Obviously, I realize citing Woody Allen in a reflection on marriage is inherently problematic, but suspend your disbelief for a moment and separate the artist from his art.
One of my favorite films- Top 5 easily- is Allen’s Oscar-winning classic, Annie Hall. It debuted the year I was born and thus far in the remainder of my life it remains one of only two comedies to win the distinction ‘Best Picture.’
Shakespeare in Love, decidedly not as fun or funny as Annie Hall, won the other.
What sets Annie Hall apart from all other romantic comedies, besides the impish Allen starring in the male lead, is that the love story does not end happily after ever.
The guy doesn’t get the girl. No one rides off into the sunset. It just sets, as they go they separate ways.
And even if we don’t cheer that contrary ending, we understand it enough so as not to be terribly disappointed.
The final scene of Annie goes like this…hell, the magic of You Tube, watch it for yourself:
What makes this finale so poignant is that Alvie (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton) discover a friendship between them only after their romantic relationship frayed to the point of unwinding altogether.
I say it’s a poignant ending because such friendship, had they found it earlier, would have proved the one thing with the power to sustain their relationship.
It’s poignant because only at the end of their relationship do Alvie and Annie find what was missing at the beginning of it.
I’ve often commented on the number of engaged couples who, when I inquire of them why they wish to marry, answer breathlessly: ‘Because we’re just so in love with each other.’
Not only is this an uninteresting response from my end (what does their infatuation have to do with their Christian vocation to bear witness to God’s love through their love for each other?) it’s also a woefully a-historical answer.
You’ll probably take me for a killjoy but the very ideal of ‘romantic love’ dates only to the Middle Ages. Christians, in other words, were marrying one another for a millennia before ‘we’re just so in love with each other’ would even register as a coherent rationale for lifelong, sacrificial, monogamous fidelity.
Ditto for Jews the millennia before them.
That’s not to say people did not fall in love prior to the Middle Ages. Rather it’s only recent that romantic love has been prized by Christians and others as the initiating ideal for marriage.
This explains, for example, the dearth of anything resembling ‘romantic love’ in the scriptures.
As any high school Latin student, whose had to suffer through their share of Cicero and Ovid, can tell you, the ancient world most often understood romantic love- infatuation- as something you suffer. It was a cause of misfortune and a cause for brooding.
And as any person whose ever fallen in love can tell you, passion is best described as passion; as in, ‘passio’ = to suffer.
This is no small reason why ancient Christians like Denis de Rougemont worried that the tug of romantic love was the most dangerous rival to Christianity in all creation.
Unlike our romantic age, the ancient world- and the ancient Church with it- valued friendship as the highest form of love.
Just pause and think about how counterintuitive that sounds in our culture.
Think of all the movies that have romantic love as their muse. Whether they star vampires, werewolves, Ryan Gosling or Josh Hotnett, friendship is not the allure that sells tickets. Consider virtually every popular song NOT written by Pearl Jam. Almost all of them are only better written versions of the Beatles’ ‘She loves you…yeah, yeah, yeah…’
If you hear the phrase ‘Buddy Film’ you don’t think of two lovers, you think of two dudes sitting and playing XBox arguing about ‘You know how I know you’re gay.’
Aside from the love story that was Maverick and Goose, friendship is not a category of love in which any of us are interested.
Nonetheless the ancient Christians would point out to us that the commands to love God and love neighbor as our selves have nothing to do with romantic love.
Christians are commanded to love. Agape. Friendship.
But we’re not commanded to love, eros. Romance.
It’s no small distinction.
The love of friends, that’s our Jesus-given duty.
The internet and bookstores are rife with marriage books. Most of them range from the mechanical (How to….Seven Steps towards…) to the psychological (The 5,6,7,8 Love Languages).
Few to none of the available fare make any mention of Jesus’ love commandment. Hardly any, so far as I know, try to exegete what it means to love our neighbor as our self.
Which is a shame because the one thing both eros and agape have in common is the ability to love the other as I love myself.
Friendship, in other words, is a good training ground for romance.
Vice versa however it is not.
If you think I’m sounding unromantic you’re either not understanding me or I’m not being clear.
I’ve seen too many couples bring their romantic love into marriage without ever packing a friendship. And once the ‘fire’ fades there’s no bond of love that remains.
Or, more common, I’ve seen couples who are friends neglect their friendship after they’re married and, once the ‘fire’ fades, there’s no other bond of love that remains.
Just as its disastrous for married people to have no other friend but their spouse so is it just as disastrous not to be able to count their spouse as a friend.
Normally I hate pastors who quote C.S. Lewis so forgive me.
Lewis said that lovers look at each other, but friends stand beside each other, shoulder to shoulder, looking at a common vision.
Certainly marriages need both gazing into and gazing upon but, in my experience, more marriages could use an infusion of the latter more than the former.
I’m not arguing against romance. My wife will tell you…actually let’s not go there.
I am arguing that more marriages could benefit from deeper friendships. As Lewis noted so well, friendship- standing shoulder to shoulder- guarantees a shared vision; it insures that your marriage is about something more, something other than your feelings for and need of the other.
‘We’re just so in love…’ is no doubt as sincere a reply as it is empty.
‘Because he/she is my best friend…’ is better answer.
And, if sincere, a better sign that your marriage will never be empty.
We keep at this love thing, Alvie jokes in the final seconds, because ‘we need the eggs.’
He’s right. Though I think the ‘eggs’ we really need are friends.
If only more people went into marriage believing friendship was the indispensable ingredient, there’d be fewer people getting out of marriage because there’s nothing left between them.
If only any of the self-helpy marriage books were books about cultivating friendship instead of ‘love’ the odds might be better.
As I mentioned already, Annie Hall is one of my Top 5.
It’s also in my wife’s Top 5.
Friends, after all, know those sorts of things.
I hope I shouldn’t need to make it plainer but I will just in case.
The magic marriage question isn’t so much ‘What are you doing to keep the fire lit?’ but ‘What are you doing to stay friends?’