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Anybody Know What Love Is?

Love in its fullness never just happens; love that lasts is won.

The yellow rancher on Mulberry Lane is the home where Tanya and Rick, Tanya’s estranged husband, spent their nine years of married life. Today, neighborhood kids run circles in the front yard, while the youngest child — dressed in swim trunks splattered with mud from running through the sprinkler — drinks blue Kool-Aid out of a sippy cup, which he euphemistically calls “juice.” Some moms and dads, Tanya and her new live-in boyfriend among them, loiter on a cement slab that serves as a porch. When conversation turns to relationships, Tanya loudly voices her disillusionment: “Don’t ever get married.”

Tanya loves her husband, but she’s not in love with him anymore. “He’s a good man, and a great father,” she says. “I love him, but I’m not in love with him. I love him as a friend, as the father [of my children], but I don’t feel that connection as I used to … like, not at all.”

Rick lives down the street, comes by five times a day to see the kids, and is still great friends with Tanya. While we talk, Rick texts Tanya at least five times and then drives over in his beige caravan to take the kids to McDonald’s. When they came back, Eliza — the 6 year old with lobster red hair — hands her mom a PB-and-J sandwich in a Ziploc and a bag of Doritos. “Rick knows that it’s hard for me to get up with my back hurting this way, so he makes me sandwiches for dinner and sends them over with the kids,” Tanya explains. After 11 years of being together, the two care for one another deeply, share financial burdens and want the best for their kids. But the initial spark of inloveness is gone, and in Tanya’s mind, that means their marriage is “nonexistent.”

“I Wanna Know What Love Is”

For Tanya, there is a difference between being in love and love. “When you are in love with someone you can’t wait to be around him; you still get the butterflies. When he’s at work, you can’t wait to see him, can’t wait till he comes walking through the door…. I mean, you can love people as friends, or love them because they gave you a great 11 years, or because they gave you two beautiful children, but there’s just a huge difference between loving somebody and being in love with somebody.” And when you “just” love somebody, but are missing the inloveness, it’s not worth staying in the relationship.

Tanya’s story raises an important question: What is this thing that we call falling in love, and how important is it? What happens if the feelings fade?What is this thing that we call falling in love, and how important is it?

Since we’ve been married, we’ve found ourselves asking the same questions. During the year and a half that we dated, being in love was a fact of life: We always wanted to see each other, always wanted to kiss each other, always craved alone time together (sometimes, admittedly, resenting any friends who intruded into our rose-colored world). And when we were first married, life was much the same. Though we lived in New York City, we might as well have been on a deserted island. However, as time goes on, the intensity of desire changes. We don’t feel compelled to touch each other constantly; we’re able to think of something for five minutes without thoughts of the other intruding, and we’re no longer at risk for excessive public displays of affection (ahem).

Sometimes it made us wonder: Were we falling out of love? What did that mean? If you aren’t “in love” can you still have real and lasting marital love?

In our interviews with young adults such as Tanya for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project — a study of young adults’ views on relationships, children and marriage in one small Ohio town — we discovered that many of us have about as clear a vision of what romantic love is as a sailor has of the sea on a foggy New England morning. Like Tanya said, the common conception seems to be that if the feelings of being in love end, so does the relationship. And yet, on the other hand, we acknowledge that true love lasts forever, that it takes sacrifice and compromise and unconditional commitment.

Three Views of Inloveness

So what does falling in love really mean?

One possibility is that, as Tanya believes, falling in love is the height and essence of the love between man and woman. If for whatever reason feelings fade, then it means that the relationship is no longer any good.

A second possibility is that “falling in love” is a misnomer, that what a person falls into is not love, but mere infatuation and perhaps even lust. If this is the case, the trick is to dismiss your emotions and senses as temptations to foolishness and sin, and to instead see love as a rational act of sheer willpower.

A third (and may we suggest the best) possibility is that falling in love is participating in and preparing for true love. That’s basically what C.S. Lewis thought. In The Four Loves, Lewis suggests:

The event of falling in love is of such a nature that we are right to reject as intolerable the idea that it should be transitory. In one high bound it has overleaped the massive wall of our selfhood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the centre of our being. Spontaneously and without effort we have fulfilled the law (toward one person) by loving our neighbor as ourselves. It is an image, a foretaste, of what we must become to all if Love Himself rules in us without a rival. It is even (well used) a preparation for that.

In this view, falling in love is a kind of natural grace that enables us to discover the other person. It’s a miracle. It helps selfish humans like us get outside of ourselves enough to the point that we are able to look past our own well-being and the sins of the other person and declare that we want to be with that person for the rest of our lives. Considering the obstinacy of our selfishness, that’s quite an accomplishment.

Three Dangers of Inloveness

So if inloveness is such a wonderful grace, isn’t Tanya right to end her marriage when feelings disappear? Didn’t we have a reason to be scared when the newlywed sparks started to dissipate?

Not necessarily. As Lewis recognizes, “being in love” is not the be all and end all. It may be a path to true and lasting love, but it is by no means the final destination. For as wonderful as inloveness is, it has its limitations and dangers.

