Teaching Love (An Alternative Perspective)

I teach Theology at a Catholic high school. The next question I usually get when I confess this strange truth is, “Soooo, what exactly do you teach?” If that’s what you’re thinking, the answer is that, essentially, I am charged with explaining God to eighth, ninth, and twelfth graders. More specifically, I try to explain what the Catholic Church believes about God, and therefore about life, our existence, and how we should interact with God and with each other. That is what I do all day, five days a week. It’s impossible, and I love it.

This job forces me to spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy thinking about the idea of love (love being very central to all the above-mentioned theological topics). But here’s the thing: how, exactly, does one explain and teach about love? That’s one of the greatest challenges of this particular subject, because, of course, you can only go so far in explaining love. Love has to be shown, lived, experienced.

As I’m trying to figure out how to both show and teach about love, I am also preparing for my wedding. That means that I am practicing loving my fiancé, Chris, and am experiencing the many, varied, and often-surprising ways that he loves me. We are deciding how best to show and celebrate what we believe about love in our wedding ceremony. We are trying to respond to the love we receive from one another by pouring out that abundant joy in our relationships with others. I am learning a lot about love right now, and completely expect (and hope!) that I will keep learning for the rest of my life.

Still, even with this growth in understanding, trying to teach about love—about what love truly is—continues to be one of the biggest challenges of this job. My students have a lot of others sources telling them what love is, and most of it is misleading at best, and seriously dangerous at worst. So many of the movies, and books, and TV shows, and music, and whatever else shapes their understanding, portray love as a feeling. They show that love is perhaps rooted in someone making me happy, or is an emotional response to someone I perceive to be good (good looking, smart, kind, wealthy—the kind of “good” varies). My small voice is competing with a lot of input on the subject.

Without fail, my students are shocked when I tell them I don’t think love is a feeling. While our positive emotions can make it easier to love, I think love, true love, is choice, is commitment, is action. It is the choice to choose the good of a person. It is the commitment to work for the good of every person I encounter, including Chris (who I encounter more than most anyone else), with my words and with my actions.

When it comes to this particular relationship, sometimes “working for Chris’ good” means telling him I think he’s wrong. Sometimes “working for Chris’ good” means responding with kindness and gentleness when he messes up. Sometimes “working for Chris’ good” means wrapping him up in all the affection and tenderness that I can pour out on him. Sometimes “working for Chris’ good” means making him dinner and cleaning up after we eat. Sometimes “working for Chris’ good” means letting him make me dinner and clean up too, because I believe that my good and his good are intimately bound up together.

While Chris does make me happy a lot of the time, I hope to love him even when he’s driving me up a wall. I hope to love him when I don’t feel great. I hope to love him even when I don’t like him very much. (I usually like him a whole lot, but still.)

I also hope to love other people when I don’t particularly feel loving toward them. I want to love people I can’t see any good in. I want to love people by seeing the good I believe is ours just because we’re human, not because we’ve done (or not done) anything. This one often applies to the way I view myself. I sometimes struggle to love myself when I can’t see much that’s good about me.

I work, every day, to try to teach a different understanding of love, an understanding of love that is not about physical attraction, or about how nice or smart or athletic a person is, or about a person’s merit in general. I work to help my students understand, experience, and live love that is based on one basic belief: every human being is precious, valuable, and needs to be treated with love. But, the best way I can teach them this very important truth is by loving my students, loving Chris, and loving myself well. Only in loving and being loved can I hope to teach what love is.

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  • Even if you believe love is a feeling there’s a lot of truth and wisdom here. Something like love doesn’t just exist in a vacuum, it still requires action and nurturing and in order to grow it we have to put work into it.

  • Amy

    I wish I could be a student in one of your classes!

  • emmer

    LOVE this post!

  • Sheila

    This is great! I remember talking about this when we were going through pre-Cana, and every once in awhile we would randomly yell out, “Love is not a feeling!” (Or perhaps more accurately for me, love is not JUST a feeling.) I find this especially true with my children, who are sometimes a little harder to like; this morning for example my four-year-old was not very likeable at all. I wasn’t feeling much love, but I sure was living it.

  • Jessica, I wish you had been my teacher when I was in Catholic school! Despite my overall frustration with my religious classes when I was in high school (they didn’t focus on love enough, or at all, as far as I’m concerned) was learning about the five love languages my senior year. It was a brief lesson but it made sense to me in such a deep way when I was a teenager and stuck with me for many years. Though I’m sure I would have come across the book later in my life at some point, learning about them then was so huge for me and had a big impact on how I interacted with my family and now how I interact with Eric. So I guess all this to say, even if your students may be giving you a lot of feedback that is sort of shocking (kids these days…) I’m sure you are making a huge difference in their lives, whether or not they even realize it right now. You sound like an awesome teacher and I love that you’re teaching them about love.

    • Rachel, I learned about the 5 love languages in high school, too. It was at a weekend retreat for foriegn exchange students and their american siblings. Most of the weekend focused on either eating a ton of food and doing activities or on lectures about culture shock and how to form new relationships. The love languages lecture was unannounced, and I was totally unprepared for it to stick with me the way it did. I heard about it when I was 16, and it’s changed the way I’ve viewed relationships in the almost decade since.

      Jessica, even though that lecture had such an impact on me, I have no idea who the people were who gave the talk, so I’ve never been able to thank them. And I’m the daughter of a teacher, and someone who’s made it a point to contact and thank my former teachers for everything they taught me! I have a feeling many of your students will realize years from now just how important your lessons were!

  • Corrie

    This post could make a really great drinking game (or a really terrible one, based off how you look at it) if someone was keeping track of the number of times the word love comes up.

    But really, this is such a beautiful post and those kids are lucky to have you as your teacher. Even though your teaching is geared toward the Catholic faith, this is a message that applies to everyone. Given the state of our world, I definitely know that plenty of adults could learn something about love and doing good by others. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom.

