What’s Love Got to Do With It?
If you of could replay on the screen of your mind, a video clip of the early days of your marriage you might be surprised to see scenes that resemble so many other couples like you two. Press play and see: No sooner than the honeymoon phase was over, things begin to slowly change; and before you knew it, along come kids, a mortgage, bills and careers, and with each came increasing demands on your resources and time. As the years pass by, you see the passion and dreams you started out with hampered by the ordinary realities of everyday life. The stress of life mounts and as it does, tension takes a toll. Conflict, differences and strenuous events start to gradually erode the relationship. The tenderness and intimacy that was once there wanes, and passion seems to eventually all but disappear. The relationship resembles little of what it was like in the beginning, and now you find yourself dissatisfied and wanting more. The picture you’re seeing is not uncommon. Most couples arrive here sooner than they would have imagined.
In our work with couples my see it all the time, couples who’ve gone from passionate love to faded love- from being madly in love to wondering if they’re still in love. I’ve heard many spouses after only a few years of marriage, voice their concern that the person whom they once felt so connected with, and couldn’t wait to spend the rest of their life with, now seems distant and dull. For many, it seems as though some powerful, unfathomable current has taken them both down a lackluster path toward loneliness. Others have come to the point where they’re discouraged and disappointed because their love and marriage isn’t all they had expected it to be. They feel disappointed, afraid and wonder what has become of their love. Surely this isn’t what falling in love and getting married was meant to be. If it isn’t, what is? What is true love?
What Love Is and Isn’t
Love is a popular word in our culture today. Yet for the most part it seems to be misused and misunderstood. Much of our misperception about love is based on how we use it in our everyday speech. We say, “I love ice cream, apple pie, mountains, chocolate, Aunt Margaret, my dog, my brothers and sisters, my kids, and my spouse!” All of that with the same word, Love. We hold some misunderstandings and mistaken beliefs about love, and because we do, we experience problems in our most loving relationships.
For example, take the expression: “We fell in love.” To fall means to stumble, to trip, to lose one’s balance — to be out of control. Then, is the experience of being in love something that occurs accidentally, just an unconscious descent into the unknown? Is it something we experience that overrides conscious choice and rationality? From the ways we commonly use the word love, one might surmise that we have little or no understanding of how the experience of love actually occurs between two people. We mostly think that love is something that just happens mysteriously.
Contemporary language also takes the falling in love metaphor to an extreme, describing the experience of love as not just as an accident but a “madness.” We commonly hear the experience of falling in love described as: “I’m crazy about you.” “She’s mad about him.” “He’s gone absolutely nuts over her.”
You would think from these descriptions that love is a temporary state of madness, a delusion, a psychotic episode. One would assume from this process of love that first you have an accidental experience and “fall in love” followed by a condition of temporary insanity called “being madly in love.”
This can lead us to believe that as mysterious as we may think it is to “fall into love,” it’s equally as mysterious to “fall out of love.” But in reality, do we suddenly reach a euphoric state and then, just as quickly, have it wear off, only to return to a state of emptiness? Is love a mere accident? If this is what we perceive love as, then it’s not surprising that relationships have such trouble. How can you possibly succeed at something over which you have no control or for which you can have no responsibility?
What we have begun to see is that love is not just some uncontrollable, dreamy, blissful state where all fears, doubts, and worries melt away as we merge into a “happily-ever-after” state of marital bliss where love, and intimacy just naturally overflow. True love is not synonymous with losing control or going crazy. And it’s not just those magnificent first feelings you had when you were swept away on a wave of ecstasy, though that’s what the music industry and Hollywood would lead us to believe.
One of the top songs on the pop charts of the 1980’s – “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” — poses the question “What’s love but a secondhand emotion?” I remember shortly after its release, that song became the number one song in the country. I can’t help but wonder if that’s not how many people define love today— a secondhand emotion.
When God created male and female and designed marriage, and love, He had in mind something much more than just a fleeting second-hand emotion. That’s why an accurate, Biblical understanding of marital love is so important. The Apostle Paul prayed for the Philippians that their love would abound “in knowledge” The knowledge Paul mentions is obviously the knowledge of God’s truth about love. In other words true love is a truth-based love, a love based on an understanding of the true meaning of love.
A Biblical Understanding of Marital Love
What’s needed then is an accurate understanding of what true marital love is. To gain that understanding we look to the author and designer of love and marriage. The Bible gives us a complete picture of marital love and the working dynamics of love in marriage. This understanding is crucial and holds the key to our marital success.
