The Beatles sang “All you need is love,” but didn’t give us a whole lot more to work with. Movies, novels and television shows all offer their own interpretation of what love means. But none of them ever quite captured it for me. Is it really love only if you feel butterflies in your stomach and don’t sleep at night? Should you do silly things, or can you make thoughtful decisions and still be in love?
In previous columns we’ve talked about when and how to say I love you, and some of the challenges young adults face as they search for a life partner. This is part of our Pure Sex, Pure Love ongoing series focusing on that big little word. What is love-and why is it so important?
A Brief History of Love and Marriage
Since the days of St. Paul, marriage has been considered a sacrament within the Catholic church, but marriage didn’t have to be about love. Through the 1500s, marriage was about a partnership of assets, and a legal arrangement in which to raise children. A century later, the Puritans, took it a step further and saw marriage as an opportunity for love-but again, love wasn’t a necessary ingredient going in.
A few centuries ago, a couple married because their parents told them to, and they lived out their marital vows because they feared society’s wrath if they didn’t. Today, a lot has changed: marriage is an individual choice and modern cultures place an increasing importance on that elusive emotion of love as a prerequisite.
We talk about love as an expression of individualism-whether you are ready, whether you are in the “right place” mentally and emotionally to meet someone, and about your choice the right person. This part of the love language is very me-focused: As Ayn Rand writes in The Fountainhead: “To say ‘I love you,’ one must first learn how to say the ‘I’– that is the only way one can wish to be loved.”
At the same time, we talk about love in terms of “falling in love”, being out of control, giving in to emotions and being vulnerable enough to share your feelings with another person. C.S. Lewis writes that “in the act of love, we are not merely ourselves.” Love, in this context, is about sacrifice, unconditional trust and giving up our lives to another.
What Is It Exactly?
Is there a contraction here? You are supposed to be both in control, and out of control, a strong person on your own and vulnerable to others, making conscious choices and utterly surprised by the waves of emotion.
Love is a mysterious and beautiful thing, and all these contradictory emotions can be present. At times it means being in control, and at other times it means letting go. It ebbs and flows, some days welling up from deep inside you and other days so small that you hardly remember it’s there.
Many of you wrote in to share your thoughts about love. Some focused on the personal benefits of love. Elizabeth, 25, says being in love is something that “makes all my other relationships better, including my relationship with God, my family, and myself.” Others talked about sacrifice and respect.
Love means different things to different people. And there’s the root of the problem: The more we talk about love, try to define it and outline the various stages, signals and steps, the more we confuse ourselves.
Love is a million emotions all in one short word. It’s nebulous, and while it’s a key ingredient for a successful relationship, oftentimes love isn’t enough.
Binding and Blinding
My graduate advisor is a wise man who has been married for more than 40 years. One afternoon he told our class that getting married didn’t make logical sense: Binding yourself to one person for an uncertain future would usually seem foolish. But, he said, love is the necessary ingredient that makes it happen. It makes you starry-eyed and hopeful. It gives you faith and hope. It binds you to another person and blinds you to their faults. And if all goes well, this burst of love will carry you on to commitment-where the real work of a relationship begins.
As a society, we’ve gotten more and more obsessed with love-around the same time that we’ve gotten more comfortable with divorce. Is marriage based only on love? And if so, what happens if that love fades?
By The Numbers
In a 1967 survey of more than 1,000 college students, 76% of women and 35% of men said they would marry someone they weren’t in love with, if all the other characteristics they were looking for were there. Women needed to be more practical then: Women were more likely to depend on their husbands for income, so his professional status, income and family background might very well outweigh love. Men could afford to be more romantic-and valued attraction and intimacy more highly.
By the 1990s, there’d been a big change. Only 9% of women and 14% of men said they’d marry someone without love. And in our 2005 BustedHalo poll, only one person said she would marry without love. Increased economic opportunities have a lot to do with this shift: Women now comprise the majority of college graduates, and are moving up the ranks in every field. And for both men and women, marriage is seen to be more of a choice than a necessary societal demand. So love-that illusive and contradictory emotion-becomes more important.
The phrase “being in love” is so broad that we often get confused: The love that my boyfriend and I are experiencing is very different than the love my parents share after 34 years of marriage. As young adults, we’re just at the beginning of our exploration of romantic love. For my next column, I’m going to talk to couples who have been married seemingly forever, and hear what they have to say about love, commitment and our Christian idea of marriage.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever been in love? How did you know? How did the feeling change over time? Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.