Husbands, Love Your Wives…

There’s a line in Ephesians 5 that used to trip me up: “He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the Church, because we are members of his body” (28b-30). Echoes of my days studying the humanities at a secular university would crowd my head– see, the Church treats women like property. See, the patriarchy hates women and so on.

It’s not too hard to tune those voices out most of the time, but for some reason, this line would ratchet up their volume.

Concurrent with this would be a little clip of a comedian, Jimmy Carr, who commented on how he didn’t understand domestic abuse; I believe he said something to the effect of not getting it, that it would be like keying your own car. He clearly was leaning into this whole spouse-as-your-own-possession line of thinking.

But is that what St. Paul thought? Is that how the Church reads Ephesians?

Fortunately, I came across a passage from Dietrich von Hildebrand’s wonderful little book, Man and Woman, that directly addresses this:

“The solidarity which we have with another person and which induces us to say: ‘Your sufferings are my sufferings; your happiness is my happiness,’ is a result of love, a fruit of love, and achievement of love, of the conscious position taken toward the loved one, of an experienced blissful respons to him. But the solidarity with our own happiness and welfare is not the result of love, but rather of our nature, of the unity of our being; it is something inevitable.” (p. 10)

There’s a lower way in which a husband might see his wife as “his own body”– this way is reductive, demeaning, and depersonalizing. But there is also a higher way in which a husband might see his wife as “his own body”– this way is expansive, enriching, and possible only through the most intimate of loves. The first way demands nothing from the husband; the second demands that the husband lay down his own life, his preferences, and his narrow vision of the world in order to embrace, understand, and encourage his wife.

Now, it’s not the case that I ever really thought St. Paul meant what he wrote in a demeaning way; but I have heard people talk about St. Paul as if he meant it so. One would only need to read the passage in context to see that the kind of love that St. Paul is calling husbands to will require everything from them, rather than nothing. Still, I’m really glad von Hildebrand offered this description of love– love of another isn’t a mere extension of self-love, it is a radical, volitional openness to the Other in a way that self-love (which von Hildebrand even quibbles with calling ‘self-love’) never even requires.

What does all that mean for our marriages? First, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love our own bodies– we have to love our bodies. Von Hildebrand is very clear on this. It would be a gross disorder if we don’t love our own bodies, almost a contradiction of terms. One of the basic inclinations of the natural law is to maintain and grow our own lives. Second, it does mean that all husbands and wives should also be concerned with the maintenance and growth of their spouse– we should love them, body and soul. We didn’t will our existence into being, but we did will our marriage into being. We have the power to make choices that affect our whole life, and one of the most incredible commitments is to say to another, “I will love you as if I were you. I will be on your side, be on your team, work for your good, as long as I shall live” and mean it.

And that commitment is sustained not by our power alone; Christ loves us in this way, too. He isn’t reductive, demeaning, or depersonalizing in His love of us. His love enriches our hearts, and He is on our side, on our team, working for our good, even when we aren’t. So let’s love our marriages– Christ does, after all.

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