“How Do I Know If I’m in Love?”
By H. Norman Wright
A couple is sitting in my office for their initial session of premarital counseling. They’ve come with a mixture of expectations and apprehension, since they’ve heard the sessions will be very thorough. About halfway through our time together, I ask the man to describe in detail the love he has for his fiancée. After his response, I ask her a question which throws her, since she assumed her question would be the same. The question is, “How do you know that you love him? What convinced you?” Sometimes the responses are complete and full of substance, whereas others are lacking. I’ve heard remarks like, “Well, I just know that I love him or her. It can’t really be explained.” But perhaps it does need to be examined, explained, and even expanded. I’ve had individuals ask, “How do I know if I’m in love? How can you be sure? And what is love?” All of these are important questions.
One of my favorite cartoons depicts two chickens looking at two swans with necks intertwined and eyes glazed. In answer to the question, “What is love?” one chicken responds with, “Love is a feeling you feel when you have a feeling you’ve never felt before.” That may be love, or it could be some bad onions you ate for lunch.
How would you describe love? How would you define it? What’s the difference between love and infatuation? Is romantic or passionate love necessary in a relationship? And the big question, “How do you know when you’re really in love?”
Let’s consider a few basic facts about love:
1. Love at first sight is rare. An infatuated attraction may happen immediately, but true love needs time to develop.
2. Love is NOT consistent. Your emotional response to your spouse will vary over the months, years, and decades of a relationship.
3. Most individuals can fall in love many times. But the often involuntary physical and emotional attraction of “falling in love” should not be confused with the willful and abiding commitment to love selflessly the person who has captured your heart.
4. The quality of courtship love will change and deepen in marriage. And each succeeding level of love can be as exciting, rewarding, and fulfilling as the last.
5. Love in a marriage relationship can diminish and even die. Love must be carefully nurtured and cherished over the years if it is to endure the stress of two imperfect people living together.
I also like what M. Scott Peck says in his book The Road Less Traveled about the illusion that erodes so many marriages today:
To serve effectively as it does to trap us into marriage, the experience of falling in love probably must have as one of its characteristics the illusion that the experience will last forever.. . . The myth of romantic love tells us, in effect, that for every young man in the world there is a young woman who was “meant for him,” and vice versa. Moreover, the myth implies that there is only one man meant for a woman and only one woman for a man and this has been predetermined “in the stars.” When we meet the person for whom we are intended, recognition comes through the fact that we fall in love. We have met the person for whom all the heavens intended us, and since the match is perfect, we will then be able to satisfy all of each other’s needs forever and ever, and therefore live happily ever after in perfect union and harmony. Should it come to pass, however, that we do not satisfy or meet all of each other’s needs and friction arises and we fall out of love, then it is clear that a dreadful mistake was made, we misread the stars, we did not hook up with our one and only perfect match, what we thought was love was not real or “true” love, and nothing can be done about the situation except to live unhappily ever after or get divorced.56
Love is not something that just happens; it must be cultivated so it can grow.
Romantic Love: Beliefs, Fallacies, and Benefits
Perhaps these thoughts are new to you or you’re already aware of them. You may even be bothered by them, especially if you’re a highly romantic person.
Romantic and passionate love are a necessary ingredient, but there must be more than this for a marriage to last.
Romantic love is a necessary part of the process, but it can also be the great deception in a relationship. But it makes us feel so good. Often the predecessor to romantic love is infatuation. Webster’s dictionary defines this as “to make foolish, cause to lose sound judgment; to inspire with shallow love or affection.”57
It’s also been defined as foolish, all-absorbing passion, as well as blind love. You see what you want to see, but it’s not really there. Or what you see is not what you’re going to get! And when it dies, it’s like stepping out of a plane without a parachute. The trip down is long and painful. Some biochemists believe that an amphetamine-like substance is released by the brain of an infatuated person and causes something similar to a drug-induced high. But when the infatuation stops, withdrawals occur.
Psychologists suggest that most of the time infatuation involves falling for a person who fills some vacancy in your life, but your intended can’t produce what you’re after.
Objectivity is low, and rose-colored glasses are in place. You see the other person as the answer to all of your problems and personal defects. The other person seems to fill in the missing parts of yourself. Life takes on a freshness and you see the other person as the best you can find. You feel omnipotent, and your attention and concern is for the other person. You may think this only happens to those in their teens, but I’ve seen it hit those in their twenties, thirties, and forties. Many people don’t like to admit they are infatuated; rather, they say they have an intense romantic love for their partner. I looked up this word in the dictionary as well and found that romance or romantic means “an emotional calling; having no basis in fact: imaginary, visionary, marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of the heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized; an emphasis on subjective emotional qualities; marked by or constituting passionate love.”
