Friday, February 14, 2020

Thoughts on Conjugal Love

For Valentine's Day, some thoughts on love.

In 2003, my Swiss friends Eric and Anne-Fran├žoise Rose asked me to contribute something to their wedding ceremony. Here’s a lightly revised version of what I wrote, concerning conjugal love, the distinctive kind of love between spouses.


Love is not a feeling. Feelings come and go, while love is steady. Feelings are passions in the classic sense of passion, which shares a root with “passive” – they arrive mostly unbidden, unchosen. Love, in contrast, is something built. The passions felt by teenagers and writers of romantic lyrics, felt so intensely and often so temporarily, are not love – though they might sometimes be the prelude to it.

Rather than a feeling, love is a way of structuring your values, goals, and reactions. Central to love is valuing the good of the other for their own sake. Of course, we all care about the good of other people we know, for their own sake and not just for other ends. Only if the regard is deep, only if we so highly value the other’s well-being that we are willing to thoroughly restructure our own goals to accommodate it, and only if this restructuring is so rooted that it automatically informs our reactions to the person and to news that could affect them, do we possess real love.

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

Parental love for a young child might be purer and more unconditional than conjugal love. The parent expects nothing back from a young child. The parent needn’t share plans and ideals with an infant. Later, children will grow away into their separate lives, independent of parents’ preferences, while we retain our parental love for them.

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

Nevertheless, 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 individual goals 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 can’t embody such a commitment while harboring serious back-up plans and persistent thoughts about the contingency of the relationship.

Is it paradoxical that conjugal love requires lifelong commitment without contingency plans, yet at the same time is contingent in a way that parental love is not? No, there is no paradox. If you believe something is permanent, you can make lifelong promises and commitments contingent upon it, because you believe the thing will never fail you. Lifelong commitments can be built upon bedrock, solid despite their dependency on that rock.

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 partner’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 to the extent that, they undermine that trust. For the same reason, honest and open interchange about long-standing goals and attitudes is 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 values. And they must resist the tendency to form secret, selfish goals. Only to the degree they approach these ideals are partners worthy of the trust that makes conjugal love possible.

[For the final, published version of this essay, please see A Theory of Jerks and Other Philosophical Misadventures.]

[image source]


George Gantz said...

Eric - Thank you for a lovely post . Your sentiment exhibits a remarkable parallel to the conclusions offered by Emmanuel Swedenborg in his theological tome that used to go by the title "Conjugial Love" (1768). The Swedenborg Foundation offers an updated English translation: I was introduced to this work by a friend during my separation (followed by divorce) almost 30 years ago, and the chapter "On the causes of colds and separations in marriage" provided an insightful and detailed commentary on the disconnects that had led to the failure of my marriage. As you note, the feelings between two people, and the conditionality of that shared life, are changeable --- but if both parties are fully committed to that shared life, they can work through the changes. If they are not so synchronized, then the stresses can (and often do) tear the marriage apart.

An important question is how that synchronization is inspired and maintained. The context for synchronization identified by Swedenborg is the mutual recognition of and commitment to the transcendence of Divine Creation. We are each participants in a grand infinite ordering of creation --- and conjugal love is the foundation for that ordering. If both partners share that belief structure / worldview, then the daily stresses of life are much less likely to shake the marriage commitment, Indeed, his message is that the love between congujial partners will continue to grow, even through the eternity of heaven. That's an inspiring image!

Arguably, religion can provide a very powerful incentive for human commitment. Baumeister and Tierny, Robert Wright, Jonathon Haidt, Alain de Botton and many other secular and atheist writers attest to the power of religious belief in sustaining commitment in the face of difficult circumstances. While Alain may be trying with his School of Life, it is difficult to see how a secular or human-centered worldview alone can provide a similarly compelling incentive.

Thankfully, the promise of conjugal love is also, ultimately, supported by human biology. As a recent article in AEON discusses (Collaborators in creation by Doyne Farmer et al, 1-27-20) humans raised in a loving environment experience hormonal cascades throughout life that support powerful lifetime bonding. It would seem that if this biological imperative can be paired with an appropriate cognitive cultural mythology, we would have a winning combination.

May we all be blessed in our efforts to create one!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for that insightful and interesting comment, George! I was unfamiliar with the Swedenborg. I'll check it out.

Kevin said...

First of all, thanks for sharing. There are many discussions about the love between husband and wife. This kind of love is very pure and noble, but it is not as selfless as the parents' love for their children. The love between husband and wife is more responsibility and appreciation. Only when they appreciate each other can they come together and support and tolerate each other in the future.