Page Summary

  • Every love aims at unity through some sort of presence.
  • Most modes of presence only provide a limited way for us to be united with someone we love.
  • The conjugal act is a special kind of presence in which a total gift of self makes a husband and wife completely present to each other.
  • This kind of presence necessarily includes an openness to their union continuing on in a new child.
  • If the couple isn’t open to that special kind of union, they don’t have the goal of conjugal love.
  • They might still love according to some other limited mode, but should at least be honest about it.

Is unity necessarily the goal of love?

Yes. The desired unity is a way of being present according to the mode of the relationship.

Ok, but what does that actually mean?

“It’s not easy, but we’re making it work.” That’s what Ed said when his friends asked how his long-distance relationship with Donna was going, in the year before they got engaged. Once they had a foundation of trust and figured out a rhythm of communication, Ed started to wonder whether this could be sustainable in the long term. Of course, if he asked her that question, he knew what Donna’s answer would be: “absolutely not.


After the love that unites us to God, conjugal love is the ‘greatest form of friendship’.

Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia 123

a woman holding a man's hand in St. Peter's Square

Ed “loves” potatoes and who could blame him?

Long-distance relationships aren’t bad, but people typically enter into them out of necessity rather than preference. The circumstances which keep people apart are almost always in competition with love, not a result of love. No couple dreams of growing old five hundred miles apart and dying alone. They dream of growing old together and dying side by side.

Is there any kind of love that does not inherently aim toward the goal of unity? Let’s start with a simple example: Ed “loves” potatoes. Yet it’s difficult to imagine Ed “loving” potatoes without ever actually eating potatoes. That’s because his love for potatoes is a desire for them to be present to him in a certain way or mode—specifically, in a culinary mode (i.e. eating). This is a very limited kind of unity, because Ed only shares the aspect of his being that relates to eating. The potato obviously never gets acquainted with Ed’s intellectual side or his musical preferences.

But if Ed had a way of loving potatoes that doesn’t involve eating, would that count as a kind of love that doesn’t will unity? Maybe he has an admittedly odd hobby of collecting potato-themed artwork. Has he found a way to love the food without it being present to him?

Well, not really. In that case, he doesn’t really love it as a food, he loves it as an object of sight. The mode of presence he desires is visual, not culinary. That’s why he could easily substitute the artwork with some other visual object, like a painting of a sunset, and it would be present to him in the same mode.

Now let’s move to a higher example, love between Donna and her friend, Emily. Like the prior example, there is still at least one mode of presence through which they are united (e.g. going to concerts together, chatting together over coffee, or hiking the same trails together).

This is still a limited kind of unity, because some aspect of Donna is absent from the shared activity, like her engineering expertise or her interest in college football. Unlike the prior example, though, both people are engaged in a mutual act of loving, so the activity is shared instead of a one-way action. This enables them to share more activities with each other, should they desire to become closer friends. Notice how “closeness” grows right along with friendship.

french fries

Finally, let’s talk about Ed and Donna. Their long-distance relationship enabled them to be present to each other in only a few limited modes. Talking over video chat, virtual movie dates, and cooking the same meals simultaneously (again via video) might actually be enough for some friends, but it was never going to be enough for them. This is why they traveled to visit each other in person during long weekends and holidays. They wanted to get to know each other more deeply, to relate through physical contact, and to enjoy each other’s company. They wanted to be closer, because their desire wasn’t only to share a certain set of activities, or to be present to each other in ways that only involved a limited aspect of the other person. Their desire was for each other.

This mutual goal of unrestricted unity is what we call “conjugal”, which originally meant “joining together” before it referred to marriage. This “joining” of one whole person to another can’t be accomplished by any combination of modes of presence mentioned above. The only way to fulfill their goal is a unique sort of presence capable of encompassing the entire person. This is the conjugal act, by which a man and woman make a total gift of self to one another, and can, at least in principle, continue on in the existence of another whole person, their child.


So they are no longer two, but one flesh.

Jesus of Nazareth, Matthew 19:5

On the other hand, if they aren’t open to each other’s presence in this way, then they don’t have the goal of conjugal love. In that case, they might still love according to some other mode, but they should at least be honest with themselves and each other about what that mode is.

Ed and Donna were honest about their relationship and had taken the time to know that no limited mode of presence would fulfill their deep longing to be fully present to each other. It’s why Ed didn’t need to ask Donna whether they should stay long-distance for the foreseeable future. Instead, he proposed a different question to her—and he flew across two time zones to ask her in person.

a couple in silhouette riding bikes
a couple embracing in a forest

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