There are some well-meaning Christian authors, Bible teachers, and psychologists, who have erroneously concluded that love is not an emotion, that it’s not a feeling at all, but strictly a “cognitive choice, an act of the will.” This erroneous view of love discounts feelings and treats the feeling of love as unimportant and unnecessary. I wholeheartedly disagree with their premise because it is not biblical. The Bible has more to say about love than it does any other subject. And a close study of the Bible reveals that love is both emotional and cognitive, a feeling and a choice. Understanding both of these dimensions of love are extremely crucial to the success of your marriage.
I understand the viewpoint being propagated by these “experts” who say that love is not a feeling, and I also understand where it comes from. This “love is not a feeling” premise that’s being propagated is a backlash from the divorce revolution of the past five decades that began in the 1960’s when no-fault divorce laws came into existence and divorce became easy, a land-slide of divorces began to occur on the basis of one spouse not “feeling” in love anymore.
Many couples, because they didn’t feel in love anymore, decided to end their marriages based on the absence of feelings. And so to combat this flawed way of thinking that was leading to so many divorces, many of these experts began to depict love as strictly a “choice,” “an act of will” rather than a “feeling.” They were attempting to battle a flood of divorces by arguing though wrongly, that: “Love has nothing to do with feelings. That love is simply a choice.” Though rightly, they wanted to emphasize the cognitive and “choice” aspect of love, that love is something you “choose.” That you can “choose” to love and to stay in your marriage. They were partially right. The problem is that they threw the baby out with the bath water, and in so doing distorted the most wonderful thing in the world that God gave to make marriage magnificent, meaningful and lasting.
I understand and appreciate their concern. I too want to help couples stay married, and I agree in part with these experts that one aspect of love is choice. And I agree; sometimes that means deciding to stay in a marriage through tough times when we don’t feel “in love.” There are difficult times in most every marriage when the “choice” aspect of love is absolutely necessary in order for a couple to stay together and make it through a difficult season.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m wholeheartedly against divorce. I’ve spent substantial time over the past fourteen years of my life trying to convince couples to make the choice to stay in a marriage, through the tough times when the loving feelings were not there. There are times when you cannot rely on your feelings and you must by an act of your will, choose to do the right thing. Times when you must choose to honor your marriage covenant and stay in your marriage. In almost every marriage, there are times of persevering through difficulties and pain, and choosing to love your spouse and honor your vows.
Marriage as God designed it, was not designed to be affectionate and passionate for a while and then to just go flat and deteriorate. Marriage was not meant to be lived just existing together as a couple without affectionate, loving feelings toward one another. Marriage wasn’t meant to be about just hunkering down, gritting your teeth, and “hunkering down,” just irking out an existence together. And if and when a marriage gets that way, that’s not a “normal” state for a marriage to be in. It’s not the way God meant for marriage to be. It may get that way, and in most marriages it usually does, and yours may be that way, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. A marriage may become boring, lackluster, and the spouses may become unfeeling, uncaring, even apathetic or worse angry and bitter, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. And neither is divorce the solution. God has a way to restore love and re-create loving feelings no matter how low the feelings may go.
I understand people are different in their levels of emotional expression. But God created each of us with emotional capacity to love and to feel love. There are many people who once had strong feelings of love in their marriages who no longer have much, if any feelings of love at all in their marriages. It’s common and we see it all the time, and we know because we’ve been there, and we’ve worked with hundreds of couples in that condition.
One of our favorite things is people watching…or rather couple watching. Sometimes when we go to a busy restaurant we like to just look around at all the people there, especially the couples. You can tell which ones are in love and which ones aren’t. You see some who are holding hands, smiling and looking at each other with looks of delight. Others walking ten feet apart, frowning, looking like it’s drudgery being together. It’s obvious and you can tell when the feelings of love are not there. We can even tell a lot of the time when couples are faking it to impress others. For many that’s all they have, a marriage that has gone flat and has little or no feelings of love, no real enjoyment and delight in being together.
Unfortunately that’s the sad state that all marriages will naturally drift toward. If and when a marriage gets to that point, as most eventually will, a couple may for a period of time have to rely on love as a choice. But the point is, a marriage doesn’t have to stay that way.
These concepts about marital love are not just my personal opinion- not just some novel theory that I developed. Marriage was God’s idea. He is the author of life, the creator of man and woman, the designer of marriage, love and intimacy. Understanding love as He designed it is I believe absolutely crucial in order to have a successful, satisfying marriage.
God makes it clear in Scripture that love is a feeling, and as a key ingredient in marriage is meant to be enjoyed for a lifetime. In their book, Rekindling the Romance, friends of ours, Dennis and Barbara Rainey make this important point about the feeling of love in marriage, “Without passion, tenderness, and physical oneness, marriage fizzles into a joyless endurance contest. Without romance, marriage is destined to lose intimacy and wither in isolation and loneliness. And that’s a lonely place to live.” God’s design for marriage is far better than that. So why settle for a lackluster co-existence together when there is something much better.
