Just shy of three months ago, I married Anne, the love of my life. We had fallen in love, and so we decided to take the covenantal step of marriage—committing to living life together no matter what. I’m very grateful that we did. Falling in love with someone can certainly be a good thing. But what does that popular but ambiguous phrase—“to fall in love”—mean exactly?
For my recent birthday, my brothers bought me a book from a lively used bookstore in Boston. The Swiss essayist Alain De Botton’s Essays in Love is now twenty years old, but his honest analysis of the dangers and delights of falling in/out of love is anything but dated.
The following passage from his chapter on “Idealization” grabbed my attention and nearly forced my hand to underline it as I was reading. This section comes just after he falls in love with a woman named Chloe whom he met on an airplane:
Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall in love hoping we won’t find in another what we know is in ourselves, all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise, stupidity. We throw a cordon of love around the chosen one and decide that everything within it will somehow be free of our faults. We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves, and through our union with the beloved, hope to maintain (against the evidence of self-knowledge) a precarious faith in our species (p. 14).
De Botton has skillfully and succinctly articulated his litmus test for falling in love: “Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over self-knowledge.” We fall in love when hope in “the beloved” overshadow our inherent imperfections—when we believe the other is free from what drags us down morally and existentially. So, things like cowardice, laziness, and dishonesty described de Botton, but not Chloe (or so it would seem in the moment that the “falling into love” actually takes place). He explains this as a very active “hoping”: we must “decide that everything in it will somehow be free of our faults (italics mine).” De Botton is suggesting that falling into love happens when one actively believes that the significant other is immune to one’s own shortcomings.
De Botton has done at least two key things here. Not only has he skillfully articulated something as subjective as falling in love, but he has also described the reason why so many people never stand up and walk together after they “fall in love.” Don’t get me wrong; a realistic self-assessment is critical to romantic relationships. But so is the assessment of “the beloved.” In other words, the reason this popular litmus test is misguided is that it inherently forces us into idealism, and ultimately, into idolatry, which can ruin relationships before they begin.
Here’s what I mean. Just a few months into marriage I can already tell you that pursuing perfection in another flawed person is futile. Again, don’t get me wrong; my wife is an incredible woman. She outshines me on many levels. However—and this is no surprise to you—she’s actually not perfect. While this may seem like a threat to common (mis)conceptions of love, a mutual acknowledgement of flaws in the other, along with the extension of grace in spite of those flaws, is anything but the antonym to true love. I would argue that it is actually the grounding for lasting romance, not only for the beloved, but also for our neighbors—our “species,” to borrow from de Botton.
De Botton has identified correctly that falling and staying in love comes from our “union” with another. It’s “through our union with the beloved, [that we find] hope to maintain (against the evidence of self-knowledge) a precarious faith in our species.” This statement is right on. However, the object of the author’s faith is misdirected. In this particular case, Chloe was the object. In order to embrace her in love he put aside his self-assessment, deciding that Chloe was temporarily immune to his self-knowledge. But this idealism is nothing short of idolatry and a recipe for relational disaster.
Don’t mishear me. There are times in relationships, particularly in the earliest stages, when it appears that the other can do no wrong. But that emotion eventually fades, sometimes quickly. And when the fading happens we can fall flat on our face and out of love with the beloved. To avoid this we must have a new object for our hope.
Contra de Botton, I would like to argue that, if we are to love the beloved, we need a greater Beloved that actually fulfills all of those unrealistic expectations that we place on those with whom we “fall in love.” More precisely, I believe that Jesus Christ must become our ultimate Beloved if we are to love our significant others. Why? Simply put, it is only Jesus who calls us his beloved sons and daughters in spite of our propensity towards “cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise, [and] stupidity.” His love is so much more than the fluttering of the heart or shortness of breath when one’s significant other walks in the room. On the bloody cross Jesus threw his “cordon of love” around us and secured our unity with him. He is brave in spite of our cowardliness. He is diligent in pursuing us. He is always truthful, just, and wise. And it is through our union with him that we receive the power to love our beloved and our neighbors in spite of how fractured and fallen our species can prove to be.
So what does this have to do with “falling in love” with a significant other? Be realistic about yourself—of course. Be realistic about the other person—yes. Be romantic; have butterflies for goodness sakes! But even more importantly, fall in love with a gracious Savior who loves us in spite of us. It is his gospel of grace that provides the grounding we need when we fall in love with an equally flawed person. And his gospel is an ocean of faith, hope, and love for when we’re tempted to give up on people.