A few months after we were married, church leadership “strongly encouraged” us to attend a marriage workshop. Frankly, attendance wasn’t optional. To maintain our good standing in church, we were more or less required to attend these workshops. And participate (which was code for: take lots of notes, be enthusiastic! and never, ever ask a question that challenged the speaker’s ideas).
I hated these workshops. They gave me panic attacks because the message we heard was always the same: Love isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice. Love isn’t about passion or attraction. It’s about sacrifice. Your feelings will lead you astray. Follow God’s will and feelings will follow! Control your feelings. If it feels good, it’s probably sinful! Whatever you do, don’t trust your feelings!
Time and again I’d sit through these lectures while the workshop leader hammered his point into us. Love isn’t a feeling! Love is a choice!
Looking back, I can see how harmful it was to divorce love from feeling. I understand the intention was good–many Christians have felt the need to offer a corrective against a feelings-only approach to love and marriage. But I believe that corrective has gone too far and resulted in unintended, tragic consequences.
The first negative consequence was a breakdown of communication. Since I wasn’t allowed to feel what I felt or even admit that I felt something outside the “Approved Range of Emotions,” I found myself totally silenced. I literally could not even find the words to describe what I was experiencing because I was scared. I knew that if I said I felt confused, worried, fearful or angry (feelings that were DEFINITELY outside the approval zone) it was the same as confessing my lack of self-control/sinful attitude/rebellious spirit. And even if I did work up the courage to express what I was feeling, I was told “you shouldn’t be feeling that way.”
In other words, there was no way to say what I felt–or even feel what I felt–without being punished for it.
The second negative consequence was that I truly began to believe my husband didn’t really love me and/or that I was inherently unlovable. I mean, I knew he loved me. But I didn’t feel it. There was a huge disconnect. As long as love stayed up in an ivory tower making highly-intellectual pronouncements about love being a DECISION of the MIND!, a fulfillment of DUTY! and a KEEPING OF THE VOWS!–I could not connect. I tried. Oh, how I tried. But something was missing.
And in related news, do you have any idea how difficult it is for a woman to achieve orgasm during sex if there is very little emotional connection? I mean, sure. I could achieve orgasm in a manually-operated, strictly-business, DOING MY DUTY kind of way. I could have sex “by the book.” But by squashing my emotions (love isn’t attraction, it’s sacrifice!), sex just seemed like a lot of mechanical work. We started having better, more intimate, emotionally-connected sex once I was all: MATT! I’M ATTRACTED TO YOU! I HAVE FEEEEEELINGS FOR YOU! And he was all: I’M ATTRACTED TO YOU! And then we were both like: OH! IT’S OK TO ENJOY THIS!
Even after we left the cult, it took me years of therapy to finally acknowledge the importance of my feelings, especially in the bedroom.
This constant disconnection led to the third and worst consequence of all: I became deeply, horribly depressed. I wanted to die. In fact, dying looked like a blessed relief. Dying meant an end to the constant pain of living without feelings of love. I really thought something was terribly wrong with me–spiritually, morally and physically. I mean, what was so wrong with me that I couldn’t just BELIEVE and make a DECISION OF THE WILL and CHOOSE to love? It seemed to work for everybody else! WHY couldn’t I just get with the program? Was there some sort of unconfessed sin in my life? Had God maybe predestined me for Hell?
It has taken me nearly ten years and countless hours of therapy to undo the damage of ignoring, suppressing, shaming and denying my human emotions. Quite honestly, our marriage was saved because we both started being honest and accepting of our emotions.
What I have learned is that when it comes to love, separating feelings of love from actions of love is a false dichotomy. We are human beings, we are not disembodied spirits. Our feelings and emotions are just as much a part of us as is our mind, will and intellect. And it is dangerous to compartmentalize, separate and shut-down ANY part of our humanness.
I’ve also learned that loving actions don’t just appear out of nowhere. They are sourced from loving feelings. Yes, it’s important to behave lovingly even if we don’t feel loving. However, to say that love isn’t a feeling AT ALL but ONLY an action is to unintentionally degrade the importance of loving feelings. It is the kind of teaching that falsely elevates the importance of the mind over the importance of our God-given human emotions.
Love is feeling AND action.
Love is passion AND sacrifice.
Love is attraction AND commitment.
Love is an adjective AND a verb.
Love is word AND deed.
Love isn’t JUST a choice.
Love is also a feeling.