While hiking with my son one day, we met a new friend. We met him in a tough circumstance… he was stuck high on a hiking trail. He was a senior citizen with a bucket list who had bitten off more than he could chew. My son and I felt privileged to be able to help him down the mountain. It was an act of love. It was what he needed in that moment.
What is love? It is a giving of ourselves to another as a sacrificial offering. In love, we deny something of ourselves for someone else. In this situation with my new friend, he needed our time and concern. We gave it freely. Did it cost us? Yes. We lost all of the other plans we had made for our evening because our trek took hours longer than we had initially intended. We made it down as the sun was setting and the day was ending. However, our love cups were filled.
There is a longing deep in our hearts for love. Cultures are full of sonnets and songs of this, our deepest need. Parents will sacrifice their last morsel of food for their children. Lovers will accept hardships and even death for each other. It becomes an expectation. We feel entitled to the love of others and become bitter in rejection. There is an emptiness within us when we don’t feel loved.
My love cup isn’t filled by someone giving their love to me. I may feel great joy and gratitude in receiving love but my love cup is filled when I give love to someone else. Love is a gift we give. Gratitude and joy of the heart are the rewards for both the giver and receiver.
I find this concept can be hard to understand from a worldly perspective. We all want to be loved. Yet, modern culture sees true love as unrealistic. It may be. From our own personal perspective, we can’t make a perfect relationship. A relationship requires more than one person and we can only make choices on one side of it. The other side of the relationship may make choices that don’t feel loving to us. They may be unable to love as we want them to. We feel left out. We feel betrayed. We are disappointed. Often, we even expect to be disappointed so we sabotage our relationships… it’s easier than feeling unloved. Our fear holds us back from true intimacy.
On our way down the mountain with our new friend, we spoke of many things. There was a lot we had in common though we are in very different stages of life. We spoke of love and relationships. We spoke of types of love and how the modern world tends to love things and use people rather than loving people and using things. He was in a rough patch in his life. He and his wife had drifted apart over the years. They were in the middle of a divorce. He realized how much he missed her physical touch when the simple touch of his dentist was soothing to his core. He thought his wife may be a bit of a narcissist because she’s more concerned with her own needs than his. This was an echo of other conversations I have had with other men. Their wives are narcissists in their eyes, too. Maybe they are. Many of those wives may think their husbands are, too.
Our conversation gave me a reflection… it seems there is an epidemic of narcissism in the world—diagnosed and undiagnosed. What could be causing this? I have a theory. If love is a selfless act, how can the giver of love have his/her needs met? If our attention is focused on someone else’s needs, who is focusing on ours? It has to come from the loving selfless acts of the other person. This is a relationship. This is especially the relationship of marriage.
All relationships have similar characteristics. I want to focus here on marriage—the most significant human relationship many of us will experience in this world. It is also analogous to our relationship with God. It can be illustrative to meditate on the extremes to better understand the routine.
In the beginnings of a romantic relationship, we are often attracted by physical appearances or other superficial attributes. We sometimes call this “love at first sight.” I don’t believe this is love… not yet. We have simply found someone who delights our senses. In a way, it’s actually a selfish beginning. We see someone who pleases us. It’s about us and our desires. Love begins when we seek to get to know the other person beyond their superficial attributes. We spend time with them. We give them our attention and we learn about them. We apply that knowledge in doing things for them that they may recognize as gifts… of time, talent, and treasure. We begin to sacrifice for them. We forsake others for them and keep ourselves only for them.
In our relationship with God, this situation is like the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13). The seed that easily takes root is based on our senses. Those who see God as something of a genie are quickly disappointed when they find that Baptism didn’t suddenly end their troubles in the world. In fact, often the troubles multiply. Disillusionment is followed by abandonment. The seed on good soil is the one that understands the sacrificial nature of love and finds that love changes suffering into sacrifice. Toil becomes service. Duty becomes an offering.
If we only spend time with others to get their affection—for them to love us—we betray them. We can’t just be a character to them in order to attract their interest. That’s a con-game, not a relationship. It won’t last. There will be a reckoning. The truth always comes to light. We have to commit. We have to give of ourselves freely. We have to be sincere. We have to let go of what we want and seek the greatest good for someone else. That is when we start to love.
