June 15, 2011

Is unconditional love realistic for marriage?

By Anthony Buono *

It is a popular notion that the love between a man and a woman should be unconditional; without any condition of love in return by the other. This is a very romantic notion. Who wouldn’t want to be loved unconditionally in marriage?

Though we are called by Jesus to love all human beings, I think this unpractical expectation about love between a man and woman sends the wrong message. Do we really want to be in this kind of marriage? Do we really find it appealing that we should love the other despite anything they might say or do?

It certainly would be great if someone loved US unconditionally, so that we are assured of receiving love as we don’t return it. But it’s not so appealing to love another as they don’t return it. In fact, it’s humanly impossible to sustain such a situation. Sustaining such a situation would require God’s grace.

Unconditional love calls us to love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us. It’s a call to forgive, be a peacemaker, and pray for everyone. It’s “unconditional” because it is deliberate act of the will in the name of God, having nothing to do with the how the other person responds.

Though we are called to pray for an enemy, we are not expected to live with them. It’s one thing to have to put up with a boss who is mean. Because you don’t have to live with him, you can find a way to tolerate the situation. The Lord has given all the baptized the mission to love unconditionally. This is NOT, however, the mission of married couples to each other.

Marital love is a “mutual” love; a mutual giving of persons to each other. It is a choosing of the other person. It’s love that accepts failings at love. It grows from these falls “on condition” that there is a desire and an effort to improve. The love is sustained despite ongoing failures because being with that person is more of a positive than any negative moments.

Who would go into marriage knowing that the other was going to stop loving them, and they would be stuck having to love that person who no longer loves them? No one! It’s the worst of situation imaginable. To have to love someone who doesn’t love you in return and without it affecting you so you can always sustain that love is unrealistic, to say the least. A successful, fulfilling Christian marriage where both person grow as individuals happens only on condition that the love is mutually exchanged.

No marriage is perfect, meaning both person are mutually exchanging love to perfection at all times. As one fails in love in moments, the other must help the fallen one up through forgiveness and understanding. They start again and move forward, maintaining at the core that intention and commitment to mutually give of themselves.

As we date, we must be able to recognize the capability to have a mutual love exchange. If the person seems too self-centered or controlling, or unsupportive of your interests, then there is reason to pause and consider if this is what you want.

It is very possible to be so caught up in the wonderful things about the person you are dating that you are blind to these very important signs that the person won’t be able to live the call to mutual love required in marriage. They might be a very lovable person, but are you willing to love this person for a lifetime despite their unloving tendencies? Perhaps you are. As I said earlier, the person we marry must be more of a positive that makes any negative bearable. In other words, you love them despite their faults.

To love someone despite their faults is also a very romantic notion. However, Christian marriage is too important of a call to be entered into loosely or stupidly. We have a moral obligation to determine the difference between a fault and an impediment to mutual love. Our love for another needs to transcend above the romance of emotions and feelings, to the practical world of actions that build up the other to be the person God calls them to be.

This is a mutual exchange. It can’t be one-sided. Asking yourself during the dating process: Do I see both of us displaying a capability and desire to serve and accept each other for who we are, as well as forgiveness when we fail?

The dating process is the practicing of this mutual love exchange. You can’t start the official ball game if you don’t see the potential during practice. Marriage is on-the-job training, and as you are married and living marital love, you will grow better and better at it.  However, you cannot expect this kind of mutual love to happen within marriage if you don’t see aspects of it before marriage.

It’s a terrible thing when one of the partners becomes unlovable in marriage and makes the other person feel trapped or puts them in a position of suffering. It is at these unfortunate times the one person who has to carry the load of the marriage must love the other unconditionally. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish. It requires a union with God and cooperation with divine grace. Many people are not spiritually developed enough to endure these times when unconditional love is called for. It makes sense that the relationship dies. Whether they divorce or not is irrelevant. The death of love is, in and of itself, a tragedy of marriage. This internal death can not only affect the marriage and the family, but cause the loss of that person’s “personhood.” They become a shell of a person going through motions.

This does not mean you have to put up with any type of treatment. Abuse, for example, whether verbal, physical, mental, psychological, is something that aims at harming the spouse being abused. A person in a marriage that threatens to harm them does not have to take it, and in many instances has an obligation not to allow it.

This is not the dignity of marriage intended by God. We must do all we can to ensure that our marriages will give glory to God through the mutual love exchanged, and the children that are co-created by the couple with God.

Though most marriages have hardships, they should all have the dignity marriage requires. This starts with both persons acknowledging each other’s personal dignity. Without dignity, there is mistreatment and abuse, which is an offense to marriage.

Love all people unconditionally, but grow in mutual love with that one person towards and in marriage with condition. You need each other giving true love to each other. Do not expect one person to carry the load of loving. That is not the call of marital love. Make each the other happy first, and you will always be happy in turn.

Anthony Buono is the founder of Avemariasingles.com. For thousands of Catholic singles, Anthony offers guidance, humor, understanding, and practical relationship advice.  Visit his blog at 6stonejars.com

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.