  • Samantha

    This is a fantastic post and an important message. Early on in my engagement when I first heard the “Love is a choice” idea – probably during my early time at APW – I just immediately took to it. Love is a choice – I can choose – I have control over this thing and we can’t stop loving each other because love is not a feeling. We will Choose. Every. Day. to love one another – THAT is how to make it work.

    I completely agree that the state of affairs for young people is atrocious and terrifying. It’s one of the things that scares me most about raising older children, having to navigate the scariness of pop-culture messages. Like you said, you are one voice in a whole sea of others telling them different definitions of love. You are truly doing good. Thanks for sharing this great message and your inspiring work teaching the new generation about love!

  • I LOVE this! As a Catholic I often think about what it means to be married within the context of my religious and world view it informs. One of the best things I found in reading Theology of the Body and during pre-cana was the idea you talk about as working for his good. I take it to also mean working toward his happiness – my job is to take care of David, to love him and work for him to be happy and good. His job is to take care of me. The liberation of not worrying about my own happiness and not thinking endlessly about myself was profoundly liberating. For me, when I got married, I was vowing to love David forever. I cannot make a vow about ‘feelings’ that I don’t control. I can choose to love, so I can vow to love. I don’t have loving feelings toward him every second of every day but I can love him when I’m angry or hurt or just grumpy. Loving him means working toward his good and happiness.

    • Ooh! I love this. I’m not vowing what I’m going to feel every day, I’m vowing what I’m going to do every day.

      • ItsyBitsy

        A friend of mine said something to this effect a few months after she got married and it sort of bowled me over (in a good way). Beautiful, beautiful.

  • kyley

    I love the thougtfulness behind this post, and I have no doubt your students are lucky to have you as a teacher. When I was that age, understanding the kind of love that God represents gave me an incredible sense of confidence and self-worth at a time when those things can be hard to come by.

    I agree that love is a choice. It’s so important to choose to focus on love above all else. This is a silly example, but it’s indicative of how I try to chose love in my daily life: Yesterday I was waiting to meet my partner at the bank, and he was running a little late and I found myself getting really cranky. I had to pause, recognize that actually I was just really hungry, and choose to remember how much my partner loves me. He’s not running late because he doesn’t love me; he was just busy at work. And I needed a burrito, but I also need to love him.

    At the same time, I have seen this notion that “love is a choice” do some real damage in a very close friend’s life. This friend grew up in a community that encouraged very young marriages, the kind that you cannot leave without risking being cut-off from your community. And she was taught again and again that “love is a choice,” but she wasn’t really taught about the all the feelings that make that choice worthwhile. And so she chose someone who ticked off all the boxes and who is a “good man,” without pausing to check-in with herself about whether he was a good man for her . And she’s suffocating, trying to chose something that never really fit. I’ve had long conversations with her about this very phrase, and how hard it has been for her to realize that choosing love and choosing her own fulfillment/happiness have to feed each other, not fight each other.

    So yes, love is a choice: we should always remember in each moment to chose love, because the more we focus on that, the stronger that becomes. But those feelings of happiness aren’t irrelevant, and choosing love should build us up. If choosing love is choosing to make ourselves smaller, than it’s important to reassess, because we also have to always choose self-love.


      I have found that when I choose self-love, it becomes very clear who in my life is showing me the love I deserve and what relationships are mutually fulfilling and loving. And when I say self-love, I don’t mean the narcissistic, I-am-more-valuable-than-you kind; I mean the humanity-affirming, we’re-all-valuable kind.

      I know that when I am loving myself in this way, I am doing all my relationships a favor. When I am fulfilling my own need for love, I have no reason to engage in any sort of subconscious neurotic behavior in my relationships to try to obtain proof or feedback from another that affirms that I am lovable–I just know that I am, and all the insecurities fall away. When I love myself, the love I am able to give my partner is purer because it has not been corrupted by my fears about my own love-ability.

      The challenge, of course, is to consistently live my life with the belief that I am lovable. And love from my partner helps remind me that I am lovable in moments when I fear I might not be.

    • Anne

      “At the same time, I have seen this notion that “love is a choice” do some real damage in a very close friend’s life. This friend grew up in a community that encouraged very young marriages, the kind that you cannot leave without risking being cut-off from your community.”

      I grew up in a culture like this, and my first marriage was at 18 to a 24 year old man that my father liked. I didn’t love him, but I was told, “Just choose to love him.” I divorced him after fourteen years of marriage. I haven’t been to church since then, and I haven’t seen my family since a few months after the divorce was final. That was almost six years ago.

      So I get where Jessica is coming from. I understand it. But “love is a choice” is a very damaging concept when you take the “feelings” out of it too.

      • Exactly!

        “Just choose to love him” is something that I heard too.

        I was incredibly lucky that no one in my community would have me and I ended up an old maid, marrying someone of a different religion when I’m 31 years old! At the time I was so depressed that I couldn’t land a husband, but now I know what a blessing that was. Gave me time to realize that “love is a choice” is not the entire story, though it is part of it.

    • Your story about your friend resonates for me.

      Having been raised with the idea of arranged marriage and the idea that since all human beings are lovable and divine, it doesn’t matter which one you marry…well, this is a difficult subject for me.

      I do believe that all human beings are lovable. Yet, it took me a long time to accept that some humans support and encourage the love within me much better than others.

      • KC

        I really do not understand how they can jump between “all human beings have this particular value” and “it doesn’t matter which one you marry”.

        All work (that contributes to the world, at least; janitorial, sure; cigarette company marketing, maybe not?) has value, but because we’re all different, it matters *enormously*, both for how fulfilled we are and for how well the work gets done, which job each particular person does (it is not ideal for the introvert to be answering phones and the extravert to be archiving papers with no human contact all day; it can be done, sometimes, and one can sometimes even find bright spots in a generally ill-fitting job, but… it’s not ideal!).

        And marriage, being the putting-together of two people, seems like it would also benefit enormously from those people being matched up as well as possible?

