and maidens surround the young man. Yet the man stays focused on his beloved. "One is my dove, my perfect one is but one, she is the only one of her mother, the chosen of her that bore her. The daughters saw her, and declared her most blessed: the queens and concubines, and they praised her" (Canticle 6:8). His commitment is unflagging.
This theme is affirmed in the Orthodox marriage service as well. The "crowning" of the couple actually references martyrdom, that is, giving one's life for the other. As a martyr gives his life for Christ, so must the spouse be willing to give his life to his wife (and the wife to her husband), and in so doing fulfill the law of Christ which is to love the neighbor as yourself. It is a call to love that rings through the intoxication of pleasant emotion into the deeper reservoirs of the heart and soul from where the sacrificial love is drawn.
Beck, A.T. (1988). Love is Never Enough. NY: Harper and Row.
Burns, D. (1980). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. NY: The New American Library.
Morelli, G. (2005b, October 14). The Beast of Anger. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAnger.php.
Morelli, G. (2006a, January 27). Understanding Brokenness in Marriage. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMarriage2.php.
Morelli, G. (2006b, March 6). Asceticism and Psychology in the Modern World. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliMonasticism.php.
Morelli, G (2006c). Healing: Orthodox Christianity and Scientific Psychology Fairfax VA: Eastern Christian Publications.
Morelli, G. (2007a, May 15), Good Marriage III. Nagging: The Ultimate Marriage Over-Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageIII.php.
Morelli, G. (2007b, June 5). Good Marriage IV: The "Preference Scale" - A Tool for Communication, Negotiation and Collaboration. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartMarriageIV.php.
Musurillo, H. (1979). (ed., trans.). From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa's Mystical Writings. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
ENDNOTE i. This factor emerged from an unpublished study (1981) conducted by Dr. David Burns at the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Psychiatry, in collaboration with the author (Fr. George Morelli) of this article. It has been used successfully in case study clinical trials since 1981.