What if you don’t feel love?

 A wife once told me that she planned to leave her husband because she “just didn’t love him anymore.” She refused when I asked her to change the way she worded her decision by saying, “I am choosing not to value my husband and to break my commitment to him.” 

She preferred to see herself as a victim of feelings she couldn’t change. She actually thought her decision was noble because she was being honest about her feelings. After all, she didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

What’s happening here? Some people tell me they want to be married because of love and others say they want out of marriage because they no longer love. This has led me to ask some questions about the nature of love.

What is love? Is it something we can fall in and fall out of? Is it chemistry? Infatuation? Is it an emotional response or a choice? I’ve concluded that we must distinguish two dimensions of love.

1. Being in love

This dimension is the emotional attraction of love. It’s what people mean when they speak of “falling in love.” It’s usually based on more superficial reactions to appearance and first impressions. Clearly, it’s a natural part of human attraction and although not necessarily wrong, it’s not enough to sustain a meaningful and lasting relationship. It’s far too superficial. Marriage is not about being in love but an agreement to love.

Deeply satisfying relationships are built on the second dimension of love:

2. Behaving in love

This dimension does not depend on feelings and chemistry. It’s a choice to respond to my mate in a loving manner — regardless of feelings. This dimension of love is a choice to value my mate and seek his or her best. While I can’t always make myself feel a certain way, I can always choose to act in a loving way.

The distinction between these two dimensions is very important in a marriage relationship. Most marriages start with a high dose of being in love and in most relationships these feeling diminish with time. When this happens, the key to keeping the flame of love burning is not pursuit of feelings — but a decision to value your mate and be devoted to his or her best — no matter what one feels. 

Behaving in love is a choice to act in love even when we don’t feel love. I am not advocating dishonesty. It’s a matter of priority. When we choose to love, the feelings often follow our actions!

Cultural obstacle to love

Have you noticed how being true to your feelings has become a measure of good character? One who fails to act consistently with her feelings is considered dishonest and hypocritical. This cultural standard is often used to give people a false sense of virtue when breaking deep commitments. Using this standard of avoiding hypocrisy and being honest enough to admit a loss of feelings, married people justify (and even consider virtuous) breaking wedding vows.

There is a deeply self-destructive deception in this line of reasoning. It implies that we are victims of our feelings instead of being capable of mastering them. Feelings come and go with changes in the weather. Do you go to work only when you feel like going? Do athletes or great musicians only practice when they feel like it? We simply cannot live a healthy and productive lives if we let feelings master us. This is especially true in relationships.

Love must be understood as a value word and an action more than a feeling if we hope to experience deep and lasting relationships as intended by God.

God demonstrated His love for us not because we were a warm and lovable group of people whom he couldn’t resist. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  This is the love husbands are commanded to show toward their wives (Ephesians 5:25).

Reflect often on the distinction between being in love and behaving in love. Share this with your family and friends, in small groups and with those preparing for marriage.

Evaluate your love based on the best definition of love available to humanity.

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (I Corinthians 13:1-8a).

Steve Cornell

_________________________________________________

“Often we speak about love as if it is a feeling. But if we wait for a feeling of love before loving, we may never learn to love well. The feeling of love is beautiful and life-giving, but our loving cannot be based in that feeling. When we ‘do’ love, even if others are not able to respond with love, we will discover that our feelings catch up with our acts” (Nouwen).

Other resources:  (Audio clips: Heart, mind and emotions & Facing Divorce)

39 comments on “What if you don’t feel love?

  1. Aimee Byrd says:

    Great post, Steve. I have lost one of my oldest friends because I confronted her with the truth when she used this excuse to get a divorce. We had been there for each other when our parents both divorced around the same time in our teenage years. We even grew up in the same church. I miss her dearly, and never wanted to break ties, but I think that she just knows that I know that she knows! People feel so strongly about this when they are not happy in their marriage. Thank you for the encouragement of truth.

