A Thought Experiment on Friendship: Who Do You Love More?

This is Part 1 in a series on friendship (part 2, part 3, part 4). This serves to provide a foundation for more conversations on the meaning, necessity and purpose of friendships within the Church.

Come journey with me.

Here’s a man. His name is Steve. Steve works in advertising. He met his wife Caroline in college. She sat in front of him in their required Microeconomics class that first year. She was an accounting major so liquidating assets was all too riveting for her. She took copious notes. He spent the beginning of the semester doodling and trying not to drool while he napped. But, once he saw her for the first time, her wide, dimpled smile and her emerald eyes, he knew he wanted to get to know her more. He waited two weeks (mostly filled with his sweating in front of the mirror practicing how he’d ask her to the local pizzeria forcing his voice not to crack in anxiety) and asked her on their first date.

The day came. He tripped opening the door for her. She spilled marinara sauce on her dress. It rained as they walked home.  But they were in love, so after several years of dating, Steve proposed on Christmas their senior year, and they were married that June. Caroline quickly became pregnant and nine months later gave birth to their first daughter. Fast forward ten years, Caroline works downtown in the city as an accountant, and Steve works from home taking care of their four children, Emily, William, Benjamin, and Ann. Their family is tight-knit and loving.

Now, a question, who does Steve love more? His wife or his children?

Now before you answer, “Of course, he’d pick the children!”, this isn’t some SAW IV question where both his wife or his children are going to plummet to their doom in shark infested waters, and Steve is being asked to flip some switch on which group he’s going to save.

No, just a simple question. Who does Steve love more?

Does he love his wife whom he has known since Undergrad? Whom he has covenanted to be with to death? Whom he has been with in the midst of great pain and trial? Perhaps even on their wedding night they “gushed about how lucky they were to have found someone who loved them unconditionally – someone who made anyplace home – someone who was their best friend“?

Or does he love his children whom he begot? Whom he has taught how to crawl then to walk across the room? Whom he helps with homework? Whom are “embodied icons of the exclusive and unmediated devotion of the husband and wife to each other and no other“?

If he loves his wife more, then he’s not loving his children well. He’s bound to choose her priorities over his children’s — her needs over his children’s needs. He’s ultimately setting up his children for resentment and malformation. In some ways, too, he’s not even loving his wife well. In an attempt to love her more, he alienates her children from her, removes her responsibility as mother, and by choosing her needs forsaking all others, he perhaps objectifies her turning her into an object more for his lust than his love.

Yet if he loves his children more, then he’s still facing the same problems. He’s bound to choose their priorities over the mother’s which sets up his children for lives of self-indulgent excess. It robs them of a mother and father who cooperate with one another and then love their children as a one-flesh unit. It demonstrates that love is finite. When Steve told his wife that he loved her, it was with an unspoken caveat that he would love her up until someone or someones else came along. Further, which one of his four children does he love more? Surely, if he can love his collective children over his wife, he can love one child over another.

And then for you morbid, macabre weirdos.

If Jigsaw, the evil villain from SAW IV, is making Steve choose which one he loves more his wife or his children and the loser plummets to their doom, while there are definitely many other ethical factors in play (far larger than the scope of this essay), I’ll conjecture that he’s actually not choosing which one he loves more. By choosing his children over his spouse, he’s actually expressing a deep love to both of them (and most likely he and his wife are on the same page). In the act of choosing, Steve is not weighing whom he loves more but rather demonstrating the virtues of a parent who is deontologically oriented to the preservation of his children, those who are innocent, and this orientation is shared by and fulfilled by his wife.

So we conclude that when asked the question “Who do you love more, your wife or your children?” Steve would respond with “I can’t answer that question. I love them both the same.” Correct?

But does he really love them both the same?

If Steve loved his wife like he loved his children, that wouldn’t be a very fruitful marriage. He would usurp authority and assume a posture over her where he should not1. She’d in many ways cease to be a “helper fit for him” and more of a child that needs rearing. Yet if Steve loved his children like he loved his wife, well that’s pretty much illegal.

So we conclude then that when asked the question “Who do you love more, your wife or your children?” Steve would respond with “I can’t answer that question. My love for them both is very much the same amount yet expressed in two different ways.

Great! You say. Why did I have to read all that just to get to this point of everybody-wins?

Shut your pie hole. I say. Keep reading!

I don’t even like pie. You mumble.

What happens when we introduce a new element to our story?

Let’s say that Steve’s best friend from college, John, is single and lives in an apartment complex a few blocks away.  Sometimes he takes care of the children while Steve and Caroline go out, but he also invites Steve out with a few of their other male friends each week to hang out while Caroline stays at home with the children.

