It is the most important decision in your life. Yes, your life. Choosing who you want to spend the rest of your life with is not something to take lightly. You want love, sexual energy, companionship, and a strong emotional connection. Finding all of these attributes in one package is difficult, if nearly impossible. Especially in the age of online dating where connections are initially based on online profiles, it is hard to find someone who even accurately describes themselves. With that said, when a relationship works and a marriage prospers, it can be one of the most beautiful experiences in life. It requires open and clear communication, mutual self-sacrifice, and an ability to fight constructively. An intense, spark-filled romance may be desirable, but oftentimes the best relationships are more contractual.
In his book, Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy tells parallel love stories that illustrates this point. The first involves Anna and Vronsky, and the second, Levin and Kitty. The former is filled with fiery passion that ends tragically, while the latter is self-sacrificing, more contractual, yet missing core elements of physical love that one might expect in a sustainable marriage. After reading about the trials and tribulations that each relationship endures, it becomes apparent that the ideal relationship and marriage balances the desirable aspects of each love story.
For Anna and Vronsky, passionate love blooms at first sight. From the moment Vronsky sees the captivating Anna as she gets off a train, he is enthralled. The fact she is already married with a child is irrelevant. She immediately stirs passion and desire within him, and he consequently pursues her. Even though he has an enticing suitor in Kitty, who hails from a high society family of nobility, he cannot expel Anna from his mind. Her beauty aside, she mesmerizes Vronsky with her alluring aura and sharp intelligence. Instead of proposing to Kitty at a grand ball that was supposed to seal their love, Vronsky succumbs to Anna’s spell and spends the entire evening dancing with her as Kitty enviously looks on.
Anna and Vronsky fall madly in love. Although Anna resists Vronsky’s pursuit after their evening of dancing, she eventually submits and consummates her affair. This morally upstanding woman becomes morally reproachable almost overnight. Anna runs off with Vronsky, abandoning her husband, Karenin, and son, Seryozha. She deteriorates into moral decay. Her husband, Karenin, refuses to divorce her, and denies her any custody or visitation of their child. Society turns on her as well, albeit hypocritically in some cases, for many of the same people critiquing Anna’s behavior are adulterous themselves.
Over time, Vronsky’s selfish approach to his relationship with Anna becomes clearer. He continuously shows disinterest in family life and seems to grow more resentful and cold toward her by the day (except for a brief moment of guilt where he unsuccessfully attempts suicide). What was once a fiery, passionate love fades away as both Anna and Vronsky mutually share in their own destruction with the selfish behavior that brought them together in the first place. Vronsky had only cared about sleeping with Anna and was indifferent that she was a married woman, while Anna was relatively bored in her marriage to a much older and plainer man in Karenin. The fire that brought them together eventually burns them apart as Anna commits suicide and Vronsky goes off to war on the front lines, almost begging for death himself.
The tragic love tale of Vronsky and Anna is juxtaposed by Tolstoy against the story of Levin and Kitty. Yes, the same Kitty who originally hoped for a proposal from the handsome and desirable Vronsky. While Kitty had many of the same passions for Vronsky as Anna, she lost his attention to the competition, and escaped to the country to recover from heartbreak. Before retreating to recover, she refuses a proposal from Levin, an unassuming, intellectual, and rather awkward young man from the Russian countryside. At a German spa, she realizes she cannot be someone she is not, and instead needs to be true to herself and her heart.
After returning to Russia, Kitty has a change of heart when Levin asks her to marry him a second time. Going into it, Levin has idealist visions of what a model marriage and love are meant to be. He always seems to feel unworthy of Kitty’s love, and initially, Kitty does not show much overt affection for him. In addition, he is discouraged by their constant fighting and bickering. Although their love grows and evolves, their constant squabbles continue to trouble Levin. Nevertheless, they both work at their relationship, with their efforts greatly aided by the birth of their first child. Kitty shows her true heart by willingly offering to nurse Levin’s ailing and dying brother. She also puts a check on Levin’s abnormal spending and gambling behavior in Moscow, playing the classic role of a wife who keeps her husband in line. Although their love never reaches the spark-filled intensity Anna and Vronsky enjoyed (at least to start), by the end of the book Levin and Kitty represent the model for any happy family: self-sacrificing, and filled with love and empathy.
The opening lines of Anna Karenina capture the differences between happy and unhappy families: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” These lines explain how happy families are not deficient in any attribute that is necessary for happiness. Unhappy families, on the other hand, are each unique in their unhappiness, which may be due to a variety of factors: lack of sexual attraction, monetary problems, or disagreements about religion, parenting, or overall family life. All happy families are the same in the sense that they have cohesion, unison, and agreement on all elements that lead to happiness. In the case of Levin and Kitty, we witness their unhappiness at times, but they each show a willingness to work with the other when issues arise.
A marriage is contractual. Of course there needs to be sexual attraction and physical love, as in the case of Anna and Vronsky, but it cannot be based solely on carnal desires. Physical emotions are generally geared toward personal satisfaction, not mutual pleasure. The foundation of any relationship based primarily on physical attraction cannot withstand the challenges of navigating a life inevitably filled with tests and trials that require steadfast resolve and cooperation if a marriage is to survive. And that is why a balance of physical desire and self-sacrificing, contractual cooperation is key to any marriage or relationship’s success. Any relationship lacking too much in any one category risks failing, and in extreme cases, ending tragically as in the case of Anna and Vronsky.
With daily effort and mutual self-sacrifice, love can grow and blossom into something far more beautiful than a brief, fiery fling that may eventually flame out. For love to endure, however, there must be more than physical or carnal infatuation. There must be a contractual cooperation that can withstand the test of time.