Love is a…choice?

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. 

  • Joshua Lawrence

    Good Points, All. This sort of mis-education was probably as important a factor as any in the dissolution of my own marriage, Elizabeth. I had fully absorbed the “IT’S A CHOICE!!” mantra, and unfortunately that was all my wife was able to hear, and it wounded her deeply. I suppose the best outcome of it all is that now I get to ensure that my son never has to go through what I have to unlearn that “choice-only-or-at-least-mostly” lesson.

  • JessieLeigh

    Oh, I love when you make me think, EE. :)

    I am one who is guilty of telling people that love is a choice. That it is a verb. I never considered that such a statement would suggest the suppression of feelings, but I can now understand how that might happen.

    There is indeed danger in disconnecting feelings from the choice. There is also danger in assuming that the feelings alone will get you through anything that comes your way– for me, THAT’S where the choice comes into play. I cringe when I hear couples express surprise that tough things happened and that– surprise, surprise– their affection toward one another didn’t fix it. Sometimes, love is “what you do” even when you might not feel it at the moment.

    I wrote about this in a lot more detail about a year ago right here:http://www.parentingmiracles.net/2012/02/love-is-a-verb/ (feel free to delete that, if you wish– not trying to pimp myself in your comments… I just didn’t want to leave a book here, either. ;) )

    • Christine

      The other important thing to remember about love as a choice, is that what you are choosing is a feeling. All those choices I make? They are so that (and because) I FEEL love for my husband.

  • http://www.jesusrockstar.tumblr.com/ Bethany Grace Paget

    I just really want to say to you today that I love you. I love your vulnerability in continuing to share your story because through that I’m able to say “I’m my gosh me too”
    Thank you Elizabeth.

  • RoboPA

    You continue to speak truth against the emotionally repressive things that continue to hold people in the church bondage. Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    I have come to focus very strongly on love as a choice because I think in general the larger culture focuses so myopically on the feelings aspect–which, let’s face it, are a mixed bag and constantly changing; nothing very “love is forever” about them–that I think it feeds into the culture of divorce and lack of commitment and general dysfunction. But you’re right, the feelings are part of it too. I think for a lot of people, the feelings follow the actions. In your case, it sounds like it’s the other way around.

    • http://twitter.com/waywardson23 James

      Yes.

      My parents divorced when I was young, so I always got this message out of the phrase “love is a choice”. It means you stick together and make things work, even if the feelings aren’t always there. I always wondered why my parents could get along so well, but not enough to stay married.

      The more posts I read on “Purity culture”, the more I think it is “opposite world”. I had no idea people thought this way. I see it as being an extreme reaction to secular culture. I think it has taken good things, like modesty, chastity, self-control, and prudence, and made them into obsessions.

  • http://evenonesparrow.blogspot.com even one sparrow

    This is a really smart post. I think you’re completely on target here. I guess I’ve always been a part of the “Love is a Choice” camp, but I’ve also known/expressed that feeling has to be involved here. I didn’t marry my husband only because I CHOSE to, but also because I was wildly attracted to EVERYTHING about him, and still am! Yes, during the moments when we argue there are times when I want to run away screaming but CHOOSE to stay. There is a LOT of action and choice INVOLVED, but there is still oh-so-much feeling. Thanks for helping me see that it’s not an either/or thing like we Christians tend to make things, but a very interconnected web of both.

  • Nancy

    I don’t think love should be an either/or dichotomy between feeling and “choice.” I do think it’s important to emphasize to dating/engaged couples that trouble will inevitably come your way, though — and feelings alone will not get you through a 3-year-long rough patch in your marriage, for example. (And neither will gutting it out, “choosing” to act loving, at great cost to being fully engaged as a human being.)
    That’s why I appreciate the example of Christ — he was fully loving, and “chose” to love (even to the point of great pain and death), but he was also fully engaged emotionally. One of my favorite passages is where Christ weeps because of Lazarus’ death. What extravagant tears — Jesus knows He’s going to raise Lazarus from the dead, so why is he crying? That tells me that feeling and expressing emotion is part of being completely alive (otherwise the only perfect Person wouldn’t have indulged in that kind of outward display of emotion).

  • Melissa

    Ah like most things… love is better as BOTH/AND, instead of Either/Or. Thank you for pointing out how we tend to entrench ourselves in one camp or another (regardless of the issue)!

  • http://lovingfromtheinsideout.blogspot.com Connie

    Oh, the damage that has been done by black-and-white thinking. I was a fellow victim of it–and still have lots of work to do to overcome its damage and find a healthier mindset. Thank you for this.
    P.S. I heart you.

  • http://twitter.com/Kendall_Ashley Kendall Ashley

    I love this. The feeling of love and the actions of love are so important. To take away one is to cheapen it and to rob us of what makes us human and what makes love so great. It is okay–and healthy–to validate our emotions. Awesome post!

