Tenderness in Marriage
by Rev. Peter M. Buss
Every one of us can fail at times to appreciate that the ideal of conjugial love is a new concept. The world of Swedenborg's time was such that the Lord inspired him to write: "There is a love truly conjugial; which is so rare at the present day that its quality is not known, and scarcely that it exists." (CL 57) A strong statement indeed! The ideal sense of marriage into which the Lord created the first man had become so dimmed by evil and intentional forgetfulness that by the eighteenth century mankind had no real idea of what marriage ought to be. A few had the ideal, but none had the truths to give quality to the hope which was in their hearts.
What about today? Have marriages improved a great deal in the last two centuries? Is conjugial love better known, outside of the New Church? Of course it is not. People, good people, who will find their way into heaven and be taught there by the Lord about eternal marriage and its laws, are ignorant on earth about the real nature of its bond. Certain generals they have, but little more; and many of the ideas they have are social customs, confused patterns of behavior, which find little basis in principle.
Conjugial love is scarcely known in the world today. How can we deny this? It is not a criticism of individuals whom we know and respect, but a statement of fact. Where, outside of the Writings, is there a true and consistent statement of the eternity of marriage? Where is there the certain promise that in the spiritual world men and women shall retain their individual sexes, and be united as husband and wife once more? Where, apart from the Writings, is there the knowledge of the interior character which makes man to be man and women to be woman? Where the description of how marriage changes the state of mind of two people, and through a lifetime welds them into one angel - two beings separate as to identity, but whose greatest freedom is the will to be one? There is not one single body of teaching outside of the New Word which describes marriage as the Creator envisaged it, and provides it.
There are only a few ideals, based on the single but compelling teaching of the Lord on earth: "He who made them in the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they twain shall be one flesh. Wherefore they are no more twain but one flesh." (Matthew 19: 4-6) But compare this single utterance with the indefinite concepts opened up in the work Conjugial Love. In this work we are told about the Divine origin of marriage from the Lord Himself. We learn about marriage in the heavens, and hear also how people coming into the spiritual world are prepared for an eternal union. We are told that marriage is the highest state, and how its bonds change the state of each partner, forming them slowly into a unit of heavenly society. The conjunction of conjugial love with the love of infants; preparation for marriage as the Lord would will it; wherein the conjunction of souls and minds resides; the things opposed to and destructive of this ultimate blessing: these and countless other details present the willing reader with a picture of eternal joy that appears nowhere else on earth.
Conjugial love as a concept is not unique to the New Church. But the details which make possible a conscious and full realization of this blessing on earth - these we will find only in the Writings.
Now let us stop to reflect on that fact. If it is so, then surely our ideas about marriage should be taken mainly from the Writings. Here is something new. That means that it will change many of the present ideas about marriage, providing instead different thoughts, new approaches, unique laws from which we should view our consorts. Then let us ask ourselves to what degree we as New Church men actually use the teachings of the Writings in our relationships with our married partners. All to often the answer is that we seldom do. Couples who ask these questions sincerely may find that the only New Church idea about marriage which they really do apply is that it is eternal. They may add that they know that it is from the Lord, but they are not too sure what that means. As for the rest of the teachings on the subject, they know them vaguely, but have a feeling that they are in fact presenting an ideal far removed from the practical state in which they are.
Where, then, do we get our ideas about and our approaches to marriage. Most of them come from the culture in which we live, that same culture of which the Writings say that it scarcely knows of the existence of conjugial love, let alone of its quality. What about temper in marriage? Have we asked ourselves what the Writings say about it, or do we assume that :it is natural as most people do? What about arguments in marriage? Do we seek to find from the Writings to what degree we should insist on our opinions, when we must stand fast, and when we must have patience and understanding? Or do we think that this is something which each person must work out according to the circumstances, and it has little to do with conscience? What about harshness in marriage? When are we allowed to feel that we have the right to punish the other partner for some wrong thing he or she has done? Do the Writings have anything to say about that?
If they do not, then the teaching about conjugial love has no meaning to the normal, frail, frequently bad-tempered and unkind man who is probably on the first steps toward heaven. Of course they speak about these and countless other things. They speak in the language of principles, universal ideas, which govern and provide light in all these practical areas.
