Falling in Love

Jeffrey Thayne

Holding hands
Do we decide who we fall in love with?

Today, I would like to talk about love. Particularly, I would like to address the question: “Fall in love or choose to love?”

“Falling in Love”

Often, we talk about romantic love as if it is something that happens to us. It’s something we stumble upon, or fall into. This implies that we are not actively involved in the process—that we are recipients, rather than initiators, of the experience of love. And, because we are not involved in the process, we don’t have a choice. When we “fall in love,” we cannot help but love the other person. According to Wikipedia, the metaphorical verb fall implies not only that “the process may have been in some way inevitable or uncontrollable,” but also “irreversible.”

I can see very flattering components in this account of love. Basically, it says, “I had no choice in the matter. You are just too attractive, too much fun to be around, too special for me not to love you.” It places the responsibility for the experience entirely on the shoulders of the other person in a way that compliments them. How good does it feel to be told that you are so beautiful, intelligent, etc., and someone couldn’t help but love you? I imagine that it feels pretty good, and perhaps someday I’ll have that experience. My point is that speaking in these terms is a form of flattery towards the person we love.

However, let’s look at what is really going on here. I believe some wacky analogies might be helpful to our discussion. Let’s imagine for a moment that you meet someone who is exceptionally kind to you. She regularly sacrifices her own wants in order to serve you in significant ways. Naturally, you are flattered by this attention. She apparently thinks highly of you (or at least cares deeply about you). This commendable behavior earns your respect, and you speak highly of this person when with others.

One day, you discover a shocking, disturbing secret. This person has had a computer chip implanted in her brain, and is being controlled from a remote location by either extra-terrestrials or secret government agents. When she is around you, her regular habits and actions are hijacked by this computer chip, and she acts particularly kind around you through no volition of her own. The initial respect you had for her is likely to diminish. Because she didn’t voluntarily choose to act as she did, the credit does not belong to her. You are likely to no longer see her actions as the product of genuine love or consideration. Because she couldn’t have done otherwise, there is nothing particularly praiseworthy about the fact that she did it.

Here is another analogy: Imagine that a good friend came to a performance of yours, and you were genuinely pleased that he came. However, you find out later that he didn’t want to come, but had to in order to complete a school assignment. Although you might be glad he came, would you still feel genuinely complimented by his attendance? I suspect not, because his attendance wasn’t motivated by a genuine desire to see you perform.

In a similar scenario, imagine that you discovered that your music is like that of the pied piper or a siren’s call. It hijacks the normal decision-making capabilities of the hearer, forcing them to want to want to come hear you perform. In this scenario, your friend came because he couldn’t help it. Again, the effect would be similar: he no longer came out of a genuine desire to see you perform.

In each of these examples, there is a common thread: whenever the decision-making capabilities of a person is superseded, any subsequent kind or loving action becomes (1) less genuine, and (2) less complimentary to those around them.

Choice

Let’s rewrite one of the scenarios above. Imagine that your friend came to your performance, and you were pleased that he was there. Later, you discover that there was another activity that he had been invited to, but which he turned down in order to come to your performance. Suddenly, his actions mean a whole lot more to you. His attendance is both (1) more genuine, and (2) more complimentary to you. When there’s choice involved, all of our actions are more authentic. Choice seems to make every action more meaningful and more genuine.

When we use the word love as a noun, we sometimes imply that it is out of our control. When we use the word love as a verb, we imply that it is something we do, and anything we do can be done differently. The very fact that I am actively doing something when I’m loving someone implies that I could be doing otherwise. For example, I could be hating them instead.  Love as a verb implies choice, and I believe that romantic love is just as much a verb as any kind of love. And, I believe that the element of choice makes romantic love more meaningful. Consider how meaningful it is for someone to say, “I could have chosen to date and marry any number of different people. However, I chose you. It was a choice freely made, un-coerced, and genuine. My decision-making capacities were perfectly intact.” For me, this doesn’t at all mean, “You had nothing to do with it.” For me, it is the purest and most genuine kind of love.