  • http://twitter.com/frognparis Rebecca Erwin

    As always, beautiful freedom. Something for Holy Spirit and I to work on today. Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Love is not a choice, like will I wear my blue jeans or my black jeans. That cheapens love. I do know that love is not just a feeling but an action. If all you did was say that you loved someone (spouse, child, parent), but did not show that love through loving acts, the words would have no meaning. This is why when some who tell me, “I love you”, I think, “Right, sure, prove it.” Because they never care to see me again.

    Love is a choice in that because of my feelings, I continue to show love to my spouse and kids, even when I am so angry fire should be coming from my ears. But because of that love, I don’t burn the house down!

    Love can be a choice in those cultures where there are arranged marriages. Where you don’t even know your spouse until after you are married. But to live relatively closely in a church environment but can’t express anything for 20 or more years is nuts!

    But to say that God is love and then say love is a choice is goofy. Then you are implying that God chooses to love some and not others. And that is NOT the case. God sent his only son to be sacrificed for our sins. All of us. All humans for all time. Not just the goody ones. Not just those who will go to heaven. But ALL! After all, none are good.

    EE – you are enabling me to understand how ‘ordinary’ churches can be a cult. It makes me sorrowful.

  • Kreine

    Yes. Yes! YES!!! As a former IFB and an ENFP, I totally relate. I would get internally furious whenever I heard “preaching” against our God-given emotions (still do, actually).

    I think different personality types may naturally make a mental decision and their emotions line up accordingly. My husband is INTJ, and for him, feelings are peripheral. He does have and experience emotions, but for him, emotions are not as “real” (for lack of a better word) as logic.

    You’re right that the Church creates a false dichotomy regarding emotions, especially love. Just as we all experience life differently, so to do we feeeeeel differently. My feelings enhance my Christianity in a similar way that my husband’s application of logic enhances his Christianity. Neither is wrong or needs to be fixed in order to please God.

    • LyricalPolyphony

      I think you may be on to something with the personality types. I am an INTJ, and it has always been easier for me to sweet feelings aside or live without them for a bit than it is for my husband, who is more emotionally driven.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.williamson2 Jason Williamson

    Love is a word that is defined so differently across different areas of life. I might say in the same breath that I love my wife, and I love pizza. It’s assumed that I mean drastically different things, but we use love interchangeably to describe many different emotions and choices throughout the day. Any time I see a post on love I am going to have to assume that it will be more of a matter of semantics than anything.

    I would say that in the most extreme technical form love is a choice, but what really needs to happen is that we need, as english speakers, to incorporate more descriptive words when it comes to talking about things like love. It is difficult to even frame a productive debate on words like love until focused, specific definitions are agreed upon.

  • http://www.wineandmarble.com/ Hännah

    hold me.

  • LyricalPolyphony

    Love is a choice, and feelings, and knowing and being known. Repressing emotions is not loving, because it is not being open, honest, and vulnerable and it robs the beloved of knowledge of our true self. Loving involves the choice to allow feelings, rather than always repressing them. I don’t think that a happy marriage can happen without commitment, as I don’t think that a marriage will be happy without any loving feelings. I also don’t think it’s always volitionally possible to turn feelings on and off; I think it plays out differently for different personality types too.

  • http://twitter.com/DandelionHaven Kateri

    Wow, yes. Absolutely. And just another reason I am glad I didn’t get married until I was 7 years outside of that culture.

  • http://somewiseguy.com/ ThatGuyKC

    This is beautiful. I love it. :)

    I think the false dichotomy of OR is pervasive in other areas of life as well. Granted there are situations where decisions are required, but there is power in AND when it comes to love.

  • http://www.adamshome.blogspot.com Erin Adams

    This is a great post, Elizabeth!
    Feeling the love is HUGE!

  • Elise Daly Parker

    Hi Elizabeth, I met you at Allume and have been so moved by your story. I was just reading a post, a very beautiful one about someone who left a cult with her husband. And I thought of you and wanted to let her know where to find you. I started reading your site and landed here. So interesting, I am speaking with MOPs women in a few weeks on the topic of marriage. And I am definitely going to talk about the concept of Love is a Decision, which I actually learned through our experience in Engaged Encounter as part of our marriage prep 28 years ago. I will be sure to include it’s also a feeling…I’d go so far as to say many feelings! I wasn’t taught it was a decision to the exclusion of feelings, but more for those times when you weren’t feeling so romantic or loving towards one another. And this has actually helped me decide to be loving–kind, forgiving, nurturing, even when I don’t feel like it. (And there have been those times in these 30+ years together!!) I really like your “AND” and think for me it’s a word in due season. Thank you and bless you!

  • http://www.servingjoyfully.com/ Crystal

    I think you can definitely take it too far. But I can kind of see the “love is a choice, not a feeling” thing. God calls us to act in a certain way. One thing is that God’s word says we shouldn’t get divorced, and if we do, we shouldn’t remarry. Our current society, even among Christians, says “if you’re unhappy, go ahead and get divorced.” And I’m not talking about issues of abuse, or anything like that…so many couples divorce simply because they just don’t feel like being married anymore. Or couples commit adultery because that does feel right. So, I agree that we can take it too far, but I also believe that we can go too far w/ the what feels good thing.