        So I am officially baffled. But you also may not understand whether there are any supports under that logical leap… (I would also be super-interested to hear of the different perspectives on arranged marriage; it seemed to partly work for a really long time in a lot of cultures, so I’d love to know how or why or what the actual success rate is)

        • Class of 1980

          It drives me crazy when people say arranged marriages worked better than the modern way of choosing a spouse.

          How so? I don’t think divorce was easy to come by then.

          You can’t measure the success of a marriage by whether or not the people manage to stay married or not. You can be married and miserable.

          • KC

            Yep, divorce is not the only way a marriage can… not work out… which is why I’m most curious as to the viewpoint of someone who was in a community that practiced arranged marriage, who would hopefully have gotten more of an inside look at how it worked or didn’t, rather than just having stats on divorce vs. not. :-)

        • ElisabethJoanne

          On arranged marriages, I’m not a historian, but I’ve thought about the issue, too. (I think there’s a book on this, too. “How Love Destroyed Marriage” or something.) The first thing is, we can’t measure marriage success before the changes in divorce law (and property law). And domestic violence is hard enough to measure today, let alone historically.

          I do know that spouses spent less time together in times past. Wives took extended trips to visit relatives. And our contemporary concept of the “nuclear family” is relatively recent. Historically, extended families were more important, and young families had more direct interaction day-to-day with both their “families of origin” and their in-laws.

          As a theologian, I can say that Roman Catholic theology related to the prudence of arranged marriage is developing. If you read certain passages in Augustine of Hippo or Thomas Aquinas, the only way to get married without sinning, it would seem, is arranged marriage. If you get a chance to see your future spouse before the wedding, you’ll “lust after her.”

          But Wojtyla (see below) is clear that love is based on knowledge. I don’t think his teaching is compatible with arranged marriage. And he’s explicit that to find someone attractive is not sinful. He speaks of young people choosing their own spouses with approval, and says that just how we choose is a mystery human knowledge will likely never be able to search out.

        • Stephanie

          Well, you have to remember that in these kinds of cultures, people tend to get married really, really young. Like, 18-22 is normal. So by the time people are in their late 20’s or 30’s, they are completely different people that may or may not still love each other. Hence the teaching that “love is a choice” and “you can make it work no matter what.”

          Also, a lot of these cultures tend to have patriarchal views of courtship & betrothal. The father of the daughter plays a big role in if his daughter can marry this guy, let alone court the guy. If your father does decide this is an okay guy, then you proceed to courtship, which typically does not last long, and is normally supervised. There is very little time to truely get to know the other person, hence why you can end up married to a stranger in just a few years.

    • For me, knowing that love was a choice, allowed me to choose to leave a relationship that, while it may have stirred emotions, was terribly horribly bad for me. I got to choose what I did with those feelings and get out.

      Love is a choice, but it should not be a difficult one to make every day.

      • meg

        I love this. I say this to people a lot, “It’s not supposed to be phenomenally hard. Sure, it’s hard sometimes. Life is hard. But if it’s *always* hard, *always* complicated, think again.”

        • Jessica

          Sorry, meant to hit exactly!

  • Stephanie

    Oh no… I grew up with this teaching my whole life, and it always felt wrong to me. I grew up in a fundamental Baptist church. We were taught that you could marry ANYONE. Because love isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice. You could make marriage work with anyone.

    I understand the teaching. The church was responding to people who had married young, and 10 or so years later divorced because they didn’t love each other anymore.

    But the problem was that I learned that feelings are bad! Feelings are wrong! You can’t trust your feelings! It was hammered into my head over and over and over that you cannot trust your heart, only your head. We were constantly quoted Jeremiah 17:9 – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

    It took me YEARS of therapy to learn to trust my feelings, to learn that my feelings are valid. My younger sister, who is getting married soon, still has problems processing her emotions. She shut down emotionally for most of her teens and early 20’s. She can only tell me she loves me in WRITING!

    So anyway, I believe that love is a feeling, but committment is a choice. I choose to be committed to my husband, no matter what. Even if I don’t feel like I love him. I choose to stay. A better explanation can be found here: http://www.elizabethesther.com/2013/02/love-is-a-choice.html.

    • Samantha

      I appreciate what you are saying and that sounds like an awful use of the Love is a Choice idea. I couldn’t imagine thinking that I had to discount my feelings or that it didn’t matter who I married because the feelings of love aren’t real. I don’t think that is what Jessica is saying here thought. What understand her to be saying is that she is no discounting emotional feelings towards one another but that love is MORE than just those feelings. It’s like the difference between love and lust a little bit. She is saying (I think) that love is choosing to be the best that you can be for your partner and supporting them to be their best self. Choosing every day to remember the good in the person even when they are making you slightly crazy and why you care for them in the first place. She is working to teach kids the kind of love that is divine, that goes beyond the superficial definitions of love that are encouraged through pop-culture – and how real love is expressed. I agree with you that commitment is a choice and I agree with Jessica that love is a choice through the actions that you use to employ love. You feel affection and the way that you express that is love. In my humble opinion. BUT it is a tricky subject no doubt and one that I think takes a lot of contemplation and thoughtfulness to truly understand and I’m sure I haven’t reached the end!

      That being said I am not Baptist so I can’t fully understand your experiences, however, I am Catholic and I have to say that sitting with my Priest talking about love in our first wedding meeting was a profound moment for me. Good luck in crafting your own definition of love for your own life because that is what we each need to do.

    • Moe

      I didn’t grow up baptist but I did grow up in a very fundamentalist church environment like the one you described. Around the age of 30 I left the church. I wasn’t married anyways, so in that culture I was tragic case. *eyeroll* Everyone else I had grown up with was already making babies.

      Even as a church leader I was always challenging the establishment and there were times I was described as a ‘feminist’ and it wasn’t meant in a good way. It wasn’t until I was browsing through a book store and picked up a book about legalism and recovery that I was stunned to discover that what I grew up with was in fact a very militant legalist approach to Christianity.

