What level is your marriage in and how can you work towards a happy and lasting relationship?
Sometimes I wonder if the way I write about marriage has a tinge of false hope. I often describe it as an avenue to happiness that brings us to the very threshold of heaven. This is all true. I believe every word. However, there’s no denying that marriage is often a series of frantic text messages between spouses to figure out who’s picking up what child after what sports practice, who has a few extra minutes to make dinner, and who has to call the plumber first thing in the morning because the toilet is spewing water across the kitchen floor.
Marriages are a supreme challenge because the substance of married love is in small, unheralded acts of love. Marriages aren’t cemented by rhapsodies of ecstatic romance, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happy, fulfilling, and full of love. The trick for us is to identify what love really is and throw ourselves into its arms with renewed energy. Before we can do this, a little knowledge helps: How do we best love each other? What does true love really look like?
Not all love is created equal. We love in many different ways. For instance, I may breathlessly share a picture of a delicious gourmet hamburger and rave about how much I love it, or turn up a song on the radio, shouting over the noise that I love it. But these types of love are very different than the love that a husband and wife share, which is also different from the love a parents has for a child or a friend has for a friend. Obviously, there are many kinds of love, all of them good and valuable, but all of them different.
Even within a marriage, the quality of love may not be consistent. I know, for instance, that in my marriage there are days that I’m able to show love for my wife better than other days. As much as I strive to love her perfectly, my own self-love and laziness often interfere. This shouldn’t be shocking news — after all, most married couples have complaints and arguments from time to time.
What may be more surprising, though, is the idea that marriages can consistently operate, for good or ill, at different levels of love, and some types of love are associated with successful relationships while other types can lead to trouble. A couple in a lasting marriage strive to achieve the highest level of love, which serves as a bedrock for the relationship even when the couple experiences bad days.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, an 11th-century monk, wrote a book called The Love of God in which he explains how we develop a perfect love for God. To do so, he outlines four degrees of love and how to move from one level to the next. Strictly speaking, his advice is for a spiritual journey, and for Bernard, these levels represent a path to God. A marriage, though, is meant to imitate the love that God has for us, which is why marriage is sacred. It stands to reason, then, that the four degrees of love can be applied to marriage.
St. Bernard’s advice can help us “level up” our marriages. Here are the four degrees of love. (And teaser: the final level is honestly quite surprising.)
Level 1: Love of self
Most marriages wouldn’t even form in this state, in which each partner only thinks of him or herself, but perhaps some have begun this way. A marriage in this level might stay together because of convenience or a mutual benefit socially or financially, but Bernard says we must recognize this stage is destructive. A person in this stage must stop, “following your own desires to destruction or becoming enslaved by passions which are the enemies of your true welfare. It is far better to share your enjoyments with your neighbor than with these enemies.” In other words, self-love ends up being self-harm because it enslaves us to our desires. Much better to give that love to your spouse.
Level 2: Selfish love
Love of self can improve to a state in which the spouses actually do love each other, but for selfish reasons. This is love because I get something out of it. It may be romantic love, which provides an emotional rush and sense of validation. I suspect many relationships start at this level, but marriages that get stuck here can easily end if one spouse claims the relationship no longer fulfills his or her personal needs. At that point, the co-dependency no longer works. Bernard advises that, to move on from this stage, we must think about why it is that the person we love is so beneficial to be around, and, “then, realizing how good he is, we find ourselves drawn to love him unselfishly, even more powerfully than we are drawn by our own needs to love him selfishly.”
Level 3: Loving for the sake of the other
If I can achieve the level where I love my wife simply because she’s wonderful, my love transforms and becomes less selfish. I want her to succeed. I’m not jealous of her. I don’t worry about my own needs so much. This degree of love is much stronger than what came before, because it can carry a marriage through a difficult period and won’t give up. Bernard says, “Such love is thankworthy, because it is spontaneous. It is pure, because it is shown not in word nor tongue, but in deed and truth. It is just, because it repays what it has received.” In other words, a marriage at this level is full of gratitude, feels unforced, is more than empty words, and finds the spouses thinking of what they can contribute to the marriage rather than what they can take from it.
Level 4: Love of yourself because your spouse loves you
This is the one I found surprising, but it makes sense once you think about it. A marriage that achieves this level is one in which I begin to see myself as my wife sees me. I’m not self-conscious, anxious, or doubtful anymore about our relationship. The love of my wife makes me love myself more and it calls forth my absolute best self. She makes me want to be a better person. This degree of love is a gift we give to each other, as Bernard makes clear, “This degree no human effort can attain: it is in God’s power to give it to whomever he will.” We could rephrase that to say that it’s in the power of a spouse to bestow. When a marriage achieves this degree of love, it becomes an inspiration and source of mutual strength.
If we keep ascending the degrees of love, I don’t think it’s a false hope to believe that our marriages can be absolutely amazing, full of the deepest, most abiding type of love.