Some time back my wife and I watched the old TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962). It is interesting to watch old shows like that because they give you a sense of the Hollywood propaganda of the age. One line was frequently repeated, with slight variations:
He won’t give her a divorce, even though he knows she doesn’t love him any more.
This line was presented as scathing proof that the man being accused was a horrible monster. Not only was he forcing a woman to remain married to a man she no longer loved, but he was also preventing her from marrying her (latest) true love. Hollywood’s concerted effort to destroy the moral authority of marriage was clearly successful; no fault divorce was enacted in California just eight years after the series ended, and the rest of the union followed suit.
The simple fact is the moment you attribute moral value to romantic love you are creating a rival to biblical sexual morality. In biblical sexual morality it is marriage that creates a moral space for sex and romantic love (with romantic love not separated from sexual passion). We have overturned God’s order here, and are now claiming that romantic love is the moral space for marriage and sex. This is deceptively subtle, and at the same time demolishes the moral meaning of marriage.
The idea that romantic love confers morality to sex is an idea that goes back to the concept of courtly love beginning around 1100 AD. Courtly love was in part a reaction to the widespread belief among Christians in the Dark Age that it was unseemly, and in fact sinful, for a husband and wife to have sexual passion for one another. As St. Jerome argued in Against Jovianus Book I:
Hence Xystus in his Sentences tells us that “He who too ardently loves his own wife is an adulterer.” It is disgraceful to love another man’s wife at all, or one’s own too much. A wise man ought to love his wife with judgment, not with passion. Let a man govern his voluptuous impulses, and not rush headlong into intercourse. There is nothing blacker than to love a wife as if she were an adulteress.
Passionless duty sex was for marriage, and passion was for adultery. Courtly love built upon this idea with a twist. It added a new concept of romantic love, separating out the emotional aspect of sexual passion. This newly separated concept of romantic love was worshiped and seen as sanctifying. CS Lewis summed up the concept of courtly love as (emphasis mine):
The sentiment, of course, is love, but love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love.
In the 1500s and 1600s the Puritan movement argued that passionate sex in marriage was not immoral, and fought against the idea of sanctified adultery in the form of courtly love. However, some Puritans kept the seemingly innocent vestigial idea of romantic love as sanctifying sex. In this new twist romantic love was seen as sanctifying sex within marriage instead of outside of it. The famous Puritan poet John Milton wrote in Tetrachordon:
And although copulation be considered among the ends of marriage, yet the act thereof in a right esteem can no longer be matrimonial, than it is an effect of conjugal love. When love finds itself utterly unmatched, and justly vanishes, nay rather cannot but vanish, the fleshly act indeed may continue, but not holy, not pure, not beseeming the sacred bond of marriage; being at best but an animal excretion…
This is as you will recall the same concept we constantly hear from modern complementarian preachers. They teach that marital sex requires romantic love to consecrate it, otherwise it is merely rubbing body parts together. This is not a biblical idea, and is in fact an anti-biblical idea. Proverbs 5 tells husbands they should be like a rutting buck with their wives. Moreover, the Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Cor 7 that marriage is for life, and that not having sex in marriage is a sin.
This idea is wholly at odds with what the Bible teaches us about sexual morality, and yet it has insidiously wormed its way into our modern thought process. Once you invert the relationship between marriage and romantic love, what the Bible teaches is moral becomes sin, and what the Bible teaches is sin becomes virtue. If romantic love sanctifies marriage and sex, it would be immoral to remain married should the sanctifying romantic love wane. The writers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents understood this in the late 1950s, as did Milton in 1645. The Tetrachordon, the piece from Milton that I quoted above, is a tract he wrote advocating no fault divorce:
Milton’s divorce tracts refer to the four interlinked polemical pamphlets—The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce, The Judgment of Martin Bucer, Tetrachordon, and Colasterion—written by John Milton from 1643–1645. They argue for the legitimacy of divorce on grounds of spousal incompatibility. Arguing for divorce at all, let alone a version of no-fault divorce, was extremely controversial and religious figures sought to ban his tracts. Although the tracts were met with nothing but hostility and he later rued publishing them in English at all, they are important for analysing the relationship between Adam and Eve in his epic Paradise Lost. Spanning three years characterised by turbulent changes in the English printing business, they also provide an important context for the publication of Areopagitica, Milton’s most famous work of prose.