A woman once told me that she planned to leave her husband because she “just didn’t love him anymore.” I asked her to change the way she worded what she planned to do so that her decision could be understood accurately. I asked her to say it this way: “I am choosing to no longer value my husband and to break my commitment to remain faithful to him.”
She declined to word her decision this way but insisted on using terms that made her appear to be a victim of feelings she could not change. She also thought her decision was actually virtuous in its honesty and in her refusal to be a hypocrite.
Being and Behaving in Love
When performing weddings, I raise this question: “What is it that draws people together to be married?” Most answer with one word: love. Yes, love draws us together. But what is love? Is it something we can fall into and fall out of? Is it chemistry? Infatuation? Is it an emotional response or a choice?
Over the years, people have told me they want to be married because they love each other. I’ve also had people (like this woman) tell me that they want out of their marriage because they no longer feel love for their mate.
This has led me to ask some serious questions about the nature of love. In my evaluation, I’ve concluded that we need to distinguish two dimensions of love.
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. Though 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.
Behaving in love. This dimension does not depend on feelings and chemistry. It’s the love of volition. 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.
In the context of marriage, the distinction between these two dimensions is very important to understand. Most relationships start with a high dose of the being dimension of love and, in most relationships, this feeling diminishes with time. When this happens, the key to keeping the flame of love burning is not pursuing a feeling but deciding to value the other person and be devoted to his or her best—no matter what one feels.
It’s a choice to act in love even when we don’t feel love. I realize that to many people this sounds almost like a great sin. It sounds as if I am advocating some form of dishonesty but, surprisingly, when we choose to love, the feelings often follow the actions!
We must confront a cultural barrier that threatens this understanding of love. Our culture sends a strong message telling us that above all else, we must be true to our feelings. To do anything else, we're told, would simply be dishonest and hypocritical. So it has become a mark of good character to be true to your feelings.
This cultural ethic is often used to give people a false sense of virtue when breaking deep commitments. By “avoiding hypocrisy” and “being honest enough to admit the loss of feelings,” they feel justified—perhaps even virtuous—in breaking their wedding vows.
There is a deep and self-destructive deception in this line of reasoning. It implies that we are somehow victims of our feelings, incapable of mastering them. Feelings come and go with changes in the weather.
But 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 life if we let our feelings master us. This is especially true regarding relationships.
If we hope to experience deep and lasting relationships as intended by God, love must be understood as an action more than a feeling.
Remember that God demonstrated his love for us not because we are a warm, lovable group of people whom he could not resist. Instead, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This is the kind of 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. Use this for conversation as couples, in small groups, and with those preparing for marriage.
Reflect also 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. (1 Corinthians 13:1-8a)