Consider the thoughts of Dr. Gantt (which I have included here after he posted them as a comment on an earlier version of this article):

I don’t think the issue … is whether one chooses to love another, but rather the reasons that are given for having so chosen to love them. For example, in my own marriage, I have often told my wife that I chose to love her . . . because of her goodness, her beauty, her grace and nobility, her joyfulness, her maturity, her spirituality, her work ethic, and because not only does she love me back (despite the many reasons I have given her in our long life together to dump me) she also makes me want to be a better man. None of those things caused me to fall in love with her, or cause me to stay in love with her, but they do provide the necessary context for understanding why I would choose to love her. My wife has shared with me that it is many of the same characteristics in me that grounded her choice to fall in love with me and to stay in love with me.

In the end, the thing that makes her choice to love me so important and meaningful to me is that despite all the reasons I give her to love me, I also give her plenty of reasons not to — and vice versa. Thus, in spite of all the reasons there are for her to not love me or to fall out of love with me, she keeps choosing to love me. She chooses to do so when she might just as well chose not to (and for some good reasons) — and that makes our relationship special: she doesn’t have to love me, but she does. I don’t have to love her, but I do.

In other words, Dr. Gantt chose to love his wife because of her many excellent qualities. He values those virtues, and this gives him reason to choose to love her. However, nothing about his wife made him love her. Loving her is still something he is actively, agentively doing, rather than something that is just happening to him.

Elder Robbins’ Remarks

Elder Lynn G. Robbins of the Seventy wrote an Ensign article on this topic. He said,

Somewhere in the history of the English language the expression “fall in love” began to be used to describe the sublime experience of finding someone to love. While it is a beautiful idiom, there was inherent risk involved in selecting the verb fall because it mostly means accidental, involuntary, with no choice involved. And subtly, it has also led to the use of its distressing corollary, “We fell out of love,” an all-too-common phrase heard nowadays as an excuse for a failed marriage. “Falling in love” and “falling out of love” sound as if love were something that cannot be controlled.

In other words, if the experience of romantic love is outside of our control, then wouldn’t we have no control over whether we stay in love? Doesn’t this imply that there is no way to promise that we’ll love and cherish someone for the rest of our lives? This is an implication that I refuse to accept. Elder Robbins continued,

We know that any commandment by God involves agency. We can obey or disobey, but there is always a choice. Therefore, in Matthew 22, verses 37 and 39, when the Lord says, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” [Matt. 22:37, 39] He is not saying, “I hope you ‘fall in love’ with your neighbor.” The command is a directive, an appeal to the mind to make a conscious choice, involving the mind in reasoning and decision making. …

Too many believe that love is a condition, a feeling that involves 100 percent of the heart, something that happens to you. They disassociate love from the mind and, therefore, from agency. In commanding us to love, the Lord refers to something much deeper than romance—a love that is the most profound form of loyalty. He is teaching us that love is something more than feelings of the heart; it is also a covenant we keep with soul and mind. …

What about love between spouses, which involves the additional elements of romance and intimacy? Does this principle of agency and love, or the command to love, apply to marriage as well?

Once again, the Lord uses the command form of the verb love in “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else” (D&C 42:22). It doesn’t require any guesswork here to discern that the Lord is giving us a directive with a presupposition of agency. …

While it is obvious that agency is a factor in the character traits listed by the Apostle Paul, it will be impossible to develop these attributes without the Lord’s help. Therefore, the Lord instructs us through Mormon to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ” (Moro. 7:48).

This is the love that is to be applied in marriages, in families, and with our fellowmen. A marriage based on this kind of love becomes the most romantic of all, generating eternal tender feelings between a husband and a wife. … Thus we have seen that while a person may “fall in love” with a spouse by emotion, the husband or wife progresses and blossoms in love by decision.

“Love by decision” is, as I explained above, a much more meaningful form of love, because it implies that the love isn’t something that the lover had no choice but to experience, nor is it something that he just allowed to happen because he wasn’t paying attention to his thoughts and habits.

The 100-Hour Board’s Response

Thumper while he is twitterpated
Is romantic love a choice, or are we just helplessly twitterpated beyond our control?

