Can real love be nonreciprocal?
“A commitment of the will to the true good of another person.” Does that mean that I commit myself to her good altruistically? If so, how is it possible for two people to love each other, since for her, altruism entails the possibility of getting hurt? Out of love for her, should I refuse to allow her to return my love, because, if she too is selfless, she may get hurt? Is it possible for me to be completely selfless, when she’s delivering her own personal selflessness to me? How about love delivered but never returned — can real love be nonreciprocal? And couldn’t my love be a hindrance for her? What if it’s holding her back, blocking her path? Wouldn’t that force me to choose between either continuing to love her, or ceasing to love her for her greater, truer good?
Slow down and take a breath! Let’s take your questions one at a time. I’ve rephrased several of them; they were good, but your version of the paragraph was an even greater rolling tumble than mine. Forgive me if I’ve guessed some your meanings wrong.
“If love is a commitment of the will to the true good of another person, does that mean that I commit myself to her altruistically?”
I avoid the term “altruism,” because people use it in so many different senses, not all of them sensible. For example, some people reason like this:
- Love isn’t real unless it’s altruistic.
- But altruism means that it’s all for the other person — there’s nothing in it for you.
- If it makes you happy to love the other person, then there is something in it for you.
- So it can’t be real love if you’re happy about it.
Crazy, right? I think so too, and it’s not what I meant when I said that love is a commitment of the will to the true good of the other person.
“If so, how is it possible for two people to love each other, since for her, altruism entails the possibility of getting hurt?”
If we get rid of that troublesome word “altruism,” what you’re asking is this: Is love sacrificial? And if it is, then how could I want anyone to love me back? For her, wouldn’t that mean giving up a good?
The answer this time requires rethinking what you understand a person’s “good” to be. Apparently you’re thinking that people who never have to sacrifice for others are better off than those who have. No, they aren’t; they’re immeasurably worse off. Ask a new mother whether she considers herself a loser. After all, caring for that poopy little guy is burdensome, isn’t it? She can’t even know for sure what he’ll be like when he grows up, can she? If you talk to her like that, she’ll laugh at you. For the sake of love and hope, she’s glad to take on such burdens. By sacrificing her selfish interests — surprise! — she discovers her own deepest good.
It’s the same in friendship, marriage, and the other natural loves, except that there the sacrifices can be mutual. When these loves are transfigured by the love of God, the sacrifice is greater still, but so is the joy. Christ puts the paradox this way: “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” That’s not only about the great sacrifice of martyrdom. It’s about the small sacrifices of daily life.
“Is it possible for me to be completely selfless, when she’s delivering her own personal selflessness to me? Out of love for her, should I refuse to allow her to return my love, because, if she too is selfless, she may get hurt?”
Marital love isn’t selfless; it’s a mutual and total gift of Self. If you didn’t have an ongoing Self, how could you make an ongoing gift of it? This mutual gift is one of the greatest goods known to human beings. God invented marital love. Christ ennobled it by performing his first miracle at a wedding feast. Therefore, no, you aren’t being an ingrate to hope that your Lady will love you in return.
On the other hand, the prospect of your love being returned by your Lady ought to fill you with awe. In offering her Self, as you offer yours, she is offering you a being made in the image of God. Before that image, you ought to feel a bit of the fear and trembling that the Centurion felt at the prospect of being visited by Christ Himself. If we spoke more nearly as we ought to speak to those we love, we would say to them, “I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, in His name, and I shall be healed.”
“How about love delivered but never returned — can real love be nonreciprocal?”
Why not? Let’s rephrase the question. Can I will and seek the true good of someone who doesn’t will and seek my true good in return? Of course I can. We Christians believe that we should will and seek the true good of every last one of our neighbors. Needless to say, in a fallen world quite a few of our neighbors will not love us in return. Christ loved us so much that He gave His life for us; but the way that He lost His life was that we killed Him.
Unrequited love is always painful. In the case of erotic love, the kind intended for marriage, the pain arises from the fact that its nature is to seek union with the beloved. The ache of continuing disunion doesn’t mean that such love isn’t real; it suggests that it is.
“And couldn’t my love be a hindrance for her? What if it’s holding her back, blocking her path? Wouldn’t that force me to choose between either continuing to love her, or ceasing to love her for her greater, truer good?”
Yes, you might be a hindrance to her, if you were unworthy of her. To speak in utter truth, we are all unworthy of each other; what could I ever do to deserve another’s total gift of Self? Nothing; that’s why it’s a gift. At the moment, however, I am not speaking of that universal unworthiness, but of a more specific kind. Suppose, for example, that you were a selfish lout who ruined the lives of everyone around you. In that case you would not yet be capable of the gift of Self. It wouldn’t be your love but your inability to love that hindered the girl from her true good. My advice to you in that case would be to try, with the grace of God, to become the sort of person who is capable of love.
Another possibility is that you really do love the girl, but she doesn’t love you in return. I mean, of course, that she doesn’t love you that way. Whatever joy she experiences in romantic love will be with someone else. In that case, yes, you should back off. You may be tempted to be a pest; don’t give in, because that wouldn’t be loving at all. You may be tempted to pine away; don’t give in to that temptation either, because it is more about self-pity than about love, more about you than about her. If you love a girl who will never love you in return, seek God’s grace to sublimate your erotic love for her into the spiritual love of charity. Be grateful to God that you knew her, but be willing to fall in erotic love with someone else.
Peace be with you,
Copyright 2006 Professor Theophilus. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Professor J. Budziszewski is the author of more than a dozen books, including How to Stay Christian in College, Ask Me Anything, Ask Me Anything 2, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, and The Line Through the Heart. He teaches government and philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.