The Italians have a beautiful expression for love: ti voglio bene. Though commonly translated as “I love you,” ti voglio bene more literally means “I wish you good” or “I want what is good for you.” This phrase reminds us that love is not primarily about what good feelings may be stirring within. Even less is it about what I can get out of a relationship for myself. The fullness of love is looking outward toward my beloved and seeking what is best for that person, not just what is good for me.
This, in fact, is how the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines love: “To love is to will the good of another” (CCC, 1766, quoting Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I–II, 24, 1). It’s also a point John Paul II makes when he discusses the two sides of love: the subjective and objective.
According to John Paul II, understanding the difference between the subjective and objective is crucial for any married, engaged, or dating relationship. As we have seen in earlier chapters, the inner dynamic of emotional love (sentimentality) and physical desire (sensuality) largely shapes how men and women interact with each other, and it is what makes romance, especially in its early stages, so thrilling for the couple involved. John Paul II calls this first side of love the subjective aspect.
While this is one aspect of love, it is not to be equated with love in the fullest sense. We know from experience that we can have powerful feelings for another person without in any way being committed to them or without that person being committed to us in a relationship of selfless love.
This is why John Paul II puts the subjective aspect of love in its proper place. He wakes us up and reminds us that no matter how intensely we experience these sensations, it is not necessarily love, but simply “a psychological situation” (127). In other words, on its own, the subjective aspect of love is no more than a pleasurable experience happening inside of me. And these powerful sensations might actually conceal the reality of a relationship that has failed to develop fully.
Turning Love Inward
Men and women today are quite susceptible to falling for this illusion of love, for the modern world has turned love inward, focusing primarily on the subjective aspect. John Paul II, however, emphasizes that there is another side of love that is absolutely essential no matter how powerful our emotions and desires may be. This is what he calls love’s objective aspect.
This aspect has objective characteristics that go beyond the pleasurable feelings of the subjective level. True love involves virtue, friendship, and the pursuit of a common good. Both people are focused on a common goal outside of themselves. In Christian marriage, for example, a husband and wife unite themselves to the common aims of helping each other grow in holiness, deepening their own union, and raising children.
Most of all, true love involves the selfless pursuit of what is best for the other person, even if it means sacrificing one’s own preferences and desires—love in the sense of ti voglio bene.
When considering the objective aspect of love, I must discern what kind of relationship exists between my beloved and me in reality, not simply what this relationship means in my feelings. Am I committed to this other person for who she is or for the enjoyment I receive from the relationship? Does my beloved understand what is truly best for me, and does she have the faith and virtue to help me get there?
Are we deeply united by a common aim, serving each other, and striving together toward a common good that is higher than each of us? Or are we just living side by side, sharing resources and occasional good times together while we selfishly pursue our own interests and enjoyments in life?
These are the kinds of questions that get at the objective aspect of love. Now we can see why John Paul II says that true love is “an interpersonal fact” (127), not just a “psychological situation” (127). A strong relationship is based on virtue and friendship: Unless a man and woman have the objective aspects of love in their relationship, they do not yet have a bond of true love.
Knowing the difference between these two aspects of love is crucial within marriage as well. What will spouses do in moments when the subjective feelings of love fade? A husband may not always have strong romantic feelings for his wife, but he is still called to serve her and make sacrifices for her. A woman may at times feel frustrated with her husband, but she must still honor and serve him. Will I really seek the good of my spouse, even when I don’t feel like it? When I’m busy? When I’d rather be doing something else? Or what about when my spouse upsets me?
It’s easy to love when we get a lot in return. But the objective aspect of love reminds us that true love is not merely about my experience of good feelings in marriage, but the commitment to seek what is best for the other person even when those feelings are not there—ti voglio bene. As John Paul II puts it, “…love as experience should be subordinated to love as virtue—so much so that without love as virtue, there can be no fullness in the experience of love” (120).