Early in January, a reader of the BYU 100-Hour Board (also a friend/roommate of mine) asked, “Which is greater, to ‘fall’ in love or to choose to love?” A thoughtful writer for the 100-Hour Board with the pseudonym “Waldorf” responded:

I think God gives us Infatuation as … a little bonus. You might consider it an interpersonal lubricant, like alcohol. It makes us more apt to be charitable, to serve, and to forgive as well as to go through the romantic but otherwise troublesome acts of courtship, proposals, weddings, and marriage. It’s the icing on the love cake. However, we don’t always feel Infatuation, and it changes with time. So if you haven’t previously made the choice to love the party in question and feelings of romance fade for temporary or permanent reasons, your relationship is going to be no more.

In other words, Choice makes it substantial; Infatuation makes it fun. We fallen mortal types need both.

I really like this person’s answer. Choice is what makes love substantial and meaningful. While Infatuation makes it fun, and can act as an interpersonal lubricant, it isn’t love itself, because true love will endure when circumstances change (such as when a spouse/loved one is ill, or paralyzed, or disfigured, etc., or simply when people grow old). The choice to love and care for another person in extenuating circumstances is at the heart of true, genuine love. Elder Robbins explains:

It is almost humorous to observe a young unmarried couple in love. After spending an entire day together, they are back together again on the phone that same night. It’s sheer torture for them to be separated. Even in their thoughts they can hardly focus on anything else. Love begins to disrupt their studies or work. Everything else in life becomes a nuisance and an interruption that keeps them apart until they can be together again. In their minds there was never, in the history of the world, a truer love than theirs. We call this level of premarriage intensity “infatuation.”

After they marry, this intensity tapers off. Living under the same roof, they each begin to discover a few peculiar idiosyncracies in the other that they had not seen before. Some of these are irritating. The infatuation begins to fade. Those who have confused infatuation for love begin to worry and wonder if they are falling out of love. “Where is that level of passion, the fire I had during courtship?” they may ask themselves. Their relationship is passing through a common stage and is at an important crossroad. If they believe they have fallen out of love, they may begin to drift apart.

This is when a dose of true love is needed to rekindle a relationship that is being tested. True love may not restore the same emotional intensity of early courtship, but it will help love remain alive and blooming. Forty years later, Grandpa can go fishing, love Grandma dearly, but more easily endure a short absence from her than he could at a youthful age when smitten with infatuation. Their love is stronger, more mature, and still blossoming.

It seems clear that the decision to love another person is lasts much longer and endures more hardship than any kind of love that we imagine “just happens to us.”

The Myth

If love is a choice, and not something that just happens to us, how do we explain the experience of an inexplicable attraction towards someone? First, physical attraction is something different from love. However, I believe that agency is involved in both. So again, how to explain the fact that few of us consciously choose whom we are attracted to? I believe that Jeffrey Robinson provides a fascinating account of how we are agentively involved in our experience of physical attraction. I recommend reading his presentation here.

What is infatuation but the process of habitually wanting to be with another person, of thinking about them when they are not around, of wanting to please them when they are around? Are our thoughts and desires not within the scope of our control? So much of what we want and think we simply do without forethought or deliberation, and we therefore create an illusion that there is no choice in what we think or want. Consider, though: we don’t often think about where our feet land when we walk, or how our hands move when we write or drive, but we can’t claim that there is no choice in these matters.

Agentic action does not require conscious deliberation—it only requires the possibility that we could have done otherwise than we did. Thus, while there is a distinction between Infatuation and Love, I would claim that neither are outside of our control. I would also claim that the entire idea behind “falling in love” (the idea that there is an irresistible, irreversible, inevitable attraction between two people) is a myth. Thoughts, desires, and actions are not things that happen to us, they are things that we do, even if we don’t take the time to deliberate on our thoughts, desires, and actions. In summary, I agree with Elder Robbins when he said that

because love is as much a verb as it is a noun, the phrase “I love you” is much more a promise of behavior and commitment than it is an expression of feeling. … Scripturally, the Lord is very clear with us on this doctrine—you can’t “fall out of love,” because love is something you decide. Agency plays a fundamental role in our relationships with one another. This being true, we must make the conscious decision that we will love our spouse and family with all our heart, soul, and mind; that we will build, not “fall into,” strong, loving marriages and families.

