What is love?

teenloveOne of the things my pastor told my husband and me in premarital counseling is that we should think of love as a verb, not a noun. The Christian couple, he said, should know that love is what you do, not what you feel. On a somewhat related note, my father told me that he had counseled couples for marriage who wanted their vows to read “as long as we both shall love” instead of “as long as we both shall live.” Dad pointed out that they’d need something to keep them going after their first week of marriage.

It seems to me that society views love as an emotion, even a sacred emotion. It’s not, as Jenny Sanford wrote in her statement last week, “a commitment and an act of will.”

There’s a huge chasm between people who think that the goodness of a thing is determined by strength of feeling and the people who think the goodness of a thing is determined through some objective measure. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the former viewpoint so well represented as it is in this horrifying (to me, at least) article by Neely Tucker in the Washington Post. He writes that Sanford’s affair with an Argentinian woman is completely different from all those seedier political sex scandals because he actually loved this woman. There is clearly a difference between New York Governor Elliot Spitzer paying tens of thousands of dollars to prostitutes and what we know of Sanford’s relationship with the woman who is not his wife. But both cases deal with lust and a decision to forsake marriage vows — and I’m not so sure the distinction is as important as Tucker seems to think it is.

After describing their love letters as adult epistles from the heart, we get a lot of quotes about how all everything good about romance comes from passion and suffering, not the drudgery of fidelity:

It’s pretty much Shakespearean now. The governor’s wife has taken the children and left him, but says she’ll have him back if he repents. Lawmakers are calling for his head. Paparazzi are circling outside the Buenos Aires apartment of The Other Woman.

“There is something admirable and authentic in his and Maria’s passion for each other, empathy for each other, honesty with each other,” writes Cristina Nehring, author of “A Vindication of Love,” a new book about passion and romance, in an e-mail after reading the pair’s letters. “That said, the relationship of course represents a moral dilemma, to which the answers are not obvious.”

Many other people are quoted talking about the moral dilemma. And how do I put this? I don’t want to speak for all religious people, but there are quite a few Christians for whom the answers are exceedingly obvious. Last week my mother and I were talking about how apparent it was that Sanford had serious feelings for this woman not his wife. She told me that during the course of her (quite passionate, incidentally) marriage, she had met men with whom she would have been much more compatible than my father. She said that the Christian woman must make the immediate decision against pursuing such relationships with people who aren’t her spouse. That God had given her my father and she was the man to whom her love must be directed. In other words: it is an obvious answer. It might be difficult to live the way God wants you to, but it’s obvious none the less.

And yet nowhere in the Post’s secular paean to romance is this idea even broached. Is it because newsrooms don’t even understand the specifics of marital commitment? Do they assume that people who are faithful simply never had an opportunity — or a real desire — to break their vows? I kind of suspect that’s the case. But this piece actually feels like something of an assault on traditional values.

The thing that got me was that the entire piece seemed like a tribute to the most juvenile forms of love. Now that I am married, my understanding of romance, fidelity and love are so much more developed than when I was crazy and single. Take this sample, for instance:

“Happy love has no history,” Denis de Rougemont wrote in “Love in the Western World,” more than two decades ago. “Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself. What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love but its passion. And passion means suffering.”

And: “How widespread and disturbing is our fascination with the love that breaks the law. Is this not the sign that we wish to escape from a horrible reality?”

The horrible reality: That perhaps we have found, against all odds and comforts, a love that transcends the meaningless of life, of our reality of dry-cleaning receipts and stubble in the bathroom sink; and that this balm is denied to us.

Sigh. A few centuries ago, Luther responded to this idea that family life is drudgery quite well.

It’s a shame that no opposing perspective was permitted to share space in Tucker’s article. Sure, we’re all obsessed with love that breaks the law. But some people actually mature beyond the Romeo & Juliet idea of romance and are much better off for it.

Trust me — being cognizant of how your behavior affects others doesn’t make your love life less interesting. Far from it. It deepens the passion and the intimacy. That the Washington Post would articulate a love-sick teenagers view of how romance should be is disappointing, to say the least. Believe it or not, religion has something wise to say about all these affairs of the heart. If the Post can mock religion in the Style pages, certainly it can discuss it in other ways as well.

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  • dalea

    What I see here is an author attempting to paper over the contradictions in heterosexuality. It’s sort of a lowrent presentation of heterosexuality as an ideology. The author recognizes romantic love as creating a relationship. Then noting that there is a problem with previous commitments.

