Valentines Week is upon us and with it, a fresh crop of articles on how to love and be loved, never a dull subject. First up, an article in The NY Times posing the timely question “Can Scientific Relationship Advice Save Your Marriage?”, in which couples are profiled who have chosen to base their wedding vows on the scientific study of relationships. Before you venture an answer, let me say that I found the honesty refreshing–at least these couples take the occasion seriously enough to acknowledge their true object of worship. On other hand, the vows dictated by ‘science’ sound no less demanding than the religious ones presumably being rejected–in fact, they sound considerably more daunting:

Her 10 promises — which she and her husband read aloud at their wedding — include a pledge “to support and protect your freedom; because although our lives are intertwined, your choices are still yours alone.” This one is based on research showing that a lack of autonomy in relationships can make people less happy. She and her husband also promised each other to “show you, every day, that I know exactly how lucky I am to have you in my life,” inspired by a study showing that people who feel more appreciated by their partners are more appreciative in return, and that they are less likely to break up…

Pledging to marry a person in the same breath as pledging to preserve their independence sounds contradictory and potentially crazy-making, but maybe that’s just me. A more charitable person might hear it as an acknowledgment of baseline respect. A more cynical person might hear it as “I love you so long as I never have to compromise my agency in any way”. Oy vey. The article goes on to acknowledge the detrimental effect that inflated expectations have on a relationship:

61xRvKJbxDLPotentially useful: Research on how people’s conception of an ideal relationship affects their real lives. If you “don’t experience your relationship as living up to that ideal,” she said, “you’re not going to be as successful. So couples who have a minimized ideal-real gap are the ones who tend to do better.”

Our friend Daniel Jones shared a similar observation this past weekend in his annual run-down of the NY Times’ Modern Love submissions. He wrote:

Love stories are full of romantic delusion, idealizing love to an unhealthy degree. But in the accounts I see, men and women delude themselves in opposite directions.

A woman is more likely to believe her romantic ideal awaits somewhere in the future, where her long-held fantasy becomes a flesh-and-blood reality.

A man’s romantic ideal typically exists somewhere in the past in the form of an actual person he loved but let go of, or who got away. And he keeps going back to her in his mind, and probably also on Facebook and Instagram, thinking, “What if?”

In both cases it would appear that the ‘Ideal’ mate/relationship–holding out for the One–serves as a law which can snuff out affection for the living, breathing (sinful!) person in front of us. Such aspirations, whether they be past- or future tense, can be a means of denial, maybe even pride, a way to prop up our fantasies not just about others but ourselves (as Emily Hornsby put it beautifully here). When our delusions of mutual salvation die, which they always do, that’s when a marriage actually begins (or ends). Like it or not, I guess, there’s no “fully loved” without “fully known”, and that always includes warts and weakness. Cue any number of the Modern Love testimonies we’ve highlighted over the years.

What’s interesting here is that the science-based vows are designed to avoid unattainable or inherited forms of love in favor of ones that work. They’re meant to be pragmatic rather than romantic, real as opposed to ideal–romantic by virtue of their pragmatism. And yet, no matter how reliable or well-proven it is, knowledge always shows its limitations in the face of love (1 Cor 8). This is what Nick wrote about so helpfully last week. Law can do a lot, but it cannot produce love (I wish it could!). Which is, ironically enough, one of the findings the researchers fess up to in the Vows article.

Amie Gordon, one of the authors of the study on appreciation cited in Ms. Joel’s vows, cautions that relationship researchers often start by “looking at what happens naturally in a relationship” — what couples are already doing, and how that affects their bond. If couples who show gratitude to each other have healthier relationships, that doesn’t necessarily mean ungrateful partners who start behaving more gratefully will necessarily see their relationships improve. “If couples try to inject gratitude, or any other positive behavior, in their lives in a way that is not authentic, it’s possible it could backfire,” she explained in an email. “So when considering whether to apply research to one’s own life, people need to know whether the researchers simply measured what was already naturally occurring, or if they asked people to do something different.”

All this brings me to the final article in this most recent bevy from the Times, Clancy Martin’s “Good Lovers Lie”. If you can get past the sensationalistic title, you’ll find a surprisingly sympathetic little article. Part of Martin’s argument has to do with Jeff Tweedy’s immortal admission “I’ve always told lies for love”–that deceit and dishonesty are often prompted by a fear of unlovability:

We lie particularly often when it comes to love, because we care more about love than we care about most things, and because love causes us more fear than most things do, and caring and fearing are two of the most common reasons for lying.

It starts when we’re kids. Why did you lie then? Because you didn’t want to get in trouble; because you cared what the other kids thought; because you were afraid to lose the love of your mom. “It is the law of obedience which produces the necessity of lying in children,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, advising us against making our children fearful. But even more than that, I’d argue, it is the need for love…

In an echo of those other pieces, Martin goes on to underline how an inflated view of oneself (and therefore one’s partner) can prove dangerous in matters of the heart:

The people who find themselves most betrayed by the lies of lovers are those who have the most unrealistic expectations about truthfulness. And the people who are most inclined to believe the lies they shouldn’t are the ones who tell themselves the biggest lie of them all: “I never tell lies.”

It may sound a bit eye-rolling in its contrarian-ness–is he really endorsing fraudulence in relationships?!–but read on, and you’ll find that Martin isn’t  so much claiming that love necessitates deceit as that it often involves a suspension of truth-telling, especially when that truth-telling is heard as judgment, which it almost always is. In Christianspeak, what we’re talking about is the dubiousness of “speaking the truth in love”, that if Martin is correct, that phrase may be an oxymoron. Thankfully, he takes it all one final step further in the conclusion, where cards are put on tables:

Love is a greater good than the truth. No marriage, no parent’s love of a child should be scrutinized like a pathologist examining his cadaver. Save your ruthless pursuit of the truth for the laboratory; we lovers would rather be like Shakespeare: “Therefore I lie with her and she with me / And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.” Don’t worry so much about ferreting out the truth. Take care of each other instead.

I’m reminded of that truism in marriage-counseling circles, that it’s “better to be kind than to be right”, i.e., when the bedroom turns into a courtroom we’re in trouble (just watch Black Mirror S01E03 for an incredibly vivid illustration). But I’m also reminded of that other most important of our relationships, that with our creator. Pretty sure if you search our archives you’ll find a thread or two debating whether or not imputation–the heart of the Gospel–is simply another way of talking about divine dishonesty (it’s not). Or perhaps you’ve read other trains of thought that consider justification by faith to be based on a “legal fiction”. But if this notion of love trumping truth has merit–if the actual experience of romantic love entails some suspension of truth–then perhaps these divine schemas we read about are not so far-fetched after all; they are just a fuller expression of them.

Then again, it may just as easily be that this is where the divine departs definitively from the horizontal, and where we should be grateful that it does. After all, John 1:17 describes Christ as the one who embodies both grace and truth, the one in whom that tension is finally resolved, whose judgment is forgiveness. In such a light, the dichtomies are burned away, and we see that the Truth is not opposed to love; it is love.