A courtship is a discerning process. The modern world seeks compatibility in superficial areas… hobbies, appearance, education, social status, et al. The greater compatibility is in the capacity for love. Couples should discern the commitment of their intended toward sacrificial love. Is their—and our—focus on what we hope to get from the relationship or on what we hope to give? It’s a self-reflection as much as an observation. If we can’t commit to sacrificial love, we’re setting the stage for broken hearts.
Our Lord said we are to love others as we love ourselves. That isn’t suggesting we should have some sort of self-adulation. How do we love ourselves? We do all that is necessary to meet our own needs. We feed ourselves and clothe ourselves. We rest when needed and see to our recreational needs. We are honest with ourselves and work to overcome weaknesses. We should forgive ourselves and move on from our mistakes. This is how we should be with others… caring, honest, and forgiving. It doesn’t require affection. It requires service.
This is how we can love our enemies. It doesn’t mean we adore them. It means we serve them as we serve our own needs.
In the best of marriages, a man sacrifices for his wife (note that I speak from a man’s perspective because that’s the only one I have). It goes beyond just providing for her physical needs… she also has emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs. As husbands, we need to be there for our wives. What does she enjoy? Can we join in her activities and be there with her? Who does she want to be? Can we help her achieve her goals? It’s an approach we take when we’re dating… we might see it as an opportunity to spend time with someone we would like to get to know when we show up at their favorite places and like what they like. It’s also the beginnings of a relationship. We do this instinctively with our children, too… when they’re playing with their LEGOs, we often get down on the floor with them. Why? Because we’re building a relationship with them. We can do that with our spouses at any stage of the marriage.
Ladies, does it seem your husband has a preoccupation with sex? As a primal urge, it’s easy to see how men get led astray. We’re pretty easy in this regard. If he has a preoccupation for sex with you, be glad it’s with you! His desire for you shouldn’t be a point of derision or complaint. We think we’re complimenting you in our expressed desires. His preoccupation may be because this is the easiest way he knows to try to meet your needs as well. It’s a need we understand. We tend to project our own needs onto other people… and frankly, this is a significant male need. If we think physical intimacy sounds nice, we hope you do, too. Between our own projections and the constant barrage of media telling us this is how men and women relate to each other, it’s tough to see beyond it. Just like you, we want to feel attractive. We want to be wanted.
It’s true… we’re clueless when it comes to understanding women. We see ourselves as open books and are disappointed our wives don’t do simple things to please us. Why would a married man turn to porn or prostitution? Usually because some need isn’t being met. The bedroom isn’t a relationship, it’s an expression of a relationship. Selfishness or self-giving are expressed here. Spouses who are focused on their own needs are less-satisfied than those that truly give of themselves. It’s a beautiful metaphor where giving is pleasurable to both. Patience and communication are important in all aspects of the relationship.
Women may turn to movies, books, and other media where they see an idyllic representation of relationships. They see perfect men who are seemingly in love with their women and are attentive to their needs. The characters are written that way and it is an act performed by men who in real life may not have solid relationships at home. Where men are often focused on physical expression, women may turn to “relationship porn.” It isn’t bad to enjoy romantic movies… it becomes a problem in a relationship when it becomes a primary source of romantic fulfillment.
Another emotional trap is focusing on the children at the expense of our spouses. It sounds loving and seems like something our spouse should appreciate. However, the husband-wife relationship is the primary relationship in the family. We can alienate our spouses over time by neglecting the affection due to them in favor of the parent-child relationship. When the children eventually leave, spouses are left to figure out a new beginning on top of a lifetime of struggle. A growing family should multiply the love, not divide it.
Women tend to be wired for intimacy while men tend to be wired toward action. Women have relationships just being with another person while men tend to have relationships in the midst of doing things. This dichotomy can be a source of friction.
