Romantic & Generic Love

by Glenn Conjurske

That there are two kinds of love, romantic and generic, human experience abundantly testifies, and so does Holy Scripture. Romantic love says, “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.” (Song of Solomon 2:5). Yet it is perfectly plain that such love is entirely out of place in every relationship but one. If such love were thrust into a relationship with father, mother, brother, sister, pastor, or friend, the whole world would feel this to be grotesque and abnormal—-either that, or unchaste and criminal. We are bound to love all these, but with a different sort of love.

This much is obvious, or ought to be. Yet ignorance confounds these two kinds of love, and hyperspirituality makes a determined effort to equate them, or to replace the romantic with the generic kind.

We recently came across an excellent admonition to husbands to love their wives, from the pen of Richard Baxter, yet we fear its excellency is largely nullified by his apparent confusion of two different kinds of love. Of a dozen directives which he gives, I quote but the first six. Baxter says, “1. Choose one at first that is truly amiable, especially in the virtues of the mind. 2. Marry not till you are sure that you can love entirely. Be not drawn for sordid ends, to join with one that you have but ordinary affections for. 3. Be not too hasty, but know beforehand all the imperfections, which may tempt you afterwards to loathing. But if these duties have been sinfully neglected, yet, 4. Remember that justice commandeth you to love one that hath, as it were, forsaken all the world for you, and is contented to be the companion of your labours and sufferings, and be an equal sharer in all conditions with you, and that must be your companion until death. It is worse than barbarous inhumanity to entice such a one into a bond of love, and society with you, and then to say, you cannot love her. This was by perfidiousness to draw her into a snare to her undoing. What comfort can she have in her converse with you, and care, and labour, and necessary sufferings, if you deny her conjugal love? Especially, if she deny not love to you, the inhumanity is the greater. 5. Remember that women are ordinarily affectionate, passionate creatures, and as they love much themselves, so they expect much love from you. And when you joined yourself to such a nature, you obliged yourself to answerable duty: and if love cause not love, it is ungrateful and unjust contempt. 6. Remember that you are under God’s command; and to deny conjugal love to your wives, is to deny a duty which God hath urgently imposed on you”

Now observe, in the first and third of his directives, he advises us to secure worth and character. This is wise advice, and these two will be a great help, if not a plain necessity, to love.

In the second directive, in which he advises to refrain from marriage until we have found one we can love entirely, and to reject any for whom we have but ordinary affection, the only proper application is to romantic love, whether Baxter so understood it or not. To apply such a directive to generic love would be to empty it of its meaning. If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we ought to so love one neighbor as well as another, regardless of their worth or character. We can do this. But it is a plain impossibility for a man to love entirely every woman in a romantic way, as he is obliged to love every neighbor in a generic way. For many women he never can have any more than “ordinary affections,” and for many others, none at all, of the romantic kind. Baxter’s directive is very pertinent if applied to romantic love, but quite as mistaken if applied to the other kind.

But he proceeds, in the fourth and following directives, to admonish us, in the case we have sinfully neglected to secure a woman of worth and character, and one whom we can love entirely, to love her nevertheless. Yet by referring to this as “conjugal love,” he clouds the issue. He has no doubt felt and experienced both kinds of love, yet he fails to make any distinction between them, but mingles them together, and treats them as though they are but one. The effect of this is immeasurably to weaken the force of his admonitions. He exhorts us to the possible and the impossible together, as though they were but one thing, and those who pursue that path are likely to despair of the possible along with the impossible.

It may be the very truth that he “cannot love her” in a romantic way, but he surely can love her with common love, and though this will never satisfy all the cravings of her heart, yet to treat her with kindness and gentleness and consideration will keep her from being miserable. In a discussion on this theme I once asked a woman which she would rather have, romantic love or generic. She said she would most desire whichever kind she didn’t have. But if a woman has neither the one nor the other, she will be miserable indeed, and the presence of the one will go a long way to mitigate her sorrows for the absence of the other.

