What is love in a marriage? How does it develop, change, and impact the relationship? It comes as no surprise that love is a key factor in people getting married and in contributing to the marriage’s longevity. Researchers discuss how love is one of the variables that plays a strong role in stable and lasting marriages (Sternberg, 1986; Roizblatt, et al., 1999; Weigel, 1999; Bachand and Caron, 2001).
A marriage does not always survive on love alone. Friendship, trust, loyalty, togetherness, willingness to compromise, and respect for each other are also important. There are some marriages where love may not be necessary for initiating or supporting the marriage, such as arranged marriages or marriages of convenience. In addition, marriages when love was present earlier in the relationship but is no longer there may continue because of other reasons, including a sense of duty, religious or cultural factors, and family and financial concerns.
Nevertheless, most people rank love as their most important priority for marital satisfaction (Kaslow & Robison, 1996; Roizblatt et al.,1999). Wallerstein and Blakeslee (1995) found that in some marriages the bond sustaining the couple was so strong that the partners were always in love and could not envision being without the other to the extent that they viewed their partner as their “other half.” These unions were described as “romantic marriages” and fueled by mutual love, passion, and excitement. This not to say that for love to continue and grow in a marriage, the couple must remain oblivious to each other’s faults, limitations, or disturbing idiosyncrasies, but love can help diminish their impact.
Love and a marriage’s duration often go hand-in-hand. Sternberg (1986) conceptualized love in a marriage as including intimacy, passion, and commitment. Intimacy is reflected by feeling close and bonded to one’s spouse. Passion develops from physical and sexual attraction. Commitment is expressed by making the decision that one loves one’s spouse and wants to maintain that by perpetuating the relationship.
Love in a marriage evolves. It may start out as infatuation or even passion, but as time passes something deeper develops. As a couple’s relationship continues over time the infatuation may diminish. Feelings of love can intensify by the couple’s commitment to one another and the satisfaction they experience in their union (Sprecher, 1999). These positive feelings not only contribute to the couple’s intimacy and connectedness but also strengthens their marriage.
When spouses have love in a marriage it enhances their physical and mental health. It gives the partners a sense of vibrancy and purpose. It can help them overcome barriers and depression. Having an invested spouse and not being alone instills a sense of courage and the ability to face the challenges of life. Thus, rather than succumb to obstacles, illness, and despair, there is a sense of hope where the individuals can thrive. It also contributes to each spouse's confidence resulting in higher life satisfaction and longevity.
What are some ways couples demonstrate their love? For some, the actual statement, “I love you,” is not necessary. Instead, deeds are more revealing about how much one cares for the other. Behavioral indications of love include:
- Demonstrating respect
- Showing concern
- Being in the company of each other
- Fulfilling a spouse’s needs
- Being committed to the marriage
- Wanting what is best for one’s spouse even at one’s own expense
Clearly, marriages do not survive on love alone. There are other features that perpetuate and strengthen them. However, it may be said that by performing some of the following maintenance behaviors, one is doing so out of love.
- Having similar values and beliefs, and if not, being able to understand and accept those that are different.
- Feeling comfortable in talking and listening to each other (no matter the topic) with the knowledge that each one will feel safe and respected.
- Accepting a spouse’s strengths and flaws.
- Being committed to each other and encouraging each other’s growth, sometimes over one’s own.
- Spending time together.
- Engaging in physical contact with each other.
- Tolerating a spouse’s small annoyances and reinforcing those qualities that are endearing.
- Striving to not go to sleep at night when angry with one's spouse.
- Understanding that the love you have for your spouse is different from that for your children.
- Listening to one another with an open mind.
- Not laughing at but with one’s spouse.
- Adding spice to the relationship, such as exploring new and challenging activities together as opposed to living a predictable and mundane life.
- Performing acts that help each other, especially when you do not want to or are not expected to do so.
- Making sacrifices without being a martyr or feeling regret.
- Being each other’s cheerleader.
- Helping each other cope with or solve problematic issues, both within and outside the marriage.
- Surprising one another with random acts of kindness.
- Not taking for granted the positive aspects of one’s marriage (e.g., happiness, fun, excitement, companionship, security).
We live in a tumultuous time. Like all living organisms, love in a marriage needs to be nourished to thrive. What works for one may not work for another, and what worked once may not work now. Therefore, we frequently need to focus on and tend to the health of one’s marriage and not take its existence or our spouse for granted.
Bachand, L. & Caron, S. (2001). Ties that bind: A qualitative study of happy long-term marriages. Contemporary Family Therapy, 23(1), 105-121. DOI:10.1023/A:1007828317271
Kaslow, F., & Robison, J. (1996). Long-term satisfying marriages: Perceptions of contributing factors. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 24(2), 153-168. doi.org/10.1080/01926189608251028
Roizblatt, A., Kaslow, F., Rivera, S., Fuchs, T., Conejero, C., & Zacharias, A. (1999). Long lasting marriages in Chile. Contemporary Family Therapy, 21(1), 113-129. doi.org/10.1023/A:1021918822405
Sprecher, S. (1999). "I love you more today than yesterday": Romantic partners' perceptions of changes in love and related affect over time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(1), 46-53. doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.199
Sternberg, R. J. (1986). A triangular theory of love. Psychological Review, 93(2), 119-135). doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.93.2.119
Wallerstein, J., & Blakeslee, S. (1995). The good marriage: How and why love lasts. Houghton Mifflin.
Weigel, D. J., & Ballard-Reisch, D. S. (1999). How couples maintain marriages: A closer look at self and spouse influences upon the use of maintenance behaviors in marriages. Family Relations, 48(3), 263-269. doi.org/10.2307/585635