Men also have other needs beyond the physical—despite the representations of the modern world. Lusts of the flesh may include bread and wine… but man does not live by bread alone. A physical relationship isn’t enough to hold his attention for the long-term. Although all individuals are unique, most men have a need for respect. We want to be appreciated for the work we do—in the home and in the world. This is where familiarity in the marriage may breed contempt… our wives know us better than anyone else… better than we know ourselves. As we accept awards, she knows we are flawed human beings. She knows our sins. She knows our misaligned priorities. She knows what we neglect. She may be disgusted by the adulation of others especially if she believes the opposite of the praise. This opens doors of opportunity for evil. Men may be easily attracted to the attention of others who don’t see beyond the public face… those who don’t know our sins… those who don’t know our past. The praise and respect of fans may be tempting. We crave it—especially if respect is missing in our homes. Relationships with acolytes are seductive… but poisonous.
We have to learn to speak love in a language our spouse understands. We have to listen, learn, and experience them. It takes time. It takes commitment. It takes an outward focus. It takes patience. Sadly, these things are in short supply these days.
When modern marriages dissolve, you can often tell by looking at the aggrieved spouses… they tend to shape up. They upgrade their lives. They exercise. They try to be attractive to a new mate. When they find that new mate, they do what they can to please that person to help the relationship grow. It’s instinctual… and more than a little frustrating to the former spouse. If the spouses who had grown apart had spent some of this energy on each other, they might not have had to find someone new. We know what to do, we just sometimes lose interest in doing it for each other.
There are some unfortunate slogans attached to marriage these days that can be unintentionally harmful. We say, “If mama ain’t happy, no one is happy!” and “Happy wife, happy life!”. These aren’t bad slogans from a man’s perspective but when they become a mantra for marriage, they are terribly one-sided. Both spouses have needs. Both spouses have an equal claim to the attention and concern of the other. The unhappiness of either spouse can hurt the home. How about this instead: “Happy spouse, happy house!”
This isn’t to suggest that it is our job to make anyone else happy. That is an unattainable goal. It’s a recipe for dissatisfaction. We can put their needs before our own and show them affection but happiness is up to the individual. I have seen many people happy in terrible circumstances and many others unhappy in the best of circumstances. Happiness results from the joy of giving… because we are made to love. It’s hard-wired into us owing to our creation in the image and likeness of the one who is love-personified. We weren’t made for happiness as the world defines it, we were made for love. We were made for sacrifice. We find joy in the love we give and are grateful for the love we receive.
In order to love, there must be a giver and receiver. Disruptions to this arrangement cause confusion and consternation. A common tactic of manipulation and punishment in relationships is one party not allowing the other to serve their needs. It doesn’t take an absence to feel alone. One person may be isolated in loneliness and impotence because the other rejects their offerings. We know we can hurt each other by refusing to receive the love that is given. This is also the pain we feel at the loss of someone we love—we lose someone whose needs meant more to us than our own. Our mourning is the hole within us that is difficult to fill. This is where we need faith the most—human frailty and fickleness means our relationships ebb and flow; begin and end. The love of God never leaves us and never fails. He loves us with a wild abandon that is difficult to contemplate and we can love Him with our whole being. The only thing that hurts our relationship with God is refusing the love He offers.
In a way, this also helps us understand why God would create us at all. Love is eternally expansionary… it seeks more to love. If love is a gift, the way to grow love is to create more receivers. Love begets. God loved us into creation and gave us His own creative spark to grow love for ourselves in our families. It is instinctual and compulsive. We were made for communion with Him and He draws us home to His family through Baptism—taking on His family name and nature.
See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3).
I had the opportunity to visit with another friend who expressed with some dismay that his wife of many decades was having anxiety about their relationship. He recently started a new business and was doing work for women 20-30 years younger than him. He said she was jealous of those relationships. As we talked, I started to see a different picture.
He worked and built an amazing reputation throughout their married life. When he first retired, that reputation led to more employment. When he retired again, he was hired again. The process repeated many times. Now, at over 80 years old, he had started a business of his own. It’s possible she may be jealous of the women but it might be because they actually get to spend time with him! She supported him throughout his professional life and likely thought that he would finally be with her at each retirement— only to be repeatedly disappointed. His life was always elsewhere, not with her. Her life was constantly waiting for him. By now, she may doubt his commitment to her. It may be the cause of her anxiety.
