Marriage is NOT about Love

I spend a lot of time thinking about marriage—my own marriage, other people’s marriages, and cultural attitudes about marriage. I’ve learned many things on this journey. But, I’ve reached one conclusion that may sound odd possibly even startling. Marriage is NOT about love. 

As it pertains to marriage, maybe Tina Turner’s song title “ What’s Love Got to Do With It?” captures the point best. The answer as it pertains to marriage is mostly “very little”. 

Many centuries ago, Virgil, the greatest Roman poet wrote “Love conquers all things, so we too shall yield to love.” Was Virgil ever married? Nope.

My wife and I speak around the country on growing a successful marriage using my Marriage ROCKS model. I’ve read countless books on the topic of marriage. I’ve counseled many couples on how to move their marriages to a better level. My wife and I lead the marriage enrichment ministry at the local church that we attend. I’ve lead national marriage initiatives. I speak to community marriage initiatives—as I’ll be doing later this month in Atlanta. So, for me, there is no question that helping married couples discover one another and God in their relationship is part of my DNA.

Here’s how the process unfolds…

Two people fall in love. The romantic fervor is intoxicating. They feel awesome—on top of the world. Their bond is inseparable, at least that’s how they feel. They want to experience that forever. At some point, many of these couples decide that they should marry and spend the rest of their lives together to have nonstop access to this fountain of bliss. 

It all sounds so good until…

We look at little farther down the road after the wedding and see that half of these couples are no longer married.

Of the ones that stay married, many fail to thrive. In fact they don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company at all.

They distract themselves with work, affairs, children, pornography, substance abuse and many other things to avoid dealing with the pain, loneliness, and rejection that they feel. 

What happened to the love?

Sorry Virgil. But, love didn’t conquer that marriage. Actually, it may be more accurate to say that “marriage conquered their love”. But, that will have to be another blog post.

I think those of us who work with couples in premarital programs and in those early years of marriage need to communicate this point that marriage is not about love. At least, if you tend to think of love as a feeling.

Just like you “fall in love”, you can “fall out of love”.

For most people, those romantic feelings of love that were experienced in those early days will fade—pretty rapidly. Unsuspecting couples are then left with this feeling that they have fallen out of love. But that isn’t what’s happening. 

What is really happening is that this type of love—dubbed “eros”—has to be replaced with a different type of love. What type of love has to fill the vacuum? The greek word is “agape”.  Check out C.S. Lewis’ book “Four Loves” for a more detailed explanation of the four types of love.

The word “agape” is often used in Christian circles to convey God’s unconditional love or commitment to us. The idea of unconditional love is pretty difficult for us to think about in our humanity. But, it holds tremendous promise for those couples that can strive towards it in the marriage. 

Renown humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, coined the term “unconditional positive regard” to capture what may feel like a more achievable aspect of agape love. 

Whether you think agape or unconditional positive regard, the bottom line is that this type of love is about “commitment”.  

That is the principle that I want to teach young couples. How can we encourage commitment? Commitment is the glue that holds the marriage together. Marriage is about commitment that remains even when the loving feeling fades. Commitment is love in its verb form. 

Unconditional commitment is  the cornerstone of God’s relationship with us, and, by extension, it serves as the centerpiece of healthy marriage–which after all is considered a type of God’s relationship with us. God designed the institution of marriage as a framework for commitment—first to Him and then to each other.

Marriage: Commitment by Design

First, God designed marriage to center upon an unconditional commitment to Him. This requires a daily sacrifice of replacing your own desires for your marriage with God’s plans for it – a reminder that your marriage belongs to Him. When life’s stressors beset your marriage, your greatest assurance is that God’s commitment to your marriage is sufficient to contain any problem you may face (Romans 8:35-38).

Second, God designed your marriage upon an unconditional commitment to one another. This unconditional commitment requires agreement between spouses to cultivate what God has planted in them. It requires an assumption of good will to care for each other’s vulnerabilities. Finally, it requires a vow between spouses to reserve their best emotional, psychological and physical selves for one another.

The Power and Peril of Unconditional Commitment

Unconditional commitment is the only secure foundation as family pressures, financial struggles, health challenges, work demands and church obligations mount. Your marital health depends on your ability to keep these pressures at your back rather than between you. From behind, these forces push you towards one another – creating intimacy in the struggle. Conversely, when wedged between you, they push you apart – nearly always fostering emotional, if not physical, separation.

Of course, unconditional commitment is not without its risks. Many spouses fear such a commitment because of the vulnerable position in which it places them – possibly being taken advantage of by a self-centered spouse. If your spouse exhibits a pattern of spousal abuse or blatant disregard for your well-being, it is vital that you protect yourself first and lean on God for reassurance.

With this understanding of unconditional commitment, there are three keys that are vital for healthy marriage—and really any meaningful relationship.

Three Keys to Marital Commitment

Keeping marital stressors at your back requires unconditional commitment to a three-step process. When maintained, these iterative steps engender a climate of trust and respect that honors God and protects the marital relationship.

