Friday, March 22, 2013

Is love a feeling or a choice?

Whenever I hear the words "love is a choice," my ears perk up and I see red warning flags. That is what happened this morning when I clicked on the new post from A Practical Wedding in my reader. The author writes about how she teaches her Catholic school students this shocking notion that love isn't a feeling, and how she "practices" loving her soon-to-be husband. The comments on the post were mostly "Yes! I agree!"

A Practical Wedding is not a religious website, so I was a little surprised by the wholehearted support of this idea. I had previously been taught that "love is a choice" only by religious groups. And later in life I learned that extreme religious groups use this doctrine to force women into loveless, often abusive marriages.

The first time I was introduced to this idea was in junior high when I attended weekly youth group meetings. We were asked by the leader, "Is love a feeling or a choice?" I was confused. Everyone was confused. We all knew what love was. We felt it for our family and friends. But the question was obviously leading us to challenge that notion. Love is an action, we were taught. I came away from that session feeling a little empty. I felt as though the love I had for people was now less meaningful, because all that mattered was what we did. And I felt an obligation to do things for other people without developing relationship first. After all, why develop a relationship if what you're doing already equals love?

In recent years, I have taken an interest in reading about spiritual abuse, particularly as it happens in extreme religious groups or cults. A common thread throughout many of these stories are people who have bought into the idea that love is a choice and have taken it to its logical extreme. Young women who are being courted by a man are told to dispel their girlish notions of romance. "As long as you serve each other, you are loving each other. That is what love is. Feelings are fleeting, and if your marriage is built on the feeling of love, you will break apart when the feeling leaves you. The heart is deceitful." People are taught to ignore their emotions and gut instincts. People like that are easy to control and abuse. Even when they feel utterly unhappy, they will stay where they are because all the factors they were taught to trust are telling them they're in the right place. Some people believe that any Christian man could have a successful marriage with any Christian woman if they followed the principles of "love is a choice."

Elizabeth Esther wrote about her struggles with trying to separate feelings from actions of love, and how it led her into deep depression and nearly ruined her marriage. She felt "inherently unlovable." She knew her husband loved her but she didn't feel it.

I think that the majority of people who like to spout off "love is a choice" don't really mean it. They're just trying to emphasize the importance of demonstrating love through actions by using confusing terminology to catch people's attentions and make them think they're hearing something new and revolutionary. Most of them probably take for granted that everyone will continue seeking and living the feelings of love. I do not like these tactics. At least not in a religious setting. You can't take things for granted there. People love to jump on revolutionary ideas and test them out in their lives, hoping for miraculous results, when it comes to religion.

Let's just say things how they are, without the confusing language. Love is a feeling. Choices, actions, and commitments are separate things, that often go hand-in-hand with love. They can be born out of love. They can maybe even lead to love. But they do not equal love. They are not a replacement for love.

There is wisdom in feelings, just as in reason. We need to use both.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

More thoughts on marriage

I've been thinking more about marriage since writing my post All marriages are not created equal. Specifically, how my perspective has changed over time, and why the church's treatment of marriage bothers me.

From the time I was a little girl until I was a sophomore in college, I imagined all weddings to be relatively the same. Sure, they might occur in different places and have vastly different themes to them, but I imagined every couple that had a wedding felt the same towards each other as every other couple who exchanged marriage vows. I assumed they were all at the same commitment level, the same in-love stage, the same general readiness to begin a life of living together, providing for themselves, and raising children.

I had a very idealized notion of what getting married meant. So when I heard stories of people getting married after a short whirlwind romance, I thought, "Wow, they must have had a really special connection if they were ready to get married that quickly! How romantic!" Or when I heard of a woman at my college who had been proposed to by two men in the same year, I thought, "Must be nice to have two men who are that in love with you!"

But what I've realized as I've gotten older is that those couples who get married after knowing each other only a short time are not necessarily more in love or more connected than other couples, but they may just be more impulsive. And the woman who got proposed to twice may not have developed the same relationship with both of those men.

After I graduated college, I began to see marriages fall apart between people I knew. I had been at their weddings, seen how happy they were, watched as a clergyman declared them husband and wife. Now those marriages that everyone had made such a fuss over when they began no longer existed. It was jarring to me, but it helped me face reality. People are just people, and weddings are not magic. Marriage isn't an institution that automatically transforms people. It's a relationship that takes work from two very human persons to succeed.

The mythical fantasy of marriage I had dreamed of as a girl was dispelled for me. I stopped worrying about getting married within a specific time frame because I now knew that that did not always equal success.

But I don't get the impression that the church has come to the same understanding as I. Time frames are important, because young marriages lessen the chance of the sin of premarital sex occurring. Weddings are still fantasized as magical, because the woman changes from a daughter to a wife, and from a virgin to a sexual lover. Marriages are an institution, where men and women are now treated differently and have expectations to fulfill, and success is evaluated based on length of time in the institution.

