Valentine’s Day has become the high holy day of the cult of romantic love. It began as a pagan celebration that, in the 5th Century, became a Christian religious holiday still observed across the world by a variety of faith communities. In contemporary America, however, it has shed most Christian associations, and now billions of dollars (and countless anxieties) are spent on a day that embodies our culture’s extraordinary emphasis on romantic love.
Catholic thinker Michael Novak locates the myth of romantic love in our unfulfilled passion. He distinguishes romantic love from an embodied, other-oriented Christian love. But it’s worth exploring the possibility that elements of the same basic human desire lie at the core of both: a deep and abiding need for profound and lasting—indeed eternal—emotional and spiritual intimacy, the dream of shared meaning and unified fulfillment of our deepest hopes with the “one.”
Romantic Love and Religious Devotion
Romance in new relationships is often exciting, fresh, and full of relational and sexual tension. The new relationship is filled with possibility and may finally be the love that is endless. Of course, many of these feelings seem destined to diminish over time. Still, almost everyone wants to fall in love. Everyone wants to be loved. Most people also want to love others in a meaningful and lasting way. However, to form an enduring relationship, many have to overcome the personal anxieties and relational fears that prevent full, life-long commitment. The bliss of early romance provides the catalyst that many people need before making the leap that is necessary for a long-term commitment to another flawed person.
Romantic love may be God’s gift to help human beings overcome relational fear. As electric as the initial sparks may be, it is even more vital to explore and honor the expression of romance in enduring relationships. In other words, we need to celebrate how couples in long-term relationships choose to keep love alive, rekindle their initial romance, and find ways to keep experiencing the sparks that brought them together. Staying power is rare and envied.
Journalist Carolyn Gregoire surveyed the scientific findings on lasting romantic love and found six characteristics of couples that “keep intense romantic love alive for decades and entire lifetimes.” Her list begins with knowing that life-long romance is in fact possible (35-40 percent of couples married 30 years or more said they are “very intensely in love”). She also highlights maintaining a sense of “love blindness” (focusing on and idealizing one’s partner), trying new things together, avoiding neediness by preserving independence, having passion for life that carries over to the relationship, and seeing a relationship as a joint journey toward self-fulfillment.
We would add a seventh research-based principle to enduring romantic love—religious life. Based on the evidence of social science research as well as on our personal experience (in more than a combined 50 years in happy marriages), we have seen that a healthy religious life can enhance romantic love by providing couples with a shared sense of sacred meaning, commitment to a sacred cause larger than the relationship, regular opportunities to enjoy sacred (even transcendent) experiences together, and the renewing of self that comes from devoted spiritual practice.
Despite the relatively high divorce rate and recurring reports of more people losing their religion, both true love and genuine faith remain treasured above all else by many. Americans’ long love affair with religion and spirituality, despite inevitable ups and downs, is woven into the fabric of many strong families and strong communities.
For many, religious conversion is a lot like romantic love.
There are strong feelings, new exciting relationships (with God, with fellow believers, and with new ideas), new mysteries to explore, and much about the new faith seems pristine, pure, and perfect. As many of us who convert to a new faith and remain in it for decades learn, while there are moments of transcendent joy, the day-to-day realities of living a life of faith are much like a long-term marriage. The prevailing truth is that sustained love and enduring faith both involve a deep sense of commitment, hard work, and repentance followed by improvement.
Some medieval Catholic mystics taught this idea. Christian art historian Matthew Milliner writes, “Medieval mystics, most famously Bernard of Clairvaux in his sermons on the Song of Songs, periodically used sexual imagery to describe the indescribable: union with Christ. . . . Sexual language in this context was not a breach of chastity because—as the monastic audience of the accounts implies—it transcended physical consummation.” He adds, “In the twelfth century, Hildegard of Bingen actually dressed her nuns as brides when they went forward to receive communion.”
Problems with Prioritizing Romance Over Religion
Our Western fixation on romantic love and waning focus on religion are increasing apace. A historical study by scholar Sarah Balstrup suggests that people in the West have increasingly replaced Christianity with the “religion” of romantic love and that as people set religious institutions aside, they turn to romantic relationships to fulfill an expanding range of needs that religion once satisfied for its own devoted faithful.
The escalating focus on romantic love, however, can create a crushing burden for relationships, suggesting that another flawed human being can fulfill all of the deepest needs and yearnings of our soul. Religious thinkers such as C.S. Lewis have argued that only sustained devotion to a perfect God and to one’s faith community can fill certain holes in the soul. Psychologist Erik Erikson similarly emphasized that relational care and love were insufficient and that trust (e.g., faith) and hope are also essential for a rich life—with the richest lives involving generativity or giving selflessly to others, including those who cannot give back to us.
