Thanks to my friend Darren Speers for writing this article.
Think about the romantic relationships you see around you: the real ones, not the scripted effluent the entertainment media feed us. How long do most of those real relationships last? Who tends to end them: the guy or the girl? Why do they end: unfaithfulness; boredom; problems with commitment; they’re not in love anymore? Now think about the successful relationships you know: why do they last? Is the couple always in love with one another? Do they never fight? How do they deal with money troubles and differences in personality?
No one seems to be taught that loving a person is not same as being in love with them. If we do learn the difference it is through experience – ours or someone else’s – although the experience doesn’t guarantee we’ll learn the lesson. I hope that reading these few pages is the only cost you’ll ever have to pay.
The difference between love and being in love is the difference between you and me, between give and take, between sacrifice and selfishness. It is an astronomical difference: who is the centre of your universe?
Being in love is passive: we feel it. As we grow up, we develop a picture of the ideal partner. We imagine their physical appearance, their personality, and other aspects. If we meet someone who fits this ideal our brain floods our body with endorphins, chemicals that make us feel like we’re walking on air. This feeling can last for several months to two years. (Chocolate and other substances cause our brain to release endorphins as well.) Some people don’t like this explanation; they feel it takes the mystery out of the experience by reducing human experience to nothing more than chemistry. But the fact doesn’t make the experience less valid or less enjoyable.
On the other hand, to love is active: we do it. Love is an attitude that chooses to do what is best for another person rather than what is easiest or more pleasurable for us. General Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur) said it well: “love, infinitely tender to its object, is equally capable of being infinitely tyrannical to itself.” This is why parents should discipline their children – make them exercise and practise and study and eat what they’re given – and punish them if necessary, despite the kids’ wailings: “You’re mean!”, “I hate you!”, “My real parents wouldn’t make me do that!” (Where do kids learn this emotional blackmail?) Parents who love their children will prepare them to live as independent and responsible adults. This preparation won’t necessarily be pleasant for any of them but it is ultimately for everyone’s best interests.
So the obvious question is, how do we know what is best for a person? Well, there are some actions that are always for a person’s good: being respectful, truthful, courteous, merciful, and just, for example. Sometimes the choice might be obvious: we’re out with a friend who is a recovering alcoholic, so we choose to avoid the pub. The issue is usually not what we do but how we do it: we may not know, in any given situation, precisely what is for a person’s best; nevertheless, even if we are mistaken we’re still making the right essential choice: we put their needs before our desires. At another time, they might have to make a similar choice about us.
You may ask, What if what is best for me conflicts with what is best for them? I can’t actually imagine a situation where that will be true. Generally, what is best for each of us will be the same, even if we don’t like it at the time; even if it means one of us is happy with the result and one of us isn’t.
You might be thinking that love equals sacrifice. It does. By its nature, offering a sacrifice is painful but how much it hurts depends on what we give up. Do we get rid of a favourite shirt, or of some extra weight, or our pride? Do we give up a hobby, or a job promotion, or our Sunday sleep-in? How much the sacrifice hurts depends on how much we value it, compared to how much we value the person we love.
Here is a classical description of what love looks like in action:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.
Patience means we calmly endure the beloved’s short-comings and failures: when the boy doesn’t put the toilet seat down; when the girl doesn’t tell you that the oil light has been on for a week; when the house-mate never does the dishes. While we can talk to them to try to resolve the problem, we swallow our resentment and irritation; and speak to them with kindness.
Kindness means we will not use sarcasm or emotional blackmail, and we do not humiliate or embarrass them. Kindness doesn’t use the other person’s weaknesses against them.
Envy means that we want what another person has: we refuse to be content unless we have it, or something better. Envy arises from a natural human desire for completeness; that desire becomes envy when we focus on possessions to as the way to be complete. Genghis Khan was reputed to have said that if he owned the whole earth except for one acre of ground, he would spend everything he had to own that ground. The antithesis of envy is contentment: if we are content with what we have, envy has no ground to stand on.
Conceit is another word for arrogance. If a person believes that he is superior to other people, he belittles those others and treats them with disrespect. The arrogant person may boast: she entertains the world at large with how well she does a particular activity, or is known by celebrities, or with what surpassingly excellent qualities she has.
Neutrally, pride means to take pleasure in something we have achieved. Negatively, pride is an inflated sense of self-worth. If we think of ourselves more highly than we deserve, pride can breed arrogance and independence, which crush intimacy and relationships like a boot crushes an ant.
The word the quote translates as “rudeness” (the original quote was in Greek) carries the connotation of impoliteness or indecency: telling racist jokes, burping in church, wearing a tight dress with a décolleté neckline and miniskirt to your husband’s funeral … think of the things people do when they’re drunk. More than merely embarrassing, rudeness is the kind of behaviour that brings shame to anyone associated with the person.
Rather than being self-seeking, love works for the good of the beloved: giving the beloved what is best for them, not necessarily what they want: a compliment, or a rebuke; our time, our words, our silence, our presence. Note that “is good” does not necessarily mean “feels good”: consider the relationship between children and vegetables: they think parents are mean for making them eat the horrid stuff, but much later on they understand that it was all for their good.
Anger is our natural reaction when we or someone else is treated badly. It is right for us to become angry about certain acts, such as child abuse. This is not the kind of anger meant here: it means to be irritable; to become very upset over small matters. Imagine a spoilt child throwing a tantrum, bawling over some trinket being refused them, and then sulking and snarling for the rest of the day and refusing to communicate. We expect these outbursts from children but in adults they point to emotional problems that need to be dealt with.
