Stephanie and I recently celebrated our first major milestone in marriage: our one-year anniversary. If there is one line of advice I would have given Stephanie and I one year ago, I would have offered, Always remember that marriage is a promise of future love.
A little over one year ago, Stephanie and I both officially recited our covenantal vows to forever love each other. Many warned us that the first year would be difficult, full of unprepared struggles, petty arguments, and the discovery of silly annoyances; but Stephanie and I both agreed that it was much more enjoyable than expected. It was enjoyable not because such ‘early marriage scuffles’ did not occur (if you know us, we are exceedingly prone to jab and jest at each other), but it was enjoyable because of our perception of these scuffles. A little over halfway through the first year in our marriage we decided that these areas of contention and dispute served a greater purpose. They were not merely manifestations of our incompatibility or expressions of our disunity; rather, these quirks were providential tools in the hands of God to grow us – to chisel away our selfishness, to bring us closer together, and to learn to actually better love each other. As we both continued to read through Tim Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage, this perception of marital disputes began to further clarify and strengthen our young marriage.
Tim Keller explained how in premarital relationships we often exercise ‘fantasy-love.’
“When you first fall in love, you think you love the person, but you don’t really. You can’t know who the person is right away. That takes years. You actually love your idea of the person – and that is always, at first, one-dimensional and somewhat mistaken.”
“Romantic flings are so intoxicating largely because the person is actually in love with a fantasy rather than a real human being…There is an emotional ‘high’ that comes to us when someone thinks we are so wonderful and beautiful, and that is part of what fuels the early passion and electricity of falling in love. But the problem is – and you may be subconsciously aware of this – the person doesn’t really know you and therefore doesn’t really love you, not yet at least. What you think of as being head over heels in love is in large part a gust of ego gratification, but it’s nothing like the profound satisfaction of being known and loved.”
Stephanie and I both discussed our tendency to love an idea of each other rather than our real selves. It is all too easy. Before we were married, even though we knew each other for years and years, we realized that we often loved a caricature of one other – a caricature that fit into our desire for self-gratification and comfort. Marriage has been the foundation whereby we have continued to grow out of this ‘fantasy-love’ and exercise ‘real-love’ or ‘true-love.’ As Keller noted, marriage works this progression because it (1) seals the relationship with a covenantal promise of future love, which therefore (2) provides a level of intimacy and security where we are continually pushed and pulled to freely know each other and be known.
Regarding the latter, Stephanie and I have both often shared how we have come to know each other better every day. Moreover, it is often post-argument or post-dispute when we really come to know each other better. In one sense, though not immediately realized or applied within the emotional and heated moments of a particular dispute, we have come to be grateful for those times of quarrel. Yes, we undoubtedly come to know each other better through times of laughter and romance too, but we have found that dispute often increases our ‘knowing’ in ways that is otherwise inaccessible. Certainly we do not desire disputes! Nonetheless, for the purposed direction of growth, we have learned not to run away from them, avoid them, or leave them unsettled. When we embrace and work through arguments, we do so with the awareness that we are better knowing each other and therefore learning to better love each other.
We have found, however, that such an awareness is impossible without the covenantal promise of marriage. This is because the covenantal promise of marriage is an unwavering promise of future love, creating a secure space and the freedom to be known.
“Wedding vows are not a declaration of present love but a mutually binding promise of future love…In a wedding you stand up before God, your family, and all the main institutions of society, and you promise to be loving, faithful, and true to the other person in the future, regardless of undulating internal feelings or external circumstances.”
The promise essentially places eternity in our eyes, where no matter what transpires, we promise to love each other tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and the years to come until death do us part. In those times of dispute, Stephanie and I are free to be honest, revealing our true selves, because we know that I love you and You love me, and I will love you and You will love me. It is only through promise that we attain this freedom, because no matter what circumstances or temporal feelings momentarily disrupt our relationship, our covenant is secure. We are not enslaved to conditionality; our love is secure and future love is always imminent. The promise functions to provide a foundation to stand on during times of argument and frustration, where we both know that the dispute will always end in love, no matter what happens. Tim Keller commented on the importance of promise, security, and freedom:
“When dating or living together, you have to prove your value daily by impressing and enticing. You have to show that the chemistry is there and the relationship is fun and fulfilling or it will be over. We are still basically in a consumer relationship, and that means constant promotion and marketing. The legal bond of marriage, however, creates a space of security where we can open up and reveal our true selves.”
“[Promises or vows] enable your passion to grow in breadth and depth, because they give us the security necessary to open our hearts and speak vulnerably and truthfully without being afraid that our partner will simply walk away.”
It is only because of the foundational promise of future love and the security it offers that we release ourselves to be known and share our true identity with each other. As Tim Keller noted, promise is “the key to identity,” and therefore is “the very essence of marital love.” Promise is the key to identity and the essence of marital love because it gives stability and security to our identity, and stable relationships require a stable identity. The profound importance is that it is only through the revelation of our true identity that we actually come to truly love each other – not merely love the fantastic caricature, the façade, or each other’s clean and comfortable attributes; but we learn to truly love and be truly loved.
Looking back on one year of marriage, Stephanie and I have experienced many ups and downs, times of unstoppable laughter and times of seemingly insurmountable frustration. Yet we both share a foundational promise that only leads in one direction: up. Surely many arguments lie ahead, but God has taught us that disputes are not merely to be tolerated, apathetically lived-with, or ignored; disputes are occasions to further know and further love. We are sealed with a promise of future love, thereby secure, and free to know and be known. It is not a promise to never bicker. It is not a promise to never argue. It is a promise that in, through, and beyond the argument we will love each other. It is a promise that we can be real and honest, knowing that our identity is stable and love is always present and forthcoming. Yes, we are still young and mighty ignorant (surely many wiser couples will mutter Just wait under their breath as they read this), but we have a lifelong optimism fueled by an unshakeable promise of future love.
 Timothy J. Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013), 94.
 Ibid., 95.
 Ibid., 87.
 Ibid., 85.
 Ibid., 89.
 Ibid., 91.