      Even now there are still ideas that I was raised with that I debate and ponder in my head that I have yet to find resolution for. I really do hope you find peace with all that you have been through, and likewise for your sister.

    • Yes and I can see this being taken in a very DAMAGING context when it comes to same-sex relationships and “choosing” to be gay and “choosing” to love someone of the same sex. These things are not a choice, you can’t choose to be gay and you cannot choose that you are attracted to people of the same sex. I am hoping that part of the original poster’s instructions, as a teacher in her Catholic school and to these young, impressionable Catholic students, is that it is important to choose to love people who *do not* have a choice in being homosexual (or any other member of the LGBTQ spectrum), because the Catholic hierarchy’s attitudes toward the LGBTQ community and their right for equal marriage and equal representation is one of the (many) reasons I have extremely negative feelings toward the religion, and the only way the Church’s attitude going to change is if grassroots Catholics, open-minded Catholics, make a fuss about it and teach their youth that being LGBTQ is natural (not a choice) and that all love is equal. I am truly hoping that the original poster is one of these individuals.

      • meg

        I think love is a choice, but not that our sexual orientation is a choice. To me, those ideas are fundamentally unrelated (and clearly, APW would never run a post saying or hinting at the latter).

        I don’t want to discount that there are a lot of really damaging religious teachings out there, and that concepts can always be used in abusive ways. I just want us to be careful about the way we treat religions, particularly those that are not our own, here. There are APW staffers who are practicing, open minded, Catholics, as well as lots of readers in the same boat. They’re in a great position to speak about the nuances of their particular faith, I’m not. I could talk to you for days about the nuances of mainline Protestantism (including American Baptists, because I was raised liberal Baptist) and the evolving stance on gay rights within those churches. I could even talk to you a bit about the same issues within reform Judism (though with much less authority). But I’d like us to be careful with the nuances of other peoples faith and belief systems. Even without church authority, they are complicated complicated things. When you introduce the difference between church authority and practicing Catholics, and the long history of disagreement there, it gets much, much more complicated, and really requires both a cultural and historical lens to examine well.

        • Laura

          The difference for me here is that this poster is not just a Catholic who happens to be writing an article about marriage. The whole backdrop of the article is that of the OP being a Catholic theology teacher. As a former devout Catholic, I am well acquainted with Catholic theology, and I can say that marriage makes a *huge* appearance therein. I can also say that, regardless of how individual Catholics may feel (and I’m well aware that there are MANY who part ways with their church on equality issues), Catholic teaching is unambiguous about same-sex relationships/marriage. It is the norm for Catholic schools to make their teachers sign contracts agreeing not to teach anything that doesn’t align with the official teachings of the church; this would seem to apply most of all to theology teachers. Therefore, on a blog like APW that prides itself not only on being inclusive of all couples, but on consciousness raising, I found the OP’s silence on the issue distracting, and the previous poster’s question understandable.

          • This was what I was getting at and I thank you, Laura, for clarifying my point for me–I’m Jewish myself (Conservative sect which has just gotten MUCH more inclusive regarding LGBTQ practices including allowing openly gay rabbis to be ordained and allowing rabbis to perform same-sex ceremonies, huzzah!) but I know a lot about Catholicism, as my manfriend is a lapsed Catholic and I tend to follow church news because the Catholic church influences so much of the world. These statements: “The difference for me here is that this poster is not just a Catholic who happens to be writing an article about marriage. The whole backdrop of the article is that of the OP being a Catholic theology teacher,” and “Therefore, on a blog like APW that prides itself not only on being inclusive of all couples, but on consciousness raising, I found the OP’s silence on the issue distracting, and the previous poster’s question understandable,” pretty much summarizes the reason why I wrote the post that I did, along with your statement that teachers must sign contracts prohibiting them from teaching anything that goes against the prevailing beliefs of the church (one of my major discomforts with the religion–clergy members who speak out against the norms are not treated well, unlike in many other religious sects).

            I wasn’t writing to be a troll and everyone is entitled to their beliefs, religious and otherwise, but, as Laura said, I was distracted by the OP’s silence on the issue.

          • meg

            For me, part of being inclusive is being inclusive of a variety of religious faiths, even if various faith’s church doctrine’s haven’t caught up with the rest of us on LGBTQ issues. Being a Catholic theology teacher in no way makes you someone who’s not also inclusive and affirming to all sexual orientations. Our personal relationships with religion are complicated ones. Regardless, this post is about a concept of love, not about exclusion.

            I’m not saying these are not good questions to ask, and questions we should CONSTANTLY be asking within the contexts of our faiths. What I am saying is that I think we need to be careful of how we talk about religions and faiths that are not our own. As a former practicing Catholic, you’re a great person to talk about the nuances of that issue within the faith.

            However, it tends to be good to keep these discussions personal to ourselves, or general to the Catholic church, and not make assumptions about the writer.

          • KC

            I would note that if someone could potentially get fired (or if her school could come under disciplinary action, etc.) because she took a particular position on an issue online while identifying herself as a theology instructor and using her name, it seems reasonable (to me at least) not to address it in a post that is not directly related to that subject.

            I don’t know what her position is, but… it seems like people can respect other people without making the same choices about how loud they are going to be, or how hard they will fight specific assumptions.

    • These were my thoughts as well. I’ve heard so many stories of abuse and damage come out of the “Love is a choice” belief. Women stuck in loveless marriages who think they “love” their husband because they serve him, even though they have no mushy feelings towards him. I, too, have had to learn to trust my heart and emotions, after trying to be purely rational for most of my life, and being led down strange religious paths because of it. There is wisdom in feelings.

