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.

7 comments:

  1. "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."

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I couldn't understand why everyone on APW was all, "I agree!" You expressed it perfectly. They didn't mean "love is a choice" the way WE know "love is a choice."

    FYI I'm the Stephanie you replied to on APW!!

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  2. Hi Stephanie!

    Thanks for commenting. It was made clear to me from reading the comments on the APW post that most of them couldn't even imagine what separating feelings from actions could look like, or that it is even possible, or that there are people who have tried it. It's probably good that they've never been exposed to that way of thinking, but it made it very hard to communicate with them.

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  3. 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.

    Can't we say that love is both--or indeed all of the things you list here. We have the misfortune of just one word for many concepts (as opposed, say, to Greek which delineates love into its different types with discrete words), but if we're talking about agape, as in the command "Love thy neighbor as [being] thyself," aren't the deeds and choices that flow from the feeling an integral part of the thing itself?

    I came across your site here, by the way, by way of meandering through pages about spiritual abuse in extreme patriarchal Christian families, and I agree that the dark side of this "love is a choice" business is a major part of the misery in such households. So I don't come from a perspective that is at odds with that in your essay. At the least "love is a choice" is sloppy thinking, and at worst it is a prescription for abuse and sorrow. I do think, though, that choice is a part of caring love, not just some "hand-in-hand" thing, but an integral component.

    Well, I have only read this first post. I shall probably read further in future visits. Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

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  4. I've thought of that many times, how unfortunate it is we only have one word for all the different types and expressions of love. I think that's a big reason this topic is so confusing and so difficult to discuss with others: we're all using different definitions of love.

    The reason I, for my own part, insist on keeping the choice and actions as having separate definitions from the feelings of love is because I believe those things can be performed separate of love if one so chooses. And when someone makes a commitment or a choice to act a loving part without feeling love behind it...to me, that makes those actions unloving. Many of the actions people like to call love could be better named compassion, kindness, obligation, or sympathy, in my opinion.

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  5. Hi Lynn,
    very interesting blog you have. It's really interesting to get a look at a sub-culture I have no connection with. The whole purity concept feels incredibly outdated looking at it from my own experiences in Finland. Here, or at least in the circles I've moved in, virginity is something you have while young and get rid of without much fanfare when you become an adult. No big deal. Waiting was for our great grandparents. But different cake for different people and all.

    The "love is a choice" idea got me a bit annoyed to be honest. Love most certainly is not a choice. If someone think so they have not been in love. They have not feel the consuming inferno that is love. The need to be together. To hold each other and to talk. And of course to have sex, not that it's all about sex. I love my girlfriend so much it is almost silly. And I love our son just as much but in a very different way. I need them in my life, to be complete. To be me.

    So for someone to say I choose to love them is ridiculous.

    Sorry for going on a bit of a rant there ;)

    Keep up the great writing!

    Alexander

    P.S. Can you put up a follower gadget so I can follow your blog?

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  6. Thanks Alexander.

    The more I write and think and change, the more foreign and strange the purity movement feels to me. So I totally understand how bizarre it must sound to outsiders.

    Glad to hear you feel the same way about love that I do.

    I added some more gadgets to the blog, hopefully that helps.

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    Replies
    1. Great, thanks!

      yeah it is all a bit different. But that is part of why it's very interesting.

      While it might work for a few I hope most "purists" take the time to seriously consider why they are following the movement. I'm not interested in converting anyone all I'm saying is that it's always good to question life.

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