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Marriage failure: Transitioning from unconditional to conditional love

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1 Cor 13:1 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. 3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. 4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, 5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; 6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; 7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. 8 Charity never faileth.

This passage describes real love … true love … agape love … self-sacrificial love. Love is kind. Love does not seek its own. It's not rude. Love is more important than your spiritual gift, more important than your Christian service, and more important than your job.

Now, take a few moments and compare what I have just written to your attitude and actions toward your spouse this morning, this past week, the last month, and the last year. How does your love life with the most important human on earth to you measure up?

It is said that marriages fail due to a lack of communication, or if there is communication, it is limited to arguments over money, free time, household chores, sex, and raising the children. But these are only symptoms of a bigger marriage failure, and that is the shift from unconditional love to conditional love.

Unconditional love says that I love you for who you are, no matter what. It says that I will meet your needs before I meet my own. It says to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part. It says it doesn't matter what you look like in the morning or how I feel at this moment or regardless of what stress is in my life right now, I will cherish you and I will let nothing interfere with my love for you. Unconditional love looks for excuses and makes opportunities to express itself. It hurts when the object of its love hurts. It suffers when the other suffers. It feels powerless when it is helpless to soothe the other's pain and misery.

But somewhere along the way, we transition our marriages to conditional love. Conditional love says I will only show you love when you meet my needs first. I will only appreciate you if you give me a gift that I want at Christmas, Valentines Day, my birthday, and our anniversary. It says that I will only respect you if you do the housework to my standards or if you have a respectable job or if you do what I want when I want and how I want it. Conditional love looks for excuses not to express itself and doesn't seek opportunities to express romance. Conditional love is self-centered and is destructive. It wants to hurt and cause the other to suffer and feels empowered when it causes pain and misery for it believes that by inflicting pain on another, it will manipulate that person to show love. It is a sick form of self-gratification at the expense of others.

In John 5:30, Jesus said that He didn't seek His own will, but the will of the Father. We should consider our marriage actions in the same manner. God gave us marriage. It is a picture of the relationship of Christ and the church. In the Old Testament, it is a picture of God and His people. In both instances, God's love is filled with unconditional love.

In Colossians 3, Paul instructs husbands to love their wives and not be bitter toward them. In Ephesians 5, he says that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. He is also to love his wife as he loves himself. How does that compare to the husband who gets angry because his wife doesn't clean and press his clothes a certain way or who complains about his wife's cooking or the way she cleans the house or takes care of the children or is too busy or too stressed to spend quality time with her? Does Paul's picture of a husband paint a dictator? Does he describe someone whose attitude toward his wife is, “Don't tell me what to do” or “Next time I want your advice, I'll give it to you”? Does it describe someone who spends more time in front of the TV or a computer game or at the office than with her?

Paul instructs wives in Ephesians 5 to be submissive to their husbands as to the Lord and as the church is submissive to Christ. Does that describe someone who demands to be remembered at certain times during the year or who is always wanting expensive gifts? Does it describe someone who prefers to spend more time with the children or with her girlfriends or parents than with him? Does it describe a nagger?

Conditional love can never be satiated. Its attempts to manipulate often fail and are frequently met with resistance, resentment, and anger and it responds in like manner. Because it feels unloved, it imagines that it really is unloved. It arouses suspicions of infidelity. It takes the slightest acts of inattentiveness and magnifies it by 100. It leads to isolation, walls of self-defense, bitterness, and self-justification. As the words in a song by Neil Diamond, its end is loneliness:

I got an emptiness deep inside
And I've tried
But it won't let me go
And I'm not a man who likes to swear
But I never cared
For the sound of being alone

"I am"... I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
"I am"... I cried
"I am"... said I
And I am lost and I can't
Even say why

Leavin' me lonely still

Conditional love will leave you lonely. If that's where you are right now, only by making that transition back to unconditional love will that emptiness go away. It will take commitment and imagination. It might mean swallowing some pride. It might mean some disappointment, but it will be worth it. I once read about a woman who was disappointed in her marriage because her husband had quit being romantic, so to meet her need, she said, “I decided to romance the fool.” Her efforts led to a love that was rekindled and self-satisfying for her.

I also heard a great story about a guy who ran into his friend downtown one day.

“Where are you going?” the friend asked.

“I'm sick and tired of my wife. All she does it nag. I'm going to see my lawyer and file for a divorce,” he answered.

“No, you don't want to do that just yet,” replied the friend. “You want to get revenge first.”

“How do I do that?” asked the husband.

“What you want to do,” he said, “is treat her really nice. Compliment the way she looks and dresses and cooks. Leave her little love notes and buy her thoughtful gifts for a few weeks and then drop the papers on her! She won't expect it and it will devastate her.”

“Yeah! I like it,” the husband said. “I'll do it!”

A few months later, the two happened to meet again. The friend asked the husband if he had filed for divorce yet.

“No, why would I want to do that? She's become the best wife a man could ever ask for.”

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