      Granted, I think the OP does not intend to take “love is a choice” to such extremes as to say feelings don’t matter. Perhaps she merely means to emphasize the importance of letting love demonstrate itself through actions. Demonstrating love should be a natural thing when you love someone (though some of us probably need a little help there). But the feeling comes first, and that is what makes the actions genuine and special. Performing actions does not equal love, nor does it magically create fond feelings between two people. So that is why I prefer people simply talk in terms of “demonstrate your love” rather than “love is a choice, not a feeling.” The latter is confusing, and it can be so easily misused.

      • Elizabeth

        “Performing actions does not equal love, nor does it magically create fond feelings between two people.”

        I actually disagree with this. For some people, actions is the only way s/he can show or express love, so the actions do equal love. And being kind and loving towards someone is a way to develop love for another. Actions and faith: both are equally necessary.

        • We actually agree with each other, we’re just using different definitions.

          Yes, both are necessary, and one can lead to another and vice versa. But they are not the same thing, nor are they replacements for the other. Showing and expressing love are loving actions, but they are not the feeling of love itself. I believe the feeling and the action are separate things that should go together nearly always, and I think it’s better to distinguish them rather than to try to redefine “love” to be only one of those things. It’s confusing, and some people get deeply hurt by trying to separate the two.

    • Teresa

      When I think of “love is a choice,” I think of something my mom said to me a long time ago. “Love is not enough.” What she meant was, the FEELING of love is not enough to sustain a relationship or a marriage–you have to want to be there, you have to try, you have to make your relationship a priority. Simply, you have to want to work to sustain that feeling. That is why I very much believe that love is a choice, so much so that our vows were worded “I choose you…” I feel love for my husband, but I think it is an active choice that I make our love and our relationship a priority in my life. I think this is what Jessica is getting at and where I see the difference between how I view love as a choice and the very damaging idea of a choice that isn’t actually yours.

      • samantha

        My mom always said this to me too.

    • KC

      That you could marry ANYONE is about as insane as saying you could do ANY job. Maybe you could marry ANYONE or do ANY job as long as the earth was going to be destroyed by a meteor in five minutes so your utter unsuitability as an airline pilot or a spouse to this person wouldn’t ever be relevant?

      I’m sorry you and your sister got hammered by that situation; that is not good. :-( Reactionary stuff (where it’s totally one-sided and hyperbole-laden because it’s trying to fight So Hard against the Scary Thing on the other end of the seesaw) is really unhelpful, and it’s especially harmful to those who don’t have the weight hanging out on the other end of the seesaw. Feelings/intuition/emotion are good (although should also be acting in concert with logic, and at least personally, sometimes I know my feelings are temporarily impaired by sleep deprivation or hormones, so I need to just keep moving in the direction I was moving the last time I was the right way up, rather than making new choices based on the currently-screwed-up feelings, but that’s a *totally* different thing from feelings all being bad).

      The feelings/choice thing I’ve sort of settled on is that there are initial feelings, and then there are feelings you can “starve” or “feed” with your choices (like choosing to keep your running shoes on top of your laptop if you really want to take up jogging when you get up instead of checking Facebook but need an extra push; or like choosing to not flirt with that cutie on the subway when you’re grumpy in your marriage, because the flirting will just amplify your dissatisfaction [and usually unfairly! it’s easier to be attracted to someone when you know none of their annoying parts!]), and there are the choices you make even when the feelings are in opposition (like picking up your spouse at the airport when your anniversary was entirely forgotten and you are tired and you are straight-through MAD and you do not want to, but also you are married and you are committed to them and you know that you would regret making them spend the night at the airport).

      So, love is sometimes a sort of spontaneous feeling (if spontaneous is the right word?); love is also a feeling that you can help along or hinder via your choices; and love (or maybe commitment, as you divided them out?) is a choice. All at once, yay!

    • Jessica

      Original Poser here. Thanks so much for your thoughtful response, and I couldn’t agree more with what so many of you pointed out. We have to be very careful not to take this idea and do something terrible with it. As KC so perfectly states, sometimes human beings are “trying to fight So Hard against the Scary Thing on the other end” of whatever, that we create a horrible and scary thing of our own. As I wrote this, I was wrestling with exactly what you said, and the fact that my own beloved religion has so often used Christ’s example on the cross to tell people [women in particular] that they are supposed to just suffer and somehow that’s what God wants us to do. Gah. No, that is not what we believe, that is terrible theology, and that is definitely not what I was trying to say here, so thank you so much to those who highlighted that.

      I edited this so many times to try to clarify that exact point and eventually settled on a couple of nods toward that important truth, namely that MY good and the good of others are all intimately connected. I cannot be working for someone else’s true good, if that is doing damage to me, because doing damage to me can never be truly good for someone else. So yes, I count as a person on that list of people who must be loved, people who are precious and valuable, etc.

      I was trying to be a little careful with how much I got into my personal religious beliefs in this piece, but to go a little deeper, I believe that true good is what brings others AND me closer to God (who is Love, Truth, Life). So if whatever I am doing is not bringing me and the other person closer to love, truth, life, then it cannot be truly good. Figuring out what that actually looks like in everyday decisions is admittedly challenging, but again, that’s what I believe I need God (and God working through wonderful people) to help me to figure out a lot of the time.

      Still, I do think real love is much deeper than the positive emotions I have toward a person. I am called to truly love everyone, perhaps especially if I do not have positive emotions toward them. But, I of course, I cannot and will not marry every person I am called to love. Still, the same truths that govern how I am supposed to love every person I encounter can help me to love the person I have chosen to marry. Having carefully discerned marrying this wonderful man, based on the fact that he also truly loves me in every way he can (and does bring me closer to God!), I can step into a whole new realm of love. One of these posts put it so perfectly: I am not promising to feel a particular thing every day when I take those vows, but I am promising to make that choice in a profound and special way, every day.

      • Elizabeth

        I think it’s also important to point out that the Catholic faith puts a lot of emphasis and importance on feelings–they’re how God communicates with people. Love as a choice, removed from feelings, is a completely foreign concept. I’ve just spent this whole week on a kairos retreat with seniors; feelings are never, ever separated from the idea and practice of love.

