The Nature of Love

Couple holding hands under a starry sky

We all ‘know’ what love is – it’s that feeling of affection and attachment we experience for another person.  But is love just a feeling? Or is there more to it?  Every person experiences love in a unique way. Some gestures of love will more powerfully communicate love to you than others.  For example, some people feel close and connected when they can physically touch the other person.  Others demonstrate love through words of affirmation or affection, acts of service or thoughtfulness, or by spending time in intimate conversation. Still others feel deeply loved and connected through eye contact or other body language.

Love – a Choice, a Gift of Self

In our culture, ‘love’ is generally seen to be a feeling.  We ‘fall’ into love and we ‘fall’ out of it.  We can be caused to think love is something that just happens to us – we can’t help falling in and out of love. It’s a feeling over which we have no control… so our culture tells us.  But there is another view and a better definition. St. Thomas Aquinas defined love as “seeking the good of the other”. In his philosophy, feelings and emotions were secondary to the will when it came to love.  In fact, to love is a choice. True love is a conscious, deliberate choice to make a gift of our self to another.

This ‘gift of self’ is made through the body. We are embodied souls, so our ‘gift of self’ will be expressed and lived out through bodily acts. This may take the form of a generous act of service, the patient listening to another, or even the total ‘gift of self’ enacted in the sexual relationship between husband and wife.

This ‘gift of self’ may be unilateral or mutual. A parent-child relationship is most often a one-sided ‘gift of self’. It is a benevolent love in which the parent has no expectation of having his or her personal needs met by the child.  But in a mutual ‘gift of self’, the love is reciprocated. This is the ideal of the husband and wife relationship, where both make a sincere ‘gift of self’ to each other, and both sincerely seek the good of the other and to meet their needs for appreciation, affection, companionship, respect and intimacy.

Qualities of Love

But what does this ‘gift of self’ look like in marriage? In Catholic teaching, it has several important characteristics (the four F’s):

  1. Freely given – that is to say there is no coercion, reservation or inhibition, both spouses freely choose to give themselves to each other.
  2. Fully and complete, holding nothing back – in other words, both husband and wife share all that they have and are with each other, including in sexual intimacy, their material assets, their time and attention, for the duration of their life together.
  3. Faithful – that is to say, the sexual intimacy of the couple is exclusive to them, and that each spouse remains committed to the promises made on their wedding day, ‘until death do us part’.
  4. Fruitful – in other words, their love gives life through their fertility in the procreation and raising of children, and in their service to the wider community.

These four qualities of married love are evident in the Catholic wedding vows and form the basis of Catholic marriage. They also speak to the nature of Christ’s love for his ‘bride’, the people of God. Christ freely gives his love and his life – fully, faithfully and fruitfully – to us. And that’s one of the reasons why Matrimony is a Sacrament – it images and proclaims God’s love through the love of the couple.

Reading:  1 Corinthians 13:  Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited, it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offence or store up grievances.  Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth.  It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes.