By Dr. Danny B Purvis
In my last post I ended by teasing the fact that I was going to suck the fun out of love. That is not precisely true, but some of you will think I am giving it a good try. This, of course, is not my intent but I do want us to be able to get a good handle on what love is…and almost as importantly…what it is not. Last post we took a brief love at what love is…for the most part. I maintain that it is impossible to love anyone (especially your spouse) without having a personal, intimate relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean that people who are not Believers cannot express some type of love to others…it simply means that it will only be a weak facsimile of the love God wants us to enjoy. If God is love (and He is), and you do not have a relationship with God…then it stands to reason that you will not be able to tap into that reservoir of love that emanates from God. I covered all of this in the last post and will not re-hash that now. I recommend you read Part Two before you read this one for a fuller discussion of that idea.
I had not intended to spend quite this much time on this element of the pyramid, but it is vitally important to our paradigm that we properly understand what love is if we exist under the assumption that love is the basis of a marriage relationship. And while last post dealt mostly with the Biblical aspects of love and how it relates to marriage, let us now look at a couple of different aspects of love that are errant in their presuppositions regarding the ultimate human personal relationship on the planet…the relationship between and husband and a wife.
I never watched the JJ Abrams television show Lost as it originally aired. It aired on ABC for six seasons between 2004 and 2010. However, like many folks, I did catch up with it once it hit Netflix. Actually, my wife and kids started watching it to begin with and constantly raved about the show. After a while I became too curious to hold out any longer, and I joined in as well. There was a great deal I liked about the show. The stories (for the most part) were interesting and the characters were (for the most part) compelling. For the record…I was a huge fan of Mr. Echo. For those of you who are purveyors of the show, you know that the stories were sometimes very convoluted and non-linear. Sometimes it made sense…sometimes not so much. There were also a large number of subplots due to the large cast. It is one of the things I enjoyed about the show. One subplot in particular is very germane to this discussion and it concerns the main female protagonist Kate Austen.
Without getting too much into the woods…there was a background story related to Kate in which she was on the run from the law after killing her mother’s abusive husband. This guy was not Kate’s biological father, and she had watched her mother systematically abused for years at the hands of this terrible man. She rigged an explosion to look like an accident and afterwards made the mistake of telling her mother…sure her mother would side with Kate. She misjudged…badly. Kate’s mother informed the police about the murder perpetrated by her daughter, which sent Kate on the run. The inevitable confrontation with her mother was teased for seasons on the show until it eventually happened.
Kate finally got the opportunity to confront her mother and try to understand why she would choose an alcoholic, abusive husband over her own flesh and blood. The answer she received from her mother is representative of the idea too many people have about love and why it constantly eludes them. When Kate asked that all-important question…her mother responded: “You can’t help who you love”. I am 51 years old. I think I have gotten to the place in my life where I can honestly say that I have a certain amount of wisdom. Wisdom is different than knowledge. There are a large number of extremely smart people out there who have the wisdom of a mentally defective woodchuck (for all of you woodchuck lovers out there…I apologize). Age helps with wisdom…but it’s no guarantee. I have seen plenty of older folks who have lived a rich, full life with a myriad of experiences and still have little to no wisdom at all. I have seen younger folks with not nearly the life experiences with a great deal of wisdom. I have seen a lot…experienced a lot…learned a lot…and been educated a lot. And that statement made by Kate’s mother is one of the single most idiotic statements I have ever heard a human being utter.
Before you say, hey…those words were put there by a writer in a fictional show…let me tell you something. I have heard that statement and others congruous with that one from hundreds of people I have counseled over that past 20 years. I have seen that very same message preached from the prophets of the secular via their mediums in television, movies and songs. That errant view of love has even made it into our vernacular on the subject. How many times have you heard…or even said…something about “falling in love”? I was an English major in college…I cane to the conclusion a long time ago that words mean things. They are not just throwaway platitudes. There is something much deeper related to the words we speak and that is extremely true with the phrase: I fell in love.
Just look at the verbiage here for a second. The phrase seems to imply that it really has nothing to do with us…that it’s not really our fault. I fell in love just as I fell in that hole I didn’t see the other day. I was just walking around minding my own business…and bam! I fell into a hole…then I fell in love. Neither of these things were my fault…it just happened. After all, you can’t help who you love. Oh, and by the way…if I fell in love with this person…and I couldn’t help it…then it’s not my fault if I fall out of love…right? See the problem here. We do not take responsibility for our love. It just happens. Nobody’s fault. Then I fall in love with someone else…nobody’s fault. Want to see a perfect example of this lunacy? Watch Meg Ryan’s character in Sleepless in Seattle. You can see what this does to love. It relegates it to a construct that is based almost exclusively on feelings. The single biggest mistake all people can make with love in the marriage relationship (Believers do this as well…all the time) is to deconstruct love so that it exists simply as a feeling.
Are there feelings associated with love? Yes! There are wonderful, amazing, extraordinary, nothing-else-like-it feelings associated with being in love. It is the single most intimate relationship we can have with another human being. And the feelings are incredible. We all like those feelings…long for those feelings…will join 50 different dating sites so we can experience those feelings. But while we are taking a moment to laud the feelings associated with love…let me ask you a very important question. What happens when those feelings are not there? What happens when they wane? What happens when your spouse does something that makes you angry, disappointed, and frustrated? Do you feel love then? When you are in the midst of a huge argument with your spouse (which WILL happen)…how are those tingly love feelings working out then? Oh, you’ve got tingly feelings at that point alright…they just have more to do with rage than love.
As I have pointed out…I have professionally counseled more than 1,000 married couples over the past 20 years. And one of the lines I heard more that any other is: I’m not in love with him anymore; I fell out of love with her; I fell in love with someone else. See the mentality behind those statements. The statements are constructed almost as if to suggest that their newfound lack of love for their spouse is not their fault. It is no more their fault then falling into that hole last week. Oh well…what are you gonna do?
People have asked me from time to time to name what I think is the number one reason people get divorced…as it relates to the marriages that I have seen that did not make it. I do not hesitate with my answer. They think I will say; infidelity or substance abuse or physical abuse. In my experience those are not the reasons the vast majority of people get divorced. The number one reason I have seen…time and time again…is this: unrealistic expectations. One or both of the couples come into that marriage with an expectation of what marriage is supposed to be that is as closely linked to reality as a raven is to a writing desk (my thanks to Lewis Carroll). I remember one Marine coming into my office prior to his getting married to get some advice. He was 18 years old…getting ready to marry another 18 year old. I tried my best to talk him out of it…no dice. Having failed at that, we talked about being married.
He offered this interesting statement to me. He said, “I have one goal for my marriage.” I was ecstatic. At least he had one goal. That was one goal more than most of the people I counseled. So I asked him what his goal was. He answered: My goal is to make sure my wife stays happy all the time. I was visibly less ecstatic after that statement. My reply: Son, you do realize there is a pretty good chance you will mess that up by the end of the evening once you get home, right? I was not sure what I was most surprised about…the fact that he said that out loud or that he actually believed it? Think about what he said (which, by the way, he probably said many times to his swooning 18 year old fiancé). He has decided that he himself is going to be personally responsible for another human being’s happiness. I told him as nicely and as plainly as I could: You will fail. You cannot be responsible for another person’s happiness. You can contribute to it…detract from it…but not be responsible for it. The first time he fails at that, his wife will blame him for not completing something that he was powerless to complete. He will first blame himself…and then blame her. I’m only human, he’ll think. What does she want from me, he’ll think. See where I’m going with this?
When love is relegated to only a feeling, the pressure is there to constantly experience that feeling. And feelings/emotions are funny things. They cannot be sustained indefinitely. Have you ever tried to stay angry for 24 hours a day, seven days a week? It’s exhausting…you can’t do it if you tried. Are you happy all the time? Of course not. Why? Because emotions are tied almost exclusively to outside stimuli. I can be the happiest guy in the world…get devastating news…and be the saddest guy in the world in a matter of seconds (read Job). I can be angry or disappointed and get great news only to have those emotions wane almost as quickly as they began. You absolutely cannot feel and emotion all the time now matter what…and that includes love if you expressly link it as a feeling.
The biggest problem with linking love as only a feeling…and we all enjoy those feelings…and we have the unrealistic expectation that we will feel that particular feeling with our spouse all the time…we are in huge trouble when we don’t feel that feeling. Huge trouble. We turn marriage into a performance. If I believe it is my spouse who should make me “feel” love…and I think the only arbiter of love is how I feel…then everything is great…so long as my spouse performs. I have lost count of how many couples came into my office on the brink of divorce for no obvious reason, only to tell me that marriage “wasn’t what I expected”. When I ask them what they expected, I listen to them outline to me what they thought marriage and their spouse would be like. Their expectations were unbelievable. They all related to the idea that their spouse would respond to them exactly as they should all the time…would never be harsh with them…would do the right things at the right time…and understand them completely. I would then ask the following question: What ever gave you the idea marriage would be like that?
I would then tell them that if they were putting an ad in the paper as if this were a job…and put those qualifications in there…that no one would take that job. I would also tell them that if they married 1,000 people…they would never find someone to match those expectations.
I love the feelings I have for my bride. But that’s not how I know I love her. I love her because I chose to love her. She chose to love me. She didn’t “fall” in love with me…because I would be terrified she would “fall” out of love with me…nobody’s fault. We choose to love our spouses and don’t just treat it as a feeling for one very important reason: Our spouses will let us down. They will be untruthful at times. They will hurt our feelings. They will sometimes ignore us. They will be grumpy. In other words…they will be human. That’s why it is of the utmost importance that we understand the ever-prevalent dangers of treating love exclusively as a feeling. It is not. Because if it is…then when the feeling goes away…so does the love. The world will tell you over and over again that love is a feeling…because the world doesn’t care whether your marriage survives or not. I do care. That’s why I’m telling you the truth. Ravi Zacharias once said: Love is as much an act of the will as it is an emotion of the heart. Choose to love your broken, sinful spouse. Because we are all broken and sinful…and we all need that love.
Dr. Purvis started Growth Project with Robert Houghton after spending 20 years on active duty as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. After many moves and multiple deployments, he settled in Winter Haven, Florida to do God’s will. A glutton for educational punishment Danny has a BA in English from Carson-Newman College, an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary; a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary; and a PhD in Organizational Leadership from Regent University. He has been married to his wife Kimberly (whom he met when they were 6 years old) for nearly 30 years and they have four wonderful children.