So, You're in Love!
Can anyone deny that falling in love is a delicious feeling? It sends poets into ecstasies, song-writers into rhapsodies. Is it any wonder that the world resounds with echoes of love lyrics promising eternal passion?
This intoxicating feeling transcends class, culture and creed. It knows no bounds of age. As one sixty-year-old confessed to me recently, "You never know when love will beckon." For her, "in love" for the first time, this call of Eros was a breath-taking encounter with beauty. It brought out the best in her. It made her generous, tender and self-forgetful.
When you fall in love you see the other person in a new way, open your heart to that person in a new way, desire that person in a new way. As C.S. Lewis observed, "In one high bound [love] has overleaped the massive wall of our self-hood; it has made appetite itself altruistic, tossed personal happiness aside as a triviality and planted the interests of another in the centre of our being."1
This magnificence of falling in love is laced with playfulness and laughter. When you fall in love you feel gloriously free to commit yourself to an eternal love with the loved one. And this invasion of an emotion which turns your life-style inside out seems to provide a natural springboard for commitment. But does it?
For some couples, clearly it does. They slip into engagement as easily as a diver slides into water. But others dither. And some couples never make the commitment to marry.
This turning back is not uncommon. Neither is it necessarily irresponsible. The decision not to marry may be prompted by the realization that falling in love is not the same as love. It is only the springboard which gives love a promising start. The love which cements marriage, that
deeper, more lasting, more tranquil quality, might emerge from the euphoria, but it might not.
In fact, surrendering to passionate feelings can threaten love. It endangers the marital relationship if you place too much emphasis on this exhilarating feeling. For falling in love is a good feeling. But it is still a feeling, and feelings cannot last. Take the preoccupation with the loved one, for example. This longing to be together, to communicate by letter or by phone, cannot last in its intensity. Or take the powerful waves of physical attraction, the sexual stirrings, the feverish excitement of being together. These feelings change, mature and deepen. But that is not to say that love becomes dull or stale. The quality of love grows calmer yet even more exciting and longer lasting.
Do I seem a killjoy by emphasizing the short duration of romantic feelings? My aim is not to rob you of your joy but to be realistic. Infatuation is short-lived. As C.S. Lewis observed, this is no bad thing. "Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships?"2 And who would pay for the phone calls, the postage and love's extravagant trinkets?
In our more rational moments we may smile at these overwhelming feelings, but we must not despise them nor minimize them. And never assume that they are hidden from God. On the contrary, they stand out from the pages of the Bible. In the Song of Solomon there is portrayed the playfulness of erotic love (Song 1:4), the languishing of unsatisfied desire (2:5) and the force of sexual attraction (e.g. 1:2; 2:1-7; 4:1,9).
God understands these feelings. It was He who created us with the ability to be swept off our feet by a person of the opposite sex. But it is He who advises us, through the writer of Proverbs, to set a watch over the affections of the heart. "They influence everything else in your life" (Proverbs 4:23 LB).
Feelings govern actions. We see this in the kind of person who seems to thrive on chasing love. Each time they "fall in love"
they are convinced that this time it is the real thing. This love will last for ever. They therefore invest time and energy in the relationship only to find that when the initial tidal wave of erotic feeling ebbs away, "love" retreats. They are left beside dwindling pools of hope. Fullness becomes emptiness.
But ceasing to feel in love need not mean ceasing to love. Psychologists warn us that feelings of infatuation last from three to thirty-six months. Does that mean that couples are then left stranded on a love-less beach? Of course not. Marriage is a whole. Infatuation is only one segment; a zestful relationship between the sexes has so many more. Friendship, companionship, emotional and spiritual oneness all contribute to the togetherness which creates a complete marriage.
What motivates your relationship: infatuation, kisses and cuddles? Is there something more? If so, what?
These questions are compulsory for any couple who have fallen in love. But love is blind, so it is not easy to respond to them with honesty. If you work at the assignments in each chapter of this book, however, I believe you will gain a more accurate picture of your relationship. You will become aware whether the foundations for Christian marriage are being laid.
"But we're just friends"
"The foundations for Christian marriage"? Maybe you are reading this book, not because you hear wedding-bells, but because you have fallen in love and are searching for the answer to such pressing questions as, "How far should we go physically in expressing our love for each other?"