So, when we consider the subject of tenderness towards our married partners, we should do so with the reminder that our thoughts on this subject may be strongly influenced by the casual and often tragically cynical ideas which experience and materialism have impressed up on us. Let us lift ourselves above these ideas, and strive to see the way in which the Divine pattern provided in the New Word dictates a new concept. Then we can descend to practical living and see how it can become reality.
Tenderness is a strange, word, because we usually associate it with helplessness. We think of feeling tenderness towards a little baby, who is defenseless and easily hurt; or someone aged and infirm, or someone crippled, who can no longer help himself. We think the same way about certain animals which we know we could harm by neglect. But we do not think of it toward another human being, healthy and strong like ourselves who seems perfectly capable of taking care of himself or herself. Toward our consorts, therefore, it is natural to assume a somewhat harder approach, one which demands give and take, one in which each person is protective of his or her rights, and determined, even to the point of unpleasantness, to ensure them.
Far too many marriages are based on a type of friendship typical of high school boys. When young boys form friendships in teenage life they develop a fairly rigid code of decency which they expect themselves and their friends to observe. The code is essentially a good one in that it is based on fairness; each person gets an equal share of rights and benefits; and it is assumed that each person will look out for himself, and that if he is not getting his due will take steps to set the matter right. Each friend also is fiercely protective of his personal freedom, and resists any attempts by a friend to get him to do what he does not feel like doing: As long as such rules are observed the friendship can be a rewarding thing. Couples are tempted to adopt a similar attitude in marriage, tend to think of the marriage as a partnership, each person putting in a certain amount of effort, each one accommodating up to a certain point, and each one guaranteed a certain degree of freedom. If these degrees are passed, then the partner who is in the wrong has to be brought back to a sense of his or her duties, and this is done, usually, by anger, threats and quarrels. It is easy to slip into such a pattern of marriage, the essential of which is that each is guarding his or her rights, and is prepared to be very kind and loving as long as these are recognized.
Such a concept may seem to be a practical one, yet it is very far indeed from the approach which the Writings seem to present. For the constant protection of one's own rights in marriage is quite different from the spirit of concern for the needs and loves of one's consort which we are striving to learn. Where each individual insists that the other play his or her part, then the results of disagreements, and the insistence of each point of view, will be arguments, and harshness towards each other.
It is usually because each person wants what he considers to be his way that marriages fail. The only problem in marriage is the proprium of each person, and the proprium, that is, selfishness, insists on its own way and rights at all times. When it does not get them it becomes hard towards the supposed opponent, is tempted to hurt and to withdraw, wants to bring misery. Such hardness can turn to hatred and even the will to murder, and this is why the Lord said: "Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives [for any cause] but from the beginning it was not so." (Matthew 19: 8) Divorce for any little disagreement was never in the Divine plan. It was the harshness of two human beings towards each other which made it necessary.
What about the marriages which do not fail? What about the many who work out a partnership along the lines of a teenage friendship, with somewhat maturer attitudes thrown in as well. There are many such. Thousands of good people in the world today have made their peace with their consorts; each has agreed to keep certain rules, or bear the consequences; and over the years they have learned to get along with each other, and to have a deep fondness for each other. They are usually said to be happily married.
But that is not the ideal the Writings hold out for mankind. Within such a relationship there is not true tenderness. There is a reserve of love, a threat of punishment and unpleasantness and stern reprimand if the will of another is not done in certain things. It is not the ideal state; it is something lower.
The Writings speak of a tender love between husband and wife, (CL 321: 7) which softens their hearts towards each other, and the desire of heart and mind to do him or her every good. (CL 181) This is a thought above the normal concept of marriage in the world, and is not to be rejected simply because it has not, been practiced in the past! It is possible, and is, in fact, the only true relationship between a man and his wife. And it is true that if we raise our, minds above mundane experience we will see that this is the way love ought to be.
