I heard last week that Nicholas Sparks is separating from his wife of 25 years. It’s always a terrible thing when anyone’s marriage is on the verge of collapse, but this has to be especially devastating for millions of American women.
I mean, Nicholas Sparks can’t get divorced. The man invented romance. Well, maybe he didn’t invent it per se, but he did sell approximately a trillion romance novels in airport bookstores across the country. He didn’t create the concept of love and marriage, but there’s no doubt that he helped to reshape our culture’s perception of those things.
I’ll admit that I’m not an expert on the man or his work. I saw the “Notebook” on a date 10 years ago. I remember that it was trite, contrived, and cliched, but I can’t recall many other details. Ryan Gosling was involved, I’m pretty sure. And Rachel McAdams. He was brooding, she was sassy, they both had great hair. They kissed in the rain and danced in the middle of the street. He threatened to kill himself if she didn’t go out with him. He wrote her a bunch of letters. They made out some more. They were on a boat at some point with a bunch of swans all around. The boat sank and he died. Or that part might be from a different movie. Anyway, it was your typical chick flick/chick book fare. Sweeter and sappier than pancake syrup. Good Lord, it was excruciating.
My experience with Sparksian fairy tales doesn’t extend much further. Reliable sources inform me that all of his stories follow the same basic outline, like a romantic madlib. And, hey, they might be hackneyed, mawkish, overwrought, and emotionally manipulative, but it’s all rather harmless, right?
Not quite. Unfortunately, men and women are profoundly impacted by how pop culture depicts romantic relationships. Sparks isn’t the only culprit — and he’s certainly not the first — but he’s part of the problem.
Granted, his schlock is much more a symptom than it is a cause, but it’s a symptom that spreads the disease. The disease is the fanciful, unrealistic, fictionalized perceptions that both males and females harbor about marriage.
For example, think of the glamorization of the “mysterious” and “damaged” guy from the “wrong side of the tracks.” Hollywood makes him seem alluring and sexy, but forgets to mention that most of the time, in the real world, that dude probably has herpes, a coke habit, and a criminal record.
Still, that bit of propaganda is nothing compared to the underlying misconception that so many of us carry around consciously or subconsciously, because we’ve seen it on TV and in the movies, and read it in books a million times since childhood: namely, that there is just one person out there for us. Our soul mate. Our Mr. or Mrs. Right. The person we are “meant to be with.”
We think that our task is to find this preordained partner and marry them because, after all, they’re “The One.” They were designed for us, for us and only us. It’s written in the stars, prescribed in the cosmos, commanded by God or Mother Earth. There are six or seven billion people in the world, but only one of them is the right one, we think, and we’ll stay single until we happen to stumble into them one day.
And when that day happens, when The One — our soul mate, our match, our spirit-twin — comes barreling into our lives to whisk us off our feet and take us on canoe rides and deliver impassioned romantic monologues on a beach in the rain or in a bus station or whatever, then we’ll finally be happy. Happy until the end of time. We can get married and have a perfect union; a Facebook Photo Marriage, where every day is like an Instagram of you and your spouse wearing comfortable socks and sitting next to the fireplace drinking Starbucks lattes.
Yeah. About that. It’s bull crap, sorry. Not just silly, frivolous bull crap, but bull crap that will destroy you and eat your marriage alive from the inside. It’s a lie. A vicious, cynical lie that leads only to disappointment and confusion. The Marriage of Destiny is a facade, but the good news is that Real Marriage is something so much more loving, joyful, and true.
We’ve got it all backwards, you see. I didn’t marry my wife because she’s The One, she’s The One because I married her. Until we were married, she was one, I was one, and we were both one of many. I didn’t marry The One, I married this one, and the two of us became one. I didn’t marry her because I was “meant to be with her,” I married her because that was my choice, and it was her choice, and the Sacrament of marriage is that choice. I married her because I love her — I chose to love her — and I chose to live the rest of my life in service to her.
We were not following a script, we chose to write our own, and it’s a story that contains more love and happiness than any romantic fable ever conjured up by Hollywood.
Indeed, marriage is a decision, not the inevitable result of unseen forces outside of our control. When we got married, the pastor asked us if we had “come here freely.” If I had said, “well, not really, you see destiny drew us together,” that would have brought the evening to an abrupt and unpleasant end. Marriage has to be a free choice or it is not a marriage. That’s a beautiful thing, really.
God gave us Free Will. It is His greatest gift to us because without it, nothing is possible. Love is not possible without Will. If we cannot choose to love, then we cannot love. God did not program us like robots to be compatible with only one other machine. He created us as individuals, endowed with the incredible, unprecedented power to choose. And with that choice, we are to go out and find a partner, and make that partner our soul mate.
That’s what we do. We make our spouses into our soul mates by marrying them. We don’t simply recognize that they are soul mates and then just sort of symbolically consecrate that recognition through what would then be an effectively meaningless marriage sacrament. Instead, we find another unique, dynamic, wholly individualized human being, and we make the monumental, supernatural decision to bind ourselves to them for eternity.