  • Keep Facing One Another. You are most likely to move in the direction that you are already facing. Frustrated couples often look outside of their marriage for answers to their emotional needs. Then, as difficulties push them, it is only natural that they move towards that which meets their need rather than towards the spouse. Spouses who make a decision to satisfy their emotional needs (especially romantic ones) only within the confines of their marriage satisfy the fundamental requisite of unconditional commitment.
  • Communicate Honestly. Effective communication is the glue that binds marriage. Conveying your needs, wants and feelings with your spouse, even in stressful situations, creates unity. Always remember that the complementary aspect of communicating honestly is listening actively. Active listening relies more on your heart than your ears.
  • Encourage Each Other. Many couples fail to encourage one another either because they do not think it is needed or because of their own insecurities and shortcomings. God, however, placed you and your spouse together to shape each other into His likeness. Encouragement soothes the pain of this molding process. Encouragement provides validation and legitimacy in discouraging and distressing circumstances. Look at how God offers you encouragement in Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” I doubt there is any clearer model of unconditional commitment.

As you are able to face one another, communicate honestly, and encourage one another you will transform your marriage into a vital relationship that meets all of your (and your spouse’s) needs.

Inspirational speaker Zig Ziglar says, “Many marriages would be better if the husband and the wife clearly understood that they are on the same side.”

Think about the military force or sports teams that unite to defeat an opponent. For victory, the “me” focus of the individuals must yield to the “we” focus of the unit. Being on the same side creates synergy as the best part of each person contributes to the strength of the whole.

Herein lays the success of a godly marriage. The “we-ness” of your marriage, born of unconditional commitment, builds as you and your spouse share respect, trust and quality time. Unconditional commitment or “we-ness” transforms potential marital threats into powerful testimonies of deliverance that glorify God.

With this perspective, maybe we can answer Tina Turner’s “What’s love got to do with it?” question differently. Maybe, we can say “Well Tina. If your talking about agape love and “we-ness”, then its got everything to do with creating a marriage that transforms my world”.

What does commitment look like in your marriage?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Doreen Amatelli

    Love Love Love this article, Harold. I really enjoy your easy-to-understand writing style. It’s clear and direct without being condescending. Keep up the great work!!
    I think the concept of a long-term “happy” marriage eludes many people. Knowing the keys, which are huge skills in and of themselves, are very helpful. I was in an abusive relationship, so the fear of “unconditional commitment” was (and is to some extent) difficult to overcome. Do you have any suggestions for building that trust again after having a hurtful experience? Also, for someone like me who doesn’t easily rely on others to help me, turning toward my new partner is a new skill I am also learning.

    • Harold L Arnold Jr

      Doreen, thank you very much for the comment. It is very encouraging.

      It makes perfect sense that “unconditional commitment” is a scary idea when you’re being abused. And, in fact, this type of agape love is not a license for you to be a doormat for someone else’s constant self-centered behaviors.

      True “unconditional love” (as opposed to codependency) must always be balanced with healthy boundaries. These boundaries give parameters to you for what is reasonable to tolerate. We often need God’s direction to set the boundaries at the “right” place. But, the reality is sometimes we just have to be prepared to adjust them to be more or less rigid based on the specific situation that we are in.

      The key is that we (and God) know the desire of our heart is to give our very best to our spouse. But, part of giving our best is protecting our core self from becoming damaged goods.

      You raise a good point about how do we learn to trust again. That’s hard too.

      If it is with the same person then I think we have to be very prayerful and communicate to the person what type of changes we need to see in order to loosen those boundaries again. But, then we have to look for incremental improvement and then respond with incrementally more trust as you’re comfortable. Don’t open yourself back up too fast.

      In those instances where we want to learn to trust a non-offending person, I think it is first important to self-reflect to understand what went wrong before. Was there any personal contribution to what happened in a prior relationship? Could you do anything better? Based on this you have to set boundaries with this person. Every different person has to have a different boundary evaluation. With boundaries there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach. This person is different than the last. Maybe better. Maybe worse. But, take it slowly so you can tell before opening yourself up too quickly.

      Then, be willing to walk away if the dating relationship is setting off alarms. And, be willing to get help quickly if you’re already in another marriage situation.

      Doreen, what do you think will be the hardest part of implementing these type of flexible boundaries?

      Be interesting to hear what others think too.

      • Shannon Major

        Hi Dr. Harold. I enjoyed but appreciated this article more. You hit on some very valid and probably overlooked topics. I have to tell you my fiance and I are taking so much away from the enrichment classes we attend on friday nights. Shamika stated to me that she thinks these classes (pre marital classes) should be mandatory.. statewide. We all need to first identify through a professional such as yourself whether we have the mental capacity to be married. This union should be cherished, while there may be valleys along with the peaks things have to be able to be worked out respectfully between the two people. This is a union for and because of GOD.