In other words, not only is love a choice, but the fact that love is a choice makes it more meaningful. In our examples above, we saw how in situations in which choice is overridden, a person’s actions are less meaningful and less sincere. Agency is a crucial element of all meaningful human action. In order for our actions to mean anything, we need to always have the capacity or potential to do differently than we do. Anyways, I hope this post was as interesting to read as it was for me to write. I’d love to hear your feedback!

24 thoughts on “Falling in Love

  1. I think you mostly ‘fall into the possibility of love.’ Then you chose whether or not to let that possibility develop. Without really intending it, in other words, you find yourself thinking ‘I could really go for this girl in a big way.’ But whether you do or not is up to you.

  2. EXACTLY!

    I have always felt this way about love.

    You have to be careful about this belief, though. So many have come to romanticize the idea of helpless love that the suggestion that love was a choice can be extremely offensive to them. I made the mistake of telling my ex-husband that I had consciously chosen to marry him a few years after our wedding. I thought it was a deep compliment. But he was so offended that it even came up as an accusation in court years later.

    I admit to still being baffled by that. I’d be deeply complimented to know that someone chose to love me because they admired and respected me.

    Just as you point out, that is the type of love that can endure. It is secure, safe, and reliable. Which doesn’t really mean that it is staid and boring like so many people think.

  3. SilverRain, thanks for the warning. I personally don’t intend to marry someone unless we’re on the same page on this. I do NOT want the person I marry to believe that they have no say in how much they love me. Feeling fluctuate over the years, and I don’t want them to believe that they are helpless in that process.

  4. There is obviously more to love than this but we fall in love with people who play our subconscious psychological games and we generally play theirs in this way we can come to believe the other completes us but we often wake many years later to realize that we have married someone just like our parents. Trouble starts when one begins to change or exhibits previously hidden behavior so even growth threatens the relationship unless both grow together or at least one is mature enough to allow the other space to change.

  5. As I read this a dozen or so love songs of varying quality ran through my mind. As an argument against them, it feels a bit like watching re-runs of The Cisco Kid while seated next to someone who wants to point out everything that’s incorrect with Cisco and Pancho’s tales. Mundane realities exert themselves quite fine, and I don’t fear that notions of adventure and romance will choke the realities unless the notions are plucked out.

  6. Love is a choice, just as hate has a choice and there are many factors that may lead you to choose to love or hate someone. We think that one can still fall in love. You are allowing yourself to do so, making the choice to open yourself to the possibility of falling in love with a person.

    The idea of irresistible love is comforting. Not just in the case of romantic love either. Parents say the love their children while they are in the womb or the moment they are placed in their hands. A child likes to hear a parent say I love you no matter what, not even though you are doing AB and C I still choose to love you.

    The choice of love should hold higher esteem, but of somehow it’s more flattering that someone can’t help to love you.

  7. I don’t know why it has to be either/or. What is this obsession with people–especially Mormons, it seems–to see everything as black and white?

    There is an element of nonchoice in our romantic feelings for one another. People resonate with one another or they don’t. Sometimes the chemistry is immediate, other times it grows over time. There is truth in the claim that you can’t necessarily choose who you love.

    Yet never have feelings controlled our ability to decide. No matter how powerful feelings are, we still have the ability to make rational choices. We may not want to, but the ability is there. People do “fall in love,” but they can choose what to do about it. People do “fall out of love,” but it was their choices that caused their love to die instead of being nurtured.

    There were women who by all right I should have fallen in love with, and even tried, but couldn’t. There were women who it was crazy for me to be in love with, but I fell in love with them anyway.

    It’s not helpful to go from one unrealistic extreme to another. If you try to convince people there is no such thing as falling in or out of love, they won’t believe you because their experiences testify otherwise. Better to acknowledge there is an element of inevitability in the process, but that nothing forces us to be slaves to our emotions. I’m convinced we can’t really choose who we fall in love with, but we certainly can choose what to do about it.

  8. We’ll have to agree to disagree, Michael. =) I don’t believe that romantic love is ever inevitable. We may experience it as such, because our society has trained us to experience it that way. Society has trained us not to attune to the thoughts and actions we take that initiate those feelings of attraction. Sometimes the choices and actions we take are far prior to the first encounter with the person, when we chose to value certain characteristics about people.

