Before I get into the 12 required attributes of marital love, I want to talk about the two types of love which can exist within marriage. Both types of love are good to have in a marriage, but only one can form the lasting foundation for marriage, while the other may come and go.
The Bible speaks of three types of love in the context of marriage:
Sexual love(Eros) – This is a love based on sexual attraction. It is the initial driving force for most men seeking out women for marriage. A woman may be sexually attracted to a man as well before marriage or she may grow to be sexually attracted to him after marriage. The Bible has entire book dedicated to this type of love, the Song of Solomon.
Emotional, or Friendship love(Phileo) – This is love based on either romantic feelings between a man and woman, feelings of infatuation, or love that is based on common interests. This kind of love is almost 100% based on how much each person puts into the relationship, whether it is a same sex friendship, a dating relationship, or a marriage.
Choice love(Agape) – This love is not based on feelings toward one’s spouse, and it is not based on sexual attraction toward one’s spouse. Instead it is based in the choice a person made when they entered into a covenant of marriage with their spouse. In choosing to enter into that covenant, they have committed to performing certain actions toward their spouse regardless of their feelings or sexual attraction at any given future time. This is why in addition to calling Agape a “choice love”, it is also a “commitment love” and an “action love”.
In the context of marriage, when you made your wedding vows and vowed to love your spouse in good times and in bad, in sickness and health, till death do you part – you were vowing to love them with Agape love(choice love, apart from feelings). You probably were motivated to vow Agape love to them out of the Philia love you had which is based on feelings of friendship and romance.
Philia love is not bad, but it can become bad if that is the only foundation for a marriage, for it will not always be there. It comes and goes. But Agape is always there, because it is not based on feelings, but a commitment made to God.
The foundation of marital love is not Philia (friendship or romantic) love
I say all this as to say that the 12 attributes of marital love I am going to talk about are based in Agape love(choice love), and not feelings. We do things whether our spouse makes us feel loved or not. We do these things whether we are fond of our spouse at a given moment or not.
Biblically speaking marriage is defined as the union of a man and woman who make a covenant before God to fulfill their God given duties to one another in marriage. One of the duties God calls them to is to have marital love toward one another. In many ways marital love is not much different than any other love we should have for our friends, family or for the general population of the world around us. After sharing this list though, I will point out some of the features that distinguish marital love from all other types of love.
BIBLICAL MARITAL AGAPE LOVE IS…
- GIVING my body to my spouse to meet their sexual needs.
- PATIENCE toward my spouse in regard to their faults.
- KINDNESS toward my spouse in words and actions. It is kindness in caring for the physical needs of my spouse whether in taking care of them when they are sick, making sure they are feed, or meeting their sexual needs.
- SACRIFICING my own well-being for the sake of my spouse’s well-being.
- HONORING my spouse’s God given gender role in our marriage.
- FORGIVING my spouse for the offenses they commit against me.
- TRUTHFUL with my spouse. This does not mean brutal honesty – you know the old line “do I look fat in this dress?”. It does not mean we have to say every thought that comes into our mind, or how we feel about every given situation. But what it does mean is not telling lies to hide our sin from our spouse. It also means that sometimes we have to do as the Bible says and “speak the truth in love” to our spouse when we believe they are acting sinfully, as love does not rejoice in evil.
- PROTECTING my spouse’s person and reputation.
- TRUSTING that my spouse has my best interests at heart and in the absence of evidence to the contrary believing what my spouse tells me about events that may have occurred.
- HOPING in my spouse’s abilities, even when they seem to lack in a certain area. It always keeps hope that they will succeed or that they will improve. This is an encouraging type of hope that encourages our spouse in whatever they set out to do.
- ENDURING through arguments or disagreements, health problems and physical changes to mine or my spouse’s body. It endures through job loss, economic status changes or changes in housing.
- CONSTANT, because it is based on a conscious life choice, and not upon my feelings towards my spouse at any given moment.
The twelve actions of marital love I have just stated are all clearly supported in the Scriptures I will show below.
Today we have all kinds of marriage books, both Christian and non-Christian alike trying to define what Biblical love is, especially as it relates to marriage. While some of them point to these very same passages I will reference, often times they either leave out parts of the Biblical definition of marital love, or more often than not they add a lot of things the Bible does not.
I think that any of us reading this list, if we are honest with ourselves will see it as very convicting. We will be convicted even more so when we read it from the very Word of God. I can see my own failures to live up to this high standard God has for marital love.