    Also, I saw your name up on the Gospel Coalition site today–pretty cool!

    • Thanks Amiee,

      In 27 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve heard far too many people use the line: “I Just don’t love ______________ anymore.”

      Frankly, the path that leads to this must be caught earlier. It often looks like this: misguided marital expectations lead to disappointments and disillusionment — as differences continue to emerge, relationship difficulties multiply and tensions increase (especially where there is significant immaturity). This often leads to unkind and caustic communication and a general loss of goodwill toward each other. We (in the US) have 200,000 marriages each year ending before their third anniversary. The path I am describing is often a big part of this horrible reality.

      Sadly, couples usually don’t come to see a pastor until they’ve carried this pattern to the breaking point. This is why I’ve asked all our elders to include a “marriage statement” in every membership interview for our Church. It goes something like this: “We have no interest in mirco-managing anyone’s marriage and we love it when people can work through issues on their own. But, if you get to a point where things are not going well between the two of you, and you don’t seem to be able to resolve matters, please come to us for counsel sooner rather than later.” Membership meetings have turned into marriage counseling sessions. This helps us to be the Church instead of playing Church!

  2. diamonds says:

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  3. paul dare says:

    This is an outstanding post. EXTREMELY relevant to me right now and very helpful tool to send along others and keep the conversation going. I could not agree more that our culture has sold us a bill of goods with the whole concept of “We just feel out of love”, etc. We must fight the lies that swirl around us to regain Biblical thinking and maintain it with all our might. thank you for posting this. And a shout out to Tim Challies for pointing us to your post.

  4. Katie says:

    Where’s the accompanying blog post about What To Do If Your Spouse Feels Unloved? It seems unrealistic to tell someone who already feels like they are in a crisis situation to just change the way they think about the situation. Considering the man is the leader of the home maybe you should have sat down with the above woman’s spouse and had a little heart to heart with him that might go something like “Hey Dude, looks like you are dropping the ball here. Let’s help you fix that so you can save your marriage.” Or you can play the guilt card on the neglected spouse the way you suggest in this post. On the other hand, the church has been great at doing that for 2000 years and the divorce rate among Christians is little different from the divorce rate amongst the heathens. Go figure.

    • Katie,

      It sounds as if you have had a bad experience or two with “the Church.” I am sorry to hear it. Actually, we’re far tougher on men than women. Since they’re called to be leaders in love, we confront the typical male passivity that hurts so many marriages. We don’t take simplistic approaches to marriages in crisis and we pour many hours into saving marriages (even more hours into preventative measures). When it comes to marriage problems, the proverb reminding us that the first sounds good until the second one speaks should guide anyone listening to one side of a marital complaint. And (FYI) the notion that the divorce rate is as high among Christians as “heathens” (not sure what you mean by that word) is misleading. It gives the impression that all these people who are faithful followers of Christ are divorcing at the same rate as the rest of society. Instead, large numbers find the Lord and His Church when facing divorce or suffering the consequences of one. When the surveys are done, this fact is not taken into consideration — thus the myth is perpetuated based on faulty data.

      • Allen Fuller says:

        Indeed, when the surveys are done taking intensity of commitment to faith, those most committed to their faith are also far less likely to divorce.

        It just so happens that there /are/ a lot of minimally-committed Christians in the churches, and that’s why it’s accurate to say that the church is full of hypocrites. But– Jesus didn’t come to heal the healthy, but the sick, remember?

      • Justin says:

        Katie,
        You won’t win. This guy is another man who is self-righteous and religious. Always an answer for everything. I know many like his kind.

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  6. Cynthia Eppley says:

    Thanks to Tim Challies, per Paul Dare above. And thanks to you for this clear cut and direct exploration of the place of “feelings” in marriage. As a marriage counselor, I have just recently observed 2 marriages crumble based on feelings. In our emotion based culture, to be counter to the culture and committed to a Christian world view, is a true challenge. But the benefits so outweigh the temporary giving in to our selfish desires.

