In honor of Valentine’s Day, a love simile: If married love were chocolate, it would be have to be a bittersweet dark, because no chalky milk or bland white could adequately convey the depth, complexity, and challenge of fidelity in marriage. Fidelity in marriage is a good thing, a very good thing–much, much better even than dark chocolate, in fact. Elder Holland, as is his wont, has described married love as movingly as anyone I’ve read: in his well-known sermon, “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” he writes of sexual intimacy in marriage,
Such an act of love between a man and a woman is–or certainly was ordained to be–a symbol of total union: union of their hearts, their hopes, their lives, their love, their family, their future, their everything. … But such a total, virtually unbreakable union, such an unyielding commitment between a man and a woman, can only come with the proximity and permanence afforded in a marriage covenant, with the union of all that they possess–their very hearts and minds, all their days and all their dreams. They work together, they cry together, they enjoy Brahms and Beethoven and breakfast together, they sacrifice and save and live together for all the abundance that such a totally intimate life provides such a couple. And the external symbol of that union, the physical manifestation of what is a far deeper spiritual and metaphysical bonding, is the physical blending that is part of–indeed, a most beautiful and gratifying expression of–that larger, more complete union of eternal purpose and promise.
The law of chastity, which President Kimball defined as “total chastity before marriage and total fidelity after,” is a temple covenant, and as such is one of the highest laws by which Latter-day Saints are bound. The law of chastity is a “liminal” covenant; that is, it moves the initiate from one spiritual level to the next. Preceding and presaging the law of consecration, the law of chastity works as a tutorial in consecration, requiring us to dedicate all of our sexual resources to a single person, regardless of the personal cost in fulfillment or desire. LDS scripture teaches that unchastity is a sin second only to murder in gravity–and perhaps in no other way is LDS doctrine and lifestyle so distinct from mainstream law and behavior, in which pre-marital sex has almost no social stigma, much less a seriousness approaching murder. LDS chastity encompasses not only physical intimacy, but emotional and psychological intimacy, as well: D&C 63:16 teaches that it is wrong to “commit adultery in the heart.”
Surely chastity occupies such a high place in the hierarchy of sin precisely to the degree that marriage occupies the supreme place in the LDS concept of exaltation. LDS marriages, historically and presently, serve the same social functions that marriage has historically performed, of course–namely, to ensure and enable patrilineal procreation, to perform privatized economic functions, and to socialize children–but they also, crucially, induct the spouses by means of the sealing ordinance into the exalted patriarchal order. This centrality of marriage in LDS exaltation distinguishes Latter-day Saints from other proponents of “family values,” no matter how neatly our political goals coincide.
But the ideal LDS marriage, in the present day, at least, goes far beyond the mere management of sexual desire: as Elder Holland’s lovely rhapsody suggests, the “totally intimate life” aspires to a totalizing state of union between spouses–spiritual, emotional, social, psychological, intellectual, aesthetic, even. Elder Holland seems to suggest a supplementary fifth function of marriage: to provide a consummate personal fulfillment by means of an all-encompassing unity. Elder Holland’s emphasis on personal fulfillment in marriage is, I think, a relatively recent one, emerging in the last four or five decades as part of the high-affect vision of the family–that is, a vision of the family bound together primarily by emotional bonds of love rather than by bonds of law, religion, or economic necessity. Speaking sociologically, we can see how several traditional functions of marriage–patrilineal procreation and economic efficiency, for example–have largely disappeared in the modern world of ubiquitous birth control and working women; a compensatory emphasis on personal fulfillment, it can be argued, is necessary to keep marriage relevant in a world where some of its structural work can seem less expedient.
Sociology aside, I believe that Elder Holland’s vision of marriage is inspired, and that a couple striving for his ideal of intense unity is more likely to enjoy a successful marriage in today’s world. Elder Holland’s concept of marital unity is based on sex as symbol: into God’s enjoinder to Adam and Eve to “be one flesh,” he reads a symbolic commandment for spiritual as well as physical union in marriage. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism picks up this symbolic understanding of sex: “Mutuality and equality are to be the hallmark of a married couple’s physical intimacy … to be “one flesh” is to experienc an emotional and spiritual unity.” Elder Holland’s reading, inspired as it is, is one that we have come to relatively late: it is difficult to imagine how mutuality, equality and total union could have been the hallmarks of married intimacy in early Mormon marriage arrangements, for example. Whatever the timing, though, it is an ideal that holds immense and inspiring attraction for me.
I’m left with some questions, though, and while the pulpit is not a good place to preach the exceptions or limitations to an ideal, perhaps this kind of discussion can be valuable in less formal settings. In my experience (well, not my personal experience, since I’ve only been married for six blissful years!), even long-lasting and functional marriages encompass deep, even bitter, personal disappointments and long-term division. Does an ideal of self-fulfillment through union equip us to deal with these realities? Would it be helpful sometimes to think of marriage more as a child-rearing partnership, and not expect it to provide us with constant social and emotional fulfillment? And is there a place for friendships with the opposite gender in this ideal of all-encompassing union? What is the value and the danger in developing friendships outside of marriage? What is the best way to experience unity over the long course of a marriage?