But God understands we are sinful beings and that we are but dust. What he asks of me and you is that we aspire to these principles, to grow and better ourselves according to standard he has set, not the standards of our ungodly world. When we fail to meet these standards, he asks us to humble ourselves, and ask his forgiveness, as well as our spouse if we have failed them in any of these principles.
One other thing I want to mention, I am not saying the above list is an exhaustive list of all the Biblical duties involved in marriage, because it is not. This is the Biblical definition of the love we are required to have, love as a set of attitudes and actions that should flow through all the other duties of marriage that I have not mentioned here.
Biblical references that form the foundation for the twelve actions of marital love
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails…
I Corinthians 13:4-8(NIV)
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time…
I Corinthians 7:3-5(NIV)
25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; 26 That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,
27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.
28 So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. 29 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: 30 For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.31 For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.
32 This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.
33 Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.
Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.
I Peter 3:7(KJV)
So what distinguishes marital love from other types of love?
If you were to look at many of the attributes of love I gave – especially the ones based on I Corinthians 13:4-8 you could easily see that many of these attributes apply to other relationships besides marriage. They could apply to friendships or even the parent-child relationship. But here I am trying to apply I Corinthians 13:4-8, a passage not specifically about marital love, to marriage because God calls for agape love in marriage.
“34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The reason I bring up Matthew 22, is because the concept of a man loving his wife as he loves himself is not new, or even exclusive to marital love. As Christians, we are to love all people around us, as we love ourselves.
The key in understanding the distinctiveness of marital love is found in Ephesians chapter 5.
“29 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church”
There are two key words in verse 29 that help us begin to distinguish the love God want’s between a husband and wife, and all other types of love. The Greek word Ektrepho here translated in English as “nourish” here has to do with “feeding to bring to maturity”. The second Greek word Thalpo translated as “cherisheth” originally referred to a mother bird “keeping warm” her eggs as she sat on them. This Greek word later came to mean “foster with tender care”, but it has the same idea.
So in its most literal sense Ephesians 5:29 is saying that just as mother bird warms her eggs and then feeds her babies and brings them to maturity this is like what Christ does for his church in caring for her physical and spiritual needs and bringing her to maturity.
When taken in the complete context of Ephesians 5, just as Christ brings the church to spiritual maturity and tenderly cares for her spiritual and physical needs, so too husbands are to care for the physical and spiritual needs of their wives and bring them to spiritual maturity.
But this is only the first part of the distinctiveness of marital love found in Ephesians 5, the most profound distinctive characteristic of marital love is found in verse 31:
“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.”
The physical union of a man to his wife, the sexual union, is the most distinguishing characteristic of marital love. This is why often times, sex is referred to as the “the act of marriage”.
Think about it – go through all twelve points I list above and you could have all but one of those with a friend who is the same sex. Even the honoring portion, while it would apply differently in marriage, than in friendship, can also apply to friendship.
The one point that exists only within marital love is the giving of the body that takes place between a husband and a wife within marriage.
But just as with loving our neighbor as our self, so too the “one flesh” proposition can occur outside of marriage:
“What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh. “
I Corinthians 6:16(KJV)
Right now I realize some of you are scratching your heads. How can “one flesh” occur in marriage and also outside of marriage between a man and a prostitute?
The answer is simple – “one flesh” in it’s most literal sense refers to one thing that both a man and his wife can do, and a man a prostitute can do, and that is have sexual intercourse. Now does the Bible’s “one flesh” principle extend beyond the physical act of sexual relations? I believe the answer is yes according to the words of Christ.
“4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Matthew 19:4-6 (KJV)
The key phrase in Christ’s statement on marriage is “Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh”. Once a man and woman marry – God looks at them as single unit that should never be separated by man aside for a few exceptions that God gives.
In marriage a man and woman should be united on all three levels – spiritually, emotionally and physically.
Now all Christians and even many non-Christians would agree with the statement I just said above about the need for a husband and wife to be united on all these levels in marriage. But the disagreement comes in HOW a man and woman are to be united in these three ways.
How can a man and woman truly be one in marriage?
We see it all the time with engaged couples or newly weds. They seem to be so united and so in sync with one another. They often finish each others sentences and they rarely if ever fight. But for anyone who has been married for long length of time we can all tell you that the unity of marriage when the relationship is new is based on one thing and one thing alone folks – good old fashion hormones.
It is kind of humorous to see this with newlyweds. Often times newlyweds are insistent that their unity will never change – and that it will be exactly as it is when their marriage is new for the rest of the marriage. I have to hold back the chuckles every time I hear a newlywed couple say this with such sincerity in their hearts. I said this before and I will say it again – new love between a man and a woman is an emotionally and hormonally driven love which produces a type of temporary insanity especially in men.
