There seems to be a sentiment floating around that love just kind of happens to you. We see it in our rom-coms, our music, and even in the way we ourselves date—hopping from one romance to the next wondering when love will catch us off guard and sweep us off our feet.
The ultimate example of this powerless kind of love was in Game of Thrones this season with the incestuous love between siblings Jaime and Cersei Lannister. In the season five finale, their daughter Myrcella reveals that she knows the truth about her parents. Opening up about his relationship with Cersei, Jaime tells his daughter, “My point is, we don’t choose whom we love. It just, well . . . it’s beyond our control.”
OK, I know what you’re thinking: Who thinks GoT is giving out good relationship advice anyway? Maybe that’s not the point, but with the theme “we don’t choose whom we love,” which is often used to defend the actions of Jaime and Cersei Lannister, I get the sense that people really do believe that.
The truth is, there seems to be quite a few people who genuinely believe that love sort of falls out of the sky, like Cupid’s arrow. And it’s not just that. This fatalistic approach to love is also often used to justify less-than-healthy relationships. As though people think, Love found us, so anything that happens as a result isn’t our fault.
We see it perpetuated all the time in the media. Popular music is full of ballads, such as Selena Gomez’s recent Top 40 hit The Heart Wants What it Wants, about exactly this. Gomez’s heartbreaking song implies that we’re merely bystanders to love instead of actors. Or look at this summer’s heartrending documentary, Amy, about the tortured life of Amy Winehouse. Her “soulmate” brought her along for a drug-filled roller coaster of emotions excused in the name of “true love.”
I, for one, can relate to this way of thinking about the heart. Gomez longingly sings, “The heart wants what it wants.” I’ve been there. When you’re emotionally broken, and you’re hanging on to that feeling of attraction like it’s a high, you can feel weak and dizzy and totally out of control. In fact, many of us have found ourselves persisting in unhealthy relationships all because we claim we are held captive by love. And how many of us end relationships and marriages because we believe that love has, in some sense, been snatched away from us against our will?
But the problem with assuming that we have no choice when it comes to whom we love is that it tricks us into thinking that we’re utterly powerless. In reality, the human will is actually more empowered when we choose to act with real love.
While I agree that we don’t necessarily have total control over the people we’re attracted to (read: anyone’s junior high experience), believing that you have no control over whom you love (or the consequences that can result) is actually kind of dangerous. Fundamentally, it equates love to attraction—making love synonymous with a feeling, not an action.
When left with just feelings to guide us in love, we are often found excusing cheating, giving up when things get hard, and leaving when it no longer feels good; in the case of Game of Thrones, it is even used by the characters to defend murder, treason, and incest.
Attraction is a powerful intangible feeling, and love is an action. But, as most of us can attest, the difference between feelings and actions can be difficult to differentiate. The reason being that love and attraction come hand-in-hand, often quite easily in the beginning of a courtship. Early in a relationship those euphoric butterflies make it hard to tell whether we are in this thing because of love or because of lust. And acts of love feel pretty great—so much to the point that choosing to love doesn’t feel like too hard of a decision.
When I first started dating my husband, I wanted to spend every single waking second with him. Being with him was effortless, and sacrificing my own personal time to be with him didn’t seem to matter all that much. Four years later, now with both feet on the ground, my personal time seems to matter a lot more again. While I still definitely love hanging out with him, I’ve realized that I have to be much more intentional with my time, as I’m no longer totally propelled by those crazy-in-love dating feelings to give him the quality time he may need.
For his part, when he first dated me, he loved impressing me by taking initiative, be it doing dishes, taking out the trash, or making me dinner; it came easily—he was driven by feeling. Now, although he still does those things, I know he’s not so filled by the passionate need to impress me as much as the intentional choice to love me.
Is that less romantic? Well, I don’t think so.
In fact, New York Times bestselling author Judith Orloff, M.D., wrote on the topic, saying, “Being in love doesn’t exclude lust. In fact, lust can lead to love. However, real love, not based on idealization or projection, requires time to get to know each other.”
My husband and I are married because we chose to love and commit to each other, but that doesn’t mean our love is always as easy as the cake we cut on our wedding day. In fact, it’s in the absolutely mundane and sometimes trying moments that I realize how strong his love is for me. It’s in moments when he patiently explains for the twentieth time how to use the remote (in my defense, there are three of them). Or when he takes packed lunches so that I can enjoy dining at fancy restaurants when I’m out of town and still adhere to our food budget. Those are the moments I realize how truly loved I am.
No, those things don’t exactly give me the same kind of butterflies I felt when we were first starting to get to know each other, but they’re propelled by something far stronger—a loving commitment that we choose to partake in every day, regardless of how we feel.
I’ve realized that it’s only after those fiery feelings fade—and the decision to be with someone is a decision that you stand by, despite what you may feel in any given moment—that we realize that love is so much more than a compulsion driven by passion; it’s a commitment to action.