I recently watched a TV show in which the guests, which included professors and psychotherapists, when asked about the feminine ideal in the contemporary world, expressed opinions that seemed strange to me: that such an ideal would no longer be detectable or would no longer have a purpose, today…
I confess that I struggled to understand such an opinion, but I would put it down to the desire of the guests to give a prompt and, for this reason, less thought-through answer. The episode, however, prompted me to recall memories and reflections that I hope will be useful to the reader.
The human: sick with utopia?
Human nature refers to those perennially characteristic elements of any psychologically normal human being, regardless of where and when they were born. Among them is the predisposition to shape and set ideals for their life, regarding either happiness, or professional achievement, the fulfilment of a vocation, or the salvation of the soul, etc. A growing person can’t help but think ahead and, starting from their perception of surrounding realities, project a better life in terms of realising their ideals in a closer or more distant future. And, even if human nature continues to undergo changes through the ages and civilizations, one cannot foresee, at least for now, that people will stop having ideals.
This does not mean that we are, by design, unrealistic, incurable dreamers or always dissatisfied with the real and present world. However, this is what humans do in their search for an existential meaning: they take a “North Star”’ as a landmark, and use that for guidance, like navigators. They also orient themselves according to what they consider to be desirable, not only according to the mere consideration of the present. This last aspect (among others) is what distinguishes them from the animal kingdom, which does not manifest these anticipatory and prescriptive capacities.
The ideal of a couple is also perennial in the mental and affective universe of humans, regardless of its forms and evolutions: from Adam’s original melancholy experienced when, being alone among creatures, he felt a longing for a mate; to the suppressed but implied form of this ideal in eunuchs, whom Christ declares to have deliberately chosen to live alone, to serve God (Matthew 19:12).
A child sketches the first features of this ideal, in their imagination, depending on the relationship of their parents, grandparents and/or other close people, whom they observe directly. Sometimes, traits are formed by the recoil reaction to what they do not approve of and does not seem desirable in the lives of those around them. Then they add cultural elements, generated by the broadening of their knowledge, from movies, books, cartoons, computer games, music, etc. As they grow up, various ingredients intertwine in the image of the ideal couple they aspire to: the opinions of those they appreciate, the lives of those who become living examples of success, but also the imperceptible influence of the mentality of the era, the values of their own social class, the rules of the community they belong to, etc.
Thus, the image of the ideal couple held by single young people can differ greatly, depending on the “composition” formed over time: it’s one thing to view the couple’s life using the story presented in Love Story as a starting point, another to use the story of Paul and Virginia, and yet another to use the story of Romeo and Juliet. Waiting, patience, fidelity all look different depending on the referential you choose. You see these virtues differently if you look at Odysseus and Penelope, Homer’s characters, the novel Do You Like Brahms?, or the movie Pretty Woman.
Thus, we must pay attention to the ingredients we add to the recipe of the ideal couple, because these ingredients will influence the way we view the world, the way we face life, and the way we look for happiness!
The worldly ideal
Just as a Christian’s loneliness among people is not the same as the loneliness of those in the non-believing world, neither can their ideal of a couple—because of which they are often alone—be similar to that of the secular individual. While a child of God carries their loneliness with dignity and sacrifice, with restraint and suffering, the worldly person says that they are “in between relationships.”
Often in our society we come across the mentality that a lonely person bears guilt for being alone. Whether it is women/girls or men/boys, people regard them with suspicion precisely because they were alone. They are even reproached for their slowness to marry, to have children, to “saw before reaping”, to fulfil the dying wish of certain relatives through marriage, after which the relatives can die peacefully, etc.
This social pressure, mostly of rural origin, sometimes results in mistakes and unfortunate choices made by those “rushed” in this way, who give up their ideal in order to please their loved ones, to join the world, and to become more “important” people. Rushed lonely people felt less respected for who they were in and of themselves. The attitude of those around them sent the message that their professional achievement, their wit or hard work, their talent, their ability to speak multiple languages fluently, their creativity, etc., accounted for nothing if they were single. They were even taken advantage of, either by people breaking various rules of politeness, or by others abusing them at work or in other social contexts (when it comes to vacations, holidays, promotions, group trips, etc.)
The Christian ideal of a couple differs, by its very nature, from its homologue held by a person who does not launch any inquiry on transcendence and their relationship with it. That is why an authentic Christian will have to slalom between the advice and philosophies of life offered by those with a worldly mentality, even when the world has their best interests at heart. I remember with disappointment even now, some 30 years later, the benevolent and secret “advice” that the honourable wife of a university professor offered to a teenage girl: “Darling, all my life I have taken care that, when it comes to men, I have plan A and several back-up plans. Remember what it takes to do it well: a plan A and back-up plans!”
