There are many good things to say about Disney’s massively popular movie, Frozen. One of its more refreshing plot twists concerns the heroine’s saving the day through an act of sacrifice for true love—for her sister. Those who expect to read, now, praise for some feminist attempt to show how a strong female character can dispense with the need for any handsome prince are not all that far off. For Frozen (only very loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen) may be seen as rather subversive of contemporary values. In particular, it shows something too often overlooked or overtly rejected in contemporary culture, namely that there are kinds of love that are at least as important as romantic love. There is a charming element of romance in the movie, but it flourishes only after the “Prince Charming” figure betrays the heroine, having used romance to gain unfair advantage. Thus romantic love is shown to be, not only far from the only important form of love, but itself a potentially dangerous emotion that can be used to undermine our ability to do what is right. Even the love that leads to marriage and family can be undermined by too much focus on romance. Dreams of romantic perfection may blind us to the possibilities of real happiness.
I am not the first to make this point, obviously enough. But it is a point worthy of repeating that romantic love is not and cannot be the center of our emotional lives. More even than our horrible, corrupting laws on marriage and divorce, it is the deeply felt myth that romantic love is the basis of marriage that has brought us to our current state of familial chaos, in which those children lucky enough to be born generally find themselves, even if born into an intact family, grow up in significant measure outside of one.
Of course, if there is not a spark of romance between a man and a woman, marriage today is a non-starter. And it would seem foolish in our society for a couple to enter into marriage without knowing that they are attracted to one another and feel a deep physical and emotional connection with one another. Even the Puritans, supposedly so anti-romance, understood the need for couples to delight in one another; we are, after all, to become of one flesh.
But romance fades—though it comes back stronger and more often than the movies tend to allow. One who constantly seeks the “high” of romantic love (they often say they are “in love with being in love”) is like any other addict, loyal only to his or her own needs. What is more, even if romantic love does not fade, it simply is not enough to sustain a marriage. A man must love his wife as a woman (and vice versa), but also as a wife and as a friend. A couple is a couple, but also the basis of a family, needing more than romance in order to raise good children and face all the trials involved therein. And we must love one another as friends, who share triumphs and tribulations, partners in many things and supports in many others, if we are to build a life together. Finally, of course, we must share in the love of God if we are to fully bind ourselves to one another, love without condition as we must, and find our proper place in creation.
These are no mere abstractions. Husbands and wives are not merely life-long playmates, but parts of a greater whole that is more important than either of them, and that demands both sacrifice and an unquestioning love that lasts through periods during which there may be anger or irritation (or, even worse, boredom) with one another. Familial love means being part of the same body, whatever particular tasks are involved. And that means, not working out a “fair” compromise regarding conflicting wants and desires, but doing one’s best for each other and for the whole.
This familial love also must extend to the children. This seems natural, but too often is degraded into a kind of sentimental, almost romantic love. The child is “cute” and one feels a certain emotional attachment to what one, after all, helped produce. But too often that love, too, can cool as the natural conflicts of family life arise and the call to find another romantic mate, or simply to be rid of the financial and lifestyle duties of family come to seem urgent. The child who is merely an object of emotional affection, rather than part of one’s greater, familial identity, bound to one through the loving habits of daily interaction and dedication, will too often be abandoned to his or her fate when the selfish desire to “grow” or “experience life” or some other rationalization calls. Familial love means identification as being one, parts of an indissoluble whole.
The love of friendship does get some attention in contemporary life, though it is in a debased form. I am thinking, here, of the talk of “life partners.” In a sense, a married couple is a union of two partners, in the formation and running of a family, in career and home, and in building a life together for themselves and the family. But these tasks belong less to business partners than to friends. Notions of romantic love have made us lose sight of just how close friendships once were, and sometimes still can and should be. Even our non-familial friendships are, or should be, closer than we have come to think. A friend is not merely someone with whom we share a common interest or hobby. Aristotle wrote that friends should actually live together. This no longer suits our social structures, but close friendship has suffered even more from the misidentification of critics who, corrupted by modern notions, seek to infuse romantic motivations into the commonality of “blood brothers” or “sisters” that we all need in our lives. And the first of these “blood” relations of friendship should be that of spouses. Husband and wife should be friends in the full sense of trying to further one another’s lives; not just enjoying the same hobbies or picking up groceries and socks, but seeking one another’s flourishing within the greater flourishing of the family.
Finally, spiritual love directs the affections of all members of the family toward God, and the desire to pattern our lives in a manner pleasing to Him. It requires attention to what is demanded of us, but more than this it requires that we love, unconditionally, those with whom God has placed us. Even the disrespectful child, or the spouse who has failed in some important way, is to be loved as we are loved despite our own sins. For we all need forgiveness and we all have experienced the undeserved gift of God’s love, and so we should give that gift to others, especially to those with whom we are, in so many important ways, one.
Such thoughts may seem maudlin in these times, when we reduce romance to sex, friendship to common interest, family to disposable comforts, and God to one possible source of comfort. But the sacrifices we make—to siblings, spouses, children, and friends—are a sign and a calling to an understanding of love that is deeper and more integrated than the “life as a house” mentality can accommodate. Life is, after all, not a house. But a fully embraced family can be our home.
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1. The reader may note a certain similarity between the categories used, here, and those examined much more deeply by C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves. The similarity, while not accidental, is not intended to be comprehensive. This brief essay is by way of ruminations on the requirements for family life, a topic much narrower than Lewis’.