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Mature Love in Marriage

How important is love in marriage? Most people would almost instinctively answer this question by saying that love is very important to successful marriages. However, such an answer assumes that each of us knows what is meant by the word “love.” Although we use the word love all the time when we talk about couple and marriage relationships, we rarely are clear about what exactly we mean when we say that someone is “in love” or “loves someone”. In fact, many young adults today struggle in their dating efforts because love is seen as some sort of state of existence or intense feeling that they can’t quite explain, but they are sure they will know it when they see it. Part of our current cultural confusion about love comes from the fact that there are different types and expressions of love. We use the term “love” to describe our relationship to our spouse, but we also use the term “love” in referring to our grandma and our newborn baby daughter. We also say that we “love” double fudge chocolate ice-cream and getting a foot massage. Clearly our relationship with our spouse should involve a different type of love than our love for ice-cream or the “love” we felt for that pretty girl in our math class in 9th grade. In order to better understand love, we need to appreciate that there are different types of love. Furthermore, we must understand that some types of love are better than others in forming and maintaining a strong marriage relationship. In fact, the type of love a marriage is based on will be one of the most important determinants of whether the relationship will last or not. Marriages based on mature love will last. Marriages built upon immature love will not. It is as simple as that.

What is Mature Love?

While fuzzy definitions of love are problematic in everyday conversation, they are an extreme problem in social science research. In order to conduct meaningful research, scholars must have clear definitions of what they are studying in order to measure the phenomenon in a meaningful way. In an effort to cut through this confusion, Dr. Patricia Noller, a leading family psychologist, has proposed a useful definition of “mature love” or the type of love that supports marriage and family relationships. Dr. Noller’s definition of mature love has considerable research support and is related to high levels of satisfaction in relationships, to the psychological well-being of spouses, and to stable romantic relationships. While her goal was to give scholars a clearer definition of love for their research studies on marriage and family relationships, her definition offers some insights into how any of us can distinguish mature from immature forms of love.

From her extensive review of research on love, Dr. Noller concludes that in couple relationships “mature love may be best conceptualized as creating an environment in which both the lovers and those that depended on them can grow and develop.” She also concludes from her review that love is a devotion toward a particular person that has emotional, cognitive, and behavioral components; and all three of these aspects of love can be mature or immature in nature. She explains, “The way these three aspects of love are manifested in each individual will determine whether an experience of love involves a stable, healthy, growth promoting relationship or an immature, over-dependent, and growth-stifling relationship.” The first thing we can learn from Dr. Noller’s definition is that love is multidimensional. Love involves our feelings, attitudes, and actions. This definition is very similar to what we are taught in scripture about love and how we should strive to love the Lord—with all of our “heart,” “mind,” and “strength” (Mark 12:30). Dr. Howard Bahr, a family sociologist at BYU, has commented on this subject:

God commands us to love in language that teaches us that love is more than an interior feeling, that heart, might, mind, and strength are united in love… genuine love involves each aspect of self, not just part of us. The heart is essential, as is the mind, and so is the “strength” of physical activity, of doing as the love-filled heart directs… in our marriages and families we must love with our heart, our mind, our spirit, and our hands.

Notice how different this vision of love differs from the dominant view of love in romantic relationships today. Typically when we use the term “falling in love” we are referring to the emotional aspects of love. While there needs to indeed be an intense emotional connection between two people in their courtship and marriage, there are other parts of love needed for their love to be mature. In addition to falling in love, we need to be “choosing in love” and “doing in love” as well. These distinctions are important, because the emotional aspect of love is the most unstable. Emotions by their nature ebb and flow and go up and down. Our attitudes and behaviors, on the other hand, can be stable and consistent. Additionally, when we experience the emotional intensity of romantic love waning in a relationship or find it strained because of conflict, a mature view of love recognizes that we can continue to choose to love our partner and to restore our feelings of love by providing loving service to each other. Dr. Noller concludes, “…although immature love is a reality in our world, mature love is possible and is sustained by beliefs that love involves acknowledging and accepting differences and weaknesses; that love involves an internal decision to love another person and a long-term commitment to maintain that love; and finally, that love is controllable and needs to be nurtured and nourished by the lovers.”