Then come specialists in couple therapy, who, depending on the various schools of psychology they adhere to, give professional advice that is sometimes absurd, betraying life credos that must be taken as such, uncritically: “In order to understand the marital relationship, it is important to recognize each phase of development, with its typical, normal crises. Moreover, it is through these struggles to find appropriate solutions, that the marital relationship is kept alive”. So, according to this “scientific” stoicism, crises are normal and even beneficial, to keep the marriage alive!
Universal culture also diverts widely-held ideas, which present us with gloomy or ridiculous images of marriage. Take for instance, the saying: “Marriage is like a fortress: outsiders want in, and insiders want out.”
Moreover, it sometimes happens that unwise advice comes precisely from those close to us and who have a Christian vision, as a fruit of their long experience in a dysfunctional relationship: “Make sure he/she doesn’t know everything you do, leave room for a bit of mystery here and there…”; “Oh, love comes later, after you get married”; “You must always have some money for yourself, money he/she doesn’t know about”; “If you have a problem with him/her, come to me first. After all, you’re my child.”
If someone asks what is wrong with these concepts, it means that life has trimmed their wings and their ideal of a couple has failed like the angel in the story written by Gabriel García Márquez, whom a peasant had caught in the bird yard, according to the ornithological criterion that the angel too has feathers.
The Christian ideal
The Bible also holds pearls of wisdom regarding the ideal of love, of living together as a couple. Ever since I was a child, I have treasured the exhortation: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26). Indeed, any misunderstanding that grows old strengthens and amplifies. I have not come across this exhortation anywhere else. Another golden principle, which teaches how to avoid selfishness: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The Bible shows that selfishness is the only form of suicidal love, which suffocates itself and alienates those who could have loved you. The Song of Songs also wisely advises us: “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (Song of Songs 2:7).
This last exhortation shows how we should relate to the ideal of a couple, from a Christian perspective. It must form, in our minds and souls, as a framework of the essential criteria for a life partner who would please God and us. This partner should appear at the time chosen by Him, not by us. Many times, this framework does not even include many positive aspects, qualities, but rather exclusion criteria. That’s because it’s easier for us, in a precarious world, to know what we don’t want rather than what we do want. In addition, Providence can work in our favour only when the respective “framework” is not loaded with childish, unwise details (“I want him to have green eyes”, “I want him to be tall”, etc.), or with restrictive deadlines (“I have to get married by the time I am 25”).
The most frequent way to make a mistake in awakening love, forcing it to come, is to choose the mystical path of indubitable signs and revelations, which stem only from the pride of considering ourselves special, or having special merits. That doesn’t mean miracles don’t sometimes happen. Many of us have witnessed miracles, but they are not produced at our prideful request, because prideful requests simply have no recipient: there is no God of the proud.
A genuine Christian will eventually understand that even if they have ownership over their life, the skill to lead it is not and cannot be theirs. Therefore, if they entrust their life into His hands as early as possible, they will gain time, even decades. If they will consider Him not just a counsellor or a co-pilot on their journey through the world, but Lord of their life, then they will be able to expect miracles at every step and will even detect them. Otherwise, even if cosmic performance would occur right in front of them, they would still not notice anything and would not find joy in the future that has been given to them.
Single Christians will be able to enjoy what the road they are walking on has to offer, and they will reach the consolation of knowing that God knows them better than they know themselves. As such, they know that what happens to them pursues their greatest good, even when they do not understand how it occurs and when it does not occur according to their expectations. Only then will they become indeed special, because it is only in His eyes that we are special, not in the eyes of the world, and neither in our own.
The role that the ideal of a couple can play in our lives is one of ordering the entire earthly existence, because the overwhelming majority of people want to be happy here, on this earth, through the love experienced within a couple. That is why it is so important to know what exactly we include in this image of the couple into which we project ourselves. That is why a couple is viable only if we entrust it to the Divinity for research. Moreover, there is a larger social role of the ideal couple and, by implication, of the family: the shaping of society, insofar as “society is made up of families and is what the heads of families make it”.
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There is a visible difference between a lonely worldly man and a child of God who is alone: the former becomes dysfunctional, feels wronged, resents Heaven, withdraws from people, darkens, or gives up moral balance. They bounce between what I call vanity and desolation: either the inflation of deeds and gestures without success, or the paralysing renunciation of any initiative. On the other hand, the second effortlessly displays a serenity of being, a calm, balanced mindset of reconciliation with what they are given to live, whether at times difficult or heroic.
I have met such wonderful people, who exuded a certain dignity and discretion of their lives lived in solitude, but not loneliness, because they had Him at the centre of their lives. Even when we did not discuss ideals, I could detect how beautiful their ideal of love was, from their whole attitude towards the world and life, from their smile, from the gentleness of waiting, from the way they speak, look, laugh, or cry. If you meet them, ask them about the ideal they carry, discreetly, within. By revealing it they might make the world more beautiful.
Corina Matei is a PhD associate professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences and International Relations,“Titu Maiorescu” University.