Caroline is frustrated with John who takes her husband away each week. She dislikes that Steve is taken away each week to be with his friends. She wonders about how Steve views his relationship with her. She poses the question.2

Who does Steve love more? His best friend or his wife?

When framed outside of the nuclear family, Steve’s love gets a bit more complicated. Does Steve love his wife more than his best friend? Or did he lie when on their wedding day, he said that he loved her more than any other? What does it mean for Steve to say that he loves his friend the same as he loves his wife? And if Steve says that he loves his friend as much as he loves his wife, how does his treatment of his friend differ from his treatment of his wife? Can he really love his friend the same amount as he loves his wife?

If Steve must say that he loves his children and his wife the same amount but in two different ways, he must also say that he loves his best friend and his wife in the same amount but in two different ways.

Whoa! You say. Hold your horses, cowboy! That’s a bit of a leap!

Not really. I say. I’ll explain why.

Okay, Partner! You say as you saddle back on your stallion.

In the first two examples, I showed you the difference between two different types of love: Eros — romantic love — and Storge — familial love. The four loves aren’t totally separate from one another (I contend that a relationship can be both Philia, friendship love, and Eros. However, most of the time, this is to the chagrin of the person experiencing the erotic attraction), but for the purpose of this essay, I’m distinguishing them.

Steve has erotic love with his wife. He loves her romantically, the two became one flesh, and through their sexual union, they became co-creators with God producing a child. According to Girgis, Anderson and George, their marriage is “a comprehensive union: a union of will and body; inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment, whatever the spouse’s preferences.” 3

This is different than Steve’s storgic love for his children. Because he begot them, he did not need to know about them to love them. He did not need to know every particular about his baby when he held her in his hand to know that he loved her. He just did. This love is an instantaneous love of caring and nurturing.

And now we have added a third love, Philia. This love is the other-focused, self-sacrificial love between two people in a non-sexual way. Where erotic love blooms, philic love digs deep roots. Soren Kierkegaard calls both romantic relationships and friendships relationships of passionate preference.

Yet, even though we acknowledge the different types of love, one might still say that Caroline deserves to be loved more than John — accepting that friendship is simply a lesser relationship. One might argue that we must acknowledge that Caroline has priority as Steve’s romantic partner and mother of his children.

Yet, in many ways, for all of its casting off as a lesser relationship, the friend is typically sturdier in dedication than the romantic partner. Think about who you go to when you break up with your significant other. Romantic relationships tend to be sparks that burn where friendships are more like embers that stay steady.

Moreover, the belief that marriage is the lesser love isn’t supported at all in Scripture and is in fact argued against. In 2 Samuel 1:26, King David says to his friend, “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” If you think that’s simply description or one small circumstance, Jesus (our celibate lord, donchaknow) in the Gospel of John states, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

It should be telling in this day and age where Justice Kennedy in the SCOTUS decision on same-sex marriage stated, “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family” that Jesus did not say that there was no greater love than between a man and his wife, but rather one between a man and his friends.

In fact, while Jesus does use beautiful imagery of his relationship to the church as one of a groom’s relationship with his bride (Yahweh does this as well especially in Hosea), the New Testament predominantly refers to believers in storgic or philic language (e.g. brothers and sisters, friends, children, etc) far more than romantic imagery.

All of this isn’t to say then that Steve’s love for his wife is any less. Eros is a unique love that is only morally appropriate under specific parameters so its bound to have a specific place in the life of a believer. What it is to say then is that Steve cannot rightfully love his wife more than his best friend. In fact, he is in some ways obligated to love John in a similar amount to how he loves Caroline and his children.

If we conclude then that Steve must acknowledge that he loves his wife, his children, his mother, and his best friend very much the same amount yet in different ways, how does that love differ? How does he love his wife and his friend in the same capacity? Can he truly love his friend from afar? And if love is not finite, what about finite resources such as time, money, skill, proximity etc?

Stay tuned for parts 2-4.

1 I’m an egalitarian and believe that within a marriage, both husband and wife have equal say and are partners in leadership within the house. However, even if one has a more complementarian view, she or he can still see the problem in a husband treating his wife as if she were his daughter.
2 For the record, the roles here could absolutely be reversed. Steve could be upset at Caroline’s mother/friend. This isn’t to perpetuate a nagging-wife trope but simply to illustrate a point.
3 What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George


3 responses to “A Thought Experiment on Friendship: Who Do You Love More?

  1. Pingback: A Thought Experiment on Friendship: How We Talk About Love | A Crown for Ashes·

  2. Pingback: A Thought Experiment on Friendship: The Particulars of Love | A Crown for Ashes·

  3. Pingback: A Thought Experiment on Friendship: Why Friendship? | A Crown for Ashes·

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