    In psychology, I think it’s crucial for people to be clear and precise about these things. Too many psychologists get away with saying something like, “Human beings are a product of their behavioral reinforcement history, but they can choose to let that reinforcement history influence them.” This statement is self-contradicting. Because I encounter these sorts of statements all the time, I’ve become extra sensitive to sloppy philosophy. We either have choice in a matter, or we don’t. There is no middle ground.

    Yes, we choose who we love. Yes, we’ve been trained by society to experience it differently. But I think it’s dangerous to believe that we can’t choose. The implications are rather disturbing.

  9. People do “fall out of love,” but it was their choices that caused their love to die instead of being nurtured.

    Does this not imply that the act of being in love is my choice?

  10. Well, I’m not going to agree to disagree. You can bandy logic about all day trying to say love is a choice, but that’s not the real life experience of humans. Even centuries ago they beleived love was inevitable–witness the story line of Romeo and Juliet. Personally, I think it’s political correctness to try and argue it’s entirely a choice. That way one can preserve one’s rationalization for judging people for their love choices.

    Even if it’s a misperception (which I don’t believe), what good does it do to fight human nature? Why not teach the lesson of responsibility within the paradigm people are convinced of, instead of trying to buck the paradigm? Especially when either paradigm is an axiom one puts faith in, not proves.

    I’m convinced people can’t always control how they feel. But they can control how they respond to how they feel. That’s the lesson that should be taught, not this unrealistic notion that we go around choosing who we fall in love with.

  11. My comment does not imply being in love is a choice. They didn’t choose to “fall out of love.” They chose to neglect the love, and then it died without any intention to fall out of love.

    It’s a very different thing to try and force love. People have tried, and people have failed. Choices of behavior simply can’t create it if it’s not there. Choices can enhance the possibility that love will develop, but they can’t control it. Once love does exist, it’s in the power of the individual to nurture that love or neglect it. But the choice was not to stop loving. That happens naturally.

  12. “It’s a very different thing to try and force love. People have tried, and people have failed. Choices of behavior simply can’t create it if it’s not there.”

    Your right. I shouldn’t even try to love unless it comes naturally. Especially my enemies.

  13. Now you’re pulling a bait-and-switch on me. You started out discussing romantic love, and are suddenly switching to brotherly love. I may be required to love my enemy, but nothing requires me to fall in love with my enemy.

  14. I’m not talking about “forcing” love. I’m talking about choosing to think about, spend time with, and to value another person as an eternal companion. That is a choice.

    What about those who never “stumble” upon love? I have many friends who have ignored many potential eternal companions because the “magic just wasn’t there.” They’re now in their thirties. I believe they have been indoctrinated with the belief that love is something that happens to us, instead of something we do.

    Sure, people have believed that love is inevitable for centuries. However, that doesn’t mean they were right. Rather, they were steeped in much of the same culture that we are.

    And if one can “let love die,” then yes, it is a choice. Do you not see the logical fallacy in saying that we can’t choose love, but through our choices, we can fall out of love?

    And, if you read the article, you’ll see that choice does not always mean intention or consciousness. We don’t always intend to fall into the habits of thought and behavior that we sometimes find ourselves in. But that doesn’t mean we had no choice in the matter.

    On a final note, why do you feel so threatened by this idea? Taking responsibility for who we love is a scary prospect yes. Feel free to disagree with the idea, but to “not agree to disagree” implies you have personal investment in the idea that we are not responsible for our feelings.

  15. I know you’re not talking about forcing love, because that undermines your assertion. I’m talking about experience. If I choose to love, then I should have been able to love the ones I tried to love. It turns out I was trying to force love by trying to choose love. This isn’t theory–this is practical experience.

    I’ve also been hopelessly in love in a situation where it was, on paper, clearly not a wise choice. I consciously recognised that, yet I couldn’t deny that I loved her.

    You can argue at an abstract level all day long, but my experiences testify otherwise.

    I consider the “subconscious” choice to be a red herring. In what meaningful way is a subconscious choice a real choice? No doubt there are subconscious processes at work in the development of this thing we call love. But until the process percolates into our conscious mind, there’s really no meaningful choice involved. The subconscious is a mysterious realm that we don’t understand and have no meaningful control over. It’s in the conscious mind where responsibility begins.