To keep no record of wrongs means to forgive. Forgiveness does as much good for the person who offers it as for the person who did wrong. Unforgiveness binds us to the other person in resentment and hate and tension, so the memory continues to hurt us. This means that they still hold power over us. To forgive them frees us so we can choose how to act. If we don’t forgive, the relationship becomes a struggle for power and there is no room for trust or intimacy, and if the conflict is with our partner, we feel neither safe nor loved. Unforgiveness turns a relationship into a civil war.
It’s been said that only the weak or cowards forgive. Not so; it is natural to want revenge. Anyone can strike out to hurt someone who hurt them. Vengeance is easy and takes no self-control. On the contrary, forgiveness is difficult, painful, and often a battle we fight for years: it is most definitely not like flicking a switch and then everything is okay. To forgive means we renounce our right to punish the other person and treat them as if they hadn’t done what they did do.
Yet forgiveness does not necessarily mean that the other person gets off scot-free, without facing the consequences of their actions in one way or another. If their offense is just against us, we can forgive them, yet still be wise about how we act in the future. For example, if a friend steals money from us and we forgive them, we can thereafter keep our wallet, purse or credit cards hidden from them, so they don’t have to face again the temptation to steal. This is for their benefit more than ours. So does this mean we abandon the principle and practice of the law and demolish all prisons? What if our partner is guilty of a crime such as abuse? We can forgive them but the law may still require them to pay a penalty. As forgiveness is part of love, and love seeks the best for the other person, then the abusive partner may need counselling or detention to protect you or others. What do we do in such a situation? This is a question that only wisdom can answer.
Love doesn’t delight in evil but rejoices with the truth? Evil isn’t a word we hear much about today, except applied to other people for really bad acts. It might be applied to people convicted of multiple murders or those who abuse the weak but applying the word “evil” to average people like us, like most of the world’s population, seems odd; especially when the opposite of evil is said to be truth. What can it mean?
What do you give someone who has everything? One answer is “envy”. How do you feel when one of your friends or family is successful? Envious, resentful, or jealous? And how much more do you feel if your own life isn’t much to write home about? And if they fail, is there a sliver of dark satisfaction inside you? Either way, we know we shouldn’t feel like this about our friends and family; however, the feeling doesn’t mean that we don’t love them: remember, love is an attitude shown through action. That feeling is rather a sign of our discontent with ourselves.
I suspect that the phrase means we’re to be honest with others: that we don’t talk about them behind their backs. If something about them irritates us, what should love do? Not tell them, yet laugh or gripe about them behind their back? If they don’t know there’s anything wrong they won’t change, so we can keep them as an object of ridicule. This way we can feel better about ourselves because whatever failings we have, at least we aren’t like Them! But to love them means that we might have to tell them the truth, gently, so they are aware there is a problem but they don’t feel patronised or disrespected.
The lover wants to protect the beloved from unnecessary pain. However, some pain is necessary: we learn that actions have consequences; so we develop a sense of responsibility and to save us from greater suffering later on. There are qualities that only discomfort can develop and demonstrate, such as courage, patience, endurance and forgiveness. People with these qualities help to build a better society by standing against injustice.
Trust is one of the essential foundations for a healthy and intimate relationship. When this trust is betrayed, such as through lies or unfaithfulness, the relationship may be completely destroyed. If the couple decide to stay together, this trust must be rebuilt: it will take long years and perhaps decades; and maybe the couple will never again completely trust each another.
Like forgiveness, trust opens us to be hurt again; but wisdom – which should be a partner with love – will seek to limit the potential for this. If trust has been betrayed by infidelity, then love will seek to forgive and trust again, and wisdom will seek to put the beloved away from temptation. Changing hobbies, changing jobs, moving house…if we value our relationship, we might have to do any of these to prevent the beloved from giving in again into that particular temptation.
Today, hope means that we desire the best outcome; in this sense it’s almost synonymous with love. The difference is that love can act for that outcome but hope can only desire it. If someone goes for a job interview, we want them to succeed but we can’t actually help them to get the position.
If any personal quality can guarantee success, it is perseverance. Studies have shown that if a person’s first marriage ends in divorce, (or in the case of a de facto relationship, a permanent separation), their future marriages are more likely to also end in divorce because, rather than persevere through the difficult times, they have ended the relationship. Of course this is a generalisation; there may be reasons they cannot be reconciled. It might also be possible for the couple to temporarily separate while they work through their difficulties.
Such times are never pleasant; however, if love is a commitment to do what is best for the other person, we will try to persevere to the end. These are easy words to write but only people who have been through such an experience know the suffering that comes through faithfulness.
Being in love doesn’t mean the relationship will be perfect and it won’t make problems go away. Whether you’re in love or not, working through a problem is the only way to finally solve it and still have a healthy relationship. “I am in love with you” means “You make me feel warm and fuzzy”. By itself, being in love does not guarantee a happy or healthy or long-term relationship. In contrast, “I love you” means “When I have to choose between my desire and your need, I will choose the latter.” Love is a choice and a promise, and while it doesn’t guarantee we will have a happy relationship either – especially if the other person doesn’t reciprocate – it is more likely. We’d all like love and being in love, the action and the emotion, to always go together, but there will be times when they don’t. It’s the choices we make at those times that we see our relationship for what it is: seeking pleasure for ourselves or being devoted to another.
Being in love is like crossing a river in winter: the river freezes over and we can walk across; it’s easy and natural. Then summer arrives, the ice turns to liquid and we’ve lost our bridge. The ice bridge depends on the weather: we need one that endures through every season. We can use the ice while we build a more durable bridge of wood, brick, or steel. Likewise, while we’re in love we can build a lasting relationship based on respect, trust and friendship. When we’re in love we want to spend all our time with the other person; it’s a perfect opportunity to get to know them better, so we can know how best to love them.