The Netflix political drama series House of Cards has been a cultural sensation. It features Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as the leading power couple striving and conniving for ever greater prominence in the political jungle of Washington DC.
Theirs is quite a marriage, one could say: a committed, lasting relationship of mutual affection and devotion which survives enormous odds and crises. It’s a marriage of unusual resilience and companionship, at least for cinematic standards. At the same time, they seldom touch each other, are never seen in bed, nor have or want to have children. Their house is luxurious but is eerily dark, empty. Actually, they intentionally pursue flings and affairs with other people who can be of benefit and talk about it over a cigarette or two. They ruffle other people’s sheets while their bedroom remains spotless.
It is a fascinating, spooky marriage that explains much of the show’s appeal, Spacey’s political maneuvers aside. A partnership would be a better way to describe be: a monogamous commitment bound by the hunger for power and mutual benefit. They strive and strive together beyond any limits, including sexual limits. When an ex-bodyguard discloses the crush he had on Claire (Wright) and says that she could have any man she wanted, she explains what attracted her to Francis (Spacey): he knows how to take what he wants and acknowledges that she too is an equal and equal in ambition. “All relationships are transactional,” revealed script writer Beau Willimon in a recent New York Times piece. “Even love. Love might be the most transactional relationship of all.”
What is one to think of this marriage? Of this philosophy of love, however fictional it may be? It reminds me of Sigmund Freud’s definition of love, which is not able to transcend our self-centeredness and is ever seeking its own best interest. “Love your neighbor as your neighbor loves you.” (I’ve written more about this self-referential understanding of love here.) Their marriage thrives as a partnership, at least apparently, and benefits husband and wife in concrete ways.
But is it advisable? Is it – if we dare break the show’s amoral ceiling – is it good, is it moral? Even at a time when this ancient institution is being remodeled by many, I’d say there is something inside us that cries that a true marriage is a marriage: it is sexual, it is monogamous, it involves flesh and blood. It’s more valuable than the sum of the mutual benefits awarded. And it’s a marriage still when it is disadvantageous, when it takes some of time we would assign to work and we lose some of the things we would otherwise get.
Actually, the love good marriages are made of transcends the transactional logic of business: we love because we love. Because we want to give ourselves away to the other. Because we want to spend and sacrifice ourselves, because we want to be a generous gift to the other. As Bernard of Clairvaux puts it,
“[love] is its own merit, its own reward. Love has no cause or fruit beyond itself: its fruit is its use. I love because I love. I love that I may love.”
A cynic could still answer that Francis and Claire’s commitment to each other is still love. Love it well may be, though of a particular type: self-love. Let’s see if their relationship lasts throughout season 2 and 3 of House of Cards. Yet even if it does, I doubt it would in real life. We marry for someone else’s benefit.
 Sigmund Freud, quoted in Armand M. Nicholi, Jr., The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life (New York: Free Press, 2002), 175.
 Bernard of Clairvaux, quoted in René Breuel, The Paradox of Happiness (Bellingham: Kirkdale Press, 2013).