There is no definitive answer to this question, but chapter 9 of this book suggests principles to bear in mind as you construct a code of behaviour which seems right to you; ways of keeping your own rules without hurting yourself or your partner.
Maybe your relationship raises other questions. "If we don't plan to marry, should we allow our friendship to continue?"
In my opinion there is great value in cultivating friendships across the sex barrier. Men need the warmth of female love to
draw out their masculinity, and women need the understanding of men to draw forth their full femininity. The danger comes when two people fall in love and form an exclusive relationship. When lovers begin to neglect other friendships, spend all or most of their time together and rarely, if ever, include others in their twosome, an exclusive relationship exists. It is selfish and harmful.
It is harmful for two reasons. First, single people need many friends of both sexes if life is to become rich and varied. Second, what happens when your romantic attachment has outworn its glamour? You and your partner are in danger of finding yourselves isolated from those who would have befriended you, but whom you have chosen to ignore. That is unwise and unloving. It is unloving to neglect the friends who need you as much as you need them. It is unloving to your partner who could suffer an indescribable loneliness if your relationship does not work out. It is also unloving towards yourself and your own needs.
Is it wise, then, to form attachments at all? Don't the disadvantages outweigh the advantages?
Undoubtedly there will always be pain in loving. Even so, I believe two people in love can make an enormous contribution to one another's growth if the relationship is handled wisely. Take Liz, for example. Her relationship with Len was starry-eyed, short-lived and ended painfully, but it helped her to accept her womanhood and that gift did not disappear with Len.
When a relationship is characterized by kindness, encouragement and challenge, both partners should grow as a result of the love poured forth. Kindness is the caring which wants to communicate, "I am all for you." Encouragement is the quality which draws out the full potential in another, gently urging, "You can do it." And challenge is the love which persuades a person to reach beyond his/her old limitations. I am not talking here about sexual love, but the love which enables the loved one to rise above a fear, to turn away from the sin of bitterness, jealousy or resentment, or to break off self-destructive habits. Are you contributing to your friend's growth in this way? And love between Christians
always seeks to bring the loved one nearer to God.
Should you, then, pray and do Bible studies together if you are just good friends?
Praying together and studying together brings an inevitable closeness and of course this is not wrong. But there are two pitfalls to avoid. First, don't confuse spiritual oneness with emotional intimacy. They overlap but they are not the same. Second, if these two strands do become entangled, beware of abandoning your own spiritual pilgrimage at the same time as you move away from this friendship.
Why might it become necessary to move out of this partnership? It sometimes happens that what started as a brother-sister relationship develops into something more for one of the persons involved. This is one of the risks you take in developing friendships across the sex divide. If it happens, the only sensible thing to do is to talk it over. This won't necessarily be easy, but it is better to be honest now than to suffer the pain of a broken relationship when you have invested all your hopes in it.
A broken relationship. Is this inevitable if you fall out of love? I don't think it is. Couples who have been in love, who then realize that their relationship will not result in marriage, can so set one another free that they are able to form a deep friendship even when one or both of them starts to go out with someone else. Such friendships are often long-lasting and of great value because the qualities which attracted you to one another in the first place do not die with the demise of the courtship. Even when sexual attraction has evaporated, therefore, closeness can continue.
Closeness can continue, but you may need a temporary break from one another before you find yourselves able to bridge the inevitable gap which exists between a romantic relationship and a platonic one. During the time of separation, you should both avail yourselves of the healing the Lord gives for the hurts which so often accompany this kind of loss. Only when you have both been touched by God in this way will you be capable of receiving one another back, ready to build a new kind of friendship.
So how do you know whether this relationship will result
in marriage? Or as one young friend of mine put it, with a note of exasperation, "In the Christian life we are always being told not to rely on feelings. But what else is there to go on with relationships?"
A deeper understanding of yourself, the nature of love and God's purpose for marriage are aids to the objectivity he was searching for. So, then, what is the purpose of marriage?