When there is romantic love, you feel that no one else has ever felt what you are feeling. Often there is an eerie sensation of “even though we’ve just met, I feel as though I’ve known you all my life.” There seems to be an instant rapport or connection. But many say romantic love is a myth and a dangerous one for the marriage relationship.
As M. Scott Peck describes the “Myth of Romantic Love” in the passage just quoted:
We have met the person for whom all the heavens intended us, and since the match is perfect, we will then be able to satisfy all of each other’s needs forever and ever.
There is an emotional high involved with romantic love. There are elevated feelings of delight, triumph, and the belief that “I can do now what I couldn’t do before.” Often it overrules the rest of the pain and disillusionment of our life and gives us a false promise that it will last forever. It thrives on uncertainty and novelty. Romantic love also acts as an anesthetic or a Novocain to the hurts in our life. This can occur whether there is sexual involvement or not. If sex is involved, the physical passion often creates an intensity to the romantic feelings that can only be maintained by peak sexual experiences. On the other hand, this intense love can cause couples to override their Christian values and have full sexual expression become the end result of their romantic experience.
But romantic euphoria will fade. That is a fact. M. Scott Peck also says,
The experience of falling in love is invariably temporary. No matter whom we fall in love with, we sooner or later fall out of love if the relationship continues long enough. This is not to say that we invariably cease loving the person with whom we fell in love. But it is to say that the feeling of ecstatic lovingness that characterized the experience of falling in love always passes. The honeymoon always ends. The bloom of romance always fades.
Many people base their romantic love on physical attraction and soon end up making love physically. And within this intensity of passion they decide to marry. When this love diminishes, a new and more mature love needs to develop and replace it. But if it doesn’t, the couple will probably divorce or have affairs. Either option is their attempt to recapture the feelings that have been lost. Physical attraction by itself, without the other elements of deeper love, will carry a marriage for about three to five years. That is all. Some of those three to five years may have been used up before the couple marries.62
If a couple marries with the romantic attraction stage as their basis, they can expect the romance to carry them for perhaps five to eight years before things begin to come unraveled and the criticisms and attacks on one another intensify.
What are the problems with a relationship just based on romance? Consider these beliefs and the actual facts about them.
Belief number one says, “Love is an overwhelming feeling that just comes over us.” This is a false belief about love. Love is not something that just happens. Love is not all emotion, a rush of feeling that is totally and entirely uncontrollable. But when there is a powerful chemistry and you ‘lust click,” enhanced by romantic settings, experiences, and sexual encounters, you believe it does just happen. But believe it or not, this is not love. Romance and genuine love are not one and the same. Romance is like a hand grenade with the pin pulled out and a delayed fuse with an undisclosed amount of time remaining on it. Given enough time, it will go off.
Romantic feelings are not something you can choose or not choose to experience. It will probably happen to you. Just don’t equate it with love.
A second belief is that having romantic feelings will always lead to happy endings, after all, “What could ever go wrong when we have such intense feelings?” Rational explanations to couples in this state rarely register because their rationality toward themselves has been turned off.
Sometimes one partner is aware their love object has deficits or isn’t the best for them, but their love overrides good sense. But the worst possible basis for making a decision to marry someone is to do it based just upon romantic feelings. After all, if there is nothing else available, what will you hang onto when (not if, but when) these feelings pass? Years ago a woman that I know socially called, very excited to tell me that she had just gotten engaged and wanted premarital counseling. She said she had fallen deeply in love with this man she had known for six weeks and they knew they were meant for each other. “Isn’t this wonderful?” she said. I shocked her by saying, “No, it’s not,” and proceeded to tell her why. She was offended, married the man, and divorced him two years later after discovering that he was gay. This could have been prevented.
A third belief is that our romantic feelings and the guaranteed outcome happen “because my partner is the perfect person for me.” We see no flaws. Instead we overlook them or discount their existence. It’s wonderful to find someone so good. But there is no perfect person. Date someone long enough, and then you’ll know. This is why long-term, extensive dating and knowledge of a person is the best preparation for a marriage that lasts. This involves working with the person on projects, seeing them under stress, and spending extensive periods of time with them and their family.
A last belief about romantic love is that it is totally spontaneous and just happens. This leads us to believe that loving someone is easy. Love is work. It is commitment. It is an act of the will. What is easy is romance, but not love. I like what Thomas Jones says about love and romance: “Romance is based on sexual attraction, the enjoyment of affection and imagination. Love is based on decisions, promises, and commitments.”