    So if you want to settle on a truce, we do make subconscious choices on who to love, but we can’t be held responsible for those choices until they reach the conscious realm, where we make our real choices of behavior. I don’t think it’s useful to call “subconscious choices” real choices.

    P.S. I see no logical fallacy in what I said about love dying. If one makes choices whose consequence is letting love die, that’s not the equivalent of deliberately choosing to let love die. Neglect will generally assure love dying, whether that was the intention or not. The fact that most people are surprised to realize love has died verifies that there was no conscious decision to kill it.

    But consciously choosing to love someone does not necessarily assure that love will actually grow. And frankly, if someone consciosuly chooses to love, I think the love has already germinated without conscious choice–otherwise why would they choose in the first place?

    I make a big deal of this because this smacks of a subtext (whether conscious or subconscious…smirk) of straight vs. gay love. There’s an agenda among Mormons to make love a choice, and I don’t think I need to explain what I mean.

  16. Romantic vs. brotherly love, hmmmmmmmmmm. I don’t see it. Brotherly love is a moral imperative. Romatic love is an option (at least until a permanent commitment is made). Brotherly love means I treat another human being with respect and compassion–but at no point does it require that I develop an intimate relationship with the other. Indeed, I can show brotherly love toward someone I don’t even like.

    Not true with romantic love. This kind of love involves an intimacy and a joining of lives that is challenging to say the least and requires an extraordinary commitment to each other–a much greater commitment than loving one’s neighbor ever will. There needs to be a chemistry there that simply cannot be chosen consciously. The best one can do consciously is enact behavior that maximizes the possibility of romantic love developing. But plenty of people have given that a shot, only to discover that the love they hoped would grow never does, and they break up. They chose romantic love, but romantic love didn’t choose them.

    Now, sure, some people have a pie-in-the-sky image of romantic love that can never be, but that proves nothing. They just need to be trained in what love really is and to give it time to see if it grows without expecting that love-at-first-sight chemistry. But there’s still that necessity to see if it grows, and if it doesn’t, trying to choose (force) it is an unwise choice.

  17. If one makes choices whose consequence is letting love die, that’s not the equivalent of deliberately choosing to let love die

    I never said it was. In fact, I specifically said that the choices we make to love, or not to love, are most often not conscious or deliberate.

    Neglect will generally assure love dying, whether that was the intention or not. The fact that most people are surprised to realize love has died verifies that there was no conscious decision to kill it.

    Indeed, most often there is no conscious or intentional decision to kill it. Did you read what I’ve said several times? Choices are not always conscious or deliberate. Most of our agency is enacted without forethought or deliberation. However, our agency is still involved. Neglect is a pattern of choices, albeit unintentional.

    I think you’re fighting a straw man. I’ve never claimed that our choice to love (or not to love) is always conscious or deliberate. In fact, I said several times that it often isn’t deliberate, and that is why we sometimes experience it as being out of our control.

  18. Apparently you completely overlooked my thoughts on the significance of “sunbconscious choices”?

  19. I reject the idea that we don’t have agency in our subconscious. We will be just as accountable for the things we do subconsciously and habitually as those things that we do consciously.

  20. At this point I don’t know what to say. I don’t think we have the same comprehension of what “subconscious” means. It hardly means “habitual.”

  21. Well, I don’t think we can always decide who we find attractive on any level whether it is physical or emotional. However, I think sometimes people are attracted physically and not able to get emotionally close.

    I don’t have all the answers. I do think there is a distinction between love and infatuation. And we should accept if love is not reciprocal. You very much illustrated the importance of choice. If a person doesn’t love you back, it really isn’t any good for you even if your deluded ego may think it is from some type of entitlement.

    I am grateful that my high school teacher for our class to prepare for future Christian marriage would often emphasize the difference between love and infatuation/love. She said that with love you would forgive anything a person did even cheating on you. I don’t know if that is true.

    I can see where a person could try very hard to love another person and not be able to make themselves feel that emotion. Anger and bitterness can certainly cloud tender feelings. Life is so much easier in the abstract than the nitty gritty daily details.

    As for romantic love, I can testify that you can survive without it!

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