Conjugal Love is Not an Act of the Will

A couple of years ago, a well-known and highly regarded apologist sent his subscriber list an email article about finding a spouse.   He began by explaining that when he was young, he made the mistake of thinking that liking and loving were basically the same thing, with the latter being just a more intense version of the former.  As he grew in maturity, though, he learned that they are not the same at all, and that the chief difference between the two lies in the role of the will. “Liking,” he wrote, is a spontaneous emotional response to another person’s appealing characteristics.  It’s outside the control of the will.  “Loving,” on the other hand, is a decision, an act of the will.  We can’t decide whom we like, but we can decide whom we love.

Having laid down that basic distinction, he went on to draw the practical conclusion for marriage-seeking Catholic singles: Abandon as a childish fairy tale the idea that God has someone special out there just for you.  “It’s not true,” he explained.  On the contrary, “Within easy driving distance there are at least 100 people whom you could marry and have an equally happy life with.”  After all, in olden days, marriages were arranged and often succeeded very well.  He did not suggest that it doesn’t matter at all whom you marry, or that there’s no such thing as an imprudent match.  Rather, his point was that since love is an act of the will, getting married is a matter of finding someone with good qualities and making a decision.  It follows that the cherished romantic ideal of marrying for love is naïve and out of keeping with Christian maturity.

Shall I tell you what my first thought on reading this article was? “I feel sorry for his wife.”  I feel sorry for any woman whose husband thinks he could have been equally happy with scores of women within easy driving distance of their home—never mind that he announces the fact to the whole world.

But I hope he doesn’t really believe this.  I hope he was just being excessively theoretical—advising from faulty notions rather than real experience.

I hope this because the happiest married couples I know don’t think or talk like this apologist.  On the contrary, they are filled with amazement and gratitude for their spouse’s love in their lives.  They can’t imagine life with any other.  Years and decades into marriage, they still marvel over the “accident” that they met each other, when they so easily might not have.  They marvel over the surprise their falling in love was to them; how they never could have predicted it; how it changed their outlook on life, on themselves and on their sense of their future, including—maybe especially—their idea of where their true happiness lay.  They are convinced that God had a hand in bringing them together.

In short, they experience their love as a gift.  Of course, in order for it to be rendered permanent and raised to the level of a Sacrament, conjugal love has to be sealed with a commitment of the will: “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” But it is not reducible to that commitment.  Rather, the gift of conjugal love precedes,* inspires and informs the marriage vows.

Recently re-reading Raissa Maritain’s memoir, We Have Been Friends Together, I came across her description of her growing attraction to her fellow student and future husband, Jacques.  They had met by chance outside her physiology class at the Sorbonne and soon became inseparable.

For the first time I could really talk to someone about myself, emerge from my silent reflections in order to share them…  For the first time I had met someone who at the outset inspired me with absolute confidence; someone who from that moment I knew would never disappoint me; someone with whom I could so readily come to an understanding on all things.  Another Someone had pre-established between us, and in despite of such great differences of temperament and of origin, a sovereign harmony.

Notice some key elements in her account:

1)  She doesn’t speak of Jacques’ “objective qualities.”  She’s not talking about the fact that he’s intelligent, upright, good-looking, from a prominent family, etc.  She’s not looking at him from the point of view his suitability for the role of husband. Instead, her description of their incipient love is entirely focused on the deep and mysterious interior harmony she is surprised to discover between her soul and his.

2) Note that her attraction is a spontaneous, affective response—not to “appealing traits” merely, but to him, to his person.

3) They were unbelievers at the time they met, but she recognizes God’s design in that harmony, and God’s hand in bringing them together.

Though few of us could express it as beautifully and sensitively as she does, the experience Raissa Maritain describes is, I claim, nothing other than the normal human experience of falling in love.  We recognize our own story in her description. We see ourselves, or the hopes of our hearts in it.  “Yes, that’s what love is like!  I felt just the same!”  Or else, “Yes, that’s what I’m waiting and hoping for. A love like that.”

Could Raissa Maritain have been equally happy with 100 other men in Paris?  The question is so far off the mark as to be almost offensive.

The opening act of Karol Wojtyla’s beautiful and moving poetic drama about spousal love, The Jeweler’s Shop, likewise highlights the gift character of conjugal love.  The love between Andrew and Teresa—two ordinary Polish young adults—grows in them each mysteriously and imperceptibly, until it has become profoundly a part of themselves and given rise to a compelling sense of personal ought.  Speaking of the moment Andrew asked for her hand, Teresa says:

I answered “Yes”—not at once,
but after a few minutes,
and yet in the course of those minutes there was no need for reflection,
no need to struggle between motives.

The answer had almost been determined.

We both knew that it reached deep in the past
and advanced far into the future,
that it penetrated our existence  like a weaver’s shuttle,
to catch the weft that determines a fabric’s pattern.

Their courtship is permeated with a profound and reverent sense of divine providence, and divine calling.  They both sense that God had framed them for each other and drawn them to each other, almost in spite of themselves, almost against their wills.  Here is Andrew:

I went quite a long way before reaching Teresa, I did not find her at once…
After a time I realized that she had come into the focus of my attention,
I mean, I had to be interested in her,
and at the same time I accepted the fact that I had to.

Though I could have behaved differently from the way I felt I must,
I thought there would be no point.

There must have been something in Teresa that suited my personality.

I thought much at the time about the “alter ego”.

None of this is to suggest that falling in love is a matter of sheer affectivity, never mind hormones.  Andrew says a few lines later that his love for Teresa meant he had to deliberately turn away from the sensual allure of other women he encountered.  But his love for her wasn’t brought into being by an act of the will.  That is the essential point I want to drive home.  Rather, he received it as a gift from God.  It was a powerful, spontaneous movement of two souls toward each other, which was then (gradually, over time) recognized as good and sanctioned with his will.

We see the same theme in practically all the great literature we love: Jane Austen and the Brontes; George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Thackeray, Trollope, Tolstoy, Shakespeare…  Among the heroes and heroines who move our hearts and inspire our admiration, it’s never a case of “Any of these nice ladies would do equally well.”  That attitude is reserved for the mediocre or self-centered, obtuse, unspiritual characters, whom we can’t help despising.  For the hero and heroine, it is, always, “This one and no other will do for me.” There is a sweet line in a P.G. Wodehouse comic novel that expresses it well: “Of all possible girls, she was the only possible one.”

Conjugal love is something too great and mysterious, too beautiful, and too God-fraught, to be adequately defined as an act of the will.  Catholic teachers do an injustice to reality and a disservice to lonely hearts when they speak of it that way.

* There are exceptions to this rule—cases in which love comes only after the commitment of the will.  Think, for instance of a widow who marries a good man she respects, in order to give her children a father and provider.  In such a case, a genuine conjugal love may eventually develop between them.  But these cases fall short of the ideal.

Kathleen van Schaijik, an alumna of Franciscan University and a perpetual student of Personalist philosophy, is co-founder with her husband, Jules, of the Personalist Project: www.thepersonalistproject.com  She is teaching a course this spring on Courtship in the Christian vision. 

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