We love to use the word love. If I kept a tally of how many times I use the word in a day to talk about various topics, it would start to sound funny and lose its meaning. I use the word to talk about the book I just finished, my wife and children, and the sandwich I ate for lunch. In a variety of contexts, the word becomes inane.
As someone who has done a fair amount of premarital counseling with couples, I talk about love a lot. One of the first questions I ask couples is why they want to get married, and, as you can imagine, the answer is usually something along the lines of, “We love each other.” When I ask them to explain specifically what that means for them, it’s usually followed by a blank stare. I press further (of course, after letting the awkwardness hang for a while). “Is it a special feeling toward the other?” I suggest, “Is it a kind of affection, like you feel for a puppy?” “How do you know when you have it?” And perhaps most importantly, “What happens if you stop feeling it for each other?”
We’re Setting Ourselves up for Failure
In counseling and being married for 22 years myself, I’ve found that there are three major things that seem to set us up for failure: we build marriages on the expectation that our spouse is our fulfillment, we build it on feelings of love, or we build it on compatibility. In my experience, any of these is a recipe for disaster.
Too often, we’re looking for our spouse to be everything to us.
Many of us have either consciously or unknowingly grown up with Aristophanes’ concept of love from Plato’s Symposium, which has given us the idea that the person who is our “missing piece” is somewhere out there and we will only be fulfilled when we find our “other half.” Too often, we’re looking for our spouse to be everything to us: not only our lover, co-parent, and provider, but also our playmate, business partner, confidant, counselor, and comforter in times of trouble. Who can possibly ever be all those things to another person?
And feelings—even a feeling as deep and all-consuming as love—come and go. I distinctly remember when this one man came to see me for counseling. He wanted to leave his wife because he didn’t feel love for her anymore. Unsaid but obvious in his statement was: “If I want to be happy and true to myself, I can’t stay in this loveless relationship.” It’s a common and understandable human sentiment, but if we reframe it in another context, it seems ludicrous. Can you imagine someone saying that about their own child? “I just don’t have feelings for my child anymore, it would be wrong to continue to be their parent.” A feeling of love can’t be the foundation of marriage.
In the same way, compatibility and common interests shift throughout our lives. Who someone is when you meet them isn’t who they’re going to be forever. Habits, styles, likes and dislikes, senses of humor, and viewpoints all change. They’ll change, and so will you. Building a marriage on a shifting foundation ensures it will crumble.
You may ask: If marriage can’t be based on love or compatibility, what’s left? The answer, the big secret to marriage, is obvious: commitment. Commitment defines marriage. Without that, it’s just a relationship, no more sacred or set apart than any two people who enjoy each other’s company.
You simply can’t promise to feel an emotion of love all the time. You can, however, vow to choose love.
When you vow yourself to another, you’re not guaranteeing a feeling—you simply can’t promise to feel an emotion of love all the time. You can, however, vow to choose love. Choices outlast feelings. Feelings of love are the fruit, not the roots, of commitment. Feelings of love grow for the person you choose to give them to. Finding your “other half” is not based on compatibility prior to marriage—it is intentionally choosing another person to be your counterpart, and then treating them as a part of your whole. Commitment is picking your person again and again, even when they irritate you, anger you, or disappoint you. It’s how it was always made to work.
What Our Tradition Says about Commitment
God established what love looks like. Marriage was God’s design from the beginning—we were never meant to navigate our lives and the world alone. After creating Adam, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Soon after, the concept of marriage is put into effect as the man and the woman are united into one, becoming “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). Unity in marriage means that two people think of themselves not only as individuals, but as a whole.
God didn’t just create and establish marriage, He modeled it for us. Scripture even illustrates His faithfulness to us within the framework of marriage: “For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called” (Isaiah 54:5). He called us His people no matter how many times we screwed up or failed to hold up our end of the commitment. And the Torah is brimming with examples of our unfaithfulness: we made a golden calf, tried to build a tower to heaven, craved acceptance from our neighbors, begged for a king, ran away, pouted, and kvetched. Yet He continued to model perfect faithfulness.
I have to embody the unconditional and sacrificial love I’ve received from God in order to fulfill my vows.
I find that, in my own marriage, I have to embody the unconditional and sacrificial love I’ve seen and received from God in order to fulfill my vows to my wife. I must choose to love with an unconditional love. But I’m not always great at it; I get frustrated, tired, and in my own head. We all need regular nudges to remember our promises—which is probably why we frame and hang our ketubot.1 Clearly, we understand that there will be days when love alone doesn’t cut it and we need tangible reminders.
We Were Created to Love One Another
Without the foundation of commitment, any struggle, sickness, or incompatibility threatens to topple the entire structure. But when the foundation is sure, there is room to navigate life’s challenges with security. That safety allows for depth and room for growth—both personally and as a couple—that no other human relationship can replicate.
But even the “perfect” marriage can’t replicate the perfect love we experience with God. God is the founder of commitment, and a deep, secure relationship with Him is something each of us can experience—whether we’re married or not. Marriage is simply a reflection of the covenant of love God has offered to each of us. Ultimately, being vessels for that by loving God and one another well is the most important thing we can do.
- Maurice Lamm, “The Jewish Marriage Contract (Ketubah),” Chabad, accessed June 1, 2022.