Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Remembering a Special Day

Next Tuesday is St. Valentine's Day, a special day for thinking about love. Let me reflect on the meaning of that slippery, kaleidoscopic little word that permeates our lives.

Dr. Carl Hurley, college professsor-turned entertainer, tells the story of a man who when he left for work one day was reminded by his wife to enjoy "this special day". All morning he kept trying to remember what was special about the day. Not being able to remember, he decided to cover himself by at least sending flowers to his wife. Still hoping to get some hint about what was special about that day, he called and suggested they go out for dinner that evening, but the conversation produced no clue. He arrived home at 5:00 with a box of her favorite candy and they went to the best restaurant in town for a candle light dinner. During dinner she reached over and took his hand and said, "I want you to know that this is the most wonderful Ground Hog Day I have ever had".

On St. Valentine's Day our hearts and minds turn to thoughts of how we can best express an intangible feeling in some tangible form. Perhaps this was easier when we were young and ignorant, and the fires of love were stoked with an abundance of hormones. Do you remember the ecstasy of new love, when you thought what you felt would last forever?

Some say their love has lasted forever. But for more people than you might guess the fire has died out, or at least cooled to warm embers. And for those for whom romantic love (or its more stable successor) is still alive, you may be sure that the relationship not only took work, but also required that the partners change themselves and their views.

Those who thought the energy, fun, and feeling of new love would last forever, but who did nothing to adjust to the changes that inevitably come are probably no longer together. Even if they are, they are likely frustrated and unhappy. The myth of romantic love is just that. Unless the myth is transformed by some very practical changes, which pushes love into another dimension, then there is profound disappointment, unhappiness and /or a painful trip to Splitsville, U.S.A.

If you are young (or old) and in love, enjoy every minute of it. It is one of the good gifts God gave to initially draw people together. Some say that it is a subtle and delightful trick of nature designed to perpetuate the species. With whatever words you choose to describe the experience, it is at least memorable. For those who thought romantic love would last forever, or those who fell in love with someone who did not reciprocate or betrayed their trust, the experience may be remembered with some disappointment. Wise people savor the taste of romantic love but soon learn (if they did not already know) not to count on it as the sole support of a relationship. Romantic love is a blessing that should be remembered with a sense of joy, and occasionally rediscovered with surprising delight. Willie Nelson reminded us in a song that "love's the greatest healer to be found."

Some social scientists would say "never marry for love". Those who have spent a lifetime working with intimate human relationships understand there is a degree of truth in that statement if it refers to romantic love. Perhaps it would be better to say "never marry without love, but do not depend on romantic love to be a permanent condition for a lasting relationship". Love that lasts changes. If it does not change, it will not last. People change. If love relationships are not adjusted to accommodate those changes, the relationship will begin to die.

People often have unrealistic expectations of the person they love. So many people want someone who will meet all their needs, and in their romantic understanding of reality, they believe that person is out there - somewhere. Psychologist, Carl Gustave Jung, opined that we have in our minds an archetypal image of an idealized mate who is the "one and only" person who can bring us ultimate happiness. With that in mind, we believe that "some enchanted evening" we will see her/him across a crowded room, and both will know at once the search has ended, and we will ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. Dream on, but a day of awakening will come, and a relationship built on that myth will fall in shambles about your feet. When we marry with that exaggerated expectation, in a sense, the person we marry becomes a substitute for someone who does not exist.

In her book "Brief Lives" Anita Brookner tells of a woman whose unhappy marriage ends with the death of her husband and her lover. Asked if she missed her lover she said, "Oddly it was not Charlie that I missed, but rather the person for whom Charlie had always been a substitute, whoever he was".

If we are unable to accept partial fulfillment by someone who cannot measure up to our total expectations, we feel cheated. Because he or she was not perfect and could not measure up to that ghostly composite of a person who never really existed, we often demean the person we once "loved" despite his or her best efforts to meet our needs. Yet the reality is -- No one person is going to meet all our needs.

This business of love, commitment, and marriage is more complicated than most of us realize. Unless we enter into a marriage with willingness to adjust and change, then the relationship will disappear into a gap that widens exponentially with the years because it was all about "me" and not about "us".

I hope this does not frighten anyone contemplating marriage. But do be careful!