“As I Have Loved You”: Agency-Based Love in Dating and Marriage | Jason S. Carroll

“As I Have Loved You”: Agency-Based Love in Dating and Marriage | Jason S. Carroll


Good morning, brothers and sisters. For more
than twenty-five years, both as a student and now as a professor here at Brigham Young
University, I have been personally blessed by many of the messages shared in these devotionals.
It is truly a humbling experience to speak with you today. When I first was invited to give a devotional
address, I was initially assigned to speak the Tuesday during the week of Valentine’s
Day back in February. While I am sure that the selection of this date was simply a practical
matter of arranging the schedule, for someone who has spent the last decade teaching the
marriage preparation classes here on campus, I felt a certain amount of pressure to tie
my remarks into a Valentine’s Day theme. Plus, one of my most memorable experiences
with a BYU devotional happened many years ago when Elder Jeffrey R. Holland spoke during
Valentine’s Day week about understanding the true nature of love in dating and marriage
relationships—so I figured he would be a good role model for me to follow. However, as final scheduling was put into
place, I was asked to move to this devotional slot during the first week of April. When
this happened, I wondered if I should perhaps change the focus of my remarks. But seeing
as how the only holiday I can tie into this week is April Fools’ Day, I figured I would
stick with my original plans—although I am sure that there are some of you who have
probably had some dating experiences that you would say fit an April Fools’ Day theme
quite well. I should note as I get started that while
I would like to talk about how each of us can more fully emulate the Savior’s example
of agency-based love in our current or future dating and marriage relationships, I believe
that the principles I will discuss are applicable to a wide range of other relationships as
well, including friendships, parenting, and other family relationships. I should also note that while I will share
some insights with you from my studies as a marriage researcher over the years, the
truest and most transformative lessons I have ever had on the subject of love I have learned
from my dear wife, Stefani. Indeed, the testimony of marriage that I have been privileged to
share with the students on this campus for nearly twenty years stems ­primarily from
the beauty of marriage that I ­experience with her every day. In a few weeks Stefani
and I will celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of our first date, and I am grateful every
day for the blessing she is in my life. I am also grateful that all of my children could
be here today, including my new daughter-in-law. I love each of them dearly, and my remarks
today are as much for them as they are for anyone (but they will likely just roll their
eyes and tell you that they have heard it all before). For my remarks today, I would like to address
three questions about love. The first question is, How important is love?
And, in particular to our emphasis today, How important is love in dating and marriage?
On the surface this question sounds like one of those questions in Sunday School classes
that are so obvious that no one wants to answer them. Almost everyone instinctively answers
this question by saying that of course love is very important to successful couple relationships.
In fact, in our culture today many would say that love is the only true reason for a couple
to come together and stay together in marriage. However, while affirming the importance of
love in dating and marriage relationships appears obvious and self-evident, such an
answer assumes that we have a consensus about what the word love means. In romantic relationships
we often say that someone is in love—but again, what exactly does that mean? Part of the complexity of understanding love
comes from the fact that we use the term in very diverse and inconsistent ways. We may
use the term love to describe our relationship with our fiance or spouse, but we also say
that we love double-fudge ice cream. Clearly we don’t mean the same thing—or at least
I really hope we don’t mean the same thing! But being explicit about our definitions of
love is much more than a semantic exercise. In fact, different conceptions of love are
often at the root of the different trajectories we see in couple relationships, for better
or for worse. As we ponder on the importance of love, it
is instructive to consider the following excerpt from C. S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters.
In this classic apologetic novel, we follow the correspondence between two devils. The
first, Uncle Screwtape, is a master devil, and the second, Wormwood, is his nephew and
an apprentice devil still learning the trade. One area of training discussed involves how
to ruin marriages. Uncle Screwtape admonished his young nephew
Wormwood that Uncle Screwtape explained that this form of deception keeps men and
women from recognizing the deeper nature and purposes of their current or future marriages,
which he described as “the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help,
for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life.” Uncle Screwtape’s tactic of leading people
to believe that marriage should be based on the emotional state of “being in love”
and primarily aimed at creating personal happiness seems to be particularly effective in our
broader culture today. Reflecting the individualistic, consumer-driven, soulmate-searching trends
of our day, the dominant story of marriage in our wider culture is the story of falling
in love and finding personal fulfillment in a love relationship. As a result, many young adults—and also
some not-so-young adults—struggle in their relationships because they primarily think
of love as an intense feeling or state of being that they cannot quite explain, but
they are sure they will know it when they see it—and they often struggle to know if
their current relationship has enough of it. In some cases individuals fear to commit to
what appear to be very promising relationships out of concern that they are not in love enough.