Is there any good that can come out of romantic love? Yes, definitely. Neil Warren in his excellent book Finding the Love of Your Life suggests,
Passionate love performs a powerful service as long as it lasts. It focuses the total attention of two people on each other long enough for them to build an enduring structure for their relationship. The passion to love experience will never hold the two of them together forever. But building “enduring structures” for a relationship takes a lot of time and effort, and if two people are not attracted to one another physically, the hard work might never get done. That’s another function of passionate love—the life-changing experience of being accepted and valued. When two people find themselves totally engrossed in each other, they often experience a dramatic boost in their self-esteem. For in the process of discovering that someone else finds them attractive, they begin to see themselves as attractive, too. Passionate love focuses a bright, positive light on each of the persons involved, and both of them fall in love not only with each other, but also with themselves.
You do need some natural physical attraction or emotional response. It’s difficult to build a strong marriage if you don’t feel a physical attraction to each other. I’ve seen people try to talk themselves into being attracted to another person. I can remember in college trying to talk myself into being attracted to a girl I took out once, but it was an exercise in futility. It either happens or it doesn’t, and to say attraction is not important is a bit unrealistic. Dr. Neil Warren’s words sum up the positive nature very well:
I think God’s invention of passionate love is one of the most magnificent parts of His creation. I am convinced that every person should have the opportunity to enjoy this kind of love at some time. There is no substitute for the deep-down love that two people have for one another. But in the early phases of a relationship, great care must be given to the expression of these feelings. Passionate love has a way of shorting out the brain and squashing rational thought. If conscious control is not exerted, the euphoric couple will begin to behave in a way that is damaging to the relationship and each individual.
Premature sexual involvement is a negative for many reasons. One important reason is that it may fool the couple into marriage, because of what they are experiencing. Making a decision to marry at this stage without allowing the relationship to fully develop is like allowing a first-year medical student to perform brain surgery before completing schooling and hospital residency! You don’t want to make a lifetime decision based upon just romantic or passionate love. Keep in mind that the greater the physical involvement, the more you tend to isolate yourself from your friends. The greater the physical involvement, the less you communicate. Physical involvement short-circuits growth.
What type of love should a couple move toward? Phileo is one kind, and this is friendship love. Whereas romantic love cannot sustain a relationship, companion-ate or friendship love can. If friendship has not yet been developed in a relationship, marriage is premature. A friend is someone you like to be with. You enjoy their company, you like their personality, you can play and work together. There are shared interests between the two of you. It’s not that you are loved only because of what you share, but by sharing you develop a different kind of love. It means companionship, communication, and cooperation. One writer describes companionate love:
This may be defined as a strong bond, including a tender attachment, enjoyment of the other’s company and friendship. It is not characterized by wild passion and constant excitement, although these feelings may be experienced from time to time. The main difference between passionate and companionate love is that the former thrives on deprivation, frustration, a high arousal level, and absence. The latter thrives on contact and requires time to develop and mature.
I have seen numerous marriages over the years fall apart because not only was this type of love nonexistent, but the couples also weren’t even sure how to develop it. The greater the amount of time a couple can give to a relationship outside of the typical dating process, the more this kind of love can flourish. When phileo or companionate love has developed, couples will have this to stabilize their relationship when the romantic love fades. Unfortunately, some people with certain personality proclivities are almost addicted to the “high” or “excitement” of romantic love. When it diminishes, they fall apart or bail out to seek a new, exciting relationship.
What does friendship love entail? It’s an unselfish dedication to your partner’s happiness. It’s when the fulfillment of their needs becomes one of your needs. It’s learning to enjoy what they enjoy, not just to convince them you’re the right person, but to develop the enjoyment yourself as you share the enjoyment together. My wife genuinely developed a liking for trout fishing to the extent that she has her own set of waders and a float tube. I have genuinely learned to enjoy art and fine paintings. We both learned, and it brought us closer together. Friendship means you do some things together, but you’re also comfortable with having your own individual interests, and you encourage each other in these. There is a balance between togetherness and separateness.
Friendship involves a certain level of intimacy in which there is an openness, a vulnerability, and an emotional connection. You also share goals, plans, and dreams, and work together.
Another form of interpersonal love, agape love, can increase our gratitude as well as our constant awareness and remembrance of God’s agape love for us. An attitude of thankfulness for all of life develops. We are able to see and concentrate upon the positive qualities and attributes of our spouse, which we might overlook or take for granted. Our mind-set and attitudes can be refocused because of the presence of agape love. An attitude of appreciation causes us to respond with even more love toward our spouse.
