Here’s the thing: I believe that to a certain extent marriage has to be conditional. Unconditional love is
one of absolutely the most important Christian value s in that we are to demonstrate “agape” (defined below, pronounced “a-gap-ay”) to everyone around us, no matter how they treat us. We Christians are to forgive others, no matter what they might have done to us. Some Christians naturally excel at that. However, my Christian upbringing focused more on the power of God and striving after intimacy with God and groundedness in God. Forgiveness is something that I struggle with. After experiencing many unexciting things in various church contexts I have spent countless hours thinking very deeply about Christian forgiveness and exactly where its boundaries might lie. This is the conclusion I have come to: that in some respects Christian marriage represents both conditional and unconditional love and it is understanding how these two things work together that makes it so complicated.
Firstly, some semantics. In the previous paragraph I’ve spoken of “conditional and unconditional love.” Here’s a headache – in Christian thinking what we think of as “love” , that is, agape, is always unconditional. This is made very clear from the very famous chapter on agape in the Bible: 1 Corinthians 13. Love (agape) is patient, love is kind, love endures all things, forgives all things….love never fails. I boldly suggest that the concept of “unconditional love” was essentially invented by the Christian faith, and especially these words of St Paul’s in this famous chapter. So for me to talk about “conditional love” is in some ways an oxymoron. The headache is tied up in the use of the word love to mean both “agape” that we as Christians are to demonstrate towards everyone, and the specific interaction between husband and wife.
This is where I think that the love in Christian marriage is unconditional: As Christians we are to demonstrate “agape” towards everyone – and that emphatically includes our spouses. In some ways, because of the proximity that we will have to them and to their weaknesses and failings, and because of the vulnerability that our lives will have to their failings; I mean the fact that our own lives will be definitely impacted by their mistakes, our spouses will often be the most difficult people for us to “agape”. Our marriages will be in some ways the biggest tests of our ability to demonstrate “agape”. And yet we have to persevere. We have to be unconditional in our expression of agape and forgiveness towards our spouses. And marital love is unconditional in another sense – that once we are married, we have to be unconditionally committed to that marriage, and to demonstrating that tremendous level of agape – even if our spouses choose not to “agape” us back. And so in these ways it is pretty clear that love in marriage is unconditional. And yet here is the way I believe that it is conditional – maybe not thinking of it in terms of love demonstrated in the marriage, but rather in terms of selection of the spouse in the first place. I believe that once you’re married, you’re married. You stick with it through thick and thin. This is what I aspire to in my own life. It is that choice of making the commitment in the first place that is conditional. I believe that in this we should be so fussy! I believe that in this we should all make up our minds to choose the very best of spouses. So you don’t just marry anyone, but work to a very specific list of conditions in choosing the spouse. But once you are married, you may as well throw that list of conditions away, and love your spouse as if you never had any list of conditions.
Here is a further complication regarding marriage – that I enter into it in part because of my own needs. I think that I would be better able to offer true unconditional love if I did not have my own needs to consider. Unfortunately I do have my own needs. These are genuine and legitimate needs that I am looking to my husband to fulfil for me; that I am entitled to expect my husband to fulfil for me. Whenever people (Christians) say that in marriage you should not consider your own needs I think that that is stupid, to be frank. Of course I am aware of my own needs and of course those needs are a big driver propelling me into marriage. I look to marriage not as a place where we can both be unaware of our own needs, but rather as a place where we can work together to mutually meet our needs. This means that I will ask him “Could you do this for me” and he will equally be upfront and honest with me, and ask me – “I’d really love it if you would do this!” However this is where the unconditional aspect comes in: Even if it so happened that he chose to ignore my needs or my requirements, I would continue to meet his needs. If I was committed to that, and he was equally committed to the same thing, that would mean that the level of service we offered to one another would not be dependent on whatever the other person may or may not have done, or how fully we each feel that the other person is meeting our needs. So we could start each day afresh, with a clean slate, mutually committed to offering one another one thousand percent, no matter what.
On the other hand, if we were not committed to that, but rather “agaped” one another based on the level of service that we thought we were receiving from one another, then whenever I felt that he was not loving me that much I would also drop my level of agape to meet his, then he would notice and correspondingly drop his level then I would retaliate in return – and then the whole thing would quickly resemble a race to the bottom.
