Love is a complicated topic in today’s world. Perhaps it doesn’t help that, as Chiara says in this post, we use the word “love” for so many different things. Here, she goes back to the Greek words for “love” to discuss the different forms love can take in a marriage—and which is the most important.
In English we use and abuse the word love in a hundred different ways: we love our husbands, we love chocolate, we love our siblings, we love shoes. The Greeks spent a lot of time thinking about many things and have given us most of the words we use when we think about anything important, from philosophy (love of wisdom) to theology (study of God) and most things in between.
Of course they also had a lot to say about love, and their musings can help us to explore the love that exists between spouses. The Greeks had four words for love, each of which referred to a different type: agape (self-giving love), philia (friendship), storge (tender affection) and eros (passionate love). But which is the most important for married people?
We asked this question to couples who were preparing for marriage and were surprised at the answers we received. Most couples came to the conclusion that each type of love belonged to a different stage of their relationship. Philia belonged to courtship followed (all too quickly) by eros, then once that had died down, marriage followed with the milder expressions of storge and finally agape was the love that was expressed towards offspring who receive and give nothing back.
This serial understanding of the four loves is surely reflected in the experience of many couples, but God wants us to enjoy a much richer life, to truly live our marriages to the full. Why live one love at a time when all four work so well together?
I am sure we all remember how we met our spouses and what it was that attracted us to the other person—the qualities, the things we liked and enjoyed, the friendship that brought us to walk down the aisle and pronounce “I do.” Philia is “human love,” the joy of friendship. God intended from the beginning for husbands and wives to enjoy each other’s company and to be able to share and deepen this philia throughout our lives.
Pierpaolo and I have been married almost 17 years and still after so many years together every morning we have to kiss goodbye before going off to work: a simple gesture of love. As human beings, we constantly need physical expressions of affection that have no ulterior motive; a kiss, a hug, a simple caress or a loving gaze. This is is storge, a love which too often disappears once eros takes over.
Eros is perhaps the love that suffers most within modern marriages. It is either lived in a selfish way for the pleasure of one or other of the spouses or it fades away to become a distant memory. But the highest expression of eros was placed at the very centre of marriage by Christ himself: “The two will become one flesh” (Matthew 19:5). It is the combination of agape, philia and storge that fills the hearts of spouses with a strong passionate desire to become one flesh.
Eros is the love that completes marriage. Eros is the hidden gem in a God-centred marriage, a highly effective weapon that helps the couple to overcome difficulties. It can be a powerful antidote to selfishness. There is no problem too large that can’t be solved with the help of eros when properly expressed. In marriage, when an argument has gone too far, so much so that we can’t even remember what caused it in the first place, when there are no more words to say and the struggle seems too entangled to untie, giving yourself as a gift to your spouse and holding nothing back has an incredible effect. There is no storm that it can’t help to calm.
Agape is the highest form of love in which we give our very selves. It is a love that comes from God and that a husband and a wife freely choose to give to each other. It is a deeper love that is able to give without reservations and goes beyond all the other loves but at the same time enriches and increases them. It is a creative love which has within it the power to bring new life to marriage and even a new life into the world!
Our marriage is the perfect soil for all four loves to grow as we face the challenges of life together. To nurture all four loves is to experience marriage in its fullness.
Chiara and Pierpaolo have been married for 17 years and have five children and one on the way. They are based in London, UK. Chiara writes a family blog where you can find her musings on life and faith. She also runs a lively Facebook group called Catholic Mothers.