Contrary to What Some Marital Experts Say… Love IS a Feeling
In the Old Testament we find one of the greatest treatises on marital love ever written. The Song of Solomon is a book about a couple, a king and his bride, their initial attraction to each other, their dating, courtship, and marriage. One of the key points of the whole book is that love is a feeling, a passionate feeling. Solomon and his bride were in love- absolutely passionate about one another. Throughout the book, we see a picture of what God intended for marital love- a man and his bride living out their marriage with a constant, vibrant love. It is a love that God ordains, encourages, and blesses. Chapter 8, verses 6-7 give us a snapshot of their love – true marital love:
“Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. 7 Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.”
Song of Solomon 8:6-7
Throughout scripture, in the Old Testament and the New, we find two distinct words for marital love and each emphasizes two different, yet very important dimensions of love. The word used for love in the above passage and throughout the Song of Solomon is the ancient Hebrew word ahabah, which describes the passionate, feeling aspect of marital love. Ahabah means heartfelt love between the husband and wife.
‘ahabah– (aw-habah’) KJV—love: to feel affection for.
The love described in the above passage doesn’t sound like just an emotionless act of the will does it? Describing their love, Solomon says, “it burns like a blazing fire.” A vibrant feeling of affection was the driving force and main characteristic of this couple’s relationship. Their feelings of affection for each other remained strong throughout the seasons and beyond the challenges of their life together: their courtship, their wedding, and the maturing stages of their marriage. In fact, their love and affection for each other increased and deepened over the years of their marriage (Song of Solomon 7:1-10,8:13-14, NAS).
When we talk about ahabah – the feeling of love, we’re not referring to just the kind of “hot passionate love” that newly married couples experience. New love is a temporary version of love. New love, like infatuation is often described a kind of lovesickness. A person who is experiencing new love usually has difficulty eating, sleeping, or working for thinking of the other. The passionate feelings of new love are a temporary high and as such prove superficial. New love eventually wanes and leads to disappointment. [Diana Garland and Betty Hassler, Covenant Marriage, Nashville, Tennessee, 1987, p122].
The reality of disappointment is a surprise for most couples. It’s at this point that infatuation and new love usually come to an end and with it the opportunity to develop a more deeply affectionate and loving relationship. As Henry Ward Beecher, a clergyman, noted, “Young love is a flame; very pretty, often very hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. The love of the older and disciplined heart is as coals, deep burning, unquenchable.”
This deeper love, affection is the ahabah- feeling love spoken of in Scripture that Solomon and his wife enjoyed and sustained throughout their marriage. It is a deeper burning love that goes beyond new love. It’s a feeling of love that grows deeper, a feeling that can last a lifetime.
After twenty-five years of marriage, Sue and I know more about love and have a deeper more abiding, affectionate feeling of love now than we ever could have imagined on that day when we said “I do.” One thing we’ve learned for certain from our own marriage and working with other couples is that marriage progresses through stages of love and in chapter four we’ll examine more closely the different stages of love. How to overcome pitfalls and discover a more deeply passionate and affectionate kind of a loving relationship is the subject of the remainder of this book.
If God had intended that the feelings of love were meant to end and marital love to inevitably go flat and die, He would have illustrated that with Solomon and his beloved. Their love would have grown cold, and they would have had to just love each other unemotionally, and just hunker down and keep choosing to stay together. But God didn’t design marriage to be that way. He did just the opposite.
Ahabah love, the feeling of love is why people feel happy with each other in their marriage. It’s what motivates them to do what they do for each other and give what they give to each other. When a couple has this (Ahabah) feeling of love, they want to do those things and give to each other and do those things that make each other happy. As one of Billie Holiday’s love songs goes, “it’s easy to give when you’re in love.” And as we discussed earlier about the importance of the love–intimacy connection in marriage, it is the feeling of love that makes a couple want to spend time together, be together, be close to each other and stay together. Like the Captain and Tennile’s top hit song of the 70’s says, “Love Will Keep Us Together.”
Love is, in part, a choice. But that’s not all it is. It’s a whole lot more than that. When it comes to love, “Feelings” are just as important as the cognitive “choice” aspect. Not more important, but just as important. Love is both a choice and a feeling- an incredible, magnificent, life-giving feeling. Without emotion, marriage is reduced to mere drudgery, and there’s not much left but to hunker down and eek out an existence.
It bears repeating, if you don’t have the feeling of love in your marriage then at least for the meantime you do need to choose to hang in there with your spouse, at least until you get the problem(s) solved that’s depleting your feelings of love. If you are willing to dig in and closely follow the steps we outline here, you’ll get the feeling of love back. In fact, if your like most of the people we’ve worked with, the feeling will be stronger, and your marriage will be better than it ever was before.
