Whenever someone asks me to speak at a wedding (which is never), I give the same variation of a speech I’ve been thinking about ever since I got married. I typically give it even when they don’t ask me to speak. It’s about love, which is odd, because weddings almost never have anything to do with love, though marriages occasionally do.
The word “love” has to carry a lot of weight in our language. What I mean when I say I love my mom is not the same as when I say I love gelato. Nor is saying that I am in love with a girlfriend the same as saying I am in love with Mumford & Sons. I don’t love my parents in the same way I love my wife or in the same way that I love my kids. And there is something different still in saying I love my best friend. As ever, context matters. You’ve probably heard the ancient Greeks had many different words for love in these contexts, but for our purposes I want to propose just two categories. There is sacrificial love, and there is preferential love.
Love as an ideal, as a virtue, is sacrificial. No one will commend you for loving Gelato or for loving pistachio more than chocolate. It’s not a universal command to love Mumford & Sons. Those are preferences, which everyone cannot help but have. Some preferences, such as that for a good book or for the beauty of nature, may be more commendable than others, such as that for fried foods or for inflicting violence, but the mere fact that one has preferences is not itself a good. Being in love with one woman might be better or healthier or more enjoyable than being in love with another, but not many will suggest you should be in love with all women. At the root of this feeling for one over another is a subjective experience. There is an object, and the subject draws pleasure from some quality of the object, be it aesthetic, relational, emotional, physical, etc. In this way, the love is ultimately self-focused, a product of the desires of the lover and the capacity of the beloved to satisfy those desires.
This is not what we mean when we say to love humanity. We are not giving the command to enjoy every person. Loving an enemy does not mean preferring their company to that of a friend. We are being told to sacrifice, to love them, to treat them as we treat a friend, as we treat ourselves, despite the fact that we don’t enjoy their company, despite the fact that we gain no pleasure out of it. It involves a loss on our part. The loss of our preferences. My children, if we dispense with the sentimentality, actively cost me time, money, relaxation, autonomy, and many other things. They have no qualities that are useful or pleasurable to me as an adult man, and yet I love them. I would love them even if they weren’t cute and smart and funny. In fact, I suspect I only think they are cute and smart and funny because I love them. I love them enough to give up part of my life for them, or even all of it, if it were asked of me. This is a selfless, other-focused love. It gives no credence to our desires and depends not on the attributes of the beloved.
The problem for marriage is that loving our spouse is often a lot more like loving gelato than loving our kids (you can see why no one asks me to speak at weddings). You get to choose the flavor of your spouse. That choice implies expectations. You chose her because she was beautiful or funny or successful or charming, because you were in love, you felt the spark of passion, some spiritual connection. Nothing wrong with that, really; it’s good to choose good things. But it’s difficult not to believe, on your wedding night, that your spouse will make you happy, fulfilled, or whole. She can’t. He can’t. Can you? They expect you to.
Of course, people change. Beauty fades and passion dims. We grow and mature, move away, change careers, acquire new relationships and values. Life rarely goes the way we expect. So the person you married at 20 or 30 will not be the same as the person of 40 or 50. Everything you loved about them may be gone. Will you find new reasons to love them? Maybe. Or you may be tempted to try to mold them back into what you desire of them. Or you may be too stung by the disappointment to bother.
That’s why we so often find it easier to love and forgive our children than our spouses and why we keep coming back to our parents even when they hurt us but have so little trouble walking away from our marriages. We can’t exchange our children or be born to new parents. We have to live with who they are, without concern for our own desires, and love them because they are ours or not at all. That’s a sacrifice, but once we decide to love them, then all of their lovable traits, whatever they may be at any given time, will be a joy to us, and their faults, no longer a threat, can be acknowledged and addressed.
Here’s what I say at weddings: you don’t love each other. You can’t yet, because you like each other too much. But one day, maybe soon, you won’t. Then you can start really loving each other. All you have to do is sacrifice your entire self and everything you want and expect nothing in return. It’s hard. Impossible, really. Who can give up their own soul? But if you do, you’ll gain another.