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Unconditional Love. What is Your Unilateral Promise to Your Spouse?

Marriage vows are intended to bind us to our spouse even and especially when we no longer feel like we want to be together, much less bound together.

Marriage vows are a reminder that promise to love someone is an act of the will, a decision to bind one’s will to the process of trying as best as one can to expand, renew, or even restore feelings of love . . . even when there is a drought of such feelings.

Following is a letter from a husband to a wife in the midst of marriage counseling.  At the time it was written, they had not had physical intimacy for over two years, and she was balking at plans arranged during a counseling session for them to go on a second honeymoon.

I welcome your comments below.


Dear K.,

You are quite right to wonder why I would want to make love to you when you so clearly don’t want to make love to me.

I think you imagine it is because of lust.  And perhaps because of this you imagine me to be a depraved, sex addict who is simply frustrated by the years of abstinence we have endured at your insistence.

It is actually the opposite.  I feel no lust for you.  Perhaps that is due to my own resentments.  Or it may be due my awareness that you have no desire for me.  But I actually have very little physical desire for you.  That scares and saddens me.  And I know, this lack of desire (on both our parts) is a deadly cancer in our marriage.

But I also believe, as a matter of our Christian faith, that God has provided a natural cure for what has pulled us apart. And if we can make the decision to pursue this natural cure with as much good will as we can muster, it will produce good effects.   It’s not an instant cure, but with patience and persistence, if we do our best in giving ourselves to each other in the act of marital intimacy, it will do so much good for us on physical, emotional, symbolic and spiritual levels.

When you sneer that I “just want sex,” you could not be more wrong.  I want the fullness of marital intimacy: physical, emotional, and spiritual.   And I believe that by God’s design this very physical act is actually a sacramental act which will open up channels of grace.  And if we are open to that grace, it will nurture and even resurrect the emotional and spiritual intimacy we ultimately desire in our marriage.

Obviously sex is good when things are going good.  But I believe that it is even more essential when things are going bad, which is why our marriage vow includes the promise to “have and to hold” each other even in the bad times.  It is precisely in the bad times, like we have been experiencing,  that we should find a way to create a sacred space around our marriage bed, leaving our negative emotions outside the door, and making a decision to focus on the good in each other and to do the best we can to bring whatever bits of love we can muster into the physical act of marital intimacy which, by God’s grace and human biology, can slowly multiply good emotions that will feed into the rest of our troubled lives . . . and may eventually help us to take those negative emotions, that we temporarily set aside outside the door of our bedroom, and throw them away forever.

Please know this: the reason I persist in asking you to be open to physical intimacy is not to satisfy feelings of lust.  They barely exist.

I come to you with the hope of rediscovering and renewing my desire for you and your desire for me.  That is my goal.  That is my hope.  That is what I vowed on our wedding day that I would always do.

I experience your rejection of my physical embrace as not only a rejection of my “just sex,” but as a willful rejection of me . . . and even of any hope of rediscovering any delight in me.

One of the most hurtful things you have said during our counseling sessions was when Tom said that surely you would desire that I should delight in you.  You said very firmly and resolutely, “No.”   You didn’t want me to delight in you. And in your angry eyes, what I read was that what you really desired is that I should fear you.   Your anger is so profound that you seem obsessed with defeating me.  The ideal of finding mutual delight in each other is totally gone from your line of vision.

What happened to your belief that love is more than an emotion, it is a decision?   Is this not the time to cling to that ideal?  The time to make a decision to love each other, even if our emotions are not cooperating toward that goal.

I know you are angry and bitter.  But as Tom has told us, we need to make active decisions to let go of the anger and active decisions to show love, even if we don’t “feel” like it.   We need to replace the cycle of anger with a cycle of love, even little bits of positive energy that we can build upon.Your anger and pain is clear.  And I understand the you want me to feel the pain you have felt.   Seeing my pain, as you just recently told me, gives you “hope” that I will finally recognize your pain.   The problem is that you are convinced that I have not suffered enough.  Whereas, from my perspective,  I recognize your pain and want to alleviate it but you can’t let go of the belief that I have not suffered enough.
I am so sad.  For both of us.

