What happens when a man and woman promise to love one another until death do them part? Well, that depends on how they define that little word “love.” In both our fields of work, we have to pay close attention to the words people use. This has sparked discussions between us about the language we use in our daily lives and in our marriage. Through these discussions, we found that we could agree on the meaning of love, but that we each faced unique challenges in living it out. Here, we reflect on how we stumble through our attempts to live out our promise to one another.
As a lawyer, I am especially conscious of the choice of words people use and their intended definitions. During the course of interviewing witnesses in depositions, I often have to ask: “What do you mean by that?” or “How would you define that word?” This has caused me to engage in the intellectual exercise of defining words I have used my whole life, but have never really attempted to define.
Around the same time I became a lawyer, I also became a husband. Early in my marriage, I decided I probably should determine my definition of “love.” After all, I just vowed to love my wife, but what does that mean? How do I know if I am actually fulfilling my vows? What does it look like to love my wife? Or to love anybody? We all use the word: “I love pizza.” “I love the 49ers.” “I love you.” But, how many of us have actually stopped to define it?
When I set out to create my definition of “love,” I actually started with the opposite. What is the antonym of love? Perhaps many of us have been told that the opposite of love is hate. You may have even answered a test question to this effect: Transparent is to Opaque as Love is to Hate. But is hate really the opposite of love? According to the Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” I agree with this statement, but think the word “indifference” could be unpacked further. Indifference means: a lack of interest, concern, or sympathy; deeming something unimportant; an unwillingness to care about others. But what drives indifference? I would say selfishness. The decision to not care for others is, by definition, as selfish decision.
Love as Selflessness
Once I was comfortable with the idea that the opposite of love is selfishness, then the direct definition became more obvious: Love is selflessness. Selflessness—having or showing great concern for other people and little or no concern for yourself; giving to others without looking for personal gain. Now this is a definition I can use to determine if I am really loving my wife, or anybody else, for that matter. Am I being selfless or selfish? Am I putting someone else’s interests first or my own? This is actually a relatively easy question to answer. My wife has asked me to take the trash out, or I see that the kitchen is a disaster, or I smell an unpleasant odor coming from my toddler. The selfish response is to ignore my wife’s request, or keep walking past the kitchen, or pretend I cannot smell my child, and keep doing what I want to do.
To be completely honest, this internal conflict is constant. Do I do what I want to do, or put someone else’s interests above mine? This is not an uncommon battle. In fact, not even Christ was immune from this struggle. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggled with the idea of his impending death, even asking God to take away this burden.
Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26: 36-39, NIV)
Jesus was tempted to forgo the needs of mankind for his own interest. But Jesus, being the flawless sacrifice that he was, put his own selfish needs aside and sought to fulfill God’s will over his own. Jesus was the perfect example of selflessness, and Paul made it clear that we are to imitate Christ’s selflessness.
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Philippians 2:1-4, NIV)
While this understanding does not make it easier for me to ignore my innate selfish desires and put my wife’s interests above mine, it at least makes it possible for me to know whether I am fulfilling my vows or not. So the next time I get a whiff of my child while watching the football game, I will know that fulfilling my commitment of being a loving husband involves getting up off the couch and changing the diaper, and hopefully I will make the right decision.
Professionally, I could relate to Brad’s emphasis on defining words in his work setting. When conducting psychotherapy, it’s also often necessary to ask clients what they mean by a certain word or to explain a phrase in more detail. For example, one client’s “flying off the handle” may mean he raised his voice, whereas for another client, this same phrase may mean she stabbed someone with a knife. Miscommunication about undefined words is also common in the daily lives of couples. Partners tend to assume they’re talking about the same thing because they’re using the same words, when, in actuality, they each define concepts such as love very differently. This can lead to turmoil when they each express love differently or have different expectations of the other person. That’s why I was happy that Brad raised this conversation in our marriage.
This line of thinking equates sacrificial love with “dirty words” such as subordination, oppression, self-denial, and self-negation.
More Than a Feeling
Coming from a religious background that emphasizes that love is an action and a choice more so than a feeling, set the stage for Brad’s definition of love to make a lot of sense to me. I couldn’t deny that Scripture promotes the idea that loving another involves sacrifice, from the quintessential sacrifice of Christ on the cross, to the message that the greatest love involves laying down one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). I could get behind the idea that love means putting another’s needs first. Yet, our discussion helped me realize that the struggle I face in loving in this way is different than the struggle Brad described in living out this kind of love. What I heard Brad describe was an internal conflict between giving of self versus self-gratification, whereas the internal conflict I often felt was between giving of self and self-protection. It struck me that this may represent two different gender experiences of the conflict inherent in loving others. Let me elaborate.
