It was a year ago that my wife and I celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary. For some reason, humanity collectively puts great importance on things that are multiples of five. They feel like milestones and we are inclined to celebrate them as such, even though we can’t quite put our finger on why they are more important than the numbers in between. So, it needed to be special and we needed to make it a time to remember.
Alas, fifteen went by without much fanfare. We both desperately wanted it to stand out, but it wasn’t what we had hoped. We weren’t angry with each other or anything like that, although disappointment did spill over. It just ended up like any other day. Work kept me busy, we couldn’t find babysitting, we had dinner, and we went to bed. I had trouble thinking of something to get her that would top the previous fourteen years. It came and went, and I remember a joint, communal sigh accompanied by oscillations between vocal and muted frustration.
Now, here we are at our sixteenth anniversary. Sixteen holds a special place in American society because it symbolizes our next step into adulthood behind the wheel of a car, but it doesn’t go much beyond that one instance. Personally, sixteen is a bit different for my wife and I as a number. If we trace our relationship back to when we first began dating between our junior and senior year of high school, and combine it with the time we’ve been married, we have now reached the time where we have been together for half of our lives. From this point forward, we will have been together for longer than we have not been together. Being a pair now occupies the majority of our existence, and it puts our last anniversary in more perspective than we had at the time.
Much is made about love in marriage. People will ask me how my wife and I have stayed in love over such a long period of time. You’ll hear platitudes like “I love you more with each passing day” on anniversary cards and internet glitter. You’ll see ads with smiling couples walking through the park exchanging jewelry for affection. It’s all relatively modern, of course. We aren’t barbarians anymore; we don’t go about exchanging hands in marriage for land and power. Marriage isn’t arranged. No, we’ve freed ourselves from such ancient practices. Now, we date and choose, we fall in love with the person of our dreams, we have our white picket fences. This is real, this is the truth of love. It is something you can find at first sight.
All of that is a misconception, of course.
“I love you more with each passing day” is a falsehood because it suggests that, on any given day, you fool yourself into thinking you understand the fullness of love, as if you’ve grasped its true meaning. You feel like you’ve got the jigsaw puzzle all put together in front of you. But, it also suggests that it is only good for that day, because tomorrow you will add another layer and put the lie to the love you experienced the day before. THAT wasn’t love, because THIS is love. Yesterday it was the size of a berry, today it is the size of an apple. Yesterday was a 250 piece puzzle, today it’s a 500 piece puzzle. Taken to its natural end, you will be left with a never-ending, concentrically ringed set of shells while constantly wondering if the most recent layer is the last. And, if it is a never-ending expansion of meaning, if there is always more layers, if there is always more pieces, than love has no meaning. Expansion moves away from the core and not towards it. Inevitably, when there are days with nothing extra, you feel stagnant.
In a superficial world, we may not have the same marriage practices as previous generations and think that progress means expansion, but we gloss over the ancient call to find substance in all things and to find their core. It’s a never-ending endeavor undertaken by humanity’s greatest minds, and a seemingly futile one since we can never truly comprehend the substance of any object. Words, senses, and thoughts only take us so far. Even attempting to define the simplest of objects can show difficulty.
A chair is something you can sit on. But so is the floor.
A chair is something you can sit on that has legs. But so is a horse. And a beanbag doesn’t have legs.
And sometimes a chair has wheels. Sometimes it’s made of plastic. Sometimes it’s made of wood. Sometimes it can fold up, sometimes it’s bolted to the floor. Sometimes it has no back, sometimes it rocks, sometimes it glides.
We can describe it and try to define it, and with each pass of additional clarity or description we get closer and closer to the substance of it. But we never quite touch it. We spiral around it endlessly, waiting to finally reach that singularity where we really, truly comprehend it. We don’t expand its meaning, but rather grow in a better comprehension of what’s already there. Even if it seems futile, even with our human limitations, we are better for it as it leads to a better understanding of the universe around us.
You’ll find plenty of examples of those trying to describe the substance of love. The most well-known is the passage in the Bible that virtually everyone uses at their wedding, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Although there are a lot of descriptions presented, there are two words that bookend that passage and puts the rest into perspective: patience and perseverance. In essence, true love waits.
We hear “true love waits” as a slogan on many occasions, usually in a positive, romantic light. Usually it is about saving yourself for marriage in a physical sense. The implication is there that you should have true love going into your marriage, and if your love is true then you will be patient in your journey towards marriage. That’s all well and good, but then, at some point, it suggests the waiting must be over. In reality, it isn’t always about patience before marriage. Rather, “true love waits” can also be a plea of desperation to wait out the storm. It can be a saddening call to not leave, to remember the small things, and to wait for cooler heads.
How can it be true love in both cases? What is love waiting for? Does the waiting ever end? The truth is, love is waiting forever to fully comprehend it. It’s not just waiting before you are married. It is also waiting during marriage. It is waiting every day. It is both waiting for the good to come and the bad to pass, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. It is patience. It is perseverance. You see, love isn’t something that is added to every day. It isn’t something we add layers to over and over again. It isn’t a jigsaw puzzle that continually expands in size. No, it is a point in space. It is a substantive center that we spiral around, trying to get closer with each passing moment. It is a jigsaw puzzle where we don’t constantly discover additional pieces to a finished set, but rather the right ones for an unfinished picture that slowly comes into focus.
Much like the falsehood of constantly adding layers of love, we actually start our relationships covered in layers of expectations, whether it is cultural, societal, or otherwise. We have a warped picture on the front of the puzzle box that is too small to make out all of the intricate details. True love is chipping away at those bloated expectations, trying to futilely reach the very center of its being, knowing we are getting closer but never quite fully getting there at any given moment. True love waits until the next piece is placed to get a better idea of what’s there. True love waits to reach the center. True love waits until we see the whole picture and take it in.
Attempting to reach an understanding of love’s substance is a paradox. It is at the heart of a relationship, but yet true love is impossible to fully comprehend. Each passing day brings the joy of getting a little closer, whether it be during an up or after a down, yet it also brings a touch of sadness in any moment when you realize that you didn’t have the clarity before that you have now. Unlike telling yourself the falsehood that each day is a fathomable true love, you need to understand that you are still running a race together towards a goal. And, in the end, when you lay down together completely vulnerable in your waning time on Earth, when “until death does us part” starts to enter into your mind and isn’t just a vow you say with blissful ignorance, you will look back and get it. You’ll understand in that moment how far you’ve come and how much you have touched. In that instant, you’ll occupy that same substantive point together in space regardless of distance, and the only thing you’ll care about is not leaving. There will be no more expectations to chip away, no more pieces to place. Just love. And there, you will fully grasp that your love was unconditional, because you will see that you have loved through all conditions.
Love isn’t for the impatient. There is no instant gratification in it, nor will you understand it immediately and revel in it forever. So, it’s truly hard for me to give anyone advice about love. It is really a lifelong journey to fully comprehend that requires the patience of waiting your entire lives to fully see. All that I know is, for my wife, I will keep spiraling towards the center with you in this journey not of loving more each day, but rather understanding it more each day. I will keep building the puzzle with you. I will keep waiting forever with you. In the end, it will be a joyous sight when we look back at the beautiful pattern in space we’ve made together to get there.