I asked him what his wife likes to do. Of the things he mentioned, putting puzzles together sounded promising.
Him: “But… I hate puzzles.”
Me: “I’m sorry. This isn’t about the puzzle and it isn’t about you. It’s about her. If you want a relationship with her, join her in what she loves from time to time. Unless you want to take up quilting, this seems a good option. Put away the phone and other distractions and be with her in the moment.”
He said she also complains that she has put on some weight… especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. She doesn’t feel attractive anymore. He told me she might consider taking up walking. I had a suggestion… rather than suggesting she take walks, he could ask her to take walks with him. He could treat it like a date. Make these moments together special. Make them routine. Make it part of their lives together. Pray for each other. Pray together. Don’t be just roommates. Be soulmates.
If he wants a relationship with his wife, he has to build it. He has to be there with her. The magic of the relationship isn’t found in romantic getaways or candle light, it’s lived through ordinary days. It grows over time. It’s a commitment.
God is omnipresent—with us everywhere. We tend to be fickle in our attention. In order to have a relationship with Him, we must spend time with Him. We read Scripture to hear His voice. We can see His face in those made in His image and likeness that we serve. We can commune with Him physically in the Eucharist. We can find all three in Mass and should attend each Sunday to work on our relationship with Him. Our goal is to learn to love. In learning to love, we learn to be like God who is love-personified—in whose image we have been made—who shares His divine nature with the baptized. Through the Sacraments, we have communion with Him, are reconciled from our waywardness, are given purpose, and are prepared for eternal life. In the Sacraments we find our family relationship with God.
If the man spends his energy sacrificing for his wife, how are his needs met?
That’s the beauty of love… the one who loves him is supposed to do the same for him. His wife should give of herself in exactly the same way… sacrificing to meet his needs… joining in the things he loves… doing for him what he would otherwise do for himself. Just so, God doesn’t need anything from us. In our love for Him, we love our neighbor and attend to his needs. What we do for the least of our brethren here, we do for love of God (Matt 25:40).
When husbands and wives see love and marriage this way, it’s truly beautiful. Giving and receiving is a kind of marital dance.
What happens, though, when needs are not being met? Somehow, those needs must be met… they are needs, after all. If needs aren’t being met by the spouse, we find a way to meet them ourselves… or turn to others. We selfishly begin focusing on meeting our own needs—because someone has to. In that emotional isolation, separations are made in the relationship. Things drift apart. Relationship bonds are severed. Evil exploits the fractures. Hearts are broken. Divorces occur.
Could it be that we’re creating narcissists by our own neglect? Can we look at our spouse and call her a narcissist when her self-centeredness has come about over years of having to focus on her own needs? Can we be surprised if she thinks her husband is a narcissist because his attention is on anything but her?
What can we do about it?
Reengage. Husbands, love your wives as Christ loves the Church (Eph 5:25). Our Lord died for His Bride. We can do the same. I’m not suggesting we seek bodily harm to express our love. We can die in small ways. We can let go of our pride. We can let go of our preferences. We can focus on her. Maybe I want to watch a Marvel movie tonight but I know my wife wants to watch a documentary. Knowing her, I can offer what I know she wants. I can make it a gift… and it is. It’s a gift of myself… my time… my attention. God willing, she may one day do the same. Should I do it with the anticipation of her reciprocation? No. That isn’t love. That’s a transaction. Sometimes, the most powerful words in marriage are, “yes, dear.”
This doesn’t mean the needs of our wives are going to be met through puzzles, walks, or documentaries any more than our needs are met solely by movies, sports, and sex. Building a relationship is a process. It takes work. It takes time. It takes care and attention. We will discover deeper depths to our wives and in ourselves through this process. As trust is built, she may open up more of her heart and share her deeper truths. We will also find that the deeper we go, there are greater depths awaiting… and deeper love. God is love. Love is infinite. Made in His image and likeness, our capacity to love is as infinite as anything can be for finite beings. We can give without measure.
