We can’t talk about love if we can’t also talk about sacrifice. This seems so obvious to me that I’m not sure I’ve ever really tried to formulate it explicitly before. But it is the way talk of love in contemporary discourse slips so easily into the assumption that love serves self-fulfilment which has struck me with ever greater force as I read the ongoing, and often rather futile, musings of Christians about human sexuality (and by the way I’m not excluding myself from this criticism). Of course love seeks its own fulfilment, not least as the expression of desire, of eros. But if love is only the fulfilment of desire, then it is masquerading as selfish passion, an appetite like any other. Love cannot assume as its ultimate end its own fulfilment, but the fulfilment of the other person. That may imply love’s own disappointment, its lack of completion, its self-limitation.
You can perhaps see this most completely in parental love. Parents try to love their children into being, and into maturity, and as they see them grow, they have to accept the limits of their ability to guide, steer and protect them. Their desire for their children to become fully mature, independent, secure people in their own right must entail the risk of loss and disappointment for themselves as parents: they cannot make their children like themselves; they cannot ensure they are always near them; they cannot control their children’s life choices when it comes to partners, friends and life styles. The best parents learn to let go, but that letting go is almost never without pain.
But this is also true for all relationships of love, surely. It’s certainly true in marriage and lifelong partnership. Unless one partner is a brainwashed doormat (in which case can we really say love is present at all?), there will always be differences of outlook and interest that from time to time cause one or other partner pain. To be in a committed, lifelong partnership is to accept the limitations of our own pursuit of pleasure, and to place at the centre of our lives, by contrast, the flourishing of our partner, our love.
So that means sacrifice. This is often an incredibly hard thing to discuss with couples seeking marriage. What are you prepared to give up to make this marriage work? How much space can you give each other to grow and change, even if at times that’s uncomfortable or difficult for you? What comes first, your happiness, or the happiness of your partner?
I could put this argument on a Christological basis, for Christ surely is the one who supremely shows us love is exemplified in sacrifice – greater love hath no man than this…
But I’m simply trying to capture something of what makes love work humanly and practically. It seems to me that the very idea of love implies the placing of oneself second, not first. And doing that requires a kind of training, a discipline or ascesis. Things that are hard need to be learnt, and re-learnt, sometimes day after day. A Christian view of marriage, or lifelong partnership, then, implies an emptying out of the soul’s desire, if we take desire here as meaning to possess. Love Christianly can’t be translated into possessive or acquisitive desire. It may even require the renunciation of desire, though again a practical view of human love has to recognize the security, stability and joy which follow from mutual fulfilment.
If this is so, then there’s much more to be said about the Christian quality of relationships than is often said in the slagging match of contemporary ethical discussion. In a way, the sheerly physical basis of human identity and desire is beside the point: the supreme question is, rather, what are we prepared to give up, or at least to struggle with, in order to promote the well-being of those we love? We can’t simply apply the idea of rights in regard to love without also speaking of obligations
I can hear alarm bells ringing. Does this mean, for example, requiring same-sex couples to accept a greater sacrifice than others, as some might assume? I don’t think so. I’m not talking about the relative status of one set of relations over against another, but about the nature of human relations.
Another question might be, doesn’t this risk encouraging those demeaned or abused or betrayed to stay in relationships that perpetuate their suffering rather than leave? Again I don’t think so. There always has to be a practical judgement about the nature of an actual relationship: failure to confront often prolongs or even deepens abuse, giving the abuser (seemingly) more reason to carry on with their abuse. There has to be reciprocity for a true partnership to work.
And a further concern might be that all this risks displacing the proper sense of self-fulfilment and security that must lie at the heart of all healthy relationships. Isn’t it the case that those who don’t look after themselves can’t really look after others properly? This is true, surely. But self-confidence and security are not the same thing as selfishness. I’m not saying there isn’t a proper self-regard, a proper care of ourselves. But that’s not what love is; it may be a precondition of a healthy, loving relationship, but it’s not love itself.
What all this amounts to, in my mind, is a plea to restore to contemporary arguments about rights in relation to sexuality the Christian quality of sacrificial fidelity. I wish we would all talk a bit more about that. If we did, it’s just possible that largely hidden grounds of agreement might come into view.
9 October 2021