Facets of Marriage: Agape

Posted on March 27, 2014


Loving a person just the way they are, it’s no small thing.  Sara Groves

When I was a child, the first time I heard The Beatles singing Can’t Buy Me Love off of A Hard Day’s Night, I thought it was a great song.  It was a great song, but I was somewhat confused as to what a “can-bom-ee love” might be.  The melody line works equally well for singing about “basmati rice,” but that’s another story.

In English, we use the word love to mean many different things.  The word itself does not differentiate between can-bom-ee love and other types of love.  In ancient Greek, there were a number of words that get translated as love when translated into English.  There is philos, a brotherly love and affection.  There is eros, erotic sexual love.  And there is agape,[1] a self-sacrificing unconditional love.  In prior posts, we have explored the friendship aspect of marriage (philos) and the sexual aspect of marriage (eros).  This post is primarily concerned with the agape kind of marital love.

“Unconditional” is a word which conveys a sense of absoluteness.  That is to say, something can’t be more or less unconditional.  It either is or it isn’t.  Allowing for any gradients in level of unconditionality is something of a non sequitur.  It is like “totally nude” or “absolutely free.”  Nude means without clothing.  Free means without cost.  The words “totally” and “absolutely” are redundant.  To have love be mostly unconditional, is to open the door for there to be conditions.  Having said that, I don’t know that we humans are really capable of unconditional anything.  For example, therapists are supposed to offer unconditional positive regard for our clients (at least according to the late Carl Rogers).  However, I could probably offer some scenarios where the typical therapist might not have such high regard for their client (e.g. the client pulls out a weapon in session and threatens you).  Is unconditional love within our human capacities?

For my Christian readers, men have a biblical mandate to agape their wives (Eph. 5:25, Col. 3:19).  To modern readers, that a man should love his wife seems like an obvious and benign instruction.  Shouldn’t it be a given that a man would love his wife?  But look at the cultural context in which this instruction was given.  In the first century Mediterranean world, ruled by the Roman empire, this idea was revolutionary.  The idea here is that a man is expected to be self-sacrificing and unconditional in his love for his wife.  Dr. Kelly Flanagan asserted that “Marriages become beautiful when two people embrace the only good reason to get married: to practice the daily sacrifice of their egos.”  This essentially points to this idea of expressing agape love.  This is also the essence of empathy, when I can make what you are experiencing about you, rather than making it about me.

When I was receiving my training in sexual addiction treatment, one of the trainers who is a leader in the field observed, “You are never going to be perfect; that’s why they call it a ‘practice.’”  We will never be able to love perfectly.  Agape is the ideal, and as Flanagan observed it is both partners making a daily practice of self-sacrificing love that makes marriage beautiful.  Making a practice of loving our partner unconditionally is a wonderful thing.


Flanagan, K. (n.d.). A Dad’s Letter to His Son (About the Only Good Reason to Get Married). Retreived 27 March 2014 from http://drkellyflanagan.com/2014/01/29/a-dads-letter-to-his-son-about-the-only-good-reason-to-get-married/ .


[1] That is pronounced “a-gopp-pay.”  Not be confused with a shocked open-mouthed facial expression.