A wife once told me that she planned to leave her husband because (in her words) she “just didn’t love him anymore.” When I asked her to change the way she worded her decision by saying, “I am choosing to no longer value my husband and to break my commitment to remain faithful to him,” she insisted on framing it in a way that made her a victim of feelings she could not change. Ironically, she also thought she was being virtuous because of her honesty and lack of hypocrisy.
Some people tell me they want to be married because of love and others (like this woman) say they want out of marriage because they no longer feel 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. 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 choosing to love.
It’s the 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.
Remember that 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 this 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.
Prayerfully 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).
Thought: “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. To love is to think, speak, and act according to the spiritual knowledge that we are infinitely loved by God and called to make that love visible in this world. Mostly we know what the loving thing to do is. 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).