Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Thoughts on Conjugal Love

In 2003, two friends asked me to contribute something to their wedding ceremony. Since I’m a philosophy professor, I thought I would take the occasion to reflect a bit on the nature of conjugal love, the distinctive kind of love between a husband and wife. I never pursued these thoughts or sought publication for them, since the philosophy of love is not a research specialty of mine, but recently ceramic artist Jun Kaneko asked to publish them in a forthcoming anthology on Beethoven's Fidelio. Objections and corrections appreciated!

The common view that love is a feeling is, I think, quite misguided. Feelings come and go, while love is steady. Feelings are “passions” in the classic sense of ‘passion’ which shares a root with ‘passive’. They strike us largely unbidden. Love, in contrast, is something actively built. The passions suffered by teenagers and writers of romantic lyrics, felt so painfully, and often so temporarily, are not love – though in some cases they may be a prelude to it.

Rather than a feeling, love is a way of structuring one’s values, goals, and reactions. One characteristic of it is a deep commitment to the good of the other for his or her own sake. (This characterization of love owes quite a bit to Harry Frankfurt.) We all care about the good of other people we meet and know, for their own sake and not just for utilitarian ends, to some extent. Only if the regard is deep, though, only if we so highly value the other’s well-being that we are willing to thoroughly restructure and revise our own goals to accommodate it, and only if this restructuring is so well-rooted that it instantly and automatically informs our reactions to the person and to news that could affect him or her, do we possess real love.

Conjugal love involves all this, certainly. But it is also more than this. In conjugal love, one commits oneself to seeing one’s life always with the other in view. One commits to pursuing one’s major projects, even when alone, always in a kind of implicit conjunction with the other. One’s life becomes a co-authored work.

The love one feels for a young child may in some ways be purer and more unconditional than conjugal love. One expects nothing back from a young child. One needn’t share ideals to enjoy parental love. The child will grow away into his or her own separate life, independent of the parents’ preferences.

Conjugal love, because it involves the collaborative construction of a joint life, can’t be unconditional in that way. If the partners don’t share values and a vision, they can’t steer a mutual course. If one partner develops a separate vision or does not openly and in good faith work with the other toward their joint goals, conjugal love is impossible and is, at best, replaced with some more general type of loving concern.

Nonetheless, to dwell on the conditionality of conjugal love, and to develop a set of contingency plans should it fail, is already to depart from the project of jointly fabricating a life and to begin to develop a set of individual goals and values opposing those of the partner. Conjugal love requires an implacable, automatic commitment to responding to all major life events through the mutual lens of marriage. One cannot embody such a commitment if one harbors persistent thoughts about the contingency of the relationship and serious back-up plans.

There may be an appearance of paradox in the idea that conjugal love requires a lifelong commitment without contingency plans, yet at the same time is conditional in a way parental love is not. But there is no paradox. If one believes that something is permanent, one can make lifelong promises and commitments contingent upon it, because one believes the contingency will never come to pass. This then, is the significance of the marriage ceremony: It is the expression of a mutual unshakeable commitment to build a joint life together, where each partner’s commitment is possible, despite the contingency of conjugal love, because each partner trusts the other’s commitment to be unshakeable.

A deep faith and trust must therefore underlie true conjugal love. That trust is the most sacred and inviolable thing in a marriage, because it is the very foundation of its possibility. Deception and faithlessness destroy conjugal love because, and exactly to the extent that, they undermine the grounds of that trust. For the same reason, honest and open interchange about long-standing goals and attitudes stands at the heart of marriage.

Passion alone can’t ground conjugal trust. Neither can shared entertainments and the pleasure of each other’s company. Both partners must have matured enough that their core values are stable. They must be unselfish enough to lay everything on the table for compromise, apart from those permanent, shared core values. And they must be shorn of the tendency to form secret, individual goals. Only to the degree they approach these ideals are they worthy of the trust that makes conjugal love possible.


Anonymous said...

that was beautiful and, as always, well put. i really enjoy reading your blog and very rarely am i not fascinated by the subjects you discuss.

Sean said...

This is an excellent post, and an insightful (and, as "lit" suggests, beautiful) view. I've always liked the view of love as, in a sense, crafting a joint practical identity with someone - taking their ends as one's own.

