I grew up hearing those words all the time in my church. Initially I just took it to mean that you should act loving toward someone even if you didn't feel loving, rather than hiding behind excuses like "I just can't love them," because of course you can always act loving even if you don't personally like someone. And that's a good concept.
But recently I've been seeing it applied a lot to romantic relationships in a way that bothers me.
This blog: "My husband is not my soul mate," has been floating around on Facebook. And while I totally agree with her on the nonexistence of soul mates and think there's not really any major problem with what she said, this section upholds a series of ideals that are often misinterpreted.
My marriage is not based on a set of choices over which I had no control. It is based on a daily choice to love this man, this husband that I chose out of many people that I could have chosen to love (in theory, don’t imagine that many others were lined up and knocking at the door). He is not some illusive soul mate, not some divine fullfulment, not some perfect step on the rigorously laid out but of so secret “Plan for My Life.”
But he is the person that I giggly chose to go out on a date with in college. He is the person who chose to not dump me when I announced that I was moving to France for a year, then Kentucky for another year. He is the person who asked me to move to DC and I chose to do so. He is the person who decided to ask me to marry him and I agreed. At any step here, we could have made other choices and you know what? We might have married other people, or stayed single, and had happy and full lives.
But now I delight in choosing to love him everyday.
I like it better this way, with the pressure on me and not on fate, cosmos, or divinity. I will not fall out of love, cannot fall out of love, because I willingly dived in and I’m choosing daily to stay in. This is my joyous task, my daily decision. This is my marriage.OK. This is all good stuff. But then I started seeing comments on the blog that said things like, "I think choosing to love is so much more romantic than falling in love!" and "It's great to remember that true love isn't about a feeling" and "We need to remember that the heart is treacherous."
Here is the one thing I would add to all this:
In romantic relationships, it's never meant to be just a choice.
Saying, "Love is a choice, not a feeling," does something very disturbing. It negates the feeling entirely. It takes out the need for chemistry or attraction or affection or even just liking each other and reduces it to a series of loving or nonloving actions. If love is merely a choice, then, yes, I can choose to love anyone. I could hypothetically choose to love, marry, and live forever with someone I really don't care that much about.
But God cares about the feeling. He wants you to marry someone for whom you feel love. The choice isn't ever meant to replace the feeling entirely. The choice is the back up. The choice is what you fall back on during those days, weeks, months when you've had it up to here with your significant other, and you just don't feel like you love them anymore. That's when you realize love isn't just a feeling, it is also a choice, and you can choose to love them with your actions and your decisions and hope in time the feeling will return.
When love is reduced to simply a choice, with no feeling behind it or motivating it to begin with, there are some bad things that can happen.
People can end up relationships with people they really don't like all that much. As they're debating whether or not they should advance the relationship, they remember that "Love is a choice, not a feeling," and decide they're going to choose to love them and move the relationship forward romantically, even when they have no real desire to do so. They can end up spending their whole life with somebody who really never made them that happy. Ironically, knowing that "Love is a choice" actually may take away their choice - they feel they must end up with the first person who asks them, because they're not supposed to make these decisions based on feelings.
Some of you may think, "Nobody does that!" but I can think of at least two friends of mine who had this exact thing happen to them, and they stayed in these iffy relationships for a very long time with this internal need to "make it work" because "love is a choice" - even before any sort of serious commitment had actually been made.
Another blogger named Hannah over at Wine and Marble has even shared her story about how her marriage actually fell apart because of that kind of thinking - they got into a marriage relationship that, really, should have never happened, because one of them was never in love with the other.
The choice part of love is not meant to be the foundation of a relationship. It's meant to be the final culmination. This is why marriage is a big deal to me. My wedding was my moment of choosing to love. Up until the day I married Jacob, if I wanted, I could say at any point, "Meh, I haven't been feeling this for awhile, it's not working, let's be done." But the day I married him, I promised him that I would choose to love him. That if the feelings fluctuated, I would still choose love. That I wouldn't give up on it, no matter how long it took to get the feelings back. That's a big deal. That's a big promise. You can't start with the promise.Then there was the day when I felt a cognitive dissonance when he said “I love you,” and I began to wonder if he had really shaken off the stunted emotional habits of his own childhood and adolescence spent in the sister-church of my former church home.And we talked and we talked and we talked in circles about what “I love you means.”Then one day, he told me that he wanted a separation, and maybe we could start over and try again. That the teachings of one SGM pastor who’d told him (shortly before our wedding, when he came to him scared and confused) that it was okay that he didn’t have “feelings” for me, that if we were best friends and he found me sexually attractive, that it would all work out once we were married. That the feelings would come.So he had married me, telling himself that Love is a Choice, and that Love is Sacrificing Yourself and Your Desires, that Love Is Getting What You Don’t Want For The Good Of The Other.And I watched him fade away, disappearing into despair and loneliness and self-hatred I couldn’t possibly touch. I cried myself to sleep in the dark many, many nights while he walked alone in the dark, fighting the lies of depression.
As a final though, I think the whole "Love is a choice" mantra ties in to the emotional purity teaching as well. They both encourage you to dismiss those giddy feelings when the boy you like tells you you look nice, because 1) that's not real love, it's just a feeling, and 2) until you make the commitment to choose real love, you have no business having giddy feelings about anyone. There's a sort of promise in all of it that if you ignore the feelings for people who you haven't chosen, then when you do choose somebody and choose to have a serious relationship with them, the feelings will just come, and that time they will be good and pleasing and blessed. And, well, that's just not always the case.
Love is a choice.
And love is a feeling.
And, in a healthy relationship, there should be both.
If your love is only a choice, something is off.
If your love is only a feeling, it's not very deep.
It's not one or the other. Pursue and pray for both.