If you do not have the feeling of love in your marriage, then it’s an indicator that something is wrong in the relationship and there is a problem, but divorce is not the answer. There is a better solution and the feeling of love can be restored. To restore love we must understand love as a feeling, and love as a choice, and how God designed the two to work together.
Love Is A Choice
According to the Scripture another very important dimension of love in marriage is expressed in the New Testament with the word Agape.
‘agape– (ah-ga’-pay) KJV—Unconditional love: the essential nature of God, a deliberate choice and commitment to care for the happiness and well-being of another; unconditional acceptance.
This is the word used throughout the New Testament to describe the essential nature of God. The Bible tells us that God is love. 1 John 4:16 says, “We have come to know and have believed the love (agape) which God has for us. God is love”(agape). God’s love is our model for agape love.
God is a loving God and is committed to our best interest, to meeting our needs and to caring for our happiness well-being. We do not have to wonder what God’s thoughts and feelings toward us will be tomorrow. We know that His attitude toward us will be the same as it is today. “His loving-kindnesses indeed never cease…His compassions never fail” (Lamentations 3:22-23).
It is His steadfast love that motivates us to love Him in return. Because He is committed to our happiness and well-being, we can with confidence commit our lives to loving Him. In marriage, it happens much the same way. That’s how the love-intimacy connection works. We enter our marriage with a powerful sense of knowing and feeling that we are loved and are hence motivated toward each other, to connect with each other and freely commit ourselves to each other for life.
Obviously this agape dimension of love is different than the feeling dimension of love, something entirely different. Not necessarily deeper, but different. Rather than emotional, it is mental and involves an act of our will to care for another. Agape is the dimension of love that can exist beyond feelings. It involves a mental process, a way of thinking and choosing and behaving toward one’s spouse. True marital love is choosing to act in your mate’s best interest for your mate’s happiness and well-being.
The apostle Paul commanded husbands to “love their wives as Christ loves the church. (Ephesians 5:25). And he challenged wives to learn to love their husbands (Titus 2:4). The word he used for “love in both instances is the Greek word “agape.” This aspect of love is not the “feeling” dimension of love, not something that happens to us beyond our control like emotions do. To the contrary, this love is something mental and behavioral that is expressed through caring actions. It is an active love that is intentional. It is this active, steadfast love that creates the feeling of love.
This reality has significantly affected my relationship with my wife, Sue. After we met, I made a decision to go out with her a second time, and continued dating her, I chose to act lovingly and do things for her and care for her. Then as I got to know her, I began to develop stronger feelings of love toward her, and I chose to continue caring about her and eventually I became “in love” with her. The Ahabah- feeling of love, motivated me and drew me toward her. Then, with strong feelings of affection for her, I began to deliberately choose to actively love (agape) her and eventually decided to marry her.
As I mentioned earlier, due to my past failure in marriage, I felt very uncertain about marriage and about making the commitment. But it was primarily ahabah- feeling love that caused me to overcome my fear and motivated me to make a lifetime commitment to her.
It has been the ahabah- feeling of love, combined with agape- active love that has kept our relationship vibrant and sustained our marriage over the long haul. It takes both. Loving her with active love is what has kept our feelings of love alive, drawing us closer and our marriage stronger through the years. Agape- active love fuels Ahabah (feelings love); which in turn fuels agape- active love. The Bible describes the essence of agape love in the following way: Love is………………… (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
Agape is first of all a choice, an act of the will. It is a choice to care for the happiness and well-being of another. It is not accidental, but intentional and involves a choice. In other words, it is not about just caring for your spouse whenever you feel like it. It is intentional and we can build it into our lives step by step, one choice at a time.
By use of the word “will” I want to make an important distinction between emotion (desire) and action. Desire is not always translated into action. It is the “will” that ultimately translates an emotion or desire into action. The difference between the two is like the difference between saying “ I would like to go swimming tonight” and “I will go swimming tonight.’ As author, M. Scott Peck says in his book, The Road Less Traveled, “Love is as love does.” Love involves both an intention and an act of will. We do not instinctively love. We must choose to love. We may have good intentions to love. But if in any situation, we in fact do not act loving, it is because we have either not chosen to love, or else have chosen not to love, and therefore do not love, despite our good intentions.
One of the key reasons Solomon and his Shulamite bride were able to keep their affection and passion for each other in their marriage over the long haul was because they chose to keep thinking about and doing the loving behaviors they had done in their courtship days.
We cannot make ourselves have certain feelings toward another person. We can however be intentional and choose what we will do. Our thoughts and behaviors will then have an effect on our feelings and on our mate’s feelings as well. It is the power of unconditional, agape love that results in ahabah, the powerful feeling of love that we will see next.
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