In many places the Writings give illustrations of the gentleness of love between husband and wife in the ideal union. A particularly appealing example is found in Conjugial Love 56, a Memorable Relation. Swedenborg asked to visit a temple of wisdom, and upon arriving and entering he noticed that there were two sections. He asked the angel with whom he was why this was so, and was told: "I am not alone: my wife is with me." He then inquired what a wife was doing in a temple of wisdom, and the angel, somewhat indignant, called on several male friends to enlighten this visitor on the fact that there is no such thing as male wisdom without a wife, for she is the love, the life, of it. They discussed then the beauty of womankind, and it was especially affecting to sense the gentleness with which these husbands spoke of their wives. One said: "Women are created beauties [speaking of internal beauty also] not for their own sake but for men; that men, of themselves hard, may be softened; that their dispositions, of themselves harsh, may become gentle; and their hearts of themselves cold, may become warm. And such they do become when they become one flesh [one love] with their wives." Then the wife of the first angel came through the partition and invited him to speak, and in her presence the love of his wisdom, coming from her, softened his voice, and gave gentleness to the thoughts that he presented.
Why is it so important that we be gentle with our consorts above all others? To begin with, we see that it is the face of love, and that tender ness truly belongs to love. But there is a deeper reason even than that. In the internal sense tenderness has reference to loves which are just beginning to grow, which have not as yet come to full strength, and so are fragile, easily hurt and destroyed. (AC 4377) While we are growing towards heaven, each one of us is learning to love, and what we have presently acquired is very fragile and much in need of protection. All good loves, all innocent loves, are tender, newborn within us at first, and it is these nascent feelings from heaven that we want to share with the person whom we have vowed to love to all eternity. It is important that we learn to be tender with each other's feelings, so that our consorts can open their hearts and share their newfound joys with us without fear of having them trampled on and scorned. It is this interior gentleness toward the innocent loves of heaven rising up within each other which in time we must come to feel. For in the communion of these interior joys there is heavenly happiness. "They dwell together in all things, even to the inmost. They who so dwell together on earth dwell together as angels after death." (Marriage Service, Liturgy. Cf. AC 2732)
How can such gentle love exist, or such sharing be possible, if we are inconsiderate or harsh with the external feelings of our partners? We can all produce hundreds of examples of such hardness; when one partner' wants or needs understanding, or sympathy, or consolation, and receives instead coldness or impatience; when a partner offers love, or has a joyous response to some good thing, and is squashed by aloofness because the other feels bad-tempered or tired; especially, perhaps, when all the considerateness shown by, say, the wife during a whole week is negated because the husband becomes enraged over one single bit of neglect. Such negative feelings are a lack of tenderness, and they hurt the gentle, growing loves in the mind of the consort, cause them to shrivel up and form a protective layer against further hurt. And hearts become hardened, and draw apart. Then how can one go on to trust another with the interior loves, far deeper than those just described, if there is no consideration for exterior ones?
Now there is not one of us who has not been guilty of hardness many times in our married lives. We all have propriums, selfish wishes and ambitions and needs, and we all insist on them at some time or another. The Lord is not going to condemn us because we have slipped; neither, in time, will our partners, if, and only if, we admit that such harshness is not good! The path to conjugial love is also the path to heaven; they are the same path. It is beset by many pitfalls, shadowed by many regrets. But the Lord does not ask us to despair if we fail at times. What matters is that we keep on walking, by admitting our faults and trying harder the next time.
Perhaps the most difficult thing in all of life is to admit, when in a moment of anger, that anger is wrong; and such an acknowledgment will come only slowly. We are asked, when our hearts feel hardened towards our partners, to look at the person whom above all others in life we love, and force ourselves to admit the wrongness of what we feel, resist the temptation to hurt, and pray and work for the return of tenderness. Of course it is difficult; but not, as the hells would suggest, too difficult to be practiced. It is hard, because hell fights against tender love between married partners more than against any other feeling, and glories in combat and strife within the home. But in our moments of tender love we know that it can be done; that for the sake of a love which softens us eternally, the effort and the apology are worth making. For what married couple has not felt, in their moments of deep communion, that their greatest wish is for the time to come when never again will they hurt each other?
And the Lord promises that it will be so, because it is from Him that love truly conjugial with its tenderness flows into the heart of a married couple. "And I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within you; and I will take the stony heart out of their flesh, and will give them a heart of flesh; that they may walk in My statutes, and keep Mine ordinances, and do them: and they shall be My people, and I will be their God." (Ezekiel 11: 19, 20)
-New Church Life 1974;94:56-62