What if she never reciprocates our sacrificial love—or at least doesn’t seem to from our perspective? That doesn’t lift our burden to love. Jesus died loving those who rejected Him, tortured Him, and killed Him. We are called to imitate Him. Life can be stressful.
Love is never wasted, for its value does not rest upon reciprocity (C.S. Lewis).
What is stress? I define stress as “unmet expectations”. Often in life, we don’t have the ability to change our circumstances. We can only change our expectations in those circumstances. Just so in our relationships. We can’t change someone else. They will be who they choose to be. They will do as they choose to do. Love is a choice. We may have to adjust our expectations of them at times… and pray.
There is another old saying that comes to mind: “Women marry men hoping they can change them… and they can’t. Men marry women hoping they won’t change… and they do.” There is a lot of truth in this. Pleasing a man doesn’t take a lot of study. History shows what men want and how men have been exploited in their desires. Giving a man a moment of joy early in the marriage will also work late in the marriage. This isn’t always the case for women. They tend to get bored in the routines of life and seek new experiences. Some of this is a result of differing physical natures. A man is a man and remains largely unchanged physically throughout life—he just grows older. A woman will grow from immaturity, to child-bearing, to menopause, and beyond. In each of these phases is a different outlook on life with different physical attributes.
Women have a tendency to see the static nature of their husbands as a lack of growth or immaturity. It breeds a lack of respect. While men try to hold on to what is familiar, women tend toward evolution. Men must learn to evolve their relationships with their wives—to keep things fresh—while wives should have compassion for their unchangeable men.
As a side note, the father-daughter relationship doesn’t tend to suffer from these forces of nature. This relationship tends to stay routed in the adolescent and there is more pressure to hold steady than evolve. This also helps explain why daughters tend to idolize their fathers while growing apart from their husbands… the everyday familiarity breeds contempt over time if not refreshed with sacrificial offerings of love.
No one can hurt us more than the person we love most. It’s painful at times. It’s part of the deal. I like to see it as a rock tumbler and spouses provide the sand. The sand in the tumbler is what polishes natural rocks into smooth gems. Our homes are schools for practicing virtue—learning to forgive and be forgiven. No one will hurt us more or more often than our spouses. As we forgive each other of the thousands of paper cuts—and worse—we receive daily, both of our stones are being polished for Heaven. We are told by our Lord to forgive. It starts at home.
It can be hard to forgive. Over the lifetime of a relationship, these hurts—both great and small—accumulate. They come to mind with each new hurt and form a pattern. We expect to be hurt. It becomes familiar. Minor disappointments become part of the fabric of greater issues. We regret our decisions. We regret our relationship. It’s easy to form new attachments because they don’t come with the baggage we’ve built up in our current relationship. We may see our spouses as the source of our troubles rather than someone who needs the love we have to give. Resentment grows. Love is reduced to duty. Days become drudgery.
This is why forgiveness is so important. We have to learn to forgive those we love and yet hurt us the most. Everything that has been done to us is now in the past. All of it. It can’t be changed. It can’t be denied. It can only be forgiven… or not. I have a question, though… if the past is painful and full of regret, why would we give it power over today? Why do we want those hurts to continue? Each moment we live today and each decision we make will build our future lives. By dwelling on past hurts, we rob ourselves of present and future happiness. Our days become darker and our future bleak. Every relationship needs a habit of forgiveness and a future of hope.
If we love only to be loved, it’s a selfish transaction, not a selfless one. If we want love in our lives, we simply love more and offer our sacrificial offering to God for His great love for us. The only love we can control is the love we have to give. The only love that never fails is from the one who made us in His image—the image of love. The walk can be lonely at times and there may be a need for counseling along the way— especially where communication has broken down. Couples counseling works best when both spouses are committed to solutions… committed to love. If we can truly give without expectation of reward, we can love even unrequitedly. The love we give is independent of the love we receive. In love, both spouses should want what is best for the other spouse. When we said our vows, that’s the promise we made.
