I could get in trouble for posting this on Valentine’s Day. After all, this holiday is all about romantic love, perfect relationships, and happy endings. Why would you read a post debunking all that when there are sappy cards to be purchased and dinner reservations to be made? Just to be fair, I received a sappy card last night and loved it, so I’m not completely against Valentine’s Day. But as I looked at my sappy card, I had two thoughts: 1) children should not be kissing in this way, and 2) most of these cards – and the whole notion of romantic love – is a bit of a setup.

When I fell in love with Kyle, I held high expectations for our wedding and marriage. With careful planning and too much of my parents’ money, I pulled off the fantasy wedding, but I’ve been unable to pull off the fantasy marriage. I wanted a soul mate and someone who would be hilariously funny but also sensitive at just the right time. I should fulfill him completely and satisfy him always – and vice versa. As the years go by, he should know my heart so well that he never has to ask, “Are you upset about something?” And when we’ve been married for 25 years we should celebrate this amazing marriage we’ve pulled off with an outrageously expensive anniversary trip to Ireland.

The inside of my card says this:

I needed ya. I got ya. I’m keeping ya. Love ya.

After all these years, that’s exactly what I want to hear. Don’t give me sap. We’ve been through too many decades of deconstructing the perfect marriage myth and drippy prose would be just plain wrong. I like to think that it’s not cynicism, but wisdom that causes me to shake my head at the notion of romantic love as a foundation for marriage. And I wonder if the divorce rate is so high because that notion runs rampant among those who are planning the big wedding. Interesting studies show a lower divorce rate among couples whose marriages were arranged. I’m not going to get into that argument because I don’t live in a culture where arranged marriages are the norm, so I’ll claim mostly ignorance on the results of those studies. But I will concede that over time, the romantic qualities that we based our lifelong commitments on can fade, disappear, and leave us wondering if we chose the wrong person. If we’re not careful, we forget the moment we stood up in formal attire and vowed “for better or for worse.”

At the most difficult times in our marriage, I’ve had to remind myself that I committed to this relationship no matter how ugly it might get. I do not advocate staying in marriages where abuse exists, but I haven’t been in that situation. I have, however, been in this relationship during the times when we have terribly disappointed one another because of insensitivity, selfishness, and stupidity. In those moments and in every moment between, it has never been romantic love that has held us together. It’s been grace.

In fact, grace may be what holds everything together.

In his brilliant book, I Was Just Wondering, Philip Yancey asserts that we need “the spirit of arranged marriages” in our relationship with God, who made us exactly the way we are: peculiarities, limitations, handicaps, and imperfect raw material. We can enter into a relationship with God holding high expectations about how we’ll climb higher, get better, and become someone who God will be pleased with finally and completely. That notion is as false as the one that tells us romantic love is a foundation for a lasting marriage. In both relationships, we commit, regardless of how it may work out. And God does the same in our relationship with him. Yancey says this:

You might say that faith means taking a vow “for better or worse, in sickness and health,” to love God and cling to God no matter what. Happily, “the spirit of arranged marriage” works two ways: God also pre-commits to me. Faith means believing God has taken that same vow, and Jesus Christ offers the proof. God does not accept me conditionally, on the basis of my performance. God keeps the vow regardless, and therein is grace.

Someone once said that when we are in the midst of our most hideous and sinful moments, God tells us that we are beautiful. I used to disagree with that until I lived long enough to realize it is grace that holds all my relationships together – not romantic love or my best efforts. I must continually learn how to give it and also receive it.

I hope the little kids on the cover of my sappy card grow out of romantic love and come to find another kind of love that is filled with risk, centered on commitment, and seasoned with grace. That kind of love, scars and all, is worthy of the celebration.


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