The Five Loves of Marriage and Family Life

This week I’ve been reading Love, Marriage and Children by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Although the book was first published in 1954 (I got this copy from the seminary library), the dear man’s words struck me as fresh and insightful. Honestly, the realities of marriage and family life haven’t changed all that much in fifty years. We still have to work at giving ourselves 100% to those we love, and to practice the virtue of self-donation, which is at the heart of every authentic expression of love.

Fifty years ago, Archbishop Sheen was one of the most widely recognized religious figures in the media; today he is still much beloved though perhaps not as widely read.  In this book of his, I was struck by his assessment of married love. (This is counterintuitive for some — what would a celibate know about married love? Then again, first-hand experience is not necessarily the most reliable or objectively constructive means of obtaining wisdom.)

The first passage that captured my attention was his description of the Five Loves. I was familiar with the Four Loves of C.S. Lewis, but Sheen takes a slightly different approach that I found every bit as intriguing: while Lewis addresses the four expressions of authentic love, Sheen identifies four types of love that are poor cousins — some would say even “counterfeits” — of authentic Christian love.

  1. Utilitarian “love”:  for those who are useful to us. Once the usefulness passes, so does the affection.
  2. Romantic “love”:  for those who give us pleasure. “One of the reasons why many modern marriages do not endure is because people do not marry a person: they marry an experience.”
  3. Democratic “love”:  is by nature reciprocal.  “The reason for contributing to the good of others is the expectation of a return good.”
  4. Humanitarian “love”:  for humanity in the abstract, which cannot be sustained in the particular. “Love at a distance, rather than in immediate service.”
  5. Christian love — true “agape”– is different, characterized by the words of Christ:  “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”  A command, indicating it is centered in the will. Modeled in the self-giving love of Christ.

It is this kind of self-giving (or self-donating) love that sustains a marriage over the course of years. According to Archbishop Sheen, married love reaches its fullest expression only after it has endured great suffering. Sheen observes (p. 63):

The moment of crisis is one in which a true and lasting love is within easy reach, if one but dies to egotism and selfishness. The aridity that one feels is not the defeat of love, but a challenge.  …  There are two kinds of dryness: the dryness that rots and the dryness that ripens. The dryness that rots is that which cannot be assimilated; the dryness that ripens is that which is taken in by the fruit or the wheat in order to perfect itself. The hour is struck when the couple must realize that the taking of love’s stronghold is dependent on the siege of self; too often it is at this moment that the cowards leave and sink back into mediocrity. …

[And yet, when] love instead of being a circle that closes in on its own egotism, becomes a spiral by which one mounts to a new understanding of the other person, who now begins to be irreplaceable. Sex is replaceable, but love is not – no one can take the place of a mother or a life’s partner. The joy that is now found [in the third moment] is not the same as the joy that is lost; it is deeper and more real. In the first moment, one said, “I love you for myself.” In the second moment, one says, “I love you for God’s sake.” The other person is seen as the mask of God and always a gift, never forgetting that sometimes God’s gifts may be bitter as well as sweet.


Laying My Burden Down…

Today in cyberspace I came across this post that talked about how we all walk through life carrying a burden like some oversized suitcase. For some, it’s divorce. For others, it’s infertility or some dark moment(s) from the past.

Our children each have a suitcase, too.

One of the things that struck me about this post is the idea that each of us have to learn how to take out and lay down the heaviest junk in our suitcase, so we can carry it. This doesn’t come naturally … and in point of fact, it’s something that in an ideal world parents teach their children.

When I encounter people struggling with divorce, I often refer them to Lisa Dudley’s website and her excellent book, “Divorced. Catholic. Now What?” For teenaged burden-bearers, I also like to give Lynn Kapucinski’s “Now What Do I Do?”  I just gave a copy to one of the girls in my religious education class, and her mother immediately wrote to thank me for giving her a resource to help them talk more openly and constructively about what the girl was going thorugh.

Is your child struggling with some burden or grief?  Don’t forget you are the one who is best able to help him or her process what she is going through. Get professional help if needed … but do talk about it.

My friend Judy Miller sent me this link about an upcoming adoption workshop she is offering, a six-week e-mail course that covers a variety of aspects of adoptive parenting.  If you’re feeling in need of a little extra support, this may be a good resource for you!

Weekend Ponderings: Pope says children of divorce and cohabitation “the new orphans”

In this recent interview on CNS, Pope Benedict is quoted during a meeting with Brazilian bishops.

He said as divorces increase and cohabitation is on the rise, the children in these situations are “deprived of their parents’ support and become victims of malaise and abandonment, thus spreading social disorder.”

Children need concrete fixed points of reference such as having one set of parents who will always be united as a family, the pope said.

He said divorce is sabotaging the traditional sense of an extended family by creating too many “parents,” such as stepmothers and stepfathers.

I can’t help but wonder whether this “too many parents” problem could extend to adoptive families in which birth parents are involved early on in the child’s life. Only time will tell whether the “open adoption” trend will have the same effect as the presence of step-parents in families in which the parents are divorced (as opposed to widowed).