Thoughts on Conjugal Love


Eric Schwitzgebel

Department of Philosophy

University of California at Riverside

Riverside CA 92521


June 4, 2003


Two friends recently asked me to contribute something to their wedding ceremony.Since Iím 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 ďpassionsĒ in the classic sense of Ďpassioní which shares a root with Ďpassiveí.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 Ė though in some cases they may be a prelude to it.

Rather than a feeling, love is a way of structuring oneís 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 otherís 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 oneís life always with the other in view.One commits to pursuing oneís major projects, even when alone, always in a kind of implicit conjunction with the other.Oneís life becomes a co-authored work.

The love one feels for a young child may in some ways be purer and more unconditional than conjugal love.One expects nothing back from a young child.One neednít share ideals to enjoy parental love.The child will grow away into his or her own separate life, independent of the parentsí preferences.

Conjugal love, because it involves the collaborative construction of a joint life, canít be unconditional in that way.If the partners donít share values and a vision, they canít 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.

Nonetheless, to dwell on the conditionality of conjugal love, and to develop a set of contingency plans should it fail, is already to depart from the project of jointly fabricating a life and to begin to develop a set of individual goals and values opposing those of the partner.Conjugal love requires an implacable, automatic commitment to responding to all major life events through the mutual lens of marriage.One cannot embody such a commitment if one harbors persistent thoughts about the contingency of the relationship and serious back-up plans.

There may be an appearance of paradox in the idea that conjugal love requires a lifelong commitment without contingency plans, yet at the same time is conditional in a way parental love is not.But there is no paradox.If one believes that something is permanent, one can make lifelong promises and commitments contingent upon it, because one believes the contingency will never come to pass.This then, is the significance of the marriage ceremony: It is the expression of a mutual unshakeable commitment to build a joint life together, where each partnerís commitment is possible, despite the contingency of conjugal love, because each partner trusts the otherís commitment to be unshakeable.

A deep faith and trust must therefore underlie true conjugal love.That trust is the most sacred and inviolable thing in a marriage, because it is the very foundation of its possibility.Deception and faithlessness destroy conjugal love because, and exactly to the extent that, they undermine the grounds of that trust.For the same reason, honest and open interchange about long-standing goals and attitudes stands at the heart of marriage.

Passion alone canít ground conjugal trust.Neither can shared entertainments and the pleasure of each otherís company.Both partners must have matured enough that their core values are stable.They must be unselfish enough to lay everything on the table for compromise, apart from those permanent, shared core values.And they must be shorn of the tendency to form secret, individual goals.Only to the degree they approach these ideals are they worthy of the trust that makes conjugal love possible.