|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.
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
|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.”
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!