We say we love each other. We commit to marriage. Marriage is a covenant bond where we are joined in one flesh—we completely give ourselves to each other. We are one person. We are inseparable unless we do great violence to this covenantal life.
We don’t truly understand the sacrifices love requires when we say our vows. Life is difficult and ever-changing. We drift apart. We rush together. We hurt. We laugh. If we want to make our relationship last, we have to commit to true love… dying to self for the object of our love. We are to treat others as we would be treated—not as we are treated. When both are committed, life can be beautiful. When one or both thinks they have to focus on themselves, cracks form in the foundations of our homes.
We simply live the best life we’re able and deal with the world as we find it. It’s nearly universal to marriage vows—the promise to love. If we read our Bibles, we find that living a life of love in the image of Christ involves the cross. Very few saints had peaceful ends in the eyes of the world. Most found their joy in living in imitation of Christ—the Man of Sorrows. God doesn’t want happiness for us as the world defines it. He wants to make us holy… which is real happiness. We should expect that our relationships will take work, sacrifice, and self-giving… and it will hurt… often.
We find joy in generosity. We find gladness in gratitude. We find peace in forgiveness. We find trust in hope. When we feel unloved, we will find love in giving ourselves unconditionally… especially to those who hurt us most.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God (John 3:16-18).
All are invited to communion with God. Not all accept the invitation. We tend to see God as some dispassionate judge far-removed from humanity who sends imperfect people to Hell. Couldn’t it be just the opposite? He is a passionately loving Father who seeks intimacy with His adopted children and saves them from Hell. In His love for His family, He culls them out from the world to be with Him in eternal happiness. If He allowed those who love the world more than Him to enter Heaven, Heaven would become no different than the world. It is Heaven because He welcomes only those who embrace Him and His people in love.
God taught us of His love in the words of Old Testament Scripture. He lived His love in the sacrifice of His Word made flesh on the cross. He made us His own in the marriage of His Word to His Church that we may be His hands and feet harvesting His people for salvation. It has always been about His love and His call to be with Him.
Do not fear, you shall not be put to shame;
do not be discouraged, you shall not be disgraced.
For the shame of your youth you shall forget,
the reproach of your widowhood no longer remember.
For your husband is your Maker;
the Lord of hosts is his name,
Your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel,
called God of all the earth (Is 54:4-5).
Heaven isn’t necessarily a reward for good behavior—it’s the home to which God invites His people. Hell isn’t necessarily a punishment for bad behavior—it’s the default destination for all who are dead in sin. Hell isn’t the home of those God has rejected—He rejects no one who seeks Him with a sincere heart—it is home to those who reject Him. God invites all to new life in Him.
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
The world hears God’s call to love Him as narcissism. It isn’t. He could have made automatons to do His will and be perfect. That would be narcissistic. He chose instead to make us after His own image and likeness and gave us free will. In that free will, it’s up to us to choose to love. Without free will there can be no love. As our creator, He knows best what we need. In His command to love is the invitation to experience His joy as the embodiment of love-personified. He isn’t commanding our fealty, He’s inviting us to join Him in everlasting peace and happiness.
But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
The advent of artificial intelligence has made for great efficiencies in science and computing. Some are trying to apply it to literature, poetry, and religion. A sermon was recently preached by an AI program and there are calls to let AI rewrite the Bible. Artificial intelligence is a product of science and its application is appropriate to these disciplines. It is not appropriately applied to affairs of the Church and relationships. Love can not be programmed and still be love. Love requires free will and sacrifice, not just flowery words.
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing (1 Cor 13:1-3).
The love we give is our evangelization. We teach others of God by being conduits of the love He gives us. God doesn’t love us because we are perfect. He came to us in our imperfection to make us perfect in Him. His love for us predates our salvation. He loved us enough to enter our humanity and pull us up to Himself. May we reflect to God His unconditional love for us and share that love with all made in His image and likeness.
Nothing here is meant to suggest that there is no such thing as mental illness or evil influences. There are situations beyond our control. Most of us promised to love in sickness and in health… so we should help as much as we are able. Professional help should be sought when needed… and love requires a great deal of prayer… always.