    What Neely is avoiding is the issue that sex, romance and commitment can be dealt with reasonably. Gay men do it all the time. But within the framework of heterosexual arrangements, a late in life fling upsets the whole applecart. People must now deal with the fact of children, whose needs should be paramount.

    Gay couples usually make arrangements for events of this type; these can take many forms. It does not seem to dawn on Neely that the surprise element comes from having a rigid, one size fits all way of dealing with romantic issues. Neely Tucker (male or female?) rhapsodizes about something while not understanding the context.

  • http://www.perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    This adolescent/narcissistic idea of love and relationships has become accepted by much of the MSM as the ideal. It is this way of thinking that allows the New York Times to treat homosexual commitments as socially equivalent to heterosexual marriages. And the victims are the children.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Mollie, you will tie yourself in knots trying to justify calling The Washington Post an MSM publication when you recognize that its sister publication, nonNewsweek, is not. It’s the same company. Same management. Same mindset.

    Stop looking for a pony in the pile. Stop hoping that a little gentle criticism will nudge it in the right direction. Just stop reading it. I gave it up while I still lived near the Beltway, and I haven’t missed it one bit.

  • Julia

    There was a piece in the Huffington Post in the last day or so wherein the comment box was loaded with people trying to figure out how the wife was at fault. They discussed her looks, her age, her lack of curves, the supposition that she wasn’t “satisfying” her husband, etc. ad nauseum.

    I can’t see into the the Sanfords’relationship, but it seems that today’s folks are looking at marriage kind of like my generation looked at “going steady” back in the 50′s and 60′s. Get over it, move on lady. One actually was saying it’s obvious he’s just not into you and you should move on.

    The rest of the comments were about how the wife should get her revenge.

    None of them had a concern in the world about the kids. There were folks castigating the wife for saying she was willing to work on the marriage.

    99% of them agreed that she must have done something wrong or it wouldn’t have happened. Happy men don’t stray, etc.

    I agree with your mom, dad & Luther. Love is a verb and there are lots of attractive folks who pass through our lives. If we acted on every attraction we felt, we’d be like rabbits.

    Feelings do run the world these days, and that’s what the reporters report. I suspect that since there are reliable methods of preventing children now, the disconnect between adult love and progeny has been truly severed.

  • Jerry

    It seems to me that society views love as an emotion

    Indeed that’s true. People with a religious or spiritual bent would presumably pay more attention to scriptural passages like John 15:12-17, at least as a statement of an ideal.

    [12] This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
    [13] Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

    Or from a more secular context, maybe people should just pay attention to those who have managed to stay married for a few decades.

  • David

    There is a post at politics daily that nails this issue:

    http://bit.ly/l82cV

  • Dave

    The big differnce between Sanger and Spitzer is that twenty year from now no-one will be interested in writing a book about Spitzer.

  • http://aishahhils.com A’ishah Meghan Hils

    Ya Allah, ya Rabb…I think Julia hit the nail on the head. People in general and the media/high profile people in particular seem to look at love these days as whatever is most interesting at the time. It doesn’t matter if his wife gained weight or didn’t want sex as often; it doesn’t matter that he’s just not that into her; it doesn’t matter that he was in love with the new woman, whatever that means.

    What matters is he vowed to love and have sex with and write love letters to and be committed to and support one person. And he went behind that person’s back and did all of these things with another person. We could have a lengthy discussion about the issues inherent in both monogamy and heterosexuality (and of course other forms of relationship and sexuality) but the issue here is he said he would do something, and he didn’t. That makes him a dishonorable human being either way.

    I also just don’t get this fascination with love as momentary passion. A love note can’t mean a whole hell of a lot when you’re with someone who refuses to acknowledge you before the world, and I’m pretty sure a wedding ring doesn’t mean a lot when your husband is sleeping in another woman’s bed. Falling is the wrong choice of words…he did not just happen to write her that love letter on accident and happen to take it to the post office and happen to mail it. He deliberately chose those actions, probably knowing how much it would affect his wife if she ever learned of it. Most men could at least hazard a slight guess. Showing her the benefit of divorcing her first would have been an act of love.

  • http://paulmatzko.edublogs.org Paul

    Here’s an interesting sermon titled “Choosing to Love” which was preached by a fundamentalist Christian minister at Bob Jones University.

    http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=12500192029