By Anne Gagliano
My husband Mike and I have been married for 32 years now. We are gearing up for our 33rd Christmas together. As we plan and decorate and secretly shop, I find myself once again wondering what in the world I’m going to buy for him this year. It’s not that I don’t know what he likes—I am keenly aware of all his likes and dislikes and collections and hobbies. But, as we enter yet another holiday season, I am determined as never before to give him what has been the long-running staple of our marriage—agape love.
Of course, I “love” my husband, and he loves me. But there are many forms of love: Eros—sexual love, philia–friendly or brotherly love, but the most elusive? Agape. Agape love is truly unselfish and unconditional. Even in the best of marriages, unlovable traits arise in both partners sooner or later, and spouses may find themselves struggling to “feel” love for their mate. Enter agape. It is unchanging, inexhaustible, generous beyond measure, and most wonderfully kind. It puts the needs of a spouse ahead of your own. It persists through difficulties and leaps over barriers and obstacles time and time again. It is never thwarted by unlovable behavior, and it heals ands blesses when witness to pain.
And, let’s face it, sometimes over the years our firefighters exhibit unlovable behavior. Sleep deprived, stressed, discouraged—they come home to us in all manners of grouchiness. What do I do? I choose to exhibit a little agape—and give him the unselfish gift of re-entry time. I do not demand a deep conversation the minute he walks in the door. As my firefighter ages, his exhaustion increases, and his re-entry time is needed more than ever. And so is my infinite patience.
Agape is truly powerful when it is reciprocated. My firefighter puts my needs ahead of his all the time as well. I am not a firefighter. But I have tough days, dark days, emotionally out-of-control days. He too exhibits agape by giving me what I need—lots of conversation, closeness, attention. And infinite patience.
Agape is a choice. It requires will and action. It does not just naturally occur to any of us as we are, by nature, very selfish creatures. All of us. No exceptions. But being selfish, though seemingly beneficial, is anything but beneficial in a marriage. Love is the opposite of selfishness, and true love even more so. True agape love rises above emotions, circumstances, health issues, tragedies, and disappointments to remain steadfast and sure. It is rooted in the eternal, as it is a promise, a vow, a pledge that surpasses mere human existence. It is in fact a permanent commitment that says, “I will love you through it all and not flee when trials come.”
Willful, purposeful action based on knowledge—knowledge of your spouse. Their deepest desires, dreams, concerns, needs. The good, the bad, the ugly, all known and accepted without condition. Psychiatrist Ross Campbell says, “There is no substitute for the incomparable emotional well-being that comes from feeling loved and accepted, completely and unconditionally.” What an amazing gift to give to your spouse. With this kind of love, your spouse will thrive in the following ways:
First, agape love improves self-image. Knowing that someone is with you no matter what gives you all kinds of confidence and strength. You are better able to function not only in society but within the marriage itself. The more you feel loved, the more you can love in return.
Second, agape love inoculates against extreme stress. When trials come, we are all most vulnerable, whether it is through the stress of firefighting or the pain of just living life. When under duress, we all can become unattractive in our weakness. But for the “agape” couple, this is a signal to love that spouse even more. Believe me, I know. My firefighter and I have both been through the wringer; we’ve endured family deaths, financial crisis, and heartbreaking disappointment both inside and outside the fire service. But our unselfish support of each other has been the very best medicine to endure and overcome and even succeed, despite such trials.
Third, agape love helps you become who you were meant to be. In an atmosphere of confidence, of unfailing support, we blossom. That kind of love acts as a catalyst where both can find security and strength to reach for those otherwise unattainable heights. Planted and rooted, we grow and continue growing.
Fourth, agape love makes every day easier. Even difficult days are smooth when agape is the order of the day. With time and practice, great skill is achieved in showing love and support. You rarely behave disagreeably; you hold your harsh tongue and keep your darker selfish impulses at a minimum. Treating your mate with courteous kindness is the norm, and uncontrolled outbursts the rarity. Practice makes perfect and patient. Home is tranquil and not easily disrupted by outside influences.
Fifth, agape removes a spirit of defensiveness on both sides. When love is ever present and exhibited, the need to argue decreases as the threat of attack is simply not present. Complaining, bickering, explaining every little thing—these are all happily absent when the environment is one of acceptance and security. The unselfish always assume the best of each other and choose not to seek ulterior motives behind every word or deed.
This type of love may seem unattainable, but it is not. If this simple old firefighter couple can do it, anyone can. Sometimes we fall short, but we never quit trying. It is done in this very simple, three-step way: choice, knowledge, and action. Choose to have an unconditional and permanent love for your spouse, no matter what. Make them your never-ending project or study—always seek to know them so well that you are ready to meet their deepest needs as only you can. And with this choice and this knowledge, take action. With determined effort, listen when they need you to; step back when they need that too. Find the gifts and trinkets that delight; and do all you can each day to make their dreams come true. Accept and love them just the way they are—with no desire to reform—and change yourself instead.
A marriage counselor once said, “The couples that love in this way have never regretted it.” I heartily concur. This Christmas, consider giving your spouse the gift of agape love as never before; you won’t regret it.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 32 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.