      • From another Catholic who very much loves her Catholic faith (despite its obvious and very well-publicized shortcomings), thank you for your beautiful writing about one of the beautiful parts of our faith. Not only is love more than a feeling — it’s a choice and should be our ultimate goal in all that we do!

    • Any ideology taken to its most extreme can be problematic. If love is a choice and there is no emotion in there it can be limiting. At its worst it could be damaging to people in religions that don’t support their needs, and it can be discriminatory to people who don’t fit into some very narrow gender and sexual confines.

      At the other extreme, believing the love is only a feeling can be awful too. It stops us from working through the hard stuff, it encourages us to walk away and be flighty when love gets hard. Relationships aren’t smooth and simple, whether its a marriage, family or a friendship and we lose a lot if we don’t stick it out through some of life’s ups and downs.

      We can’t choose who we’re attracted to, but when we are attracted (whether the person is of the same or opposite gender) and we do choose to pursue a relationship we can choose how we behave in that relationship. When we make a commitment to another person we can choose to see it through with loving action and to treat our partner with love even when it’s not easy.

      Choosing to love someone else doesn’t come at the expense of loving ourselves though. If a relationship is damaging to us or isn’t fulfilling our needs part of loving ourselves can be evaluating that, taking a long, hard look at things and moving in a different direction. The people we love need to make the moves to love us back, both with feelings and actions and a loving relationship has more than one player.

      • meg

        This. So much this.

  • Thank you for writing this out. I completely agree, but I’ve never been able to write it out in a way where it makes sense (which led to some of my friends being convinced that I’m very cold hearted). It isn’t that you can love anyone, it’s that you make a choice to love someone and you work at it. Even when times are rough. Even when you don’t feel like you love them that day. Even when they’re being really annoying by not filling the dishwasher correctly despite the fact that you’ve shown them a better way to do it at least a million times. :)

    So, thanks for writing it out for me so I can better explain things. I hope you don’t mind if I quote you in conversations!

  • Your students are indeed lucky. I believe you *feel* love, but you also commit to it. Or like you say so well it is something you choose to act on.

    One of the parts I liked the most about our marriage-preparation class was when our dear priest explained us the reasons why the Catholic church considers marriage a sacrament. It is so because the love between humans is a manifestation of God’s love and greatness and therefore it’s sacred. This understanding really goes with the way I feel about faith… I see God in harmony and perfection in nature (I will be forever in awe at mitochondriae), in what Jung called synchronicity, in our capacity to affect each others lives (for good) even by little actions.

    In more or less the same sens I ike this quote I found the other day :

    “When you find yourself in a position to help someone, be happy because Allah is answering that person’s prayer through you.” — Nouman Ali Khan

    • Samantha

      I want to exactly this a million times. Beautiful.

    • Senorita

      Um, we might be soul mates.
      Whenever my grip on my faith gets slippery (which admittedly can sometimes be a result of my church’s position on life-saving birth control methods) I just think of that little windmill pumping out ATP and I know there’s no way that didn’t happen without a little nudge from someone upstairs.

  • Granola

    This insightful piece reminded me of this essay that I found through the Saturday Link Roundup “Why Dirty Dishes Art the Biggest Threat to Your Marriage”


    I thought it would be lame, but it’s actually about boredom, and how it’s important to live your love and marriage through the repetitive execution of minor chores. Certainly made me think when I did the dishes last night.

  • Moe

    So well said, awesome! I hope your students carry your wisdom with them into their future choices.

    My theology professor often said “if you believe that (fill in the blank) is truth, what does that look like?” Meaning she was always challenging to make the connection between what we believed and the actions we took.

    If I believe that love is a choice, what does that look like on days when I don’t feel loving? What does that look like when my marriage is faced with challenges?

    Thank you for sharing something so well written. Writing about what love is in a way that is simple is no small task.

  • Daisy6564

    “I want to love people by seeing the good I believe is ours just because we’re human, not because we’ve done (or not done) anything. This one often applies to the way I view myself. I sometimes struggle to love myself when I can’t see much that’s good about me.”

    THIS! As a Catholic I learned the undeniable dignity of the human person, just for being human. Our worth is not based on our accomplishments. Although this is a Catholic idea, I also think that it is a Humanist one.

    Holding this belief expanded my definition of love to be huge. It led me into to service work, I could love people by working for them. It also kept me from investing in bad relationships, because I deserved to be loved, just for being human. As a result, I spent most of my young life single, but not without love.

    Love is not about kissing or holding hands with someone. Love is about seeing what is good in in a person and letting them know that you see.

    I do not need a romantic relationship to love or feel loved. I choose everyday to be with my partner because he loves me in a way that shows he values me and pushes me to be better.

  • Gillian

    YES to all of this. My mantra is that love is a choice. Thank you for this.

  • NB

    “We are trying to respond to the love we receive from one another by pouring out that abundant joy in our relationships with others.”

    THIS. Oh my goodness gracious, this. Not to over-simplify, but one of the most delightful revelations that I’ve had in the first year of marriage was realizing that being part of a supportive, loving, team not only made me more capable of stretching my own wings (a recurrent APW theme), but it gave me the lift I needed to reach out to some other people in my life who needed a little love and a little joy, too. Love grows! And that is pretty awesome.

  • KateM

    I LOVE this post. My dad growing up always taught us that in marriage you choose to love your spouse everyday, and I as a philosophy major, always subscribed to love is an act of the will. This doesn’t negate the emotional side of it, I fell in love with my husband on an emotional level. I choose to love him everyday as a continual acting out of our marriage vows. The Catholic Church in its wedding vow, asks you did you come here freely of your own choosing. You vow or promise to love your spouse in the marriage ceremony, pointing back to the long philosophical tradition that you have the choice to do this. Emotions ebb and flow. That doesn’t mean that emotions aren’t important, but lets be honest, most of us don’t live our lives based on what we feel at any given moment. The Catholic Church also teaches that as we mature, our emotions and our intellect grow in line with each other and that we basically train our emotions to follow our intellect. Emotions come faster than reason and while no one is perfect at this, but this is a lot of times why we have an emotional response to something, that we may not understand, and then we realize after that there was a logical reason.
    I think it is so much more romantic to choose someone, rather than to be “complussed by emotion”. That we choose someone as they are is a pretty amazing thing.

