Would you please explain the relationship between romantic love and the marriage vow? I am engaged to a smart, kind, and devout woman whom I dated for a little more than half a year before I proposed to her. We are good friends, and according to the testimony of both of our friends and family, we make each other better people and better Christians. The only thing missing in our relationship is romantic love. The romantic feelings I felt towards her during the first months of our courtship have cooled into the love found between best friends and family.
We have strictly practiced chastity. I am physically attracted to her, but I do not feel the eros that corresponds to falling in love. As I was discerning in prayer whether or not to propose, I was torn between the knowledge that she was a good woman whom I cared about deeply and who would make a good wife and mother, and the understanding that I did not feel the type of love which is common between newlyweds. I decided that the obvious goods of the relationship outweighed other concerns, but in the two months since, the question has stuck with me without resolution.
Therefore, my question: Is romantic love good, or even essential, for the marriage vow? Some Catholic writers describe marriage as the culmination and sanctification of the romantic love between two people in which it is transformed into lifelong fidelity and fruitfulness in service to God. On the other, the true purpose of marriage is said to be self-sacrifice and charity to one's spouse and children in service of God, and the desire for romantic love is a potentially serious idol which may oppose that ultimate purpose. So what should I think?
Since people use the word “romantic” in several different senses, and I’m not certain in which sense you intend it, any short answer I give you might be misleading. In a chapter on the meaning of sexual love in my book On the Meaning of Sex, I spent some time disentangling four things that I call enchantment, charity, erotic charity, and romantic love, and I recommend the chapter to you. But it would be pretty shabby to tell you “just go read it,” wouldn’t it? So within that frame of reference, here is what I think.
The love promised in the marriage vows is what I call erotic charity. This is what is essential. The reason it can be promised is that it is a matter of the will, a commitment to the true good of the other person in the context of their procreative partnership. By contrast, romantic love is a matter of the feelings, and cannot be promised. Though romantic love is not necessary for a good and valid Christian marriage, it is certainly delightful to those who experience it.
Since erotic charity is a matter of the will and is assisted by grace, it abides. Since romantic love is a matter of the feelings, it can come and go, even more than once between the same persons. Although some husbands and wives worry that if romantic love fades, they no longer love each other, that is not true; so long as they have erotic charity, it is only the mode of their love that has changed. So although romantic love is wonderful, yes, the insistence on it can be a destructive idol, as you say.
But some people desire romantic love very much. If they don’t experience it, they come to feel that they are missing something, and this feeling of missing something can hinder their marriages. This is a matter of individual temperament, and a person may not be able to help feeling that way. For that reason, I wouldn’t say that a person who does feel that way is necessarily making an idol of romantic love. So it is important for you to try to understand if you are that kind of person.
On the other hand, not everyone is susceptible to romantic love, and even among those who are, not everyone feels that he is missing something if he doesn’t experience it. Knowing whether you are this kind of person requires careful self-examination. But if you are like this, then you have nothing to worry about.
Let me know if this helps.
On the Meaning of Sex at Amazon
On the Meaning of Sex at ISI Books