Oh, he says he loves her, but how he behaves differs.
Love is unconditional, but how he treats her is anything but unconditional.
Love believes the best, but even when she says she’s doing her best, he doesn’t believe her.
He doesn’t choose to love her with godly love.
The Greeks had multiple words for love. We don’t. In English, I can say “I love hamburgers” and “I love my son.”
But I don’t love a hamburger unconditionally. If it’s rare, I’m far from loving it.
But my son should be loved without conditions.
Children loved with conditions grow up with more damage in my observation.
Plus, it’s not how the bible calls us to love.
The Greeks had words multiple words for love.
Agape: godly love, unconditional, wanting the best for the other person, believing the best in others. This is the kind of love we’re called to.
Eros: sexual passion, the root of the word erotic.
Philio: brotherly love, affection, friendship
Storge: natural affection like a mother to a child
It is entirely possible that your husband is honest when he says “I love you.”
He could love you erotically (eros), or as a friend (philio) or as a child (storge) or any combination of those, but he would still be in disobedience to the commands in scripture to love you unconditionally like God does.
Agape love is the only love that’s unconditional. It’s the calling of every Christian to love without conditions.
First Corinthians describes true agape love that believes the best in other people and behaves unselfishly.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
We’re called to love like we were loved by God. There’s no greater expression of love than Christ’s death. He died when we did not love him and did not meet the conditions.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. John 15:13
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Romans 5:8
A husband is called to love his wife like Christ loves the church, with that greater love that is willing to lay down its life for someone who is unworthy of it and hasn’t earned that love.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. Ephesians 5:25
But what if your husband only loves you with eros –with sexual passion?
Or what if he only loves you with storge –like a mother would a child, natural affection, but not unconditional agape?
If you feel like your husband loves you, but he doesn’t really love you, this may be the reason why.
How we define love matters.
How we love matters.
Only one kind of love is unconditional.
Only one kind of love is the kind with which we are called to love each other.
Only one kind of love will leave a wife feeling truly loved.
Anything short of agape love will leave a wife feeling not entirely loved because it is not God’s plan for us to be loved less than He loves the church.
But we are not married to a perfect man like Christ.
We each are married to sinners just like we are. Each husband is walking his own path and Jesus is teaching and leading him in His own time and in His own way.
Sometimes our husbands’ shortcomings are more about their own spiritual journey and what God is doing in their life than it is about us.
Just like I do not always respect my husband perfectly, my husband does not always love me perfectly.
As we mature in Christ hopefully we each will learn to do what we are called to do and do it more efficiently.
But, hopefully these definitions of love will explain why your husband says “I love you,” but you don’t feel loved.
You don’t feel agape.
Your heart yearns for agape.
You were created to be agape loved.
I am telling you the same thing I would tell someone who had parents who did not love them unconditionally: God can make up the difference.
God agape loves you.
Just like He is the caretaker of the widow and the fatherless, He is the caretaker of those who feel like they’re unloved, who feel like they are widowed –emotionally, fatherless –emotionally.
He binds up the wounds of the broken hearted.
I don’t think there is a greater feeling of brokenheartedness that a wife feels than to love unconditionally and not have that love returned.
He still sees.
I think the reason that husbands were commanded to love their wives with true agape love is because they are not inclined to do it. I think we wives are more inclined to this kind of love (although we still struggle with it which is why Titus 2 says that the older women should teach the younger to love their husbands).
If it had been automatic, it wouldn’t have required a command, just like if us following our husbands had been automatic, we wouldn’t need a command.
It’s all part of the journey that we walk to deeper understanding of scripture and grow in maturity in Christ. Although physical maturity happens at a predictable rate, the same cannot be said for spiritual maturity.
He may not love you with agape love.
Love your husband anyway.
Even if he doesn’t return it.
Take your heartache to Jesus.
No heartache, no slight, no wrong we suffer for Him, in obedience to Him, is without purpose. Everything He is doing is moving us toward His greater plan. We may not see Him moving. We may feel that He doesn’t hear.
“Not only is all your affliction momentary, not only is all your affliction light in comparison to eternity and the glory there, but all of it is totally meaningful.
“Every millisecond of your pain from the fallen nature or fallen man, every millisecond of your misery in the path of obedience is producing a peculiar glory you will get because of that.
“I don’t care if it was cancer or criticism. I don’t care if it was slander or sickness.
“It wasn’t meaningless.
“It’s doing something: it is not meaningless.
“Of course you can’t see what it is doing.
“Don’t look to what is seen –when your mom does, when you kid dies, when you’ve got cancer at forty, when a car careens into the sidewalk and takes her out.
“Don’t say it’s meaningless!
“It’s working for you an eternal weight of glory.
“Therefore –therefore, do not lose heart.
“But take these truths and day by day focus on them.
“Preach them to yourself every morning.
“Get alone with God and preach His word into your mind until your heart sings with confidence that you are …cared for.”
He is the God who does hear and does see when all other gods cannot.
Even when you do not feel love from your husband, love and respect him anyway.
Because you aren’t doing it for your husband.
You’re doing it for God.
How you treat him isn’t about who he is; it is about who you are.
And pray for him.
Love him anyway and pray for him.
Model unconditional love to him; maybe he has never seen it before.
I prayed for my husband for 5 years (about this issue and many others) before I saw a change in the direction I had been praying for.
God’s timing is not our timing.
We cannot know what God is doing in the hearts of our husbands.
In the meantime, let us not be the reason that they are discouraged or feel that they are not accepted.
The horrible example of Job’s wife comes to mind.
May I never be the reason my husband is even more discouraged in his faith.
May I always be the one pointing him back to the Lord, not further away.
I also remember this quote: “No husband has ever crawled out from under his wife’s criticism to become a better man.”
My criticism, my conditional love, will not make him better. It is not what his heart needs either.
We all crave godly, agape, unconditional love.
The change in your relationship has to start somewhere.
Let it start with you.
You choose to believe he is doing his best.
You resist the urge to treat him like a child who needs scolded.
You resist the urge to criticize.
You respond gently when he does not.
See if he notices the difference.
Even if he does not, at least you can go to bed at night knowing that you have a clear conscience before God about your behavior.
Remember that how you treat him is more about who you are in Christ than who he is and what he does.
Dying to yourself and living to Christ begins with how you treat your husband.
It is not an easy path to walk.
It is not for the fainthearted, but it is what we are called to do.
Showing unconditional love in the face of criticism and unkindness is not an easy thing.
But it is not for nothing.
Never underestimate the power of God’s love.
It saved the whole world.
It could even save your marriage.
To live is Christ and to die to self is gain –in ways you could never imagine.
P.S. I am adding a caveat for abusive situations. I do not recommend staying in a situation where you are being abused. There is regular marital discord and then there’s abuse. I have written more about abuse here.
Here are a few related articles: a letter to a husband who does not treat his wife lovingly, a series on what to do when you and your husband do not see eye to eye, and an article about when your husband doesn’t communicate that he loves you in the way that you wish he would.