Our guest blogger is Edward Sri, author of Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love: Practical Insights from John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility.
Image: Kevin Schmitz.
The Italians have a beautiful expression for love: ti voglio bene. Though commonly translated as “I love you,” ti voglio bene more literally means “I wish you good” or “I want what is good for you.”
This phrase reminds us that love is not primarily about what good feelings may be stirring within. Even less is it about what I can get out of a relationship for myself. The fullness of love is looking outward toward my beloved and seeking what is best for that person, not just what is good for me.
This, in fact, is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines love: “To love is to will the good of another” (CCC, 1766, quoting Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I–II, 24, 1). It’s also a point John Paul II makes when he discusses the two sides of love: the subjective and objective.
According to John Paul II, understanding the difference between the subjective and objective is crucial for any married, engaged, or dating relationship.
While this is one aspect of love, it is not to be equated with love in the fullest sense. We know from experience that we can have powerful feelings for another person without in any way being committed to them or without that person being committed to us in a relationship of selfless love.
This is why John Paul II puts the subjective aspect of love in its proper place. He wakes us up and reminds us that no matter how intensely we experience these sensations, it is not necessarily love, but simply “a psychological situation” (127). In other words, on its own, the subjective aspect of love is no more than a pleasurable experience happening inside of me. And these powerful sensations might actually conceal the reality of a relationship that has failed to develop fully.
Turning Love Inward
Men and women today are quite susceptible to falling for this illusion of love, for the modern world has turned love inward, focusing primarily on the subjective aspect. John Paul II, however, emphasizes that there is another side of love that is absolutely essential no matter how powerful our emotions and desires may be. This is what he calls love’s objective aspect.
Will I really seek the good of my spouse, even when I don’t feel like it? When I’m busy? When I’d rather be doing something else?
This aspect has objective characteristics that go beyond the pleasurable feelings of the subjective level. True love involves virtue, friendship, and the pursuit of a common good. Both people are focused on a common goal outside of themselves. In Christian marriage, for example, a husband and wife unite themselves to the common aims of helping each other grow in holiness, deepening their own union, and raising children. Most of all, true love involves the selfless pursuit of what is best for the other person, even if it means sacrificing one’s own preferences and desires— love in the sense of ti voglio bene.
When considering the objective aspect of love, I must discern what kind of relationship exists between my beloved and me in reality, not simply what this relationship means in my feelings. Am I committed to this other person for who she is or for the enjoyment I receive from the relationship? Does my beloved understand what is truly best for me, and does she have the faith and virtue to help me get there? Are we deeply united by a common aim, serving each other, and striving together toward a common good that is higher than each of us? Or are we just living side by side, sharing resources and occasional good times together while we selfishly pursue our own interests and enjoyments in life? These are the kinds of questions that get at the objective aspect of love.
Now we can see why John Paul II says that true love is “an interpersonal fact” (127), not just a “psychological situation” (127). A strong relationship is based on virtue and friendship: Unless a man and woman have the objective aspects of love in their relationship, they do not yet have a bond of true love.
In Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love, Edward Sri unpacks the contents of Pope John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility, making it accessible to every reader. He emphasizes the down-to-earth nature of Love and Responsibility, giving readers actionable advice on issues such as: • How to determine if a relationship is one of authentic love or is doomed to failure • The problem of pornography • The meaning of friendship • How to achieve greater intimacy in marriage