Agape love manifests itself through several characteristics. First of all, it is an unconditional love. It is not based upon your spouse’s performance, but upon your need to share this act of love with your spouse. If you don’t, your spouse may live with the fear that you will limit your love if he or she does not meet your expectations.
Sometimes you have to learn to love your partner unconditionally. Here is what one husband said:
When I married my wife, we both were insecure and she did everything she could to try to please me. I didn’t realize how dominating and uncaring I was toward her. My actions in our early marriage caused her to withdraw even more. I wanted her to be self-assured, to hold her head high, and her shoulders back. I wanted her to wear her hair long and be perfect at all times. I wanted her to be feminine and sensual.
The more I wanted her to change, the more withdrawn and insecure she felt. I was causing her to be the opposite of what I wanted her to be. I began to realize the demands I was putting on her, not so much by words, but by body language.
By God’s grace I learned that I must love the woman I married, not the woman of my fantasies. I made a commitment to love Susan for who she was—who God created her to be.
Agape love is given in spite of how the other person behaves. This form of real love is an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person. And it will require more of you than you ever realized. But that’s what you will commit yourself to when you marry.
Agape love is also a transparent love. It is strong enough to allow your partner to get close to you and inside you. Transparency involves honesty, truth, and sharing positive and negative feelings. Paul Tournier shared the story of a woman whose mother gave her this advice: “Don’t tell your husband everything: to maintain her prestige and keep her husband’s love, a woman must retain a certain mystery for him.” Tournier commented, “What a mistake! It fails to recognize the meaning of marriage and the meaning of love. Transparency is the law of marriage and the couple must strive for it untiringly at the cost of confessions which are always new and sometimes very hard.”
Agape love has a deep reservoir to draw from. No matter what occurs, the love is felt and provides stability during times of stress and conflict.
Agape kindness is servant power. Kindness is love’s willingness to enhance the life of another. It is the readiness to move close to another and allow him/her to move close to you. Agape is trying to be content with those things that don’t live up to your expectations.
Agape love must be at the heart of a marriage. It’s a self-giving love that keeps on going even when the other person is unlovable. This love will keep the other types of love alive. It involves kindness, being sympathetic, thoughtful, and sensitive to the needs of your loved one, even when you feel the person doesn’t deserve it.
If you’re in a relationship with someone now, consider these questions: Can you be happy with this person if he or she never changes? Are you loving the person you have now or an imaginary dream? And can you be happy with this person if he or she changes in ways you never dreamed of? A love with its roots in commitment will last through the pressures and pain of life’s disappointments.
Think about this:
Love means to commit yourself without guarantee, to give yourself completely in the hope that your love will produce love in the loved person. Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love. The perfect love would be one that gives all and expects nothing. It would, of course, be willing and delighted to take anything it was offered, the more the better. But it would ask for nothing. For if one expects nothing and asks nothing, he can never be deceived or disappointed. It is only when love demands that it brings on pain.
Since agape love is the heart of the marital love relationship, let’s think some more about this gift of love.
Agape love is a healing force. To demonstrate the power of this love, let’s apply it to a critical area that affects marriage: irritability. Irritability is a barrier, and it keeps other people at a distance if they know it is present within us. It is the launching pad for attack, lashing out, anger, sharp words, resentment, and refusal of others’ offers to love us.
Agape love is unique in that it causes us to seek to meet the needs of our mate rather than demanding that our own needs be reciprocated. Our irritability and frustration diminish because we are seeking to fulfill another person rather than pursuing and demanding our own need satisfaction.
Let’s think together one more time about your love. Since it is sometimes difficult to really determine if what you are feeling is genuine love, there are several tests for love. In his book I Married You, Walter Trobisch has suggested five of them.
1. The Sharing Test. Are you able to share together? Do you want to make your partner happy, or do you want to become happy?
2. The Strength Test. Does your love give you new strength and fill you with creative energy? Or does it take away your strength and energy?
3. The Respect Test. Do you really have respect for each other? Are you proud of your partner?
4. The Habit Test. Do you only love each other, or do you also like each other and accept each other with your habits and shortcomings?
5. The Time Test. “Never get married until you have summered and wintered with your partner.” Has your love summered and wintered? Have you known each other long enough to know each other well?
Here are four additional tests from another author:
6. The Separation Test. Do you feel an unusual joy while in the company of each other? Is there pain in separation?
7. The Giving Test. Love and marriage are giving, not getting. Are you in love to give? Are you capable of self-giving? Is this quality of self-giving constantly evident?