1. Using the Person

One danger is that what a person calls “being in love” is merely desiring the other person’s body. We say “merely” because of course attraction to another person’s body is entirely appropriate and natural — but that attraction must be integrated into a deep respect and love for the person. If left to itself, that attraction can become use of the other person’s body for one’s own enjoyment, rather than love.

2. Idealizing the Person

A second danger is idealization. Idealization, defined as the exaggeration of particular qualities in the other person, may not necessarily be bad. Indeed, it may suggest a certain keenness of sight into the other person — the ability to see qualities in the other person that escape the ordinary person.

If idealization is an error, it is a childlike error. The lover who idealizes his beloved is like the boy convinced that his father is the greatest baseball player in the world — nobody hits the ball as hard as Dad does. When the boy grows up, he will probably discover that his dad is not as good as he thought he was. But we do not fault the child for idealizing his father; indeed, the child’s tendency toward idealization is often a source of inspiration for the father to become a better man. Similarly, the lover’s tendency to discover and exaggerate the best in the beloved may be a constant source of inspiration for the other to be the best that he or she can be.

But idealization that is based on little, if any, resemblance to the truth about the other person makes the couple’s love particularly vulnerable. John Paul II notes how over time, if there is a glaring discrepancy between the ideal and the real, sentimental love may become a great source of disillusionment. Just like sensual attraction, our emotions — and their tendency to idealize the other person — must be drawn into a deep and mature love for the person based on the truth.

3. Stunting Love

A third danger is the belief that the love we experience when falling in love is the summit of love — when it’s actually only the beginning of an even deeper, lifelong love. Sometimes we may think that the inloveness of courtship is the peak of love and that marriage and life after “I do” is the steady but sure descent from that breathless height. And given the great passion of inloveness, this is understandable. I (David) remember in the first year of our courtship how I longed always to be with Amber and how she was fixed always in my thoughts. When I was in the midst of that “rush” of feeling, I wondered how my love could possibly ascend any higher.

But then I would think of the future: What if (to use an extreme example), the day after we married, she became suddenly paralyzed and I had to care for her every day for the rest of her life? Would I still love her if I lost my job and we could barely afford groceries? Would I still love her when the kids were screaming? What if we found out we couldn’t have children? As much as I said “I will always love you!” then, how could I claim to stand at the pinnacle of love when my love for Amber was still so fresh and young and untested? Being in love is one thing; loving someone unconditionally through all of life’s changes is a deeper love still.

What I think I heard through the experience of inloveness was the voice of love aspiring to reach to the heights — impelling me to go onward and upward to discover deeper depths of love. It is right and good that the young lover declares, “I will go to the ends of the earth for you!” For “unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies it bears much fruit.” How shall love bear much fruit lest the lover is prepared to commit his all to the beloved? This is the genius of inloveness — it prepares us to “die,” to give up everything for the beloved.

The Person’s Creative Contribution to Love

But the actual “dying,” the actual “giving up everything for the beloved” — that doesn’t just “happen” to us. (Although the experience of falling in love often does just “happen” to us, as if some tidal wave were carrying us out to sea.) For love to be all that it aspires to be, for love to bear much fruit, love demands our creative contribution. As John Paul II said, “Love should be seen as something which in a sense never ‘is’ but is always only ‘becoming,’ and what it becomes depends upon the contribution of both persons and the depth of their commitment…. Man is a being condemned, so to speak, to create.” In other words, a 50-year happy marriage is not something that simply “happens” to a couple; the couple is responsible for shaping and creating their love from the materials they are given.

This vocation of man and woman to create and to shape feelings of inloveness into a love sturdy and enduring is something that most of us, including Tanya, intuitively recognize. (Despite the flaky notions of inloveness that we inherit from Hollywood chick flicks and from friends who say it’s not worth staying with someone if he or she doesn’t make you happy.) Tanya admits that often marriages can work if people choose to make a creative contribution: “There are a lot of compromises [one can make]. I’ve learned since we’ve been split up that I didn’t make the compromise and neither did he. And it probably would have saved our marriage if we had listened to each other a little bit more.”

Tanya’s insight captures an important truth — a truth that we came to understand when we were questioning whether or not we were “falling out of love.”As thrilling as the thralls of inloveness are, love in its fullness never just happens; love that lasts is won. It is won through a hundred daily acts of charity over thousands of days that become a lifetime of years. Yet with that said, falling in love is still a beautiful grace that we do well to appreciate. It enables us to get outside of ourselves and emboldens us to commit to the one we love. But falling in love is a grace insufficient by itself. It also calls for our participation — our creative contribution — if inloveness is to be transformed to a love unconditional, if our vows of love are to become a lasting reality.

Copyright 2011 David and Amber Lapp. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Amber Lapp

Amber Lapp is co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America project, a study on the family formation of young adults in one small town in Ohio, along with her husband, David.

About the Author

David Lapp

David Lapp is co-investigator of the Love and Marriage in Middle America project, a study on the family formation of young adults in one small town in Ohio, along with his wife, Amber.

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