    • scott price says:

      Amazing. You can actually love someone without loving them. I’m sure the Father and Christ were just as dispassionate about their love for us. You can give your whole life away to help and comfort your wife but it will be a gonging cymbal without love. You can evangelize the whole world but without love for the world, it will profit nothing. See how long your evangelism, obedience and your pshychological behavior modification will last without having compassion . This is why obedience in the church is so anemic……we’ve made love a choice instead of a desire of the heart. Shame.

      • Could I love someone without liking him? To avoid the “noise without love” is to practice the qualities of I Corinthians 13:4-8.

      • Allen Fuller says:

        What happens when the “desire” doesn’t cut it? We cut and run? No, the choice is about deciding to stay and be faithful even when desire fluctuates. The desire will usually end up revived if we don’t leave the minute it hits a roadbump.

  7. Laura says:

    Mr.Cornell,
    I agree whole heartedly with your feeling and behaving love post. I have felt that way for many years, but now I am faced with that same delima. My husband just left the military and I finnally became pregnant. As soon as this happened he sent me away to stay with my mother for a while under the reasonable excuse of wanting to save money and pay off the bills so we would be prepaired when our baby came, he was only supposed to be gone 3 months. I didn’t like it but we had faced worse with deploymets, and though our marrage was not perfect I was very excited to start a new chapter in our lives. Well everything went down hill from right then. The bills never got paid, There was never any money to help out with my mom while I was staying with her, he was always out with friends and only spoke with me once every 2 weeks and NEVER about the baby. I rationalized all this, He was trying to get the bills paid and trying to say goodbye to friends. Well 3 months turned into 10 and when he finnally got here all of our plans had changed. He nolonger had a police department job waiting, he decided aganst going into the reserves(wich was how we were paying for a house) he just got on unemployment, started college, joined a frat and was gone all the time. He was constantly lieing about where he was, comming home at unreasonable hours, never a clear answer as to where the money was going and became increasingly secretive and defenceive. he would not even spend time with his new born son. I tried to talk to him about all this, i even went to his parents for help. I finnally decided that may be he just didn’t know what I expected of him as a husband and father, so i sat down a wrote it out. things like paying the bills in full and on time, picking up after himself, and spending at least 1 hour a day with our son. He said he would work on it, his answer for all our discussions( i had been trying all this time to be supportive thinking it was a transition time for him, and he didn’t need me yelling adding to his stress) one week later he lied again where he was and missed his sons first steps, i found out he was “studying” alone with a girl, something his training in the military expressly forbade. I told him that night he should stay with his parents for a while and get his prioritys strait.(I was hoping it would be a splah of cold water and wake him up so he would see what he was missing) He agreed with out argument and moved in with a friend instead, i had never met any of his friends so i had no idea where. 1 month went by and all he said was he could not make us happy anymore and ran into my family while on a date. He then told me he wanted a divorce. It’s been 9 months he has not seen or asked about our son, and has now served me with divorce papers signing my son copleatly over to me. I honestly don’t know what happened. I was trying to help, I wasn’t very good at it but I was trying. and while I was dreaming of a house and another child, somehow I lost my sons father and my husband. I’ve talked to several churches, i don’t have a home yet. the only thing anyone will do is say to pray for him and my son and I. I want to know what i’m supposed to do now. i’m heart broken and guilty over all this and i just dont understand what happened. I knew we had problums, but I didn’t think they we’re that bad. how will I ever explaine to my son that I lost his father?

    • Loving someone is not doing for them what they feel is best but what is best as defined by God’s will. Among other things, this could mean that I get accused of not loving because I do not do what they want but what is right and best. Love is also not to be confused with enabling. The material for you to consider is the difference I make between forgiveness and reconciliation and my seven signs of true repentance. http://thinkpoint.wordpress.com/2007/07/28/forgiveness-is-one-thing-reconciliation-is-another/

    • Allen Fuller says:

      I am so sorry to hear about your story. I’m not sure what can be done about it; if a partner decides to leave, there is nothing you can do to force them to stay. You can only control your side of the relationship. It sounds like you tried to do your best.

