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John Mark Reynolds- Contributor

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University.

Love, Divorce, and Marriage: Bloodless Martyrdom or Intolerable Cruelty?
Reflections on marriage and the new Coen brothers' movie...
[John Mark Reynolds] 10/16/03

The new Coen brothers' film Intolerable Cruelty deals with divorce, infidelity, and prenuptial agreements in a romantic way. Really. Forty years ago, no-fault divorce sounded liberating. Reducing marriage to a contract may allow for homosexual marriage, but it has also taken all the romance out of it.

The movie is more mainstream than some Coen brother’s affairs and is a decent grown-up date movie. George Clooney channels his character from O Brother Where Art Thou, only this time his obsession is with his teeth instead of hair products. Clooney can act -- and no one says, “Fascinating” with more style.

Catherine Zeta-Jones gets to wear lots and lots of beautiful clothes. My girls have a regrettable Barbie detective game in which Barbie has to change clothes before any given action. “Wait, Barbie! Some villains! Change into your fighting clothes!” That sums up Ms. Zeta-Jones role in the film which seems well suited to the range of her acting talent. There are some fun bits with character actors such as Cedric the Entertainer and Billy Bob Thornton. However, if you're married, be prepared for some good conversation about love, trust, and marriage. And that is the most interesting part of the evening.

Hope and I realized that we have been married seventeen years. Seventeen years. A long time ago. Ronald Reagan was president. Star Trek was still creative. A good many people had really big hair. It was still marginally cool to listen to Styx. And I married Hope.

Did subjecting Hope to my mixed up life count as intolerable cruelty? There was no money and so no need for a pre-nuptial agreement. Most films end with a big kiss and the promise of bliss. Hardly any focus on seventeen years later, too soon to have grown cuddly old and too late to be cute and young.

Intolerable Cruelty suggests love is a good thing, but does not help those of us in the middle ages of love. Are these Dark Ages or are we heading for a Renaissance? Does anyone write about that time?

Loving Hope is profound, but the words that work best to describe it are the old, simple words. Marriage is good. Hope is sweet. Our union is blessed. This frustrates me. On the one hand, I want the poetry of Shakespeare. I want to sing of our growing love, but have not been given the gift. On the other hand, I wish for the cool, ironic distance of our age that so dominates "Intolerable Cruelty."

I dread the “eye roll” that comes, the tendency to gag, when love is mentioned. The old words have been turned into so many greeting cards that it is nearly impossible to mean them. Still, I have the limited skills I have. There is no way to be in divinely in love ironically. Cupid destroys the Cynic with a single dart.

Despite my fear of the cynics, here are three darts that pierced me following this weekend's movie.

I married Hope for all the wrong reasons, but something good came of it.

It is safe to say that the twenty-two-year old me was a mess. I did not mean to be a mess. I did not know I was a mess, but a mess I was. Wiser people could have told me, if my ears had been willing to listen.

Marriage would be my salvation. This girl with the perfect name, Hope, seemed so good. She would fix me up and heal my hurts. Isn’t that love? Bad idea. Narcissism combined with depression is no basis for a lasting relationship. However, over time, something new came. I was blessed to discover that Hope actually loved me despite my problems. She taught me the nature of grace. Amazing grace. Love is a daily choice to honor and do my duty as a gentleman to this lady, not a passion that can fade ever time.

Therefore, I have learned to be much less concerned about my motives in loving Hope, simply assuming them to be unworthy. My chief concern is loving her. Doing it. Feeling it. Glorying in her gracious condescension in loving me. It seems simple, but it was real. My motives are changing and will continue to change.

Bad choices -- sin -- hurt more the older you are.

Looking back over my life, the “mistakes” that were so easily forgotten come back to haunt me. Wasted chances. Hurt people. Words spoken to Hope that wounded that cannot be taken back. Somehow the error, what the old folk call sin, that was so easily dismissed with a “sorry” now seems more serious. Growth is not without pain. It brings clearer pictures of what you really did, who you really are.

Life with any person is sometimes an almost intolerable cruelty. And I regret it. Time is short. There is so little time to love. When you finally grasp how wonderful your spouse is, it may be too late to “unsay” or “undo” certain things. Try not to say them. Cherish love now. Payment for a false word or move is sometimes delayed. Do not measure the seriousness of error by the immediate consequences.

What if it is too late? And isn’t it always to late to be a good husband or wife? The marriage vows are so quickly broken. The betraying thought. The falling short of the perfect moment when we said our vows. It is impossible for me to love Hope the way she should be loved, the way I vowed to love her.

The good news at this moment in a marriage is again fundamentally all about grace, an unmerited favor that redeems.

Love is better when aged.

Too many movies end at the moment of young love. Older movies ended with the “big kiss” or with marriage. Today most movies end in hot sexuality of early passion. Our culture has few models of mature love. We are a culture that prefers the new wine to the old. We have crude taste indeed.

When I was a boy, my family would sometimes sing a song with a verse that ran:
By the old mill stream there sits a couple old and gray,
Though years have rolled away their hearts are young and gay.
Mother dear looks up at Dad with love light in her eye.
He steals a kiss, a fond embrace, while even'ning breezes sigh.

However questionable the poetry, the sentiment is real. There is a pleasure in a mature relationship that is being lost to us. It is like the pleasure of staying at the same job, or faithfully attending the same parish. A culture that values change over stability is missing some profound pleasures that cannot be bought for any amount of money, but can only be had with the expenditure of time.

Recently, at a couple’s retreat, my wife and I realized that we were one of the longest married couples in the room. Marriage has become disposable. My own parents are closing in on fifty years of marriage. Their love has grown and I want to see what that pleasure is like. Despite all the pain, my own love has grown deeper and better with time. Where will it end?

The old, wiser writers called marriage a bloodless martyrdom. It makes me smile to read those words, until I remember that for these wise men martyrdom was a great honor. It was the chance to find glory in giving up self for God or a great cause. Marriage is after all a chance to die to self and form a new thing: a family. In all the intolerable cruelty of our self-centered age, that hard path is more needed than ever. It will require sacrifice, duty, and honor. God help us, with all our failures, to begin that bloodless martyrdom. Or so it seemed to me at the end of the movie as the credits rolled.

copyright 2003 John Mark Reynolds



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