We think as a general rule that romantic love will foster and secure generic love—-at least, it must do so where a man has a dime’s worth of character—-and it is certain that the lack of romantic love will work to weaken and hinder generic love. But the presence of generic love will not produce romantic love. Romance must flow from another source. A man may have the most tender, thoughtful, self-denying, and enduring generic love towards a woman for whom it is an utter impossibility for him to feel any romantic love at all. And what is he to do if he is married to such a woman? You will say, he ought not to be. We grant it—-we contend for it—-we preach it. Yet the plain fact is, there are many men who are married to such women. This, through various causes: some because parents or elders arranged the marriage; some because they married for character, or spirituality, or money, or position, or anything other than love; some because they married on the advice of friends; some because something or somebody convinced them that it was the will of God; some because they married without knowing what love was, or without knowledge enough of each other to know whether they had it; many because they could not win the woman they wanted, and so settled for the one they could get. For such reasons as these, many men are married to women they cannot love, in the romantic sense, yet this does not absolve them of their responsibility to love their wives. If they cannot love her romantically, or can only love her but weakly in a romantic way, so much the more ought they to love her with that common love which will ease her burdens and smooth her path. If a man is unable to give her the love which a woman’s heart by nature craves, let him by all means give her what love he can.

I had no sooner written the preceding paragraph than I happened across, in some of my reading for the day, the following pertinent remarks, under the heading of “MATRIMONIAL BLUNDERS.” “There are a great many foolish marriages in this world. Even sensible people in other things make some strange mistakes in this important matter. If men would exercise as much caution and common sense in selecting a wife as they do in picking out a horse; and if women would be as particular in choosing a husband as in picking out a dress or a bonnet, one half of the bad matches would never have been made.

“Some marry without considering the importance of such a step. They think it is a grand thing to have some one they can call their own.

“I knew a man once that married a woman the second time that he ever saw her, and within a week of the first time of seeing her. He wanted another and could not get her, and to show her that he could get a wife, he married with less than a week’s acquaintance.” Here I interrupt the quotation to observe that it is very common for men to marry what they can get, when they are unable to get what they want, and women are perhaps more prone to this than men. This, of course, makes bad marriages. The writer continues, “He lived with his bride just seven days, and then went away, and she never heard from him for three years. He came back to her then, and stayed till he died, which was a number of years after. Some marry for the sake of a housekeeper, and others for the sake of a home. Some marry for money, and others for social position.

“But in all these motives for marrying, the question of adaptation is generally overlooked, as when a man wants some one to look after his home, and takes the first eligible woman that comes in his way; or when a woman wants a home, and accepts the first man that offers her one.

“Now, they may or they may not be adapted to each other. There may be incongruities of temperament, differences in religious sentiment, educational biasses of the mind, a want of harmony in tastes and pursuits, and many other peculiarities in one or both that render them unfit companions for each other.

“And although two persons may not be adapted to each other, that does not prove that they are not worthy of good companions. It only shows that they have not made the right selection, that is all.”

The last paragraph is peculiarly pertinent, and it is just here that we see the great necessity of distinguishing between romantic and common love. Though it is quite true that married persons “may not be adapted to each other” in tastes, or temperament, or religion, or any number of other things, yet one of the most common sources of trouble lies in the simple matter of love, which this author overlooks altogether. Indeed, he writes on the next page, “While I am no admirer of lovesick lunies, either male or female, I do insist upon it that the affinities that bring people together into this closest of all human bonds should be something more refined, pure and exalted, than mere material considerations.” We think so too, and yet we are sure also that if love is left out of the matter, our efforts at congruity in other matters will only be so much labor lost. Is the bride in Solomon’s Song but a “lovesick luny,” because she sighs, “Stay me with flagons! comfort me with apples! for I am sick of love”?

