One night in college I was up late studying with my best friends and roommates. Another friend who lived in the apartment above us came in, asking for our advice about a situation in her relationship.
She said that her partner was unstable and had been pressuring her to get married. If she didn’t agree, the partner threatened to leave. She didn’t want to marry this person and was uncomfortable with a lot of things going on in their relationship. But she also claimed to “love” her partner.
I remember her saying that love means accepting someone as they are, no matter what. In her mind, leaving meant admitting that she didn’t really love her partner. She believed that she just needed to stick with the relationship, accepting all the bad with all the good, even if it hurt.
I think that like my friend, a lot of people remain in negative relationships because they don’t know the answer to one of the most sought-after questions: What is love?
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, to love is to will the good of the other.
Even though this definition is so simple, it encompasses everything. But the most important part is what he does not say. To love is to will the good of the other at our own expense.
Sacrificial or agapè love is the highest form of love. It gives to the other person but expects nothing in return, just as Christ loved us on the cross. But even Christ did not say, “I’ll love you no matter what and you can do whatever you want.” Instead, he said “I love you no matter what, and ‘I ask you to be holy as my Father is holy’” (Mt. 5:48).
His words in a vision to Catherine of Siena were, “I have created you without you. But I will not save you without you.”
Both giving and receiving love require effort. After all, God created us because he loves us and longs for us to love him in return. The challenge is not believing in the reality of God’s love. It’s accepting this love in our lives, along with the change that it demands. God wants us to be the best possible version of ourselves: to be holy, nothing less. Yes, holiness requires a change—a slow acceptance of the grace of God at work in our lives.
Love does not mean putting up with anything.
Willing someone’s good sometimes means telling them where there is evil. In my friend’s case, we advised her that her relationship—overshadowed by the threat of abandonment if she didn’t commit to marriage—was manipulative, toxic, and wrong. If she really loved her partner and willed their good, she also needed to love herself enough to call them out on this problem.
St. Paul writes that “no man hates his own body.” Knowing how to love ourselves, to will our own good and stand up for ourselves in the face of adversity, is essential to truly loving others.
Sacrificial love is a gift, and so it doesn’t really come at our own expense. Yes, it means sacrificing what we may want at the time, but it should never mean compromising our own good.
We do not own our bodies or our lives. We are merely stewards of the gifts God gave us. So, the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves means that sometimes we must sacrifice the demands of the things or the people we love, for our own good.