    • Philosophy major fist bump.

  • ElisabethJoanne

    I’m not Roman Catholic, I’m Anglican Catholic, but I’m half-way through “Love and Responsibility.” As an Anglican, and just as a person, there are parts I agree with, and parts I disagree with.

    Some insights I’ve found valuable are that there are different kinds of love. Abp. Karol Wojtyla (later John Paul the Great) doesn’t express these ways that directly correspond to eros, philios, and charitas, though I can see those concepts in the background. All of these come together in betrothed love, or should. But they don’t all come together at one time or as one feeling or one recognition.

    The other thing Wojtyla emphasizes is that love must be based on knowledge. You can’t deeply love someone you barely know. When I consider that he wrote the book around 1960, when I have to imagine courtships were shorter and more supervised, I find this really interesting. Maybe he gets into this in the second half, but if love is based on knowledge, it would seem to me, it’s something you have to ease into. This is a great comfort to me as our first four months of marriage have been rough, especially the sexual love aspects. But, somehow, betrothed love must be something you choose, because you marry before you can have the necessary knowledge to love best.

  • Dana

    Yes Yes Yes. Thank you for this post!

  • C

    Ach, lump in my throat. THIS. All of it. Thank you.

  • It’s interesting to me that so many of the stories of the damage of going too far with the love is a choice idea are branches of Christianity.

    As a Hindu, I got that too!

    “You’ll come to love him” and “We love that which we serve” were common phrases when I was growing up.

  • Rowany

    All this discussion of “love is a choice” OR “love is a feeling” seems like a false dichotomy. Love, to me, is like light–it has energy, it has mass, it can travel any distance but it might take some time getting there — and it can be two things at once, the particles of feelings you have for your partner that you can pinpoint right that second, and the benevolent wave of actions that you make as you commit to that person every single day. It’s not one or the other, and it’s also not one sometimes and the other sometimes, it’s both all the time—even if you can’t detect both at the same time if you’re fighting over the dishes. I think the feeling without the choice is infatuation and lust, which might shine bright but decays quickly (I admit that my metaphor breaks down here, since other subatomic particles are also waves, sorry physicists!), and the commitment without the feeling is martyrdom which can have rippling negative effects on the rest of your life.

    • WOW. Yes. This is such a perfect way to describe it.

    • I love this. Thank you for that beautiful analogy.

    • Sam

      Totally great analogy! Despite any physics break down!

      • Senorita

        My only issue with this is that I *still* don’t get the light as a particle and as a wave thing. I want to. But I don’t.

  • Diane

    This post touched my heart and gave me words to describe how I feel about the love I have for my fiancé (coincidentally also named Chris) and others in my life. I hope that you would be ok with me incorporating at least a portion of “While our positive emotions can make it easier to love, I think love, true love, is choice, is commitment, is action. It is the choice to choose the good of a person. It is the commitment to work for the good of every person I encounter, including Chris …, with my words and with my actions” in our wedding ceremony. I think that so eloquently puts to words what I believe love is.

    I grew up in Catholic school, like many posters above me, and had my religion teachers had a perspective similar to you I think it would have made a huge difference in how I feel about the church now.

    Thank you!

  • Kara

    Every once in a while, when I was being a particularly bratty kid — and used the “but I love you mom!” to avoid punishment– my mom would tell say, I love you too, but I don’t like you/your behavior very much right now. It always stuck in a way that made me really thoughtful. I never felt like that saying was a rejection of me, but it separated the love from the actions at the time…

  • Margaret Thatcher

    I think love is a choice–but I agree with posters who said that the idea can be dangerous when taken to extremes.

    I almost married my best friend because I was getting older, we both were ready to get married, and we got along. I also had just finished “Marry Him” by Lori Gottlieb, and had a bit of The Fear in me.

    However, we were never IN love. I told myself time and again that chemistry was deceptive and unnecessary, and that true love would blossom with the fullness of time. That I just needed to try harder.

    It was only halfway through the engagement, when I caught myself explaining the idea of our impending marriage as a “mutually beneficial business arrangement” that I realized that I was probably doing the wrong thing.

    Love is a choice, but I think the choice aspect is for when the chemistry mellows. Relationships, in my experience anyway, need that crazy infatuation stage–it’s silly, but now, four years later when I see him, some of those butterflies are still there. With my ex, there were never any to begin with, and it made it hard when we would fight because I never had that idealized version of him internalized to remind me why I fell in love with him to begin with. You can’t just choose to be with anyone who will have you if you want to be happy–and if you can, you’re a better woman than I.

    The best love to me isn’t either reckless chemistry you have no control over, or the person you thought looked great on paper that you are choosing to marry because you’re getting long in the tooth.

    The best love is that person you were so powerfully drawn to in the beginning, whom you have everything in common with and can’t stop thinking about. The choice comes in when you realize that he leaves his socks on the floor and likes to argue semantics when you’re trying to make a point, and forgets for the third night in a row to go to the grocery store. You choose to be gracious anyway and to love him despite that, because the feelings aspect of love has brought you to a place where you’re bound to him and can’t imagine being with anyone else. You choose to keep seeing the man you went crazy for, rather than the socks or the toilet seat.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      Exactly. To add a Catholic perspective on the infatuation stage, “grace builds on nature.” We now know that romantic infatuation comes with measurable, biological symptoms (primarily increased oxytocin) that last for about 3 years. That phenomenon must exist for a reason, and one reason I think it exists is to give us a bunch of happy memories and happy feelings to draw on when the relationship gets hard years down the line.