Speaking of length of time: I used to believe this was an excellent indicator of a successful marriage, because I thought divorce was a terrible sin, and a marriage that lacked that sin was a good thing. I even thought, "When I get married, I'm going to make sure he's the type of person who is determined to stay married to me even if we don't love each other any more." The sin of divorce was so bad in my mind that the personal happiness of me or my future spouse didn't matter in comparison. I never considered the sins that could result from the way two people treat each other when they are in a loveless marriage. A chapel speaker at my bible college once told us that finding yourself in a troublesome marriage did not necessarily mean it wasn't right; it could be that God's will for your life was to suffer through marriage and become better for it. Now, I understand that suffering can teach us many things in life, but I also know that when it comes to relationships, suffering can often result in abuse. Also, that statement implies that all Christian marriages are ordained by God, even though it's painfully obvious that Christians are perfectly capable of making wrong decisions.

We are only human. But in the mind of the church, we become something else when we get married. Suddenly our past mistakes are not supposed to apply. We are trapped in the institution and told to make it work. A couple that may have been advised not to marry will be told to work through it once they get married. Because marriage is that inflexible, that important, and that transformative.

I think marriage and purity are two major areas where the church turns a blind eye to our humanness, and it causes us to make poor decisions.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Avoiding lust while choosing a spouse

A few months ago, Lisa of the Broken Daughters blog wrote about what happens when sexual attraction is viewed negatively: how when people want to flee from sexual immorality so badly they flee from sexual attraction as well. This can lead to people choosing spouses they are not attracted to physically or sexually.

This is not something I can say I have experience with, but I don't doubt for a second it happens in purity culture. People who are passionate about living for their religion will do just about anything if it appears to be more holy or a higher standard to achieve. I do not know if any of my friends chose spouses they were not attracted to, but it is a possibility. I myself was never quite so vigilant about my sexual thoughts, so I had no practice in repressing them or fleeing from them. But I was well-disciplined in not acting on them when it came to relationships.

The Christians around me never appeared to be fleeing from sexual attraction. They flaunted it, really. By that I mean they raved about their significant others' good looks and how hard it was to stay pure before marriage, or how great it was to finally be married. They liked to emphasize how important physical attraction and sex is in a marriage. But I learned to talk the talk, too, and I know how easy it is to preach one thing while practicing another...and how hard it is to truly be honest in a Christian community that is passionate about righteous living.

When the pressure to marry young is ever present in the back of your mind, and you meet a great person who likes you and has all the qualities you're looking for in a spouse, it would be very hard to break off a relationship that seems to be going somewhere based on a lack of chemistry. Especially if you don't know what chemistry feels like, and you're not allowed to experiment to find out. So I wouldn't doubt that there are people I have known that have married someone they were not sexually attracted to.

Today, someone commented on that blog post with his story of marrying without passion, and it was heart breaking. I'm posting part of it below, but I urge you to go read the whole thing.

Long story short, I married a woman 13 years ago to whom I’m not sexually attracted, and I’ve never lusted after.
I knew it before I married her. I knew it the day I married her. I’ve known it for 13 long years in a passionless marriage.
She’s a really nice girl, and I’m devesatingly ashamed that I’ve ruined the woman she could have turned out to be… I see her as the true victim in it all… lack of passion has done that to both of us.
Warped by church teachings, I literally convinced myself that God was going to bless me with sexual attraction for her, by being obedient to marry her… like some magic wand of his would tap me on the head and “poof” …. Happily Ever After.
And, no, I’m not gay… I can sense you all wondering.
I had cold feet right up until the wedding, but had convinced myself that it was “just lack of faith.” … so I supressed it.
The night before the wedding, I got no sleep. I had no peace of mind. I don’t remember too much about that day…. and we left the reception early during the festivities… I was too tired to continue. But the full force of what I’d done hit me during the week… like a cold chill of death running down my spine… I was married… marriage is forever, and I’m unhappy…. forever … the exact opposite of what i’m supposed to be… I can’t get a divorce… divorced people go to hell in the express lane or the handbasket, or something. There may even be a reserved section in hell for divorced people, I thought… like maybe even a VIP entrance.
I felt so ashamed of myself. In a foreign country… surrounded by my new fundamentalist in-laws (still my neighbors today after all these years)… I vowed to just stuff it… all of it… just repress it and forget and go through the motions, and to never say a word to anyone. Too ashamed to admit what I’d done. Just put on a happy face… smile…. go to Church… and pray like hell.
Within two weeks I was being confronted by the father in law… something was wrong, since i was obviously not happy, not sleeping with his daughter…. emails were being sent back home to the pastors in the states… who also flew over eventually to meet me and my wife… I was ashamed, alone, and scared … I still believed that I needed to believe in the “right answer” … so I lied to them, and told them that my marriage was God’s will (besides, who wants to go to hell for divorce.) so I tried really hard to “do the right thing…” … and just stuff the negativity and the lack I was feeling….
My married life became one of fear, obligation and guilt.
Well, I don’t have to tell you, that women aren’t stupid. It’s been hard on both of us… and I didn’t become honest until several years and several children later.