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The 3 Sides of Love

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          A woman came into my office the other day and presented me with the problem that she was no longer “in love” with her husband.  She stated that she loved him, but that she realized she no longer had the feelings of passion for him any more.  She told me that she was beginning to wonder if she had, in fact, ever been “in love” with him.  She was a Christian and she knew what the right thing was to do, but no matter how much she tried and how much she prayed, her feelings continued to wane for her husband. 

          This woman’s problem is more common, even in our churches, than we want to admit.  By understanding love more fully, she been able to make more choices than she knew she had.  I write this article to you for the same reason: the more you understand and appreciate the 3 sides of love the more you will be able to love the significant people God has put into your life more fully.

The common notion taught in church and Christian books is that “love is a choice.”  The problem with this kind of teaching is that it presents only part of the truth.  The Bible teaches through the Greek language that love has 3 sides or parts to it.  In the English language we only have one word for love.  In Greek, love is given the names of agape, phileo, and eros.  By understanding the meaning of these different names for love, we can better understand what love is, we can evaluate our present love relationship, and we can take steps to improve our marriages.

The following model shows the 3 sides of love in the form of a triangle.  By doing so, it shows that each form of love is equally as important as the others.  The model will also demonstrate the interrelatedness and the circular nature of how the 3 sides interact with one another.  By seeing love as more expanded through the Greek language, culture, and view, we begin to appreciate love as more than just a choice and, more than just a feeling.

 

                               Agape love

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Agape love is committed love.  Depending on the amount of commitment, this kind of love becomes increasingly unconditional.  If the commitment is ultimate and infinite, such as the kind of love that God has for us, this love becomes completely unconditional.  In other words, once we become a child of God, His unconditional love is not diminished by our sin.  He may become disappointed with us, but his steadfast agape love is unwavering (“I will never leave you or forsake you”).  This kind of love is not moved by circumstances such as the loss of youthful beauty, the loss of money, or health.  This is why our marital vows say “for better or worse,” “for richer or for poorer,” “in sickness and in health,” and “until death do us part.”  Seen from this perspective, our marital vows are a covenant not a contract.

  Agape love is also ruled by our will.  When you hear teachings about how “love is a choice,” this is what the person is telling you.  Other times I have heard sermons that state that agape love is the way that God loves us, and this is also true.  But this is also the partial truth, because God also loves us with the kind of love that the other two Greek words represent.   

Sometimes I like to say that agape love is best represented by our hands.  This is because it is our will that what tells our hands what to do.  In a relationship that is long-term, like marriage, agape love is necessary because the commitment keeps the relationship together, especially when the going gets tough.  It keeps solidarity in our marriages by giving both partners the security they need to make it when the storms, that are a natural part of any long-term relationship, seem to want to rip away the very fabric and foundation of our marriages.  Even in the face of some very difficult conflicts and seemingly irreconcilable differences, agape love stays the course through the commitment of our will telling our hands to hang in there.   

If you put together the following concepts and principles into our diagram of the triangle of love, it begins to look like this:

 

 

          Agape Love

         commitment

unconditional

choice

our will

our hands

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Phileo Love

Phileo love, on the other hand, is best described as the kind of love that you would have for a friend or a sibling, such as a brother.  This is the reason the city of Philadelphia is known as “The City of Brotherly Love.”  When we incorporate this idea of brotherly love into a marriage relationship, we are suggesting that it is important for you to become best friends with your spouse.  This means building bridges of common interest.  These could be shared behaviors and activities or shared interests in the world of ideas and thoughts.  Enduring friendships last because of trust and the sheer pleasure derived from sharing certain pleasurable experiences.  This could mean such things as the joy that comes from raising children and building a home together, going to museums, playing golf and other sports, hiking, music, laughter, and going out to dinner, to name a few.   

Some couples make the mistake of taking their friendship for granted or are misguided by the misconception that friendships should just happen.  These people believe that good friends shouldn’t have to work at it to make it happen.  You can get yourself into to trouble if your primary and closest friends are either your family, other friends (even of the same sex), or co-workers with whom you may share your most intimate thoughts and feelings.  This kind of friendship needs to be nurtured and guarded by being granted only to your spouse. 

By my saying this you should begin to appreciate the interrelatedness of the 3 sides of love.  Yes, it is true that friendship just kind of happens, but once a friendship has been started, it has to be given to intentionally.  This intentionality involves your will by deciding to make it a priority and through the commitment to establish these bridges no matter how far away you may feel from one another.  This means that agape love helps foster better phileo love by committing to building and nurturing bridges of friendship. 

In my marriage, this becomes a reality by Lori and my willingness to take seriously what kinds of things we can do for and with each other that make us happy.  If these things make us both happy, then this is ideal.  We both end up with a smile on our faces and with the reality that we made a good memory, no matter how big or small.  Examples of these things may include going out to dinner, to a movie, sailing with friends, having friends and family over for dinner, walking together, reading, going to the beach, traveling, connecting at the end of the day, and sharing things with each other that we don’t say to other people, etc. 

Other times one of us may have to compromise by trying to do things that are of interest to the other person.  For me, this means I have to be willing to go the mall, to go into New York City, spend time with her family when I would rather be relaxing in my own backyard, do work projects around the house because they are important to her, etc.  For Lori, it means staying up later than she would want to, talking through and trying to resolve areas of conflict when it is more in her nature to let things slide, learning to play golf and spending time playing at all kinds of things, etc.

