Ancient Insights and Modern Explanations of Love

What is love? Is it an emotion or feeling? Is it a relationship state or status? Is it a choice or decision? The answer is: “Yes”… to all of the above! And each of these factors plays a significant role regarding love in marriage.

While love is certainly multifaceted, there is a great deal of agreement regarding how we experience and express it. Marriage experts commonly refer to three basic components of love: passion, intimacy, and commitment. While this “triangle of love” conceptualization has been confirmed by contemporary social science research it is by no means a novel idea. The ancient world shared the same basic understanding.

The people of the ancient Greco-Roman world primarily used three different Greek terms to describe love: eros, philia, and agape. These three terms basically correspond to the “passion/intimacy/commitment” triad. While eros is found only in secular ancient Greek literature, the Christian New Testament (which was written in the ancient Greek language) is replete with references to both philia and agape.

Eros describes the romantic, sensual, passionate aspect of love. For the most part this is an emotion or feeling that is instinctively inspired from our biological structure. However, eros differs from a mere craving for sexual gratification in that it seeks expression and consummation in an exclusive, lasting relationship. (“Lust” is a different term altogether in ancient Greek.)

Philia describes the friendship and companionship aspect of an intimate relationship. Ideally one’s spouse is one’s best friend and closest companion. Scripturally, this type of bondedness and closeness is an expectation in marriage (e.g. Tit. 2:4). However, philia can also describe the love that friends share in other contexts. In any case, it is a reciprocal love that requires intimacy based in a relationship characterized by constancy.

Agape describes the decision to love – or an intellectual commitment to love. It is love in a social or moral sense. Agape does not necessarily require reciprocity, sentimentality, affinity, or affection. As such, it is often considered a sacrificial love. The Bible tells us that marriage should be characterized by this type of love (e.g. Eph. 5:25, 33; Col. 3:19). Interestingly, we are also expected to love God, fellow believers, strangers, and even our enemies in the same sense according to scripture. The latter examples serve to demonstrate that we can retain a commitment to love even when unloved by another or when another is, for all practical purposes, unlovable. This has great ramifications with regards to marriage.

When a marriage experiences conflict or problems it is somewhat common to evaluate or even question the role and strength of love in the relationship. In such situations it is helpful to gain a deeper comprehension of the various aspects of love. The amount and type of love in a relationship depends on the absolute strength of these three components relative to one another.

It is important to note that passion (eros), intimacy (philia) and commitment (agape) all change in level and degree over the course of a long-term relationship. It is normal for passion to develop rapidly at the beginning of a relationship only to level off after a short period and eventually drop off significantly. Intimacy generally rises quickly in conjunction with passion then levels off and develops more gradually. It is also common for intimacy to be in a flexible state in which couples are closer and more connected at some times and further apart at other times. Commitment starts slowly and develops gradually in a relationship. In long-term relationships, the level of commitment will eventually rise to match the level of intimacy. In lasting relationships commitment continues to grow even as passion drops and intimacy waxes and wanes.

This dissection of love reveals important practical applications. Thoughts or statements such as “we fell out of love” or “our love has grown cold” are not uncommon. However, these feelings are often overestimated or misinformed due to a lack of insight regarding the various aspects of love. In reality, these feelings express the predictable drop in the level of passion or the rising and falling of intimacy that is normal in various phases of a relationship. However, if the level of commitment continues to be adequate then intimacy will strengthen in time and the marriage is not in jeopardy. Indeed, marriages can be quite stable and even flourish in such circumstances.

Kirk VanOoteghem serves as Executive Pastor of River of Life in Muncie, Indiana.  He has many years of experience as a marriage counselor and educator and is the founder of MarriageMoment.org – an online ministry dedicated to protecting and strengthening marriages.

photo credit: seyed mostafa zamani via photo pin cc

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