In sum, there are yearnings that cannot be filled by romance alone. It may be that with certain human needs, only religion provides what romance promises and often fails to deliver. Indeed, a patient and enduring commitment to God, the institution of marriage, and a faith community may be the best available combination to help people establish and maintain healthy, happy, and lasting romantic relationships.
Sexuality and Spirituality
Religion may help strengthen some aspects of marriage, but doesn’t it also stifle sexual expression, foster sexual repression, guilt, or otherwise harm sexuality in couples? Empirical evidence actually indicates that religion mostly benefits sexual health and happiness in committed relationships.
In her introduction to a special issue of the American Journal of Sexuality Education, Rev. Debra Haffner, self-described “sexologist minister,” argues that faith communities teach that “our sexuality and our spirituality are intimately connected” and reports, “denominations, congregations, and seminaries are now integrating sexuality issues into their ministries.” She concludes by saying, “Sexuality education is a moral issue and faith communities have a special role to play in teaching and supporting the people they serve to become sexually healthy adults.”
While the relationship between religion and sexuality is complex, a number of rigorous studies have shown that, on the whole, religious involvement has a number of benefits on sexual frequency, quality, and satisfaction in long-term relationships. In a report of a global study of religion and family life, University of Virginia professor of sociology Brad Wilcox and other scholars found that, among husbands and wives aged 18-50, a significantly higher percentage of those identifying themselves as highly religious agreed with the statement “I am satisfied with my sexual relationship with my partner”, compared to those who were less religious or not religious at all.
Social researchers Jeff Dew and Brian Willoughby similarly reported, “Although popular culture will likely continue to exploit religiosity for its stereotypes (including sexual stereotypes), the reality may be a bit more complex. Indeed, when taken together, our findings suggest that a new adjective best describes marital sex between religious couples: ‘satisfying.’”
Of course, while there is wide variation among religious communities in their teachings about sexuality, many faiths teach the spiritual value of sexual restraint, the relational value of sexual fidelity, and the social value of sexual responsibility. These three values may not be considered “sexy” but they typically lead to sexual trust and sexual bonding that are core to long-term sexual satisfaction and security.
A study by marriage scholars Dean Busby, Jason Carroll, and Brian Willoughby found that “sexual restraint” was positively associated with later marital relational outcomes. They concluded that “the longer a couple waited to become sexually involved the better their sexual quality, relationship communication, relationship satisfaction, and perceived relationship stability was in marriage.”
There is no shortage of books on sacred sexuality. For example, in his Sacred Sexuality: The Erotic Spirit in the World’s Great Religions” Georg Feuerstein “examines the history of sexuality as a sacramental act . . . in Christianity, Judaism, goddess worship, Taoism, and Hinduism” but the topic is, by no means, simply a modern manifestation of a sex-saturated culture. Recent research by Chelom Leavitt, Eva Lefkowitz, and Emily Waterman finds that “more sexually mindful individuals tended to have better self-esteem, be more satisfied with their relationships and, particularly for women, be more satisfied with their sex lives.”
Religious Life Can Redeem and Resurrect Romantic Love
Romantic love alone cannot bear the burden of a long-term relationship. Many caught up in the raptures of the cult of romance simultaneously divorce themselves from religious beliefs, values, practices, and faith community ties. Even so, our two decades of in-depth interviews with diverse and happily married wives and husbands in long-term marriages indicate that the holy grail of eternal love can be discovered in a counterintuitive way. In the words of the early 20th century French laureate Antoine de Saint-Exupery, “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
Romance can be an important part of a happy, healthy marriage and religion can both redeem and resurrect romance in a long-term relationship. This includes Jewish husbands singing “A Woman of Valor” to his wife each Shabbat evening, a Protestant or Catholic couple engaging in a renewal of marriage vows, couples attending church together, or a Latter-day Saint couple regularly going together to the temple to perform temple sealings that involve a recitation of their own marital vows. Modern Orthodox Jewish author Blu Greenberg recalls times of watching her husband do his daily prayers, and noted, “For some reason these are all romantic memories for me; a mixture of faith and sexuality, and at times a sense of nearness to God.”
Beyond heart and hormones, a growing body of social science research demonstrates that these kinds of religious practices, and many others, can enhance marriage and even romance. Both personal and shared religious involvement are associated with a range of relationship benefits. Research by marriage and family therapists Mark Butler, Julie Stout, and Brandt Gardner found that prayer in couple relationships leads to relationship softening, marital healing, and positive relationship change.
Our own research over the past two decades with the American Families of Faith project has documented that religious beliefs and spiritual practices in diverse faith communities can help couples better avoid and address marital conflict, reconcile following relational conflict or distance, enhance marital commitment, remain faithful to each other in long-term marriages, and (perhaps most importantly) provide a “shared marital and family vision” that motivates, influences, and encourages women and men to remain one in purpose and mission.