But love is often neglected through ignorance, or despised through hyperspiritual teaching, and people marry who are not romantically suited to each other. They cannot fall in love, and for this they blame themselves, or are blamed by others, as though their troubles were the proof of some grand defect in their character. But this is no more than a grand mistake. The best man on earth may be married to the best woman, and the two yet be altogether unsuited to each other, for the simple reason that they cannot love each other. There is no romantic bond between them, and no romantic attraction strong enough to form the foundation for such a bond. This “does not prove that they are not worthy of good companions. It only shows that they have not made the right selection, that is all.” They have married without securing love, perhaps married without knowing what love was, married on some real or imagined spiritual basis, married by the arrangement of parents or elders, or married without a sufficient knowledge of each other to ensure a deep and abiding romantic love. Many of them may suppose—-indeed, many are taught—-that love will follow marriage, and it may, by a good streak of luck, but the marriage bond is no guarantee of it. Such teaching assumes that every pair on earth may fall in love, and such an assumption flies directly in the teeth of the common experience of the whole human race.

But observe, this assumption is the natural outgrowth of the failure to distinguish between romantic and generic love. If there is but one kind of love on the earth, and we are all bound to “love one another”—-nay, bound to love our neighbors as ourselves—-then surely any two persons on earth may love each other. And on the basis of such assumptions as these, people marry without so much as understanding the existence of romantic love, as a thing distinct from common or spiritual love, and therefore more or less careless of the one thing which is all-essential to marital happiness.

But having tied the knot, they go to work to love each other. They go to work, that is, to fan their fire of green wood, only to find that after twenty years of fanning, and nothing to add to the green wood but more of the same, they have but a cold fire still. After all their fruitless struggles, they learn the truth of the old proverbs,

Forced love, like fanned fire,
Will never whet your desire.

Fanned fire and forced love never did well yet.

He who forces love where none is found
Remains a fool the whole year round.

Loving and singing are not to be forced.

Love cannot be compelled.

No glue will hold when the joint is bad.

These proverbs, of course, have nothing to do with common love, but they are the very truth concerning romantic love.

And all this teaches us the grand necessity of distinguishing these two kinds of love. Those who fail to do so will naturally fall into one of two evils. They will either excuse themselves for what they can help, or blame themselves for what they cannot. Feeling as a matter of certainty that they cannot love a woman with romantic love, they will excuse themselves from loving her at all, if they suppose there is but one kind of love. Or, determined to love her as they ought, but yet finding that they cannot force or manufacture romantic love, they will blame themselves for the lack of it. Yet a man may as well blame himself for not being a woman, as for not loving one, if she is not romantically suited to him.

And to these two evils we may add a third. The woman who is in such a plight can hardly view the matter objectively. She naturally feels more than she reasons, and she feels that if she is unloved, it is because she is unlovely. She feels inferior to other women. She does not possess the charms which they do. She feels this especially in the physical realm, and so, if not deterred by a higher principle, resorts to the frantic application of a hundred artificial means to improve her hair and her face and her form. But all this is labor lost. She feels herself as unlovely when she is finished as she did before she started. Thus a damp cloud settles upon her spirit, shutting her out from hope and happiness—-and it is nothing uncommon for the most attractive women on earth to feel so. And most unfortunately, that damp cloud may contribute directly to making them less lovely than they were, for it is likely enough to take the spring from their step, the smile from their lips, and the light from their eyes.

And as if their unhappiness were not a great enough evil, it serves to create or augment a greater, for as is their unhappiness, so is their danger. The woman who is unloved, and so thinks herself unlovely, has the same natural craving to be loved for her loveliness that every other woman has, and her unhappiness makes her doubly susceptible to any kindness or consideration shown to her by another man, weakening her precisely where every woman is weak already. Some women, of course, have character enough to stand even when they are weakest, but then their standing may be confined to the realm of their choices and actions, while they slip or fall in their emotions, altogether in spite of themselves, and so are left to blame themselves for what they cannot help. Now there is no cure for that weakness but love. Men, we hardly need say, are subject to the same sort of weakness and danger, and love is the only effectual remedy for it. But we insist that it is only romantic love which can effect the cure. Those who seek to cure the race of its romantic weaknesses and needs, those who seek to secure marital happiness, by means of common love, may as well treat the gout by pulling teeth. Teeth and toes are two things, and so are romantic and generic love.