8. The Growth Test. Is your love dynamic in its growth? Is it progressively maturing? Are the characteristics of Christian love developing?
9. The Sex Test. Is there a mutual enjoyment of each other without the constant need of physical expression? If you can’t be together without petting, you don’t have the maturity and love essential for marriage.7’
Let’s go back to one of the questions I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter: “Why do you love your fiancé?” Consider these reasons one man listed:
Reasons Why I Love Joan
1. Because her educational standards are high. I am of the realization that these standards will be instilled within our children.
2. Because Joan perceives life with such profound insights. She appreciates God’s creation.
3. Because Joan makes a conscious and earnest effort to please others, even before herself.
4. Because Joan is able to meet my physical, spiritual and emotional needs. Physical, in that she is able to give warmth and comfort; spiritual, in that she is able to add biblical insights into everyday situations; emotional, in that she is able to be empathetic toward my sensitivities.
5. Because I have the freedom to share my most inward feelings, knowing that I will not be met with rejection, but rather, knowing that Joan will make an earnest effort to understand.
6. Because she values me. She appreciates my warmth and understanding. She appreciates my efforts to comfort and console her. I love being appreciated.
7. Because Joan has learned, and is continually learning, the art of submission without the threat of subserviency.
8. Because Joan accepts me for who Jam, knowing my imperfections, and just as importantly, she is able to constructively work with me to my betterment.
9. Because I really enjoy her company. I enjoy walking and talking with her. We can talk about anything and everything.
10. Because she is open to growth and willing to change.
11. Because of her high moral standard, which will have a positive influence on our relationship.
12. Because of her extreme honesty.
13. Because I wish to give of myself to Joan. To be understanding, gentle, warm, empathetic— being able to listen with an open heart and arms.
Perhaps after all you’ve read about love in this chapter you wonder, “Is real love possible? How do I know if what I’m experiencing now is love?” Yes, it’s possible, and hopefully this book will assist you in clarifying your future with another person.
We have all been called to be people of love. Love is actually a commandment from God. Again and again in Scripture, Jesus calls us to love. “Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your heart and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-39 NW).
Because love is a commandment, there are three conclusions that can be drawn from it:
Loving others is a moral requirement. It is our responsibility to love even if others don’t love us. In a relationship our emphasis then is to put our efforts on learning to love that other person rather than figuring out how to get them to love us.
Love is also an act of the will. We choose to love in our heart and mind. Love means choosing what is right and best to do rather than what I may want or feel like doing. It is this choice that will keep many marriages alive.
Love is not determined by our feelings. Nowhere in Scripture does it say to love others if you feel like it. We can’t command our feelings. They come and go. They’re like the tide in the ocean; they come in and then recede. Don’t allow your feelings to be your guide. I’ve had a few people say, “My feelings of love for that person are gone.” The shock on their face is evident when I say, “Great.” Now they can learn true love, if they haven’t already.
Definitions of Love
Our society and the media have given us a false portrayal of love. Scripture gives us a valid portrayal. As you continue to consider the love that is necessary for a marriage, reflect on these thoughts given by people who were asked to give their definition of a loving relationship:
“A loving relationship is a choice partnership. Loving someone in which even imperfection is seen as possibility and, therefore, a thing of beauty; where discovery, struggle and acceptance are the basis of continued growth and wonderment.”
“A loving relationship is one in which individuals trust each other enough to become vulnerable, secure that the other person won’t take advantage. It neither exploits nor takes the other for granted. It involves much communication, much sharing, and much tenderness.”
“A loving relationship is one in which one can be open and honest with another without the fear of being judged. It’s being secure in the knowledge that you are each other’s best friend and no matter what happens you will stand by one another.”
“A loving relationship is one which offers comfort in the silent presence of another with whom you know, through words or body language, you share mutual trust, honesty, admiration, devotion, and that special thrill of happiness simply being together.”
“A loving relationship is an undemanding exchange of affection and concern, rooted in total honesty and continuing communication without exploitation.”
“A loving relationship is one in which the loved one is free to be himself—to laugh with me, but never at me; to cry with me, but never because of me; to love life, to love himself, to love being loved. Such a relationship is based upon freedom and can never grow in a jealous heart.”
“A loving relationship is one in which each one sees the beloved not as an extension of self but as a unique, forever becoming, beautiful individual— a situation in which the persons can bring their own special I to each other, a blending of selves without the fear of loss of self.”