      Unfortunately it sounds like he was not a man of character to begin with. It is very sad and tragic when people don’t live up to their responsibilities. I know of a young man whose wife got very sick– so sick she could not even take care of their new baby. Yet he stayed faithful by her side and took care of her and the baby, as he worked and studied too. He was exhausted like crazy and had no time for himself, and I’m sure there were tense moments between them, but he’s stayed with her. She’s recovering now after more than two years of sickness, though she still can’t do her fair share around the house. I believe they will pull through.

      God loves you, and God loves your son. And God is not a deadbeat dad. You and your son may have been wounded by his earthly father, but your Heavenly Father will never do the same to you.

    • Rachel says:

      See 1 Corinthians 7:15, Matthew 5:31-32, and Matthew 19:9. God says that if your spouse is committing sexual immorality with another, you are free from them.

      To your former husband, these fearful verses apply: Malachi 2:16 and I Peter 3:7.

  8. Allen Fuller says:

    The book “True Sexual Morality” describes four models or cultural theories about love and sex that are prevalent in today’s culture.

    What you are describing in this post is what the book describes as “Romantic Sexual Morality.” In other words, the morality of sex (and marriage and relationships) is primarily defined by romantic feelings. If two people have romantic feelings for each other, it is not only OK for them to have sex, it would actually be a /denial/ of their true selves, and of “reality,” to abstain. Similarly, if they “fall out of love” then they are being unjust to everyone involved to try to “fake it” and continue the relationship. Marriage is justified on the basis of deep romantic feelings, as well. Of course, this means divorce also follows feelings. Hollywood is awash with this view of sex and love, and they have influenced the culture immensely, to the point that people consider this view to be the more “realistic” view of love and sex (“realistic” according to what? Movies? TV shows?) Unfortunately it has a ripple effect, because as people see each other living it out, it only reinforces in each other the view that this is reality.

    Reality, in fact, is what you make of it. Not to sound too new-agey, but if you decide to act a certain way, you can construct a new and different reality. Successful visionaries and leaders are great at doing this. They see what only “could be” but is not, and they make it come true.

    In your own relationship, if you wish to remain committed, there are ways to do so. Of course, you can’t control the other half of the relationship, but you can do your part. Example: as a guy, I can mentally decide not to look at other women. Instead, I can direct my eyes toward my wife and try to appreciate her beauty and her finer qualities, even when she irritates me at times. With practice, this becomes second nature, although at first it is very hard for men to control their roving eyes. In this case, your commitment and decision has made a new, more faithful reality for you. In addition, you’ll notice your wife gets more beautiful every year, as you admire her more deeply with the passing time.

    You may find it very difficult to do all this if your feelings are already gone. No doubt it is very difficult. But even a wilted and nearly dead plant can be revived with much care. The feelings of love are like such a plant. They grows healthier every year if you take care of your relationship; they wilt and grow sick if you do not. Decide now to do the things you used to do; to admire the things you used to admire in the person, and to plug away at it even if the feelings don’t come back right away; and if your partner is also willing to give it a try, you should see your feelings revive over time. Sometimes, even if your partner has decided to leave (again, you can never guarantee anything because you only control your own actions), you may be able to revive the relationship.

  9. [...] thoughtful article on love and “feelings,” especially apropós as Valentine’s approaches. [...]

  10. It’s not insignificant that the I Corinthians 13 depiction of love has absolutely nothing to do with the attractiveness or the desirability of the one being loved. In fact, there is direct implication that that person does wrong, provokes anger, requires perseverance, etc.

    I distinguish between what I call “because-of” love and “in-spite-of” love. We love God with “because-of” love, and as we are fulfilled through that relationship we are thereby able to love others with the “in-spite-of” love described in I Corinthians 13.

