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It is difficult to spend much time on the Internet without tripping over advice—reams of it—on marriage. Tuning out the wit and wisdom of the hordes and looking instead to married couples I admire, mostly my parents, has been, for me, the path of sanity. So I watch, and think and ask questions. Mostly I watch.

My grandmother had a stroke recently. In her wheelchair, her eyes wander, lighting on ordinary scenes—a daughter pushing her father’s chair around the rehab center garden—with a puzzled curiosity that suggests a benign alien visiting earth for the first time. She slurs her words, and must be reminded of names. She stops in mid-thought, and spills her ginger-ale.

My grandmother never went to college, and dropped out of secretarial school to care for an ailing mother, then, to marry a navy man. She has an eager, roving, soul that could easily have soured on the early constriction of her life, but whatever seed of sourness was planted turned to glee instead. Glee in food, in wine, in beautiful fabrics and stories of Paris, in historical romances and adventures, and dreams for me.

Two weeks after her stroke, she’s wearing lipstick, and chuckling at her own jokes as she clutches my hand. Her most frequent word is beloved. “This is David, my beloved,” she introduces her husband to the nurse for the umpteenth time this week. Then, “This is Ann, my beloved daughter, and Clare, Vince, Rex, and who’s she? She looks like Ann. My little beloveds.” She can’t remember Martha’s name, but she knows the girl is beloved.

David, her husband, was a navy man in every sense; disorder, loud noises and spills are not among the things he tolerates well. But now he just anticipates her clumsy movements, and cleans up ginger ale silently. The change in her seems to have produced a corresponding change in him. When he talks to her, though, there’s nothing altered or disrupted—there’s just her lipstick, and their inside jokes, and the books she’s reading when she can focus.

I do not know what hardships my grandfather has endured in the weeks since his vibrant bossy wife became a dependent, but I know that his face lit up when his wife called him beloved. It lit up again when he mentioned how she cut her own meat, and how nice she looked in her lipstick. His solicitude was not dutiful, it was delighted.

One of the heaviest condemnations of Mansfield Park’s Mary Crawford comes from Fanny’s lips: “She can feel nothing as she ought.” The theme of feeling as you ought crops up again and again in Austen, and has always struck me in its variance from the usual script about emotion and righteousness. We can’t control our emotions, the narrative goes, but we can control what we choose to do about them. Depending on who you ask, we should either follow their untamable whims or discipline ourselves to virtuous action regardless of their promptings. Either way, feelings are posited as something rigidly distinct from and probably inimical to the moral life.

In Austen’s world, what you feel is a morally actionable question. Moral discipline tends not to the indulgence, nor suppression of, nor detachment from subjective feelings, but their conformity and habituation to goodness. To do right without desiring and delighting in it is obviously superior to doing wrong, but it’s still a moral penury—often a blamable or correctable one.

Once I asked my mom if she ever looked back with nostalgia on the heady time of her courtship and newlywed life with my dad.

“Not really,” she said. “Why would I want to go back to a time with less love? I loved your dad so much on the altar, but really, it was just a tiny drop, a tiny drop in the ocean compared to what I have now.”

Did she mean, I asked, that because she and dad had spent twenty years caring for and serving each other, she objectively knew she was loved and did love more than in the days of early passion?

“There’s that, of course. But it’s also just that when I look at him, I feel a thousand times more love than I did then. I know, because I remember.”

In a beautiful reflection on married life, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig quotes Stanley Hauerwas’s objection to the way romantic love has come to control marital norms. The bedrock of family, he argues, cannot be so slight a foundation as feeling. Love, is something you look back on, the surveyance of a lifetime of service and fidelity.

Hauerwas is certainly correct that the structure of marriage as a permanent binding commitment to obey, serve, and form a family obtains, and must be understood and enforced, in total independence of sentiment. But his account of the phenomenon of love seems insufficient.

The impression that love-as-backwards-looking-acknowledgment conjures up is a treasury, with each act of service and fidelity over time building up its store. No one coin is wealth, but at the end of their lives, the love-misers can look at the mountains and rivulets of gold in total and say that they are rich.

But marriage is a relationship, and though its particular structure decides the duties and forms of love that attend it, it does not dictate a radically different excellence than that which perfects other relationships.

Loving my mother is a discipline, but not one confirmed only in retrospect. I can decide, impelled by love, to discharge my filial duties, to not go out for a drink with friends when I know she is tired and lonely and would enjoy help washing dishes and sharing a beer. And when I sit with her, I can know that I am loving her at that moment—and then I am presented with another choice. I can count my debt paid and mourn the loss of a night out, or I can notice how she becomes pensive and thoughtful when her schedule gives her a moment of quiet, how quick her laugh and sympathy is, the comforting warmth of her arm around me, how much more relaxed she seems. I can turn my desire and delight from my preferences to her. And if I do this, the next time the impulse of love will be stronger, and the knots binding me to her and her happiness, and my feelings to my duties, tighter.

Love in the confines of a mutual relationship resembles a treasury less than a plant. In marriage, it’s bound to the governing sapling-stick of its structure so that it can grow tall and healthy in the appointed way, and bear good fruit. But the tree isn’t a tree only when an oak; it is itself, and can be known, as a sapling and at every stage subsequent. It needs nourishment, but does not grow only to the sum of its nourishment. It’s not like the hoard of love, static except when discrete increases accrue to its principal. It magnifies what feeds it and transforms it into constant, quiet, hidden growth, and into shade and greenness and leaf and bark.

Hauerwas is absolutely right that love will starve without the will. The interplay between the will, the feelings, and the capacities of a relationship greater than the sum of both, however, needs more teasing.

Of course, sometimes trees wither. Their nourishment is neglected, or an untimely frost sets in, or they’re maliciously poisoned. The fidelity that tends the blackened roots of a tree that was to have seeded an orchard and fed a family, caring day after day for the ruin of its hopes, is something before which to cover your face.

To say that the demands of a Christian life will lead in a straight line to earthly happiness is a lie. It’s a cruel lie, too: Ask any girl who was promised at purity camp or its equivalent, that if she “saved herself” till her wedding night, she would lie down on bridal sheets for immediately mindblowing! amazing! awesome! sex, no assembly required.

Life can be tragic. It has a gap in it. It just does.

The self-emptying asked of a person bound in marriage to the co-guardian of a withered love is almost a call within a call, the kind of crucifixion that trusses up everyone eventually, whether it be in the loss of a child or humiliating subjection to alcohol, or just the final ruination of death.

The crucifixion lies at the center of the Gospels, but most of their pages involve something else—Jesus sharing meals, consoling his friends, bearing with his disciples’ goony questions. Some of life is tragic, but much of life is not tragic; it is just hard.

It’s a lie that chastity will always or in itself deliver awesome sex, but it is true that a mutually pleasurable, sexually generous marital relationship is possible and important.

It’s true that marriage is an absolute commitment that transcends momentary preferences and sensations. But it’s also true that marital love, in its normative ideal and many healthy iterations, does not imply merely a series of morally correct decisions divorced from feeling and ungrounded in any supporting unity.

Life has a gap in it, but it has a possibility, a fruitfulness and sweetness, too.

“And rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; Be exhilarated always with her love.”

It’s a weighty burden and a joyful hope.

Clare Coffey writes from Philadelphia.

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