Since I cannot demand anything of you, I feel that all I can do is to unilaterally offer myself to you.  In that regard, I have meditated a great deal on our marriage vow and what it demands of me in the way of offering unconditional love to you–even if you reject it.As we’ve discussed, the phrase “to have and to hold” in the marriage vow is just a euphemism for having sex within marriage and all that sex is, by God’s design, intended to produce in marriage:  emotional closeness, spiritual closeness, children, families, and sexual security . . . through and despite of all the ups and downs in a married life.So reflecting on what this promise to “have and to hold” obliges me to do, I am offering you an expanded form of my marriage vow to you.  It is own unilateral promise to you.

While I cannot demand the same from you, I pray you will at least reflect on these promises and tell me what, if anything, you can promise in return.  And if there are things which I have promised to you that you cannot promise me, can you explain why, so that I may better understand your heart and mind?

This was my marriage vow, proclaimed before God and our loved ones:

I, D., do solemnly vow to take you, K., to have and to hold, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health until death do us part.

This is my expanded marriage vow to you:

Through this marriage vow I pledge four things: to assume the best, to prepare my heart with good will, to be available to you, and to always seek renewal of my love for you.

“To assume the best.” By this pledge I promise, to the best of my ability, to always presume and see in your desire for marital intimacy the highest possible motives, such as the desire to express your love and appreciation for me, your forgiveness for the ways I have knowingly or unknowingly hurt you, your spoken and unspoken apologies, your desire to share your joys, your sorrows, your fears, your loneliness, your desires, or any number of other important parts of yourself.

“To prepare my heart with good will.” By this pledge, I promise that whenever you shall seek to have and hold me I will endeavor to the best of my ability to welcome you with a spirit of love and compassion, with forgiveness for any real or imagined offenses, and with repentance for any offenses I have committed against you. I shall seek always to set aside, to the best of my ability, all grievances, hurts, and unsatisfied expectations, and to conform my heart and mind to welcome you as the one God has joined to me in this marriage sacrament through which He offers to heal our wounds and nurture our love to the degree we are willing to open our hearts to His grace.

“To be available to you.” By this pledge, I promise to take you, to have and to hold, without setting any additional conditions upon you. I will not exact any price nor present any demands for my receptivity to your embrace. I promise that given a short time to adjust my thoughts and emotions, and to address or reschedule any immediate obligations, I will welcome you whenever you wish to have and to hold me. To the best of my ability, I shall seek to share the best of myself and to see and embrace the best in you so that we may truly become the best we can be as one body in the sight of God.

“To always seek renewal of my love for you.” In this I promise that even when emotions or circumstance have led me to have no desire for you, or even to actively resent you, I will always remember that these negative emotions have no rightful place in a marriage. I promise to always recall that God has given us the sacrament of marital union as a means for driving out such negative emotions, at least slowly (1 Cor 7:3-5). Therefore, even and especially when we feel distant from each other, I will accept you in the marital embrace, with as much good will as I can muster. I do this trusting in the grace God pours into this sacrament of physical expression of our mutual submission and mutual self-giving, by means of which He seeks to renew our desire for each other, to repair hurts, and to open our hearts to His grace and the goodness of each other.




Which parts of this expanded marriage vow can you offer to your spouse?  Which parts, if any, are you unable or unwilling to offer your spouse?

Consider sharing your own version of a unilateral promise  to love and be available to love with your spouse and ask them what, if anything, they can promise in return.

But don’t demand that they promise the same.  See Unwise Words to Ponder (second section of page) for an explanation why unilateral offers of unconditional love are great to make, but never wise to demand.

Use the comments section below to share your thoughts.



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