If it so happened that my husband decided to totally ignore me and my own requirements, then part of being committed to unconditional marital agape would mean that I would continue to offer him the very highest levels of agape. However I would offer him this with the hope that he would eventually come back to the place of being able to meet my own needs and offer me true agape.
Once again, this is where a conditional thinking of marital commitment is useful: my own needs are real and legitimate. Therefore it is perfectly valid for me to choose a husband based on his ability and willingness to be able to meet those needs. So if my husband stopped meeting my needs within marriage, I would continue to offer him the strongest agape I could demonstrate, and remain completely committed to meeting his needs, (only) because he is already my husband, and marriage forms a strong and unbreakable covenant between him and me. However, if someone acted that very same way before marriage, I could deduce from that that he is not going to be able to meet my needs, so I would most likely not marry him at all, and in some cases I might go ahead to chuck him and totally ditch him from my life, and tell him and his needs to go and take a hike. And this would be a perfectly legitimate situation!
Obviously I would want to avoid the situation where I am in a marriage wasting away because of my unmet needs and yet having to invest so much time and effort into offering him unconditional agape (and also as the woman having to submit to him, as the Bible indisputably instructs). This is why I am so careful to assess the character of the man beforehand to make sure that he will be able to meet my needs. This is why I am so honest with myself, asking myself: What are my needs?! It would be so self-defeating to try to lie to myself to pretend to myself that I am someone that I am not. This is why I am honest on this blog even about the more frivolous things, like the hug thing.
I think that this whole issue of conditional marital selection and unconditional marital agape trips many people up. What I would advise anyone reading this who is single is this: to fully embrace the idea of conditional marital commitment. What I mean is that from my observations, people are not fussy enough about their choice of spouses – or they are fussy in the wrong way. Please insist, for your own good, on utterly outstanding character from your would-be spouse. If anyone tells you that marriage is not about your own needs, tell them to go and read the Bible, and read about a God who cares about His disciples eating. It is not wrong to be aware of your own needs and it is not wrong to wish to have those needs met. Only the most outstanding of spouses will be able to meet your needs. Insist for yourself on the very best. That will also mean that you will need to make sure that you are the very best – otherwise why would he settle for you?! Hello?! Yes, it does work both ways! If your would-be darling is not outstanding in his character or in his pursuit of Christ or in his desire to serve you in marriage then I would advise you to save yourself a lot of future heartache and simply walk away. Please believe me, your commitment is totally allowed to be “conditional” in this way!
However, if you are married, or if you did not listen to this advice before you got married, then you are bound by the covenant of marriage. Even if he does not meet your needs then the bonds of marriage mean that you are still fully committed to meeting his own needs. Divorces often occur when people try to insist on their own needs from partners who are either unwilling or unable to demonstrate the right level of agape or character, or sheer common sense. However, this is what marriage is. This is what “for better or for worse” means. If you had known that this is what you were committing to, not the Mr Amazing that you initially thought he was, but the Mr Very Often Unamazing And Downright Annoying that he turned out to be in marriage, would you not have been phenomenally careful about making the choice, to make sure you got someone who genuinely was Mr Amazing? And no matter what he turns out to be, marriage means that you have to remain committed to meeting his needs and wishing the best for him. You can’t walk away. Christian marriage is a lifetime covenant, so you are committed for life. “But Tosin, I have to walk away – you don’t know how it feels!” You’re right, I don’t know, and I definitely never want to know! That is why I am being so careful beforehand about choosing a guy who will be both able and willing to meet my needs – not just in the short term, the honeymoon phase, but rather for the long-term, over the course of a long future together. And I will also be totally committed to meeting his own needs too – absolutely. This is my commitment to my marriage, even before it occurs.
In short – choose wisely, my friends! Take good time to work out whether he is someone worth your serious commitment before getting seriously involved with him – and if he is either unwilling or unable, please run away from marriage to him as fast as you can!
[All of this is not to say that an excellent husband would be outstanding and considerate all the time, of course, as an excellent wife would not be either! We are human beings, we have real sinful natures, sometimes we will be selfish. Sometimes we will mutually let our “agape” for one another became a race to the bottom of whoever can give least. But I hope that in those times we would be pricked by conscience, swallow our pride, and then apologise to another and then start afresh, in our pursuit of outstanding agape for one another.]