Thoughts on Conjugal Love

In Fidelo Leonore (2008)
June 4, 2003 Two friends recently 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. 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 <span class='Hi'>young</span> child may in some ways be purer and more unconditional than conjugal love. One expects nothing back from a <span class='Hi'>young</span> 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..
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