  11. faithrises says:

    True and well said… Nice post! Thanks :)

  12. MichaelEdits says:

    A marriage had better have both dimensions.

  13. blackwatertown says:

    I notice you didn’t mention children – whether a couple have children or not. That would be very important I think. In that it would be more than two people to take into account – and more reason to make more of an effort.

  14. [...] if I don’t feel love for my spouse? Posted on February 12, 2012 by John Samson Steve Cornell writes: A wife once told me that she planned to leave her husband because (in her words) she [...]

  15. Jerry James says:

    “love whether used of God or mn Is an earnest and anxious desire for and an active and benefiCient interest in the well-being of the one loved” ISBE) IE love is other-centered Jerry
    InternationalStandrd Bible encyclopedia
    Singlehandd jj

  16. [...] What if I don’t feel love for my spouse? [...]

  17. [...] talks about the difference between being in love & behaving in love. It’s good. Find it here. Share this:Email Author: Matt Lantz Follow @mattlantz Table of [...]

  18. Jim says:

    Thanks for this excellent post! Ideally it sounds like we should both be in love as well as behave in love. As a young Christian considering marriage, would you say being in love is not a requirement to marriage? If we are both godly Christians, placing Christ first in all things, seeking to please Him above all, loving Him and loving our neighbour as ourselves, striving to trust and obey Him and His Word, serve His people in our church, etc, and if we have come to see that we both would make a good and even happy marriage and others like our pastors and mature, wise and godly friends and parents have said the same, and we are good friends with each other, but we are not ‘in love’ with each other, but would be willing to always strive by God’s gracious Spirit in us to ‘behave in love’ toward one another, would you say we shouldn’t marry because we aren’t ‘in love’? Thanks!

  19. [...] month ago today, I posted an article titled: What if I don’t feel love for my spouse? Through several links from others and more than a 1000 posts on Facebook, the article has received [...]

  20. Sandor Welfing says:

    I think would be handy to review the 4 Loves – an essay by CS Lewis on the 4 Greek definitions of love.

    http://lucite.org/lucite/archive/fiction_-_lewis/c.s.%20lewis%20-%20the%20four%20loves%20(christian%20library).pdf

  21. [...] a detailed look at each quality of love, see Love Defined. – See also: What if I don’t feel love? _ Steve [...]

  22. still trying says:

    I know this post is over a year old but I had to respond. What happens when you behave in love for many years yet it is never returned? Even after many attempts to speak with my spouse in a loving way about my feelings. My friend once said that I was feeling this way about my marriage because I allowed my mind ‘to go there’. On the contrary. I spent many years fighting to keep my mind from ‘going there’. I thought that if I could just be better somehow or shift my expectations, things would change. They haven’t. I have two beautiful children who I wouldn’t hurt for the world but I am so lonely and alone in this relationship that they have even noticed. I don’t want to be divorced but I don’t know how I can bear the pain of this relationship for the rest of my life. My spirit is devastated and yet I still try every day.

  23. heather says:

    My heart aches for your situation. I too have struggled in my marriage and felt the same alone your are speaking of. Its not a good place to be and it does something to your spirit when you feel as if you have given all that you have but receive nothing in return. Your feelings are real and understandable. I guess the best advice i could offer is to have faith. Faith is believing in what we cant see. God is in charge and he works his perfect plan in his time. In the meantime, a christian counselor can help you with coping skills. If your spouse agrees to go to counseling with you that would be even better. In times of doubt, seek the truth. God loves you, he will never forsake you! Find peace in knowing that what you are doing will be rewarded in heaven.

  24. How does this apply to the church? St. Paul likens our relationships in the body of Christ to marriage. The church’s power to change the world, according to Jesus, is as much in mutual love among the brethren as it is in her message. In fact, without that winsome, mutual acceptance, forgiveness and cooperation in the body of Christ, our message falls on deaf ears. “What you do is so loud, I can’t hear what you say.”Love one another as I have loved you, so the world will know you are my disciples,” John 13: 35

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