Phileo love also includes the idea of what we are thinking or what is in our head.  So, for example, if agape love involves how our will directs our hands, phileo love involves how our thoughts direct our head or our thinking.  This means that when we love someone with phileo love we are connecting with them on a head level.  Just imagine how good you have felt when you have had a great talk with one of your best friends, or have done something that was spontaneously funny that only the two of you would do and understand.  These are the kinds of things best friends do.  They put their arms around each other and laugh into the night.  Additionally, a best friend is there when you need them the most, and they accept you unconditionally when you are embarrassed about making a mistake or when you are not looking your best.  They are willing to talk about anything, no matter how hard.  They share with you things that you are even afraid to say to God, and they understand and want to understand. 

If you doubt that God loves us with phileo love, just contemplate the fact that in the Gospel of John, Jesus called the disciples his friends.  He did this after spending nearly three years with them teaching them all they needed to know, and just prior to his death and resurrection.  This must have meant a great deal to them to be called a friend by the second person of the trinity.  If God, in the form of Jesus, called human beings his friends, God must feel the same way towards us.  And since He called us into relationship with Him, part of His plan must be that He loves us in a phileo kind of way.   

If we continue to develop our model of the triangle of the 3 sides of love, and we add the key words as we did before, the model begins to look like this:

Agape Love

commitment

unconditional

choice

our will

our hands

our behavior

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                       Phileo Love

                      brotherly love

                    building bridges

                         friendship

                       our thinking

                          our head

                       our thoughts

 

 

 

Eros Love

Eros love is unique and delicious because it involves our passions.  The Greek word eros is the root word for the English word erotic and eroticism.  This kind of love involves our hormones, chemistry, and sexual tension.  When we feel attracted to someone one it is because of the erotic part of love.  We can feel this for more than one person over our life time.  When we are young we sometimes refer to this as puppy love.  When we are older we say that we are “in love” with that person.  You can fall in love and out of love with the same the same person which makes eros a very confusing and mysterious kind of love. 

The “Song of Solomon” is a book in the Bible that is devoted entirely to eros love.  The name of this book is interestingly sometimes called “The Song of Songs.”  I think it is called this because erotic love is so intoxicating that it represents one of the most pleasurable experiences we have on earth.  Certainly, most of our popular songs and romantic movies are written filled with words and images that idolize this side of love.  This creates a misconception in our society that eros love is the purest form of love.  This leaves the illusion that it is the only kind of love that exists.  I think when people talk about finding their soul-mate that this is what they mean.  It is as if, when you are in love, the whole universe opens up and the two of you are united as one person. 

Also, in today’s world, if you lose the feelings of passion for your partner, this is often an acceptable reason for ending a marriage.  It is as if we should change our marriage vows to say that I will stay with you as long as I stay “in love” with you.  Our society makes the mistake of forgetting about the equal importance of the other 2 sides of love.

Eros love also is centered on our feelings.  When we talk of feelings, we open up Pandora’s Box.  This is true for many reasons.  The first is that feelings are not thought of or spoken highly of in our Christian subculture.  Perhaps the second reason is that feelings can change so rapidly.  The third reason is that feelings are mystical, illusive, not concrete or black and white, hard to be in-touch with, and overall hard to trust.  It is for these reasons that we relegate eros as less important than agape and phileo love.  In the end, the world overemphasizes/idealizes eros love while the church compensates by overemphasizing/idealizing agape love.  A balance toward all three is more balanced, makes more sense, and is healthier.

On a personal note, I love the eros side of love and am so thankful to God that He included this in His creation.  I am also part of the population that fell in love at first sight.  I am a romantic at heart and, therefore, have a natural draw to eros.  I have told my children that it would be a mistake to marry someone with whom they are not attracted.  It seems so basic and simple, but if we were to take the churches over-compensating teachings about love to the logical extreme, it would be as if we would be able to be married to anyone.  This is because if we take eros love out of the equation and say that agape love is superior and the one we can trust, then it’s logically sound that we can unconditionally love anyone.  In His amazing wisdom, God has given all three sides of love in order to make a good and healthy marriage.

If we add eros love and its major words to our diagram, it can be completed by looking this way:

 

 

Agape Love

commitment

unconditional

choice

our will

our hands

our behavior

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                         Phileo Love                         Eros Love

                        brotherly love                         our passion

                      building bridges                        our feelings

                           friendship                              our heart

                         our thinking                               lovers

                           our head                                romance

                         our thoughts                        sexual chemistry

 

          In summary, ideal marriages have equally high amounts of each of these three sides of love.  Marriages start to suffer when one or more of these are compromised.  No marriage lives up to the ideal, all the time.  If your marriage is suffering in one of these areas, this diagram can give you a frame of reference as to where you should be putting your energies.  Also, the three sides of love are interrelated and affect each other.  Therefore, for example, if you want more eros you can increase this by being more committed to the relationship and by seeking a better friendship by taking your communication level deeper.  Finally, it is important to realize and appreciate that God gave us all three, that He considers them all to be equally important, that He loves us unconditionally, calls us His friend, and that He is deeply passionate about us.  I can’t think of better news!

                                                         Paul