And far too often other couples who feel very much in love begin marriages with hopes of
achieving a happy marriage, only to see those dreams end in disappointment. Now let me pause for a moment here. My experience
tells me that this is where I may be starting to lose some of you. We seldom question this
culturally dictated story of marriage or the idea that the feeling of love is the primary
factor that makes marriage work. So some of you are probably thinking, “But isn’t
being in love an important part of a successful marriage?” Others of you may even be wondering,
“Is he suggesting we shouldn’t want to be happy in our marriages?” My response
to these reactions is that of course love and happiness matter, but while feelings of
love and happiness are indeed present in good marriages, they are best understood as the
fruits of those relationships, not necessarily the roots. Properly understood, love is indeed a key
part of a lasting marriage. But improper understandings of love—which unfortunately are common in
our culture today—are responsible for many of the struggles some individuals and couples
have in dating, courtship, and marriage. In short, what I am suggesting is that our
culture today deeply values the fruits of a good marriage, such as love and happiness,
but we are increasingly disconnecting these fruits from the true roots that make them
possible. Loving and lasting marriages are true partnerships in which spouses are devoted
to creating a shared life together that is larger than the emotional payoff of the marriage.
And this truth deepens even further when spouses form a covenant relationship dedicated to
shared discipleship and the formation of an eternal family. This view of marriage gives
us more than feelings of happiness; it helps make our lives rich and meaningful. So instead of discarding current views of
love altogether, I am suggesting that we will all benefit from broadening and deepening
our thinking about love and what a good marriage is and, most important, how such relationships
come to be. Our understandings of a good marriage should include feelings of love and happiness,
but we need to make sure that we also emphasize the far richer and more enduring aspects of
relationships—which paradoxically make the very happiness we hope for all the more possible
to achieve. That brings us to our next question: What,
then, is the proper view of love? And how do we avoid falling into Screwtape’s trap
in our own current or future dating and marriage relationships? How can we assure ourselves
of having the deeper, fuller foundations of love in our relationships? As with all meaningful questions in life,
the answer is found in emulating the example of our Savior Jesus Christ. In fact, emulating
Him in how we love was one of the Savior’s final instructions to His disciples when He
said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved
you.” “As I have loved you”—that is how Christ asks us to love. How can we come
to love as the Savior loves? That, my dear friends, is one of the very few questions
in life we truly need to answer. Nearly twenty years ago, during his Valentine’s
week devotional from this pulpit, Elder Holland discussed this invitation to emulate the Savior’s
pattern of love in dating and marriage. And his insights are even more needed in relationships
today. He said, What does it mean when Elder Holland said
that “staying power” in marriage will require “more than any of us really have”?
Quite simply, it means that on our own, none of us will individually have enough feelings
of love to keep our marriage and family relationships going strong through the natural ups and downs
of life. We will need to become more than we naturally are. Elder Holland then pointed out a crucial and
comforting truth—that each of us can be endowed with the love we will need. He then
referenced the prophet Mormon’s teachings on charity, in which Mormon taught: Please note that, according to Mormon, charity
is not simply a different amount of love; it is a different type of love. It is not
just different in degree; it is different in kind. We also see that Christ is the only true source
of enduring love. He is this in two ways: First, Christ is our one complete example
of how to love. Second, He is the only true source from which we can receive this love.
