By Anna Ilona Mussmann
When I was a kid, my friends and I would tell each other stories. We liked to describe the final feast with which the triumphant heroes were feted. “And then the serving men carried out great platters covered with meat pies, and six maids followed with a gigantic bowl of grapes and pears, and then the twelve page boys each carried in a different flavor of ice cream….” Those stories left us feeling ravenous.
Then, one day, one of the families began a specific diet. Their children had no interest in hearing about foods they could not themselves enjoy, and they were so tired of acceptable dishes like rice that they didn’t want to hear about those, either. The game was dead. It was the first time in my life I realized that people’s relationship to food could be complicated.
As a chocolate-loving adult who also wants to fit back into pre-baby clothes, I now know a lot more about the tangled web we weave when we venture into the kitchen. It’s not just that I must balance between the enjoyment of food and the exercise of self-control. I also have to decide whom to believe. Is milk necessary to skeletal health, or is it basically white death? Must my butter be grassfed? Should I live on fermented beans? Is sugar going to kill me? A quick skim through my Facebook feed can leave me wondering whether I should just skip lunch and eat chocolate-covered almonds instead.
It strikes me that the American relationship to diet is so complicated that it’s as bad as our relationship to love and marriage. In fact, the two are remarkably analogous. Learning how to navigate one is helpful for dealing with the other.
Here’s the thing. I complain that it’s hard to know how to eat, but the truth is I could eat more healthily tomorrow. Almost every one of my Facebook friends would agree that lettuce, kale, and zucchini are good. I could eat more of those. Furthermore, my lingering pregnancy weight isn’t still separating me from my favorite dresses because I want it to, and yet, if I truly wanted to lose it, it wouldn’t be there.
Our relationship to our spouses is similarly multi-layered. On the one hand, destructive notions of romance have conditioned us to think of a marital partner as someone whose responsibility it is to keep us happy. This wreaks havoc with many people’s attempts to love. A quick glance through social media could easily leave us thinking that we have the right to pursue our own appetites and desires with every waking breath. Yet at the same time, if we are honest with ourselves, surely we know better. Who is really surprised to hear that behaviors like criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling have been identified as key indicators of a relationship’s likely demise?
People who engage in these behaviors may try to defend individual incidents--just as I might spiritedly defend my consumption of a particular cookie--yet they surely know that it would be healthier to self-deny more often. Why, then, is it so hard for us to maintain thriving romantic relationships? It is easy to look at someone less healthy than oneself and wonder how they can live that way. How can that woman consume bite after bite of sodium-laced cornstarch even when her doctor says that she will die within a year unless she changes? How can that other woman talk to her husband like that?
What we often don’t recognize is that the reason neither can keep her mouth shut is because her experience has led her to feel that her actions are normal. Our sense of normal tends to exert a deeper, more gut-level control over our actions than intellectual knowledge of what is best. In the murky world of feelings and assumptions, it’s hard to truly believe that we can’t get away with doing something that is totally . . . well, normal.
This is an incredibly useful piece of knowledge for those of us who want to build and nurture a healthy marriage. We sinners will never manage to treat our spouse as well as we ought--there will always be sin, and the need for repentance and forgiveness--but out of love, we can seek to protect each other by building a better sense of normal. For instance, even though a deeply-ingrained habit of speaking to my husband with courtesy won’t prevent me from feeling selfish annoyance towards him, it will make it easier not to hurt him if I am annoyed.
We can practice putting the best construction on our beloved’s less charming actions. We can say “sorry” more often. We can develop a habit of responding positively when he talks about his interests or shares a factoid from the internet. We can try to train our gut reaction to be one of overlooking his flaws, doing a chore so that he won't have to, or otherwise being generous with our love. We can give him the opportunity to serve us and thank him when he does so. Just as it might initially feel weird to eat veggies with breakfast or replace chips with a salad, it might feel weird to build habits of marital kindness. It might feel especially weird to give up the sense of entitlement that pop culture--with its mantra of “you deserve to be happy!”--is so determined to encourage.
That’s why it is crucial to question our sense of normal. Does it come from our observation of successful marriages, or is it based on models of bitterness and divorce? Does it compare well with what Scripture says? Dieters know it is a bad idea to browse illustrated dessert recipes when they are supposed to be eating quinoa salad instead. We would also do well to avoid watching shows that model put-downs and selfishness between spouses. We can recognize that just because it is socially more acceptable to share memes about the stupidity and incompetence of “husbands” than it is to bash “men” as a group, that doesn’t mean it isn’t at least as destructive.
I find it helpful to compare marriage and diet because it helps demystify both. The best way to eat healthfully isn’t to constantly deny oneself good things, but to enjoy foods that are truly good (including some great dark chocolate in moderation), even if doing so requires building a new appreciation for freshly prepared fruits and vegetables. Likewise, the best way to love my husband and to nurture a lasting marriage isn’t just to resolve not to get divorced. Nor should my focus be on grand romantic gestures once or twice a year. It’s more important to enjoy the true good of dying to self and caring for one’s closest neighbor. It’s about little choices and little habits.
The analogy becomes even deeper when we think about the limits both of healthful eating and human love. No matter how many carrots we juice, in the end, we will die. Trying to save ourselves through food leads only to despair. Likewise, our devotion to our marriage is ultimately meaningless unless it is part of a bigger picture. Loving our spouse is an impossible, deathly burden if we look to it as our source of self-worth or a way to prove to ourselves, our neighbors, and our God that we are Christians. Thanks be to God, who cleanses us from all unrighteousness, that our value and our salvation do not depend on us. It is He who provides the meaning to our stories. It is He who, in the last day, will give us imperishable bodies. It is He who works through our feeble efforts and accomplishes His good work through our lives. It is He who loves perfectly.
Love and romance can be complicated. Yet they are amazing, too. They are every bit as good as a kale salad is once you learn to like kale (plus, the beauty of a kale salad is that it allows you to feel fully justified in eating ice cream for dessert). Thanks be to God, we are given the opportunity to pursue physical and marital health one bite of kale salad, and one kiss, at a time.
After graduating from Concordia Wisconsin, Anna taught in Lutheran schools for several years and became so enthusiastic about Classical Education that she will talk about it to whomever will listen. She is a big fan of Jane Austen, dark chocolate, and the Oxford comma. Anna and her husband live in Pennsylvania with their two small children. Anna's work can also be found in The Federalist.