The purpose of Christian marriage
Man made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) possesses an innate ability to give love, to receive love, to communicate with others, to co-operate with others. This free-flowing love is expressed most intimately in marriage. In fact the one-flesh union seems to have been built on the relationship which existed between the Father and the Son before the world was made: a relationship of unfailing love (John 17:24). Just as marriage, as described in Genesis, sprang from divine love, so Christian marriages are rooted and grounded in Christ. God Himself holds the relationship together. He feeds it with vigorous love. This love is not so much a feeling as an orientation. It is love in action.
This love is defined in 1 Corinthians 13: "Love is patient, love is kind . . . It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" (vv.4,7). And this passage warns us what love is not. Love "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" (vv. 5-6).
Taking these verses as your guide, is your love real?
How do you know?
This definitive ode to love embraces all kinds of Christian loving, not just marital love. But in Ephesians 5:21ff. Paul places marriage under the microscope, bringing it into sharp focus.
The prototype for Christian marriage is the relationship between Christ and His bride, the church. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies" (Ephesians 5:25, 28). This is a superlative form of loving which is concerned for the other's total good. It implies that
marriage is a deep, unique, maturing partnership. It is intended to last for a lifetime (v.31). It is based on exclusive commitment. It involves the abandonment of each person to the other. This permanence and intimacy call for a high degree of self-sacrifice from both partners. It is a self-giving which mere feelings will not support. Love's demands can be met only by those who genuinely love. Those who are merely "in love" will shrink from the high cost of loving.
The high cost of loving
But what is the cost involved in forming a lifelong relationship with one you love deeply? Surely couples will pay any price for the prize of marital love?
If this were true, the incidence of marital breakdown would be less frightening than it is. Statistics suggest that one couple in three in Britain, more in the United States, find that the feelings which attracted them to one another before marriage are insufficient to withstand the demands of a lifelong partnership. So how do you know whether you are ready to make the commitment to marry?
The next eight chapters of this book are designed to help you discover the answer to that question. But if you want a quick test, take this quotation from Michel Quoist:
To love does not mean to seize the other for your own fulfillment but rather to give yourself to the other for his or her own fulfillment. You are ready for the experience of genuine love when your need, and especially your desire to give, is more compelling than your need and your desire to get . . . Don't simply ask yourself: Is this love? Rather ask yourself: Does my love rest upon renunciation, self-forgetfulness and self-giving?3
Renunciation, self-forgetfulness and self-giving. These are the ingredients of the love from which healthy marriages are created. Do they describe the love you have for your partner?
Does your love model itself on Ephesians 5:21ff.?
Or are you attempting to establish a Christian relationship by aping the behaviour and customs of the world?
The strong bias to self-centeredness which is characteristic
of each of us presents a barrier to marital love as God intended it. Selfishness destroys love. Couples therefore have a great need to find in Christ the resources they need if they are to give love to anyone, including their partner in marriage. Only the Spirit of Jesus who transforms our attitudes and behaviour patterns can make us equal to the sacrifice demanded. Even then it takes years for Him to change selfish human beings into persons who put the interests of others first.
To love, therefore, is costly. It frequently hurts. C.S. Lewis put it well:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no-one, not even to an animal.4
Count the cost of loving. Count the cost of marriage. This challenge to count the cost is not new. Jesus placed it before us in a different context. "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish' " (Luke 14:28-30).
This love, if you allow it to continue, will disrupt your life-style, your attitudes, your entire self. Is that what you want? Do you want to marry? Do you want to form a lifelong union with this partner? Is your match a good one? These are the questions we go on to examine. If these are the questions you are asking I suggest that you approach this book, not as something to read, but as an assignment to be worked at. In the Preface I suggested practical ways of selecting and responding to these questions. So if, like me, you normally ignore Prefaces, perhaps you would turn back and read mine now!
And what if you have no intention of marrying this partner? The Preface suggests ways in which you, too, may benefit from this book so that your understanding of one another will deepen.
How do you feel about the prospect of sharing your innermost thoughts and feelings with one another?
Chapter 2 || Table of Contents
1. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Fontana, 1963, pp. 104f.
2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Bles, 1969, p. 86.
3. Michel Quoist, The Christian Response, Gill and Macmillan, 1965, pp.33 and 110.
4. The Four Loves, pp.111f.