After a time whether it be six months or a year this hormonally based love eventually comes to an end and the real mature and lasting love in marriage can begin to be built.
The world and even many Christian teachers today will tell you that unity and oneness in marriage comes down to one word and that word is compromise. They say a husband and wife must talk out each life issue whether it be about what church the couple will attend, their career ambitions, how they will raise their children, finances or other important areas of life and compromise on their differences and come to a consensus. There is no leader and no follower in this type of union, but it is instead a partnership of equals.
The Bible however presents a very different way in which a husband and a wife are to become one in marriage.
“23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.”
Ephesians 5:23-24 (KJV)
In Biblical marriage the way a man and wife become one is the same way the church becomes one with Christ. He leads and she follows. As Church is mold itself around the wishes and leadership of Christ so too a wife is to mold herself to the wishes and leading of her husband.
So while the world and many Christian teachers today teach that compromise is the key to unity and oneness in marriage – the Bible teaches that conformity rather than compromise is the key to oneness in marriage. In Christian marriage – the man conforms his will to God’s will and the wife conforms her will to her husband’s will.
Sadly many Christian marriages today are built on compromise rather than conformity and the truth is that men and women are equally to blame for this sad state of affairs. Women are to blame because they emotionally badger their husbands into compromising with them on important affairs of the home even when he believes God would have their family do things differently. Men on the other hand are to blame for not standing up as men of God and choosing to conform to the will of God rather than compromise what they know to be right for the sake of peace with their wives.
I am not saying that a husband cannot hear advice from his wife and take it. Or that marriage erases a woman’s unique identity because it does not. God made all of us as individuals unique and he even made each one of his local churches unique. No two people or two churches are exactly alike. But when it comes to the important matters of life especially in the areas of faith, child rearing and teaching and finances a wife is to mold herself to the pattern of her husband. I will talk more about the Biblical concept of marital unity in another post.
Summary of what Biblical Marital Love is
Just like other types of Biblical love, the truest form of love is one that is based on choice and actions, not on feelings and instincts.
I don’t just have to be kind to my wife when I feel like it, I should be kind to my wife even when I don’t feel like it. My wife needs to be patient with me and trust me even when she does not feel like being patient with me and trusting me.
The Biblical marital love that husbands and wives are supposed to have, and the love we are to have toward friends, family and even strangers have many common attributes.
But Biblical marital love is distinct from all other loves in that it calls on a husband and wife to model their love for one another after the love between Christ and his church. The wife places her dependence upon her husband for her nourishment and protection in the same way that the Church places her dependence on Christ for her nourishment and protection.
The husband should care for the spiritual and physical needs of his wife, and tenderly care for and protect her the way Christ does the Church.
The husband and wife should have sex regularly and often, not only to meet one another’s physical needs and avoid temptation, but they must also realize that their physical union in sex is the most distinctive and most defining act of marital love.
One last note I want to add here about sexuality in marriage. Just like all of the other points of marital love, sexual relations in marriage should never be dependent on feelings at any given time. The Bible is crystal clear that they are to be regular and often, except for a short time by mutual consent.
While it is nice to do things for our spouse (whether it is husbands for wives, or wives for husbands), sex in marriage should never EVER have to be earned. The moment a husband and wife say “I do” it becomes mandatory.
This is not always a husband wanting from a wife thing either. I know of a newly wed married couple, a young couple, where the husband would rather play video games or do things with his friends than have sex with his wife and this should never be the case. The Bible sees sex as the distinctive symbol of the marriage relationship, and it is to happen regularly and often, whether the husband or wife feels like it.
Some might say this feels like a very dry and unemotional type of love the Bible calls us to, but the reality is God knows something we often forget. When you do the right thing, even when you don’t feel like it, often times the feelings will follow sooner or later. But on the flip side, if you only practice these actions required for marital love when feel like it, the love in your marriage will soon die. Feelings don’t last, commitments and choices can and do last.
And finally while the sexual part of the one flesh relationship is an indispensable part of marriage a husband and wife should be united not only in physical relations but also spiritually and emotionally and we previously mentioned. This unity in marriage is accomplished not by compromise between a husband and wife, but rather by conformity of the husband to the will of God and the conformity of the wife to the will of her husband.
This post was edited and updated with new content(the sections about unity and oneness in marriage) on 8/2/2016.