Remain, Run, or Resurrect?
While marriage scholar John Gottman has found that an abiding friendship may be the foundation of a successful lasting marriage, periodic romantic love may be the necessary added spark. Romance stories often present married persons with two start options: remain in a seemingly dead marriage (out of duty or loyalty to God, church, spouse, children) or run off with another person who promises a new and exciting life full of unfulfilled romantic fantasies, thereby causing the dying marriage to desist.
While romantic feelings can be a wonderful catalyst to begin and help sustain a long-term relationship, tragically, they can also be the impetus of an illicit affair that destroys a marriage. Romantic feelings involving a person who is already married to someone else often lead to terrible destruction, a kind of blood offering for the cult of romance.
What is only rarely explored is a third option: resurrect the dead or dying marriage through work, sacrifice, counseling—and some romance. What is considered romantic differs across people, cultures, and time. For many, fueled by commercial interests, flowers, chocolates, expensive jewelry, and fancy restaurants are the stuff of romance. For more mature relationships, romance can be felt from simple acts of kindness or service. Some women feel there is little sexier than a man willing to shoulder a generous load of housework.
Transcendence in Romantic Love and Religious Life
Summarizing studies about transcendent experiences, scholars Jeff Levin and Lea Steele write that transcendent experiences involve “a state of consciousness characterized by altered or expanded awareness.” People often struggle to describe their transcendent experience. Some report they are beyond understanding; others say they are more real and more authentic than everyday experience. Mark Woodhouse identified a core set of experiences as including a sense of unity, positive moods, positive changes in attitude, acceptance, inner knowing of profound meaning, and transiency. Other terms often used include a sense of awe, holiness, or worship.
Interestingly, many of the above named characteristics of experience are also present in romantic love, which has been defined as a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life that is also described using words like mystique, newness, ecstatic, electrifying, and transient. The phrase that one person “worships the ground” on which his love walks captures the sense of awe and devotion often present in romantic love.
Descriptions of both romantic and religious transcendence often include the sense of experiencing a little bit of heaven on earth, of a thinning or even piercing of the veil between heaven and earth, the sense of being touched by divine power, and a revealing of divine destiny.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stated, “physical intimacy is not only a symbolic union between a husband and a wife—the very uniting of their souls—but it is also symbolic of a shared relationship between them and their Father in Heaven. . . . These are moments when we quite literally unite our will with God’s will, our spirit with His spirit, where communion through the veil becomes very real.”
Transcendent experiences have been put in two types called green type and mature type. The green type is more transitory, ecstatic, and pleasure-oriented. The mature type is an enduring experience of serenity and sacred unity. Romantic love has also been divided into stages as it matures. Psychologist Leon Seltzer writes, “in a relationship that has been ‘realized,’ romance is fated to grow into something . . . less mysterious, blissful, or special” but he continues, “surprising your partner in a large variety of ways can help to revivify certain feelings of romance” (emphasis in original).
Romantic love can be the spark that leads to a mature, lasting marriage, much like a spiritual conversion that can ignite a mature, long-term commitment to God or a faith community. Perhaps the integration of romantic love and religious life is one way to obtain deep and lasting love in an enduring marriage.
Divine Sparks of Romantic Love
Even if the marriage between religion and romantic love was made by heaven, it has since had its share of incompatibilities, ups and downs, and rough patches. Even so, perhaps, like all lasting marriages, it can be worked on and consecrated to the wellbeing of both partners.
In the mystical theology of the Jewish Kabbalah, there are primordial divine sparks from the Creation that could not be contained in sacred vessels, but remain in broken shards that include this world and everyone in it. Jewish thinker Howard Schwartz observed, “when enough holy sparks have been gathered, the broken vessels will be restored, and tikkun olam, the repair of the world, awaited so long, will finally be complete. Therefore, it should be the aim of everyone to raise these sparks from wherever they are imprisoned and to elevate them to holiness by the power of their soul.”
We might think of the sparks of romantic love as a divine gift that illuminates our broken hearts and souls in this fractured world and gives us, even if only for a short time, a sense of the divine. We might think of the work of marriage to gather the sparks of romantic love that are present in every one of us—frail and broken vessels we are—by our ongoing efforts to raise our relationships to a degree of holiness and perhaps even repair the brokenness in our hearts, minds, and relationships. This is only possible with patient work combined with divine grace.
For most of the couples who have allowed us to visit their homes over the years as we conducted research on their time-tested marriages, their relationships embrace a shared marital vision that include a loving God who in turn taught them to love each other deeply and, Heaven willing, eternally.
David C. Dollahite, PhD, is Camilla Eyring Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University and author of Strengths in Diverse Families of Faith: Exploring Religious Differences (Routledge, 2020).
Loren D. Marks, PhD, is Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University and author of Religion and Families: An Introduction (Routledge, 2017).