And it will remain a fact, that even where mismatched and unhappy couples, by means of character and spirituality and generic love, have learned to live cheerfully together in peace and harmony, yet they will be pulling always up hill, with no grease for the wheels, and the absence of the spontaneous warmth of free-flowing romance is surely to be felt, and almost sure to have an adverse effect upon the children. The emotional well-being of the children whose parents have congenial marriages is often obvious, even though spiritually those parents may be far beneath their less fortunate friends. But here as elsewhere, the unfortunate will blame themselves, or be blamed by others, for what they cannot now help—-though they might have helped it once, if they had known better than to tie such a knot in the first place. It has sometimes fallen to my lot to have to defend an unfortunate mother against the remarks of the censorious, by saying through my tears, “If you had to struggle with the kind of marriage which she has, your children would be no better.”

And look where we will in a marriage without love—-and we of course mean without romantic love—-and we see evils multiplied everywhere, and not merely temporal evils, but spiritual evils, of eternal consequence. Charles Wesley writes to his son, “No one step or action in life has so much influence on eternity as marriage. It is an heaven or an hell (they say) in this world; much more so in the next. The angel in Watts’s ode,—-

‘Mark, said he, that happy pair!
Marriage helps religion there;
Where kindred souls their God pursue,
They break with double vigour through
The dull, incumbent air.”’

But the experience of the unhappy pair is just the reverse, and their religion suffers along with their happiness. Besides the moral weakness and danger which obviously belong to an unhappy match, discouragement weakens their hands, and languor therefore attends their steps, where others “break with double vigour through.” Even the very goodness of a man in such a plight is likely to be turned the wrong way, for a kind and gentle husband, who feels the plight of a woman he cannot love as her nature craves, will naturally seek to make it up to her by softness where he ought to be firm, for he cannot find it in his heart to add as it were insult to injury—-to add, that is, by a seeming harshness which she is likely to interpret as deliberate insult, to what he knows to be involuntary injury. If love were but sweet and strong, he could require what he ought of her, and she would cheerfully bear it, but where love is thin, all his requirements will appear as hardness, persecution, and insensitivity, and he will meet with resistance and antagonism. Thus do religion and righteousness suffer at the hands of an uncongenial marriage, and the unhappiness of the mismatched pair in time destroys or discounts the bliss of eternity also.

There is of course an abundant cure for all this. That cure is to secure love before we think of marriage. “Marry not till you are sure that you can love entirely,” as Baxter says, and love entirely with that kind of love which says, “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.” Nothing else will do here. Those who marry before they are sick of love will soon enough be sick of marriage. These things ought to be so obvious that there is no need to state them, yet there are two things which cry aloud for a clear and ringing testimony here. Those two things are the natural ignorance of the inexperienced, and the prevailing hyperspirituality of their preachers and teachers, who labor as it were to secure their unhappiness, by confounding together these two loves, or seeking to replace the romantic with the generic, or the natural with the spiritual. The endeavor is vain. We can no more satisfy a natural emotional need by spiritual means, than we can a natural physical need. We may as well think to cure the toothache by singing Psalms, as to satisfy an emotional need with spiritual love, or to satisfy romantic cravings with generic love.

But to be short, romantic love is the sweetest gift of God to man, the nearest thing on earth to the bliss of heaven, and no man or woman ought to think of marrying till they have secured it. But if this has been neglected, and we have married without it, generic love remains our responsibility, and this will go farther than anything else to smooth the rough pathway which is inevitable in a marriage without romance.

Glenn Conjurske