What Is Love?

October 01 2018 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: I am married to, and still deeply in love with, my wife, who recently had an abortion. Although I am a devout Catholic; she is agnostic. Despite this we continue to love each other, and we do get along. She decided to have the abortion not for therapeutic reasons, but simply because she just doesn’t want to have children. She says she has absolutely no vocation at all to motherhood, and that the termination was the best thing for all. I add that she is a highly ‘ethical’ person; that she gets along with almost everyone she meets. She also volunteers for an association against cruelty to animals. Should I separate from this woman that I still deeply love?


Many people think that love is a feeling, but that isn’t love; that’s affection. Some say it is desire, but again, that isn’t love; that is passion. Some say it is a need, but that isn’t love; it is dependency. It is possible to feel affection for someone, but not love them; to share passion with someone, but not love them; to need someone without loving them. So what is love?

Historically, theologians and psychologists both agree that love is the commitment to work for the good of another person. To love someone is to actively work to defend their dignity as a person, to defend their life, promote their health, and work for their development and wellbeing as a person.

In light of this definition, it pains me to say that there is little to nothing about your relationship that is actually loving. Yes, you feel a need for her and have affection for each other, but it is difficult to see how either of you could be committed to working for each other’s good when you both define ‘good’ in such radically different ways.

As a Christian, you presumably define ‘good’ as the commitment helping each other become the people God created you to be in this life and helping each other get to heaven in the next. At the very least, I assume you would think it would be ‘good’ to love each other in such a way that you could rejoice in the idea of having and raising a child together.

It appears to me that she defines ‘good’ as being left alone to do with her body and her life as she wishes, no matter who else it might hurt. She believes that she belongs to herself and owes nothing to you or God.

These ideas of what is good are so different that if you were to present your marriage to a tribunal it would almost certainly be found invalid. To contract a valid Catholic marriage, a couple needs to able to make a free, total, lifelong commitment to work for each other’s good, and to accept children as a gift from the Lord. If either member of the couple enters into marriage unwilling or unable to do any of the above for any reason, they would be unable to enter into marriage as the Church understands it.

I want to be clear that I do not think your wife is an evil woman. She has done an evil thing, but I do not doubt that someone hurt her deeply in her life to cause her to be so alienated from any semblance of a basic human instinct for nurturance. Psychologically speaking, her behavior is consistent with what is known as avoidant attachment. This means that she is person who struggles on a deep level with the idea of needing others or being needed by others. She is most likely to be deeply uncomfortable with the idea of intimacy or vulnerability. She may be very competent at achieving goals, accomplish tasks and being kind to anyone or anything that is willing to not demand anything of her or accept her entirely on her own terms (like an animal), but she will bristle if anyone asks her to step too far outside her comfort zone to do even things that would be good for her, for the other, or the relationship.

Avoidant attachment can be healed, but it takes intensive individual and couples therapy – which I strongly recommend that you seek immediately. If she is open to healing, perhaps you could be an instrument of grace in her life and, in spite of herself, lead her to be capable of loving and being loved.

Updated on October 02 2018