After C. S. Lewis lost his wife, Helen, to cancer, he realized he didn’t have a single good picture of her. Maybe that’s hard to grasp in our culture of profile pics from every angle, but he wasn’t upset about it. In fact, he saw the distinct advantage of lacking a quality image of his wife. He wrote:
I want H., not something that is like her. A really good photograph might become in the end a snare, a horror, and an obstacle.
How could a photo of the woman he loved become a snare? Because in the absence of the real person, he saw his tendency to fill the image with his own fancy. In fact, this was one of the prominent themes for Lewis in A Grief Observed. He was terrified at the prospect of shaping Helen into a phantom of his own making. Particularly alarming was his inclination to long for certain aspects of Helen’s personality more than others. Of course he would never intentionally import something fictitious about her, but, he mused, “won’t the composition inevitably become more and more my own?” What worried Lewis most was that Helen would become to him merely an extension of himself, of his old bachelor pipe-dreams.
Lewis illuminates an overlooked gift in marriage: spousal resistance. I am not talking about red-faced tension or caustic defiance. I mean the simple fact that your spouse is a real person whose very existence will not conform to the image you have of him or her. Spousal resistance anchors you to reality, a reality in which God calls you to love your actual spouse, not your preferred one. Lewis observed:
All reality is iconoclastic. The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality. And this, not any image or memory, is what we are to love still, after she is dead.
And, I would argue, when she is alive, too. As odd as it sounds, we can be thankful for the thousands of little disagreements that season the marital relationship, the countless differences of perspective that make it alive. These indicate that you are interacting with an independent being, one you’ve been entrusted with to love sacrificially.
The Original and Best
The very essence of sacrificial love is accommodating another rather than expecting another to accommodate self. Taking Lewis’s insight, then, we should be suspicious of our tendency to admire only those characteristics we approve of in our spouse and to revise those we don’t. When remembering a deceased spouse, this is bad enough; you aren’t loving her, but an edited memory of her. When serving a living spouse, it is worse; you aren’t pursuing her, but what you hope she would be. Far better is to love the original, not your revised edition. After all, you’re an original, too.
Loving the original requires lifelong adjustment on your part, and this deference is a key proof of the marital love that Christians are called to (Eph. 5:21-33). Don’t be discouraged when you don’t see eye-to-eye with your spouse. Where there is no disagreement, no annoyance, no resistance, there is no opportunity for sacrifice. If we love only what is pleasing to us in our spouse, we are loving only our preferences. We don’t need the gospel to do that.
We do need it to free us from our tendency to adjust one another constantly to our liking. Jesus came to serve an impulsive Peter, a distracted Martha, a dubious Thomas. And he came to serve a silly person like each one of us. And yes, Christ’s redemptive love changes us by degree, but this change is about conformity to righteousness, not conformity to personal preference.
So if your wife laughs too easily for your taste, love her for it. If she’s more pessimistic than you prefer, minister to her fears. If your husband is quieter in social gatherings than you’d like, be grateful for it. If he has more difficulty making plans than you think reasonable, come alongside happily. In all the little spousal resistances, celebrate the privilege of loving a person, not an image.
As Lewis said, reality is iconoclastic. And thank God this is especially true in marriage.