Loving vs. Being in Love

"love" sign
At one point in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the devil Screwtape gloats over how humans are gripped by “the false belief that the blend of affection, fear, and desire which they call ‘being in love’ is the only thing which makes marriage either happy or holy.” This comes in handy for tempters like himself because, among other things,

“humans who have not the gift of continence can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves ‘in love,’ and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical. Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.”

Sounds pretty silly when you put it that way, doesn’t it? Yet it’s how we think a lot of the time. We live in a culture that exalts our feelings as all-important and imagines love as the ultimate feeling — the highest, the most intense. We think of love not as something we do, but something that sweeps over us, beyond our control (“falling in love”). If we don’t feel it, we shouldn’t get married — and if we don’t feel it after we get married, we shouldn’t stay married. Christians, too, have absorbed these attitudes, which goes a long way toward explaining their divorce rate. God wants me to be happy, right?

Reading Lewis is a good antidote to this mindset. In Mere Christianity, he talks about how people in love naturally incline to bind themselves together with promises of lasting devotion. (“The Christian law is not forcing upon the passion of love something which is foreign to that passion’s own nature: It is demanding that lovers should take seriously something which their passion of itself impels them to do.”) But remaining in love cannot be the basis for keeping that promise. “A promise must be about things that I can do, about actions,” he writes. “No one can promise to go on feeling in a certain way. He might as well promise never to have a headache or always to feel hungry.”

Lewis doesn’t diminish the value of being in love: “It helps to make us generous and courageous, it opens our eyes not only to the beauty of the beloved but to all beauty, and it subordinates (especially at first) our merely animal sexuality; in that sense, love is the great conqueror of lust.” But he puts it in perspective:

“Being in love is a good thing, but it is not the best thing. There are many things below it, but there are also things above it. You cannot make it the basis of a whole life. It is a noble feeling, but it is still a feeling. Now no feeling can be relied on to last in its full intensity, or even to last at all. Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last but feelings come and go. And in fact, whatever people say, the state called ‘being in love’ usually does not last. If the old fairy-tale ending ‘They lived happily ever after’ is taken to mean ‘They felt for the next 50 years exactly as they felt the day before they were married,’ then it says what probably never was nor ever would be true, and would be highly undesirable if it were. Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships?”

Then he gets to the most important point:

“But, of course, ceasing to be ‘in love’ need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense — love as distinct from ‘being in love’ — is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be ‘in love’ with someone else. ‘Being in love’ first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.

That’s the attitude to cultivate in yourself and to seek in a spouse. How many marriages break up not because one or both spouses is behaving intolerably (adultery, abuse, abandonment), but simply because they’re bored or feel “unfulfilled” or “want different things” or “grow apart?” This is a big part of how you combat that — not by seeking the emotional thrills you may once have felt (or never did, but wish you had) with a new partner or new life path, but by letting go of the quest for thrills in favor of mature appreciation.

And when you do, Lewis notes, a surprising thing has a way of happening: You discover a new kind of thrills and a new kind of love — deeper, richer and more lasting than what you knew before.

“The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life, and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.

About the Author

Matt Kaufman

Matt Kaufman has been a columnist for Boundless since the site’s founding in 1998, and did a stint as editor in 2002-2003. He’s also a former staffer and current contributing editor for Focus on the Family Citizen magazine. Matt is a freelance writer/editor who spent some years in Colorado, but gave up the mountains for the cornfields: He now lives in his hometown of Urbana, home of the University of Illinois. His house is a five minute drive from the one where he grew up, and he enjoys daily walks around the park where he used to play baseball.