It’s a bold and risky move, no matter how you look at it. It’s important to recognize this, not so that you can run away like a petrified little puppy and never tie the knot with anyone, but so that you can go into marriage knowing, at least to some extent, what you’re really doing. This person wasn’t made for you. It wasn’t “designed” to be. There will be some parts of your relationship that are incongruous and conflicting. It won’t all click together like a set of Legos, as you might expect if you think this coupling was fated in the stars.
It’s funny that people get divorced and often cite “irreconcilable differences.” Well what did they think was going to happen? Did they think every difference would be reconcilable? Did they think every bit of contention between them could be perfectly and permanently solved?
People go into marriage with the mentality of children, and I really think that pop culture has a lot to do with that. Marriage is a choice made against the odds. That’s what’s so exciting about it. Thankfully, I made this choice with my wife. She is now my soul mate, my other, my completion, but I could not say that about her until we said “I do” to each other.
We could have not said it, you know. She could have met someone else. I could have fled into the hills to be a celibate hermit for the rest of my life. She could have moved to the city and married some rich lawyer or banker. She could have never called me back after our first date. We could have dated for years until eventually the relationship flickered out, as they almost always do. She could have gone to California to become an actress. I could have moved to Denmark and shacked up with a Scandinavian crossing guard named Helga.
There were literally millions of things that either of us could have done. An innumerable multitude of possible outcomes, but this was our outcome because we chose it. Not because we were destined or predetermined, not because it was “meant to happen,” but because we chose it. That, to me, is much more romantic than getting pulled along by fate until the two of us inevitably collide and all that was written in our horoscopes passively comes to unavoidable fruition.
We are the protagonists of our love story, not the spectators.
There’s no doubt that certain personality types might gel better with you; you might have a few specific traits and characteristics you’re looking for in a mate. It’s good to have standards, obviously. I’m not saying that you should just throw yourself into the mosh pit and say, “hey, I have no soul mate so I’ll just marry anyone! Who’s game?”
But I am saying that, if you’re single, there are probably hundreds of options out there. None of them soul mates, but all of them possibly potential soul mates. You don’t have to sift around for that one custom made, personalized grain of sand in the desert. You’ll be alone forever if you do that, and you don’t have to be alone forever.
I can acknowledge all of this without feeling like I’ve minimized the significance of my relationship with my wife. Quite the opposite. This is what makes our marriage such an immense and tremendous and inconceivable thing. It was a choice, one of many possible choices made freely by two free people, but that choice — that moment — was eternal. Like C.S. Lewis wrote, it was a moment that contained all moments.
As human beings, we rarely make eternal choices. We rarely make choices that last the day, in fact. We choose one thing and then another and then back to the original and then something else and then something else. But in marriage we choose each other, we consecrate that choice, God fuses our souls together, and that’s it. We have permanently altered our reality, our identity, through one choice. How beautiful and miraculous is that?
There’s a very real danger inherent in the “there’s only one particular person out there for you” mentality. Think about it. If you are “meant” for one specific person, who’s to say when and if you’ve met them? Who’s to say that the person you married is them? And who’s to say that you don’t get married and then, just like that, someone moves in next door, or you get a new coworker at the office, or you run into someone at the grocery store, or you lock eyes with the cashier at Trader Joe’s and all of a sudden you realize that this is your real soul mate, the person you were “supposed” to marry?
If we are meant for someone in particular, who’s to say you’re wrong? Sure, adultery is evil, but this is your soul mate we’re talking about here. This is the person God Himself designed for you. Can He really be mad if you ditch the mistake in favor of your true Prince or Princess Charming? Maybe you’re technically a backstabbing, adulterating cheater, but you’re just following your heart, and who can fault you? You’re correcting a mistake. Resolving a cosmic injustice. Fulfilling your destiny. Isn’t that what cheaters often tell themselves, especially women cheaters? This is the dark underbelly of pop culture fairy tales. It gives a free pass to adulterers, and convinces married people to follow their emotions rather than stay true to their vows.
Well, they’re either right or they’re wrong. And if they’re wrong, then we’re led right back to my conclusion. Once you marry, you are meant for the person that you married and no one else. You didn’t marry them because you were meant for them, you are meant for them because you married them. There is nobody else. There is no other “right” person at that point. There might have been 15 seconds before you said “I do,” but not now. Something happened in that fateful moment. You changed, they changed, the universe changed, and it’s irreversible.
It sounds scary because it is. Scary because we’re partaking in something that’s greater and more vast than our capacity to understand it. It’s scary in the sense that it strikes fear into our hearts, but fear in the sense of wonder and awe, in the sense that we fear God Himself.
My wife and I weren’t destined for each other. It wasn’t fate that brought us together. We are bound not by karma, but by our choice. That might not make for a good tagline for the next Nicholas Sparks novel, but it’s far more romantic than anything he’s ever written.