Thus, as in all things, Christ shows us what we are to become and then empowers us to follow
His example. Elder Holland explained: Thus we see that, in the light of the restored
gospel, love is so much more than an emotion or feeling. Indeed, properly understood love
is not a state of being, it is an actual Being. And that Being is Christ Himself. We, in fact,
worship the living, breathing embodiment of love. Charity is the pure love of Christ because
it is His love, and, because He is indeed the promised Messiah, through His infinite
Atonement we can each be endowed with this love. This endowment involves coming to see
as He sees, understand as He understands, prioritize what He prioritizes, choose what
He chooses, and, ultimately, do what He does. As we strive to be true followers of Christ,
He can shape our hearts, elevate our desires, purify our motivations, and magnify our actions
so that we, in time, can come to love as He loves and ultimately live as He lives. Returning to Elder Holland’s devotional
remarks, Elder Holland said the following about this endowment of love: Perhaps the central message I wish to convey
in my remarks today, particularly to my young friends here, is that emulating the Savior
and following His injunction to love as He loves involves embracing an agency-based view
of love. As Elder Lynn G. Robbins pointed out in his book Love Is a Choice, “Because
love is as much a verb as it is a noun, the phrase ‘I love you’ is as much a promise
of behavior and commitment as it is an expression of feeling.” In both His example and teachings, the Savior
conveyed that love is expressed in multiple ways within relationships. When pronouncing
the first of all commandments, Jesus said, In modern-day revelation, we see that the
word love appears five times in the proclamation on the family, and each time it is linked
with action words such as “to love and care” or “to love and serve.” Thus the language
of the Lord suggests that love falls within the scope of our agency. Love is something
we do, something we can control, and ultimately something we can choose—if not, God could
not command us to love one another. It bears mentioning that a second witness
for the value of an agency-based approach to love in marriage and family relationships
is found in the relationship sciences. Family researchers have long recognized that there
are different types of love and that some types of or approaches to love are better
than others in forming and maintaining strong relationships. Dr. Patricia Noller, a leading family psychologist
from Australia, reviewed dozens of studies and concluded that strong and healthy family
relationships are based in what she called mature love. Mature love, she concluded, is
made up of three interconnected dimensions: an emotional dimension, consisting of our
feelings and emotions; a cognitive dimension, made up of our attitudes, priorities, and
choices; and a behavioral dimension, consisting of our actions and behaviors. Mature love
is contrasted with what she calls immature love, which primarily emphasizes the emotional
dimension alone and makes the practice of loving choices and behaviors conditional and
contingent upon the emotional state of the relationship. Dr. Noller and other experts emphasize that
these distinctions are important because the emotional aspect of love, though needed and
important, is often the most unstable dimension in relationships. Emotions by their nature
can ebb and flow and change with the experiences of life. Our priorities, choices, and behaviors,
on the other hand, can be intentional, stable, and consistent. Additionally, when we experience
a drop in the emotional feelings in a romantic relationship, a mature view of love recognizes
that we can continue to choose to love our partner and to act in loving ways that will
foster a healing and restoring of our feelings of love. Thus, both the teachings of scripture and
the findings from relationship research teach us that loving and lasting marriages are not
as much a matter of couples falling in love as an agency-based pattern of couples choosing
in love, doing in love, and growing in love in their relationships. My final question moves us to application:
How can we use an agency-based approach to love to actually create and produce love in
our relationships? The answers to this question point us to the true roots of marriage, which
individuals and couples can foster with their intentional choices and actions. Allow me
to share five principles for creating love in our relationships. Principle 1—Thoughtful Service Produces Love When I counsel with individuals or couples
who are wondering if they are in love enough in their dating relationships, I encourage
them to evaluate the amount of loving behaviors in their relationship. How we feel may be
uncertain or confusing at times, but how we treat others and how we are treated in relationships
is much more certain. Each of us will benefit from deepening our commitment to engage in
regular service in our marriage and family relationships. The value of loving behaviors is particularly
important during times of differences and disagreement in a couple’s relationship.
For too many couples, disagreements lead to hurt feelings, which are then used to justify
the withholding of needed loving behaviors and actions. One of the repeated lessons my students have
heard from me over the years is this statement: “In relationships, differences are not problems,
they are opportunities!” This is because differences invite each of us to see our partner
for who they really are and to be responsive to his or her needs. Differences provide each
of us a chance to show a truly unique form of other-centeredness that helps others feel
valued and loved. I think this is what President Gordon B. Hinckley wanted us to know when
he said, Principle 2—Commitment Produces Love One of the most common myths I hear when it
comes to dating is when someone states, “When I find a really good relationship, I am going
to commit to it.” The reason why this is a myth is that really good relationships do
not exist without commitment. Commitment is one of the fundamental parts of creating an
enduring environment of love in a relationship. Yes, it is true—thank goodness!—that in
dating, commitment should come in a sequence of progressive steps and stages, not all at
once. But in time, only complete devotion between two people can foster a long-term
view of the relationship that will ultimately justify the day-to-day investments that are
needed to create a really good relationship. Without proper commitment at the proper time,
dating relationships languish in a wait-and-see pattern that leads one or both partners to
hold back rather than deeply invest. Unfortunately, lopsided or asymmetrical commitment in dating
­relationships—in which one partner is deeply committed but the other is not—has
become an epidemic in our culture today. At its core, commitment is a choice that is
manifest in our repeated behaviors, particularly in behaviors involving personal sacrifice.