Women, more so than men, are socialized to be other-oriented and to define themselves in terms of relationships. This means they are more likely than men to subordinate their needs and interests to those of others. For example, social scientific research has indicated that women expect to give more (Askari, Liss, Erchull, Staebell, & Axelson, 2010) and, in fact, do give more in relationships than men (Sanchez, 1994). Furthermore, both men and women expect men to act in more self-interested ways than women (e.g., Swearingen-Hilker & Yoder, 2002). For these reasons, a feminist critique of the Christian emphasis on self-sacrifice is that it can be detrimental to women (or anyone in a one-down position, for that matter) because the language of sacrifice disproportionately disadvantages women who are already in subordinate positions compared to men (see McIntosh, 2007 for further discussion).
Sacrifice or Subservience?
Even voluntary sacrifice, according to this theory, increases a subservient position if the social context is one in which women are conditioned to place the interests of others above their own. This line of thinking equates sacrificial love with “dirty words” such as subordination, oppression, self-denial, and self-negation. In the past few decades, recognition of the implications of gender socialization, along with the popularized girl power movement, seem to have added a new layer of expectations for women: to stand up for themselves and to avoid, at all costs, becoming a doormat. This places women somewhat in a catch 22: on the one had, the socialization (or, Christian call) to put others’ needs first, and on the other hand, the pressure to protect themselves by not giving in to an oppressive social system.
What does all of this mean for my experience? Well, when I see the trash cascading out of the bin or smell the odor from my toddler, the struggle, for me, is not so much between sacrifice and selfishness, instead, the struggle is more between sacrifice and self-protection. Rather than giving freely, out of love, the tendency becomes to keep score in an effort to maintain some kind of balance, as a mechanism to keep myself from becoming overwhelmed by putting others’ needs first. Apparently I’m not the only one; research has shown there is a modest link between how often someone prioritizes a partner or relationship above personal interest and how much he or she perceives these sacrificial behaviors to be personally negative (Whitton, Stanley, & Markman, 2007). Furthermore, perceiving sacrificial behaviors as personally negative is associated both with symptoms of depression and with negative relationship functioning. So, always being the one to sacrifice in a relationship or sacrificing to one’s own detriment seems to have negative implications for oneself and one’s relationship.
Christian Love: Self-Sacrifice Without Oppression
So, what is the solution, then? For me, the starting point is the idea that if Christianity is true, it has to be possible to take a positive view of self-sacrifice without promoting oppression. If Christ gave his life as a sacrifice for others, then it has to be possible to live a life of sacrifice in a way that does not, ultimately, harm my relationships or myself. To this point, there is also research support. For example, Stanley and his colleagues have followed couples over time and found that more positive views of sacrificing early in marriage predicted positive relationship outcomes (Stanley, Whitton, Sadberry, Clements, & Markman, 2006). This means that acting in the interest of the relationship at the expense of immediate self-interest promotes relationship health. And, what this seems to come down to, is the motivation for the sacrifice. Specifically, as a study of dating couples pointed out, sacrifice motivated by love is associated not only with more relationship satisfaction and a greater longevity of relationship, but also with more positive emotions and more satisfaction with life for the individual (Impett et al., 2005). On the other hand, sacrifice motivated by a desire to avoid conflict or negative feelings is associated with less relationship satisfaction, more relationship conflict, a greater likelihood of breaking up, and more negative emotions among the individuals in the couple. So, what this research suggests is that sacrificing in relationships is associated with better relationship and individual outcomes, but only when the sacrifice is born out of love.
Thus, self-sacrifice—under the right conditions—is crucial not only for flourishing relationships, but for flourishing individuals, as well. These right conditions (in my paraphrase of Meszaros’ 2013 work) include:
- that self-sacrifice is an enactment of love (which is what we’re talking about here, after all);
- a recognition of oneself as relational in nature, and therefore, an acknowledgement that one’s wellbeing is intertwined with the wellbeing of others;
- the perspective that one’s good extends beyond here and now.
The idea that self-sacrifice can be a positive choice for both my relationships and for myself lends legitimacy, rather than shame, to my (socialized?) desire to care for others and define myself in relational terms. This frees me to live out the vows I promised my husband.1
Through our attempts to define the love we had promised each other, we discovered that we could agree on the core definition of love, but each struggled in our unique ways to live it. As we each battle our internal struggles in an effort to put the other’s needs before our own, we know from the empirical research that doing this will be associated with better outcomes for each of us individually, as well as for our relationship, but only if our sacrifice is truly a reflection of love. We find that our self-sacrifice does not spiral downward into self-negation or oppression; rather, it spirals upward into mutual benefit. It is precisely because we both strive toward the same definition of love, to put the other’s needs first, that our marriage is mutually rewarding. This means that self-sacrifice brings balance, rather than either self-advancement or self-depreciation. This is true because love ushers in a merger (as described by Friedman, 2003) of needs and interest by which we become entwined, feelings each other’s highs and lows, having a mutual consideration, and each caring for the wellbeing of the other.