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Re-Imagining Love into Marriage

The past decade, I've been a part of creating over 200 weddings. And that surprises me a bit. 

While I believe in romance and love as an artist, a scholar, and a human being who has been relatively happily married for almost thirty years, I have never been fully convinced that weddings or marriages were inherently good ideas. 

In most cultures worldwide, monogamous marriage has been primarily a social and economic construct that strengthens patriarchy, frequently casting women as secondary, as lesser, and often ultimately as a form of property. This perception of marriage centers procreation and strengthens reductive ideas about gender and gender roles that become self-perpetuating and actually don’t serve anyone particularly well, as I wrote about in a MythBlast last year

Current wedding ceremonies still echo traditions from ancient Greece when marriages were first, in Western culture, identified as a state-sanctioned benefit to the public interest. Wedding partners were chosen by the kyrios, guardian of the bride, usually the father. Potential suitors would show off their plumage with extravagant gifts, feasts, and games, and the victor and kyrios would then perform a ritual engysis, literally a “pledging into the hand,” where the two men would make a commitment to the marriage over a handshake. The woman being pledged wasn’t even in the room. 

Then, as women stepped into marriage, Hera as the archetypal image of wifehood was hardly an encouraging exemplar. Seduced by her brother Zeus in the form of a cuckoo (there’s a metaphor!), she got her version of a Big Fat Greek wedding that women are supposed to want, but then was continually condemned to rebelliously but often ineffectively stand on the sidelines as Zeus romped through affairs and seductions. In an institution defined by the importance of offspring, even bearing children became a place of competition; in revenge for Zeus’ creation of Athena, Hera bore Hephaistos without a father, and Zeus threw him to earth, crippling him. In The Iliad, Homer describes her character as “not of a very amiable kind, and its main features are jealousy, obstinacy, and a quarreling disposition, which sometimes makes her own husband tremble”(i. 522, 536, 561, v. 892. William Smith, ed. A New Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and Geography). In pop culture and media, wives are frequently still buffooned this way: the old ball-and-chain who nags and talks too much, gaining power by needling and conniving. 

As I work with couples who are optimistically seeking wedding rituals and meaning that can set the stage for a marriage that reflects their aspirations together and as individuals, they most often instinctively recoil from these echoes, but aren’t sure how they might supplant them. An entire industry has risen from this uncertainty, seducing couples into perceiving weddings as performative, gigantic overblown selfies, which in their own ways echo the extravagance of Greek suitor-competitors and the consolation prize of a grand wedding designed to impress observers.

In spite of how ubiquitously it sits in our collective imagination in the West now, the idea of love being required for marriage is a remarkably new idea.

In spite of how ubiquitously it sits in our collective imagination in the West now, the idea of love being required for marriage is a remarkably new idea. Emerging out of the courtly love longings of the medieval troubadours and trobairitz (for whom love and marriage were distinctly not intertwined), it wasn’t until the 18th century that society began to encourage young people to even consider romance as an antecedent to marriage. 

Interestingly, in the core definitions of kinds of love in the ancient Greek imagination, there isn’t an delineated image for love between married partners.They include:

  • Eros, erotic love

  • Agápe, unconditional love, primarily of god

  • Philia, affectionate love between equal compadres

  • Storge, the love between parents and children

  • Xenia, the love of hospitality

  • Philautia, self love, which can be either positive or negative

In 1973, in his book Colours of Love: An Exploration of the Ways of Loving, psychologist John Alan Lee made a valiant effort to broaden these qualities, including borrowing the word pragma as an image to evoke the love between long-time partners. In spite of its eager adaptation by many in the psychological community, there really isn’t much evidence that the Greeks utilized the word in this way. It’s also problematic etymologically, pulling from the Greek pragmatikos, or business-like, which holds layers of its Renaissance connotations of being meddlesome or impertinently busy. What a dreary way to imagine long-term love!

How then, might we re-imagine love into marriage? How can we hope to touch the essence of the bliss and the pain of an enduring love such that it amplifies our multitudes: of who we are, of how we love, of how we choose to live into that love? 

I think the answer lies in two ideas:

First, rather than trying to narrow what a long term love might look like to a single word or idea, we can instead understand ongoing love of a partnership as an intertwined dance of all of the ways we might love others or ourselves. We can love ourselves and partners as flawed and sometimes self-involved creatures who also have allure and divinity, are companions and family and sometimes strangers. This begins to give us a vocabulary of metaphors that could help us to expand into love that can both meet us in the moment and invite us to imagine beyond that. 

Second, as Campbell argued in this month’s highlighted book, The Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth, reflecting on the Grail legends and the lessons of the wounded Fisher King, installed by ritual rather than rightness: we find love when we follow our own nature, rather than simply respond to the expectations of society. If we build a wedding and a marriage following the essence of ourselves as two and one, we can begin to redefine marriage itself, and re-imagine love into its heart.

MythBlast authored by:

Leigh Melander, Ph.D. has an eclectic background in the arts and organizational development, working with inviduals and organizations in the US and internationally for over 20 years. She has a doctorate in cultural mythology and psychology and wrote her dissertation on frivolity as an entry into the world of imagination. Her writings on mythology and imagination can be seen in a variety of publications, and she has appeared on the History Channel, as a mythology expert. She also hosts a radio who on an NPR community affiliate: Myth America, an exploration into how myth shapes our sense of identity. Leigh and her husband opened Spillian, an historic lodge and retreat center celebrating imagination in the Catskills, and works with clients on creative projects. She is honored to have previously served as the Vice President of the Joseph Campbell Foundation Board of Directors.

This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 5, and Romance of the Grail


Latest Podcast

In this episode we welcome Chris Vogler. Chris is a Hollywood development executive, screenwriter, author and educator. He is best known for working with Disney and for his screenwriting guide, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers. Chris was inspired by the writings of Joseph Campbell, particularly The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He used Campbell's work to create a 7-page company memo for Hollywood screenwriters, A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces which he later developed into The Writer's Journey. He has since spun off his techniques into worldwide masterclasses. In the conversation, John Bucher of the Joseph Campbell Foundation speaks with Chris about his life, his work, the Hero’s Journey, the art of storytelling, and Joseph Campbell.


This Week's Highlights

A casual picture of Joseph Campbell

“Love is born of the eyes and the heart; it is an individual experience. The eyes quest in the outer world for the object of inspiration, and the heart receives the image, and this image then becomes the idol of individual devotion”

-- Joseph Campbell,  Romance of the Grail, 27



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