      • Class of 1980

        I think infatuation is just a first step. It’s just an inkling and recognition that this person has qualities you’re looking for.

        The more important phase is when you’ve spent enough time with them to know you would very much love to experience the rest of your life with them. And that their absence would be keenly felt as a real loss.

        That’s the phase you build on.

    • Class of 1980

      Margaret, you nailed it.

      If you don’t have a moment where you recognize that you don’t want to live without the person, because you are so sympatico with each other, the relationship is not going to be on solid footing.

      I’m not talking about hormones or chemicals; I’m talking about the indefinable essence that forcibly draws two people together. This simply does not happen with the majority of people you meet in this world. You are drawn to people in varying degrees because of who they are.

      I know that for me, there is a certain way of perceiving the world where curiosity comes before answers. I could never have a satisfying life with someone who approached the world with ready-made answers and little curiosity. I could never be drawn to someone who isn’t open to the idea that they might be wrong sometimes and might change their mind. That’s how I think. If that philosophy is a foreign concept, how will we even have decent conversations? I’m drawn to kindness and flexible intellect in a partner.

      I am forever wary of the “Love is a choice” phrase simply because of it’s damaging misuse in fundamentalist Christian circles. It’s not that the concept of love in action is wrong; it’s just incomplete.

      Because of the extreme way it’s interpreted by many fundamentalists, I sometimes wonder what the purpose of courtship is for in their estimation. There has been much written about the damage this incomplete teaching has done in people’s lives.

      I KNOW the OP isn’t presenting it that way to her pupils, as she has elaborated on above. What she’s teaching is VITALLY important and necessary to the health of a marriage, but finding a person you dovetail with is still the first step.

      • Sam

        Ok so this may be coming from my not so great associations with my Catholic school history, but I feel like the love is a choice bit in some ways is kind of a theological necessity. Since all of the lusty, squishy, I-can’t-stop-touching-you feelings are often described in theological texts as some form of sin… Well they kinda painted themselves into a corner, didn’t they? If those desires come before marriage and are painted outside of our normal human experience (or something that should be ignored/shut down/choose not to feel) then what are we left with? A choice to love someone in a totally non sexual way, because hey! that’s a sin!

        Maybe it’s just my misunderstanding, but if love ISN’T a feeling then all I am truly FEELING is sexual desire, which is a sin (in the Catholic reading). If I choose to love, then I can say that I have loved this person, with out sin, before marriage.

  • Sam

    I would like to weigh in to the debate of choice vs. feeling. And like many other commenters, I do not believe them to be mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe they inform each other.

    My feeling of self love informs my choice to act lovingly to others around me. But that does not mean that I love them. And not even in the youaredrivingmenuts kind of not loving you right now way. But also in the I like you very much as a valuable member of my personal community and I want to honor that and continue to create said community. I choose to treat them lovingly (or in non spiritual context ‘I’m nice’) because I want every one, esp those I care about, to feel GOOD and to continue to be part of my life. But that choice does not equal love to me. At least not in the same way I love my partner. And even when it does equal love, I need not make the same kinds of choices for my friends as I would for him.

    My feeling of love for my partner inform my choices about how I choose act as well. But in this case, as my partner, I also must let my choice inform my feelings. As others have said, you can use that choice to let go of the nasty socks that are enraging me feeling.

    As I think about this, I am starting to think our definition of love is too narrow. Or rather, the subject we are discussing is too broad for the word. To me, love for my partner is not the same love that the author is discussing when she talks about being nice to strangers. And yet she is using the word interchangeably. And I suppose they may come from the same place, but for me, I have a hard time seeing them as the same motivation. My willingness to sacrifice via my choices for him vs. for woman-I-meet-having-a-hard-day are somewhat different. The lengths to which I would go for (to use the authors words) his good vs. hers are totally different. Because, at some point, my good is way more impacted by his happiness than hers. But then I need to reference the author’s line about encountering her FH more than anyone, and that informs how much she works for his good.

    Ok, I think I just convinced myself that I agree with the author more than I originally thought.

  • Natalie

    If I could bust out another metaphor here, I think that romantic love is kind of like fire. You must have the spark, that initial honeymoony, infatuation lovey swoony love first. The feeeelings. It starts the fire. It is the core. But you also have to keep it going. You have to keep giving the flame oxygen, all the time. That part you choose, actively, every day. You can’t just throw water on it and expect it to be fine because there was or there is a spark. A spark is not enough. But it is essential.

    • Ilora

      This is so perfect.

  • This statement is so profound:
    While our positive emotions can make it easier to love, I think love, true love, is choice, is commitment, is action.

    I so appreciate everything you’ve spoken to in this post and the fact that this is what you teach, to students, who are teenagers, who like so many of us, greatly benefit from a more thoughtful, inclusive view of the nature of love.

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful post.

  • My now-husband had a hard time at the beginning of our relationship separating the feeling of butterflies from being in love with me. He felt like his love for me came and went because he didn’t always feel all fireworky. So this was something we talked about a lot. Yes, all of the butterflies of initial infatuation were a lot of fun, but that’s not what real, lasting love is made of. Falling in love may be a feeling, but acting out love consistently over time is a choice, as is acting out love for people we’ve never fallen in love with. Choosing to love my partner every day is related to, but different from choosing to try my best to act in a loving way to everyone I encounter.

  • As I was reading this post beside my husband just now—while he was watching a Green Lantern animated series episode (Season 1, episode 22)—in his show a character, Carol Ferris, was teleported to the planet of Love (and arrives holding tongs and a plate of food she had been in process of making) to convince a broken-hearted robot, Aya, (who had recently renounced all emotions because of being hurt by the one she loved) that Love and the planet of Love should not be destroyed. When Carol was asked to explain what love is (after some false starts), she explains that love was wanting and working towards the good of the other….what she said sounded totally like the ideas discussed in this post and comments. I stopped reading (briefly) out of the shock that the tv anime character was repeating almost the exact wording of what I was reading here! The timing of it all is too funny!