Spousal Love’s Three Main Attributes

It’s my hope that this article serves as a little marital pick-me-up and check-in for you! I’ve been diving into the work of Dietrich von Hildebrand, and I’d love to share three attributes of spousal love that he goes over in his wonderful little work, Man and Woman, as well as some things you could do to help rekindle where maybe there’s been some sputtering. Von Hildrebrand claims that spousal love is thematic, ecstatic, and I-Thou-centric.

Spousal love, von Hildebrand writes, is thematic. Unlike other relationships, there’s something about spousal love that fills our horizon, that tinges all that we do. Our spouse become the great theme of our life. Outside of one’s commitment to God, there is no other choice that so colors our world as who we marry. I think this is incredibly important to point out, because one of the great dangers in marriage is to take our spouse for granted. Because spousal love is so large a theme, in can become something like the air we breathe– it’s everywhere, and we don’t notice it because it’s doing its job to sustain us.

May I suggest that we all could use a moment to take a step back and to consider some of the ways in which our spouse colors our life, and how we color theirs? Even if the air we or our spouse has been breathing has been a little thin of late, ask what life would be like without it at all. And then ask the more exhilarating question: what would life be like if we leaned into the great theme of our life? What would life be like if we resolved to make our marriage the stuff of stories, the bar that our children aspire to and our neighbors start to notice? I’m afraid that many married couples live their lives as if their marital theme were in a minor key; what if it were playing out in a major key, joyous and loving?

Another key attribute of spousal love, according to von Hildebrand, is that it is ecstatic. Spousal love calls us outside of ourselves. A person closed in on themselves makes a very small box indeed; a person living out spousal love is called out into the larger world. Even the most mediocre of people, von Hildebrand writes, when they have found their beloved, finds themselves drawn into the world of the extraordinary. If I understand von Hildebrand aright, part of what goes on to make spousal love ecstatic is the sheer beauty of the beloved, calling us outward.

If it feels like the world is closing in as a married man or woman, it may do well to take a few moments to reflect on your beloved. They are beautiful, even if they themselves are not convinced of this or are acting directly contrary to their beauty. Behind their eyes lies a whole universe-in-miniature, with hopes and dreams and fears and feelings that are not yours by nature but yours by their consent to be wedded, and these call you outside of yourself. Their beauty isn’t up for debate, it’s there for discovery and for a launching pad to a larger life.

The third attribute of spousal love, according to von Hildebrand, is that it is I-Thou-centric (my made-up word for it to sound similar to the first two…). There are two main dimensions for communion– there is the communion I can express when I say we— this is the communion of being shoulder-to-shoulder with others, with a common aim and purpose for us to perceive or pursue. The other kind of communion is I-Thou, where we stand face-to-face, each envoloped by the Other. All relationships participate in both dimensions to some degree or another, and so marriage certainly has elements of common mission, which my wife and I bring up often enough. But fundamentally, marriage is preoccupied with the I-Thou relationship. The external concerns of life may bombard your marriage, but it is of critical importance to be face-to-face with your beloved.

If it feels like the two of you are pulled in many directions, or even pulled in the same direction shoulder-to-shoulder all too often, then it may do well to set aside time to sit across from one another, and be. There’s an uncomfortable little exercise of setting a timer and staring at one another for a set space of time; you may not need to do that, but to have regular time to see one another, to be with one another, so that this attribute of spousal love may flourish, is crucial. The other things of this life will come and go, but while you both shall live, it is well for you both to take time to stay with each other and be.

These three attributes– thematicecstatic, and I-Thou-centric— distinguish spousal love from other loves. They also go a long way to show the value of spousal love. The vocation of matrimony is one that colors all of our life, it calls us out of ourselves, and brings us face-to-face with another like us but unlike us. It’s a beautiful calling, and I pray you experience it to greater and greater depths!

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