My only question/concern is related to this passage: "The love one feels for a young child may in some ways be purer and more unconditional than conjugal love. One expects nothing back from a young child. One needn’t share ideals to enjoy parental love."

To be sure, there is more one-way dependency in parental love. But, I'm not sure that we don't expect things from children in return for our love - we set rules, expectations, teach them ideals, hope they care for us in our old age, etc. After all, parental love doesn't end at graduation. In a sense, we expect our children to "make us proud" when they go out into the world, and to "honor" us when they live in our house (think of the biblical command).

All relationships require give-and-take, a dialogue between experiences and views. There are many parent-child relationships that become those of "equal close friends" as the children get older (consider older teens/adults who become emotional support for their parents), and many conjugal relationships that may evolve some form of one-sided dependence for periods of time (e.g. one person loses a job and needs support). While the "range" of parent-child relations is more one-sided than conjugal relations, there is still a great deal of contextual variation in each.

Summary of concerns:
(a) Difference in expectations vs. unconditionality - the former seems more accurate
(b)Room for contextual variation in relationships?

ryan-1 said...

I came across your blog a few days ago and I like it a lot. Brilliant work you do.

Anonymous said...

rSince this is a draft in search of comments, I'd like to weigh in, even though I know nothing about this topic.

You first consider whether love is a feeling and therefore passively experienced. I think you need to say more about this. I view feelings as the emotional response when the appropriate action is blocked. For example, when in a dangerous situation, I immediately take evasive action until the danger is past. I will not feel fear until I stop moving. Teenagers feel passionate love because their desires are thwarted. Women have always used "denial of access" to boost their suitor's feelings of love. If this view is correct, passionate love could be so great as to outpace any possible means of expression and so leave a residue of loving feelings, a view expressed in some love poems. Conjugal love could then be accompanied by feelings of love.

Those feelings of love might be of many different sorts also. Do they all have to be erotic? Could conjugal love be a bouquet of loves, some of which are essential to an ideal pair bond, but the particular mix would be like a two person personality?

I like the paragraphs where you describe married life as a co-authored work. This is an ethical description of conjugal love and appeals to my more serious nature. The opposite view is an aesthetic interpretation. I would like to see this other aspect developed also, so that the heavy hand of obligation and duty doesn't suffocated the beauty of the ethical approach.

I recommend just deleting the paragraph on love of a child unless you develop it more fully. Motherly love comes is degrees, varies from child to child, is intensely rewarding in itself, and is often conditional as the child grows older and possibly develops different ideals.

The "purity" of parental love depends on a biological imperative. I think that the purity of love in a pair bond depends in a similar way on the biology of sex. Your post is a purely ethical description of marriage, but in the interests of realism I would like to see some acknowledgement that this love is a sexual bond.

Trust is a great anchor for your treatment of conjugal love.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the kind comments, folks!

Sean and Markate: I see now that my treatment of parental love was too brief to be clear, and maybe problematic besides. I do agree that parents expect things from their children, but I think parental love, qua parental love, is not conditional upon the child's meeting such expectations. Of course, real parents don't always experience parental love just as real spouses don't always experience conjugal love. The remarks in this essay are meant more normatively or conceptually than descriptively.

Markate: Your comments about feelings depending on blocked responses are very interesting! It does seem to me that often feelings are amplified at least (and maybe outright created) when the target response is frustrated. I'm not so sure this works as well for joy and surprise, though.

The idea of a "bouquet of loves" is an appealing one, too.

On the erotic element of marriage: I think this is an often psychologically necessary means to and a side benefit of conjugal love, but I do not think it should be put at the core. Couples can have deep conjugal love without much or even any erotic contact -- for example if distance limits erotic interaction or if age takes some of the impetus from it.

One further issue I've been thinking about since posting this is whether conjugal love in my sense is possible if one's spouse is in a permanent coma (with or without higher-level brain damage) or in a case of severe Alzheimer's disease. If the kind of love in such cases is worth calling "conjugal" love, then that stands in tension with some of what I say (though perhaps it can be reconciled by seeing the lives as a whole as intertwined, reaching back into the past). Another possibility is that the love in such cases is transformed into something still beautiful but different from ordinary conjugal love.

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