What Is Romantic Love?

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Recently, a friend of mine posted the following question on Facebook:

Talk to me y’all. When it comes to a romantic relationship (i.e. boyfriend/girlfriend, fiancé/fiancée, husband/wife), is love a feeling, a choice, both or neither?

I personally believe it is a choice. I think a lot of people do mistake feelings for love as well. However, we should not ignore those feelings, just correctly interpret them. What do you think?

Here is my reply:

I think it’s helpful to start by asking: what is the difference between so called romantic love and the other “loves” (familial, friendship, and agape, to use C. S. Lewis’s distinctions)? On the one hand, it is useful and necessary to distinguish one kind of love from another. We want to know what we mean when, on the one hand, we say we love our mothers, and on the other hand, we say we love our lovers – hopefully there is a difference! At the same time, it seems we (erroneously) tend to see each kind of love as mutually exclusive. But if I’m honest, I love Ariel (my wife) with all four loves – she is my best friend, my closest family member, my lover, and the one toward whom I am called to have agape love above all others. These loves are not exclusive – rather, in this case, they are complementary and mutually enriching, such that the loss of any other person would not be so damaging to me as the loss of my wife.

With that in mind, we should ask: what is the unifying factor among all these loves, and what distinguishes romantic love from the rest? John Piper, in his book, Desiring God, defines love fist as “the overflow of joy in God that gladly meets the needs of others,” and later as “taking joy in the joy of the beloved.” Piper is here defining agape love, but I cannot help but to see that this second definition seems to be common to all loves – it makes you happy to make the one you love happy. This dynamic exists with family, friends, and lovers, alike.

In fact, Piper argues (and I agree with him) that you cannot call it love if it does not include this dynamic of taking joy in the joy of the beloved. What else do we make of Paul’s statement that he could give his body to be burned or sell all his possessions and give them to the poor (choices he willingly makes, no doubt) but “have not love” (1 Cor 13:1-3)? If you want to get more into the details of Piper’s argument, take a look at pages 116-123 of Desiring God (visit www.desiringgod.org/books/all to download it for free), but the big takeaway from this is that love necessarily involves desire, and desire is something you feel. Some feelings, then, are necessary for us to call love, love. Again, though Piper is defining agape love, this aspect of finding joy in another’s joy (and, by implication, sorrow in their sorrow) seems to be common to all loves, including romantic love.

Another unifying theme amongst all the loves seems to be the desire to be with the object of your love, albeit with different nuances for each kind of love. So, you want to be with your mom and you want to be with your lover for both some of the same reasons and some different reasons – each relationship has its distinctives. Perhaps both offer nurture and comfort, but mothers can carry a history and knowledge that a spouse may not achieve for many years and will never perfectly mirror. In any case, there is overlap among the loves and among the relationships in which they exist and are expressed.

What, then, are the distinctives of romantic love? One distinctive that I don’t think we can escape is the reality of aesthetic appeal. I say aesthetic instead of sexual, because while explicitly sexual desires may not be aroused for some time in a romantic relationship, I cannot think of a way to have a romantic relationship without finding the person aesthetically appealing. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether our mothers are beautiful or our brothers are handsome or our friends are attractive – the absence of aesthetic appeal in no way diminishes those loves. But do we ever find ourselves falling for someone to whom we do not, at the same time, find ourselves attracted or becoming attracted (note there is room for process, here)? This isn’t to say romantic love is defined exclusively by an aesthetic desire for the beloved, but I don’t know that we can call it romantic if this dynamic isn’t present.

Another relational dynamic that seems to be typical of romantic love is exclusivity. Many people can fill motherly and brotherly and sisterly roles in our lives. We can have lots of friends – good friends. We are called to have an agape love for everyone (but especially fellow believers, and more especially our spouses). But if I share my romantic affections with more than one person, someone is going to feel betrayed – and rightfully so. Some level of commitment to exclusivity seems to be implied in romantic love, and some level of trust that such a commitment will be upheld seems to be a prerequisite for such love to exist and flourish.

Without this exclusivity, any of the other components of what we typically call romantic love seem to lose much, if not all, of their meaning – what value is there in sending a lover a bouquet of roses, if you sent that same bouquet to five other “lovers”? What meaning can be ascribed to “a weekend away for the two of us,” when one of the two has booked next weekend’s getaway “for the two of us” with someone else? Moreover, would the recipient of such “love” really consider herself loved, romantically or otherwise? You see my point. Additionally, when this exclusivity and trust are in any degree absent, distrust, anxiety, fear, anger, and so on tend to rise up and squelch any romantic feelings we might otherwise feel towards the other person.

All of this is to say there is more to figuring out what romantic love is than deciding whether it is a feeling or an action or what have you. Now, to answer the original question: do I think romantic love is a feeling or a choice (or something else)? Yes 🙂 I would put it this way: romantic love is when you, at bare minimum, have a desire to bring another person joy, want to be with them, find them aesthetically appealing, and have some degree of exclusivity in your experience of these desires towards this person (you can’t be in love with everyone, right?). You experience these perceptions and desires as a set of feelings (attraction, exhilaration/excitement, joy, anticipation, satisfaction, an impulse to do nice things for the other person, etc.). And you express those feelings through words and behaviors commensurate with the perceptions and desires that caused them – displays of affection such as kind words, thoughtful favors and gifts, time spent together, and so on. This collection of perceptions, desires, feelings, and behaviors is what we call romantic love.

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