In his book Covenant Hearts, Elder Bruce C. Hafen compared the parable of the Good Shepherd
in the New Testament to the marriage covenant—­emphasizing that this passage of scripture may be our
best description of the nature of the commitment the Lord’s intends for us to have in our
marriages. In particular, he contrasted the devotion of the Good Shepherd, who “giveth
his life for the sheep,” with the self-interested motivations of the hireling, who “leaveth”
and “fleeth” when a wolf threatens the sheep. Reflecting on this teaching has been truly
transformative for me in my own marriage. On a number of occasions, particularly at
times of struggle or disagreement or when I am wallowing in self-justifying behavior,
I have had the question come to my mind, “Are you being a shepherd or a hireling?” And
if I am humble enough, I admit that I am acting like a hireling and that my spouse and my
marriage deserve more. In more than twenty-five years of marriage
now, I have had a number of times when my sweet wife has truly been my shepherd, when
it has been my wolf that comes and she has loved me through my struggles. And I have
tried to do the same for her. I have seen how such shared experiences with struggle,
trial, and growth have deepened our love and appreciation for each other in ways we didn’t
even know were possible in our dating and courtship years. Principle 3—Equal Partnership Produces Love In my marriage preparation and eternal family
courses over the years, I have taught my students that the most important principle they can
use as their guide for making wise dating decisions and fostering a future lasting marriage
is the doctrine of equal partnership. I truly believe this. President Gordon B. Hinckley
taught: Within this vision of equal partnership, the
most important questions to ask in gauging the marriage worthiness of a dating relationship
are, Do we see and treat each other as equal partners? Do we listen to each other? Are
we respectful of one another’s opinions—even when we disagree? Do we make decisions together?
In evaluating a dating relationship, if your answers to these questions are yes, then you
have a good one! At its core, equal partnership is about embracing interdependence and learning
to make important life decisions together. Principle 4—Practicing Virtues Produces
Love In his paradigm-shifting book Beyond the Myth
of Marital Happiness, Dr. Blaine Fowers observed what I believe to be one of the most important
­truisms of marriage. He stated: I have become convinced that strong marriages
are built on the virtues or character strengths of the spouses. In other words, the best way
to have a good marriage is to be a good person. Marriages are fuller and more resilient as
spouses strive to cultivate virtues such as compassion, self-restraint, friendship, generosity,
and forgiveness. These virtues can be developed if we foster them with appropriate care and
attention and pray for a fuller measure of them through the endowing power of the Savior’s
Atonement. As spouses, we stand on sacred ground with
how we respond and react to the shortcomings and imperfections of our spouse, and they
in turn to ours. There is something very powerful when spouses are each other’s strongest
­supporters—when spouses rally to each other’s side rather than turn away, when
they encourage rather than criticize, when they see the best in each other rather than
the worst, and when they lift each other up rather than push each other down. Principle 5—Sincere Discipleship Produces
Love Above all other things, the primary action
each of us must do to create love in our relationships is to commit to the daily patterns of sincere
discipleship of our Savior Jesus Christ. As I noted earlier, “as I have loved you”
is how Christ invites us to love. This invitation presupposes that each of us has felt and is
aware of the Lord’s love in our own lives so that we may reflect that love toward others.
I share with you my witness of the Lord’s perfect love for you and how much He desires
for you to experience His love in personal ways in your own life. I have experienced
this deeply in my own life, and I know that His love is both infinite and intimate and
that He knows and cares for each of you. There are two primary ways for each of us
to more fully experience Christ’s love: to pray and to follow. First, pray for it.
The prophet Mormon pled with us to pray “with all the energy” of our hearts that we “may
be filled with this love.” In addition to our personal prayers, there is something very
powerful when spouses pray with each other and for each other. It opens up heaven’s
blessings to allow them to see their spouse as God does—and this is the essence of charity. Second, follow the Savior Jesus Christ. In
closing, permit me to return to Elder Holland’s devotional remarks one last time. Elder Holland
commended to each of us the only true pattern for securing enduring love in our dating and
marriage relationships. He said: I add my simple testimony to the truthfulness
of this divine pattern as well, and I do so in the sacred name of the One who can endow
each of us with the fulness of love we desire in our marriage and family relationships,
even Jesus Christ, amen.

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