How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
W. H. Auden, “The More Loving One,” 1957
My wife, Nancy, and I have been married for 50 years. I consider this the greatest blessing of my fortunate life. Love in all its magnificent varieties is the greatest thing in existence, and for a half century I have had someone in my life whom it is easy to love.
For me and many others such love is made easier by the beauty and goodness of our loved one. It is true that looks are not everything, but most of us see some beauty in the person we marry, and this beauty draws us to him or her like moths to lights. If we are lucky, however, it not just beauty that attracts us, but also the goodness of the one we love. Nancy would be embarrassed for me to write any more about her goodness and would remind me that she can also be bitchy at times, so let me just say that for a half century my love for her has constantly been reinforced and strengthened by my admiration for her many kindnesses to others. When I read certain lines from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”—“that best portion of a good man's life, \ His little, nameless, unremembered, acts \ Of kindness and of love”—I think of her similar acts.
When we are younger, we often feel that we have to look out for ourselves. We need to get a good education. We need to find a satisfying career. We need to make ourselves appealing enough to find a loving partner who will reciprocate our love. These tasks are often difficult. They often require hard work and a lot of luck.
But if we are fortunate, as we get older we can concentrate less on our own needs and more on those of others: on those of our spouse, our children, our grandchildren, those we work with, and those of our communities in the most varied sense of the term.
In my own case, it was not until I was about forty years old and became a full professor that I began to feel that I could concentrate less on proving myself. Of course, in various ways proving our own worth to others (and ourselves) never ends, but in early middle age I could at last deemphasize it and start concentrating more on caring about others.
The wonderful thing about a good marriage, however, is that it forces you from day one—actually even before then in the courtship period—to focus on the needs and desires of your loved one.
We are all different, each of us a unique personality. And some of us are more caring, more concerned with others even when we are young. Others of us are occupied in caring professions, like nursing, which give us ample opportunities to care for others. But for me, and probably for many others, the discipline of marriage, or at least some type of long-term commitment, provides a wonderful setting in which to reduce our egoism, to make us focus more on someone else besides ourselves.
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I remember once talking to a few single mothers who said they were teaching their daughters to seek out only men who would really be loving toward them. This advice reminded me of the words of the poet Auden quoted at the beginning of this essay: “If equal affection cannot be, \
Let the more loving one be me.” The homosexual Auden was writing partly from an aching experience in which he loved a younger man more than he was loved back.
I think Auden was more correct than the mothers I talked to: It is better to love than be loved—although reciprocated love is even better. For one thing we have more control over how much we love. We can have some influence on how much we are loved, but we cannot control it. In addition, love is an active virtue, the greatest one, I would argue. Being loved is nice and can do much for our self-esteem, but it requires nothing special on our part.
What love requires, inside and outside of marriage, was once spelled out by helper-of-the-poor Dorothy Day: It “must be sustained by an effort of the will. It is not just an emotion, a warm feeling of gratification. It must lie still and quiet, dull and smoldering, for periods. It grows through suffering and patience and compassion. We must suffer for those we love, we must endure their trials and their sufferings.” On another occasion, she wrote: “Love—to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not, seventy times seven, to mothers-in-law, to husbands, to children—and to be oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury—not to see them, not to hear them. . . . not judge, not do anything, but love, love, love.” (See here for source of quotes.)
Even in the best of marriages, spouses sometimes feel hurt, injured, or unappreciated by their mate. How useful Day’s advice is that we should try to minimize such defensive feelings and just try to love more! If we take offense too easily, we are still too wrapped up in ourselves.
Even after 50 years of marriage, I still have difficulties at times appreciating how different Nancy and I are. How differently we think and feel! In a previous essay on love, I quoted several insightful passages on love and marriage from Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, but I will repeat only one of them here. Berry’s hero, Jayber, imagines what it might be like to be married to a woman he loves and the thinks, “Would she not at times have been as incomprehensible and exasperating to me as most men’s wives appear at times?” I suspect that both husbands and wives have sometimes experienced these feelings. It is partly our generic gender difference, as pointed out in Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, and partly the fact that we are two distinct individual personalities, with all the differences that that implies, regardless of gender.
These differences necessitate good communication and strong empathy if love is to flourish. A spouse must constantly make an effort to feel as one’s loved one feels. And our differences can be a strength. They can complement rather than battle each other.
In many marriages temptations arise. The cases of married middle-aged men falling for younger women are fodder for television and movies. Sometimes this results from middle-aged men accepting the values of a consumer culture that urges us to equate beauty with youthful looks and avoid such signs of aging as wrinkles. But it’s also true that regardless of how much beauty we see in our spouses, there is still much beauty emanating from other people, male and female. And all sorts of other factors can tempt us to stray. But if we love strongly it can hold us back from betraying our spouse because we realize the hurt it could inflict.
The pleasures of a long marriage are many, and one in particular is all the shared memories we have: the births of our children and grandchildren and numerous other family memories, all the traveling we have done together, and much more. Like with everyone else, there were good times and bad times, but we feel blessed to have experienced so much together, and can even laugh now as we look back at some of the stupid things we did.
In Jayber Crow, Berry depicts one marriage involving a beautiful, good, and loving wife, and she is married to a “loser,” and in a 2012 interview Berry stated “I know perfectly well that nobody can judge anybody else’s marriage and say that any particular divorce should not happen.” Love is great, and Auden is correct to say “Let the more loving one be me,” but even great love on the part of one spouse cannot always save a marriage. We both realize how lucky we’ve been.