The third essential element of marital love is that it be given totally. To understand what it means to give totally in marriage, it is good once again to review the purpose of marriage: The purpose of marriage is not merely for the sake of happiness, but for the procreation and education of children, and for the mutual perfection and sanctification of the spouses. It is in this way that man and wife mirror the love of the Trinity, and the love of Christ for his bride, the Church. Thus, the word “total” is as complete and conclusive as it sounds: it means that we are called to give our whole lives as a gift to our spouse.
Sounds hard, doesn’t it?
How can we be expected to hand over our lives completely to another? It is entirely true that this is a difficult thing to do, because God created us free autonomous beings. As such, we have the freedom to protect, serve, and cultivate our lives according to our own likes, pleasures, preferences, and choices. We are called to work towards self-perfection and greatness in life, and to take care of ourselves in mind, body, and spirit.
However, while a healthy self-love is important, self-love alone is not ultimately what brings us fulfillment. We learn from Christ that true fulfillment comes in living our relationships well. Thus, in marriage, man and wife are called to adapt and conform themselves to the needs and desires of their spouse; for the good of their beloved. Marriage is ordered towards a complete and total gift of the self, for without it, one could not truthfully say to another, “I am entirely yours.”
If I am being completely honest, I must admit that what it means to give “totally” to my spouse is something I am still learning to do with each passing day. Sometimes it comes easily and sometimes it takes a ton of work because my husband is his own person with a unique temperament, character, and personality—and I am my own person with a different set of characteristics and qualities that make me, me. It can be extremely difficult at times to lay down my selfish needs and wants for the sake of my husband and to give my love to him unreservedly at all times, but I know that when I do and he does the same for me, our marriage and love is strengthened because of it. While I have a lot of personal preferences, dreams, and goals, I have to ensure that I am not placing them above the needs of my spouse. Loving authentically in marriage means that my husband comes first, that I always seek his good, that I am completely open with him (in mind, body, and soul) and that my dreams and desires are united with his. If my own needs and preferences get in the way of our time together, impede me from meeting his needs, put barriers between our love, or cause strife in our union…I need to re-evaluate and reprioritize. Also, if I feel that my husband is failing to consider my needs in preference for his own, I am called to openly communicate with him, share my frustrations, and be ready and willing to forgive and forget his shortcomings and failures. Similarly, in all these ways he is called to do the same for me.
Loving totally does not mean that you won’t encounter difficult moments. It is a tall order to give totally to another and to pour out love as God does (in complete gift to the beloved), but this is the kind of love marriage is ordered to give. It means always approaching your life together with the love you vowed to each other on your wedding day: a love that always seeks the good of the other, in good times, and in bad.
Just as it sounds, becoming a total gift to another requires much selflessness, but this is part of the purpose of marriage! Sanctification (i.e. the means by which we become holy) comes only through humility and a whole lot of dying to self. This does not mean we become something totally different than who we are, that we should allow ourselves to be abused, or that we have to give up all of our personal dreams and desires. Rather, it means we are called to change the way we do things. In marriage, it means examining life, not from the perspective of the “I”, but under the lens of the indissoluble “we.”
Thus, it is through a total mutual self-gift and daily dying to self that husband and wife help each other reach perfection in love.