Marital Love Needs to be Other-Focused
by David Gibson
Forceful currents of individualism flow through contemporary societies, but numerous church leaders are convinced this is not good for marriages. For them, individualism runs against the grain of marriage.
But why? Don’t individuals need to direct a healthy dose of attention to themselves in order to grow in self-understanding? Shouldn’t married individuals pursue fulfillment by developing their personal gifts and talents? And is there anything wrong with nurturing one’s personal happiness?
In the Church’s eyes, one of the basic problems with individualism is the self-focus it fosters – its focus on “me” — and, I suppose, the degree of this. Sure, spouses ought to grow in a marriage both as individuals and a couple. The hope is, however, that a wife and husband will grow through each other and together.
It is not surprising that Christian leaders would encourage spouses to develop as persons, discover who they truly are, find fulfillment and become happy in their marriage not by taking for themselves, but by giving of themselves to the other person.
Pope Discusses “Exaggerated Individualism”
Pope Benedict XVI discussed the effects of what he termed “an exaggerated individualism” when he met last September with lay Catholics in Freiburg, Germany.
Due to their focus on themselves, many today “no longer seem capable of any form of self-denial or of making a sacrifice for others,” he observed.
Actually Pope Benedict considers individualism a basic problem for all of society, and the reasons for this were clear in a speech he gave this year to the mayor and other civic leaders of Rome. The pope is certain that individualism harms a society’s very functioning because society’s members are not regarded as important parts of a larger whole.
In his Jan. 12 remarks, the pope discussed the basic dynamics of individualism, which, he said, leads people “to withdraw into their own small world, concerned primarily with satisfying their own needs and desires, with scant consideration for others.”
Yet, he explained, faith “tells us that the human person is a being called to live in relationships — that the ‘I’ can find itself precisely by approaching a ‘you’ who accepts and loves him or her.”
The “you” who is approached by us is first of all God, but also is found in “others, starting with those who are closest,” the pope added. He said that life’s “relational dimension” represents “a constitutive element of one’s existence.”
On another recent occasion, speaking with young people about marriage during the August 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid, Pope Benedict accented the relational dimension of a couple’s life together. Marriage is “marked by complete self-giving,” he said. He stressed that “fulfillment” for a wife and husband flows from their “profound life of communion.”
The pope acknowledged that this life of marital communion is a “demanding” — though “bright” – goal for a couple. Their life of communion needs to be renewed daily and “deepened by sharing joys and sorrows,” he said.
Rediscovering What Love Is
In a speech in late October, Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin underlined the need to support today’s couples and families by calling their attention to the human fulfillment found through self-giving. “Marriage is too important to allow it to be lived below its full potential,” he told a marriage institute in Dublin.
“We have to restore confidence in marriage and the family,” said Archbishop Martin. Expanding on this, he remarked:
“We have to rediscover the true notion of love, which is always self-giving. We have to open our young people to the fact that self-giving becomes fulfilling and life giving, while self-centeredness only leads to narcissism and self-destruction.”
The love in a marriage should reflect God’s own way of loving, Archbishop Martin told his audience. He said, “In marriage, God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love.”
The Catholic bishops of the United States made a similar point in their November 2009 national pastoral letter on marriage, titled “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” Jesus revealed “the deepest meaning of all marital love: self-giving love modeled on God’s inner life and love,” the bishops said.
In describing “the love proper to marriage,” the bishops spoke of “the commitment to the complete and total gift of self between husband and wife.” In a marriage, the bishops said, “a unique communion of persons” is established through a “relationship of mutual self-giving and receiving.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.