In offering counsel for successful marriage relationships, our culture has swung between two extremes. On the one hand we are taught that marriage ought to fulfill our needs—that we have the right to challenge our partners to change their behavior in order to accommodate our expectations. That perspective is enticing, but is painfully self-centered; usually our partner feels unappreciated and exploited.
On the other hand, we sometimes hear “unconditional love” recommended as the highest standard—we pledge to love our partner no matter what. The glaring problem is that none of us are capable of unconditional love. And we question whether it would really foster a fulfilling relationship.
Instead of taking counsel from cultural fads, we are wise to turn to God’s counsel. Our best resource for meaningful guidance on relationships is understanding God’s mindset.
The scriptures do not contain any references to “unconditional love”. Likewise, the scriptures do not talk about marriage being a vehicle for us to get our wants and needs satisfied. The scriptures clearly teach that the core of our mortal mission is learning to love others. And they spell out the kind of love God recommends in order for marital relationships to flourish: love that is based on charity and covenants.
1. God Recommends Charity
“Charity is the pure love of Christ. It is the love that Christ has for the children of men and that the children of men should have for one another. It is the highest, noblest, and strongest kind of love and the most joyous to the soul” (Gospel Topics: Charity).
What does charity look like in a marriage? I have learned that when I turn my mind and heart to God with sincere intent, He sends me heavenly inspirations about Nancy. I can actually feel God’s immense love and admiration for sweet Nancy. I see He views her strengths, her struggles, her potential, her progress. That revelation enables me to see her soul in a way no one else does and enables me to have genuine charity towards her—the pure love of Christ.
Charity is more essential than we ever suspect. When we perform any act, it amounts to nothing unless it is done with Christlike intent (See Moroni 7:6-9). For example, we might turn to popular tools for improving our marriage such as better communication, more compliments, etc., but if we don’t combine them with Christlike intent, we won’t strengthen the relationship. In fact, “if ye have not charity, ye are nothing” (Moroni 7:44, 46). That is sobering!
And it turns out that there is only one place to get charity:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; (Moroni 7:48).
Unless we are filled with Christ and His love, we cannot do His work. This could seem quite discouraging were it not for the frank and direct invitation to pray to Father for this heavenly gift which God grants gladly to those who love His Son.
Section 121 provides brilliant insights into the way God wants us to relate to each other.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of [any role], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; (D&C 121:41)
In other words, God is saying that the only God-endorsed way to connect with others is with goodness and genuine love.
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile (D&C 121:42)
It is a human tendency to influence others by coercion or manipulation, but we only want to be influenced by genuine love. When we try to influence anyone anywhere or in any way but with love and kindness, we are guilty of hypocrisy.
I love God’s phrase “pure knowledge.” It suggests that even our perceptions of each other can be filtered of earthly impurities and filled with divine appreciation.
2. God Operates Through Covenants
Latter-day Saints are unique in seeing marriage as a covenant relationship. We do not see marriage as a contract between a man and a woman but a covenant between a man, a woman, and God.
Making God a partner in relationships makes all the difference! Only He sees each of us truly. Only He has perfectly redemptive intent.
God says, “If you come to me with full purpose of heart, I promise to help you honor your marriage covenant in ways you couldn’t on your own. I promise to help you see your spouse through my eyes.” Instead of attempting to love unconditionally and failing, we use our covenants to enable God to make our marriages richer, fuller, and more powerful.
I can tell how close I am to Heavenly Father by how grateful I am for Nancy. If I am feeling irritated by some little thing Nancy has said or done, I can be quite sure that I have drifted from God. The natural man in me is griping and groaning. When I am close to Heavenly Father, I am in awe of the sweet blessing of Nancy as my eternal companion.
There are deal breakers in marriage. Yet our job is to cheerfully do all we are able to do knowing that we can only be released from a covenant by the same divine Person with whom we made the covenant.
As we turn to Christ for charity and covenants, we view our family relationship in a different light. We seek to love our partner as Jesus does. We strive to see them through His eyes. When problems and frustrations threaten to overwhelm our good intentions, we invite God into the covenant relationship to realign our perspective. We plead for an outpouring of grace to see our loved ones graciously. And He assures us that if we are willing to do our part, any relationship He touches can flourish beyond our imagination.
If you are interested in understanding more of God’s mindset and counsel related to marital relationships, I recommend my book, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage. If you are interested in applying gospel principles to happiness, marriage, and parenting, I recommend my new book, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships—available at Deseret Book or Amazon.