Can one choose to love, or is love something you fall into? Is agency involved, or is love something that just happens to you? If love is something you fall in, how can you act rather than be acted upon?
Romantic movies today would have you believe that love is governed by some uncontrollable, ungovernable force—like fate or serendipity. But this simply isn’t reality. Falling in and out of love is no more real than Cupid or Prince Charming.
While the expression “to fall in love” is a beautiful idiom, there are inherent risks involved in using the verb fall because it implies that love is accidental or involuntary, with no choice involved. This mentality can also lead many to believe the distressing corollary, “we fell out of love”—an all-too-common phrase used nowadays to explain failed marriages.
Falling in love and falling out of love makes it seem as if love were something that cannot be controlled—as though, in matters of love, we are all being acted upon more than choosing to act for ourselves.
If we live in a world of agency, wouldn’t it make sense that the most important decision made in mortality, that of choosing a spouse, would be our choice and not left in Cupid’s hands? When newlyweds begin living under the same roof, they usually begin to encounter a number of problems they didn’t anticipate as singles. On the less serious end of the spectrum, they might face terrible snoring, amateur cooking skills, or socks on the floor. On the more serious end, they might run into disagreements about physical intimacy or how to manage their finances.
Over time, these irritations can fester and stress the relationship, impacting feelings so deeply that some couples believe they are “falling out of love.” They become easy targets for Satan, who tempts them to no longer take responsibility for their choices. Once that happens, they are being acted upon and may throw their hands up in resignation as if they were victims of some outside influence that controls them. They may even begin to doubt the decision they made to marry in the first place. They may ask themselves, “Do I really want to be married to this person for eternity?”
Eventually, they begin to drift apart. Often they say things to hurt one another, like “I don’t love you anymore.” They may tolerate one another for their children’s sakes while still resenting one another, or they may separate, believing their differences to be irreconcilable. The result is a damaged or destroyed family, another casualty of one of Satan’s most powerful battle stratagems.
How could something so glorious and beautiful as falling in love end up in misery for so many? What goes wrong?
Mixing Up the Ideal with the Real
At the start of a relationship, it is almost amusing to observe a young unmarried couple in love. After spending an entire day together, they are back together again on the phone that same night. It’s sheer torture for them to be separated. They can hardly focus on anything else.
Everything else in life becomes a nuisance and an interruption that keeps them apart until they can be together again. In their minds, there was never a truer love than theirs. We call this level of pre-marriage intensity infatuation.
After the couple marries, this intensity tapers off. Living under the same roof, they begin to discover each other’s quirks and irritating idiosyncrasies. German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe remarked long ago:
“Love is an ideal thing, marriage is a real thing; a confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.”
When the ideal gives way to reality, familiarity can easily turn to faultfinding. “Where is the passion, the fire we had early on?” Couples may ask themselves. Suddenly, a spouse no longer seems like Superman, merely Clark Kent. The infatuation begins to fade.
Those who have confused infatuation for love may unwisely believe they are falling out of love when problems arise. The resulting doubt might cause them to wonder if they made a mistake or if their real soul mate might still be out there somewhere. At this critical crossroad in their relationship, Satan will do everything he can to cause further uncertainty and tempt couples to separate.
This is when a dose of real love is needed to rekindle the relationship. It may not restore the same emotional intensity of early courtship or change Clark Kent back into Superman, but it will completely change the direction in which the marriage is headed.
As infatuation yields to charity, true love begins to blossom. Forty years later, Grandpa loves Grandma more than ever. Now he can more easily endure a short absence from her because infatuation has been replaced with something more enduring. Their love is maturing and growing stronger each day.
If a husband and wife are willing to apply the scriptural definition of love—selflessness, charity, and the true love of Christ—to their relationship, even a stale marriage and romance can be revived. Best-selling author Stephen R. Covey relates the following experience:
“At one seminar, after I’d spoken on the importance of demonstrating character within the family, a man came up and said, ‘I like what you’re saying, but my wife and I just don’t have the same feelings for each other that we used to. I guess we don’t love each other anymore. What can I do?’ “‘Love her,’ I replied. “He looked puzzled. ‘How do you love when you don’t feel love?’ “‘My friend,’ I responded, ‘love is a verb. The feeling of love is the fruit of love. So love your wife. You did it once, you can do it again. Listen. Empathize. Appreciate. It’s your choice. Are you willing to do that?’ “Of course, I was asking this man if he was willing to search within himself for the character required to make his marriage work. All our relationships follow the contours of life; they have ups and downs. This is why our families provide a critical measure of our character—and the opportunity, again and again, to nurture it.”
Growing in Love Together
For some, falling in love is an enchanting, at-first-sight encounter. For others, it isn’t so much “falling in love” as it is “growing in love,” a budding friendship that blossoms over time. Though the first type may also bloom like the second, it often begins as infatuation and fantasy—a cotton-candy kind of love that is sweet but has little substance.
On the other hand, “divine” love, as President Spencer W. Kimball called it:
“is not like that association of the world which is misnamed love, but which is mostly physical attraction. When marriage is based on this only, the parties soon tire of each other. There is a break and a divorce, and a new, fresher physical attraction comes with another marriage, which in turn may last only until it, too, becomes stale. “The love of which the Lord speaks is not only physical attraction, but also faith, confidence, understanding, and partnership. It is devotion and companionship, parenthood, common ideals, and standards. It is cleanliness of life and sacrifice and unselfishness. This kind of love never tires nor wanes. It lives on through sickness and sorrow, through prosperity and privation, through accomplishment and disappointment, through time and eternity.” Many popular songs and films make reference to an everlasting love. For the world, these lyrics are simply poetic; for us, they are genuine expressions of our divine potential. We believe that eternal love, eternal marriage, and eternal families are “central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children” (“The Family: A Proclamation to the World”).
However, every couple will encounter some struggles on their journey toward this glorious destiny. A happy and successful marriage depends on two people who are good at forgiving, or as President Gordon B. Hinckley pointed out, have learned “a high degree of mutual toleration.” True and mature love is manifest after we discover each other’s imperfections and still commit to one another.
There are no perfect marriages in the world because there are no perfect people. But the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us how to nurture our marriages toward perfection and how to keep the romance in them along the way. No one need ever “fall out of love” when that love is founded in the Lord.
Consciously Choosing Love
Too many believe that love is a condition pertaining solely to the heart, something that happens to you. They disassociate love from the mind and, therefore, from agency.
We know that any commandment of God involves agency. We can obey or disobey, but there is always a choice. Therefore, when the Lord puts love in the command form, like when He said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind,” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” He is not saying, “I hope you fall in love with your neighbor” (Matthew 22:37, 39). The command is a directive, an appeal to the mind to make a conscious choice.
The Savior made it clear that love was a command to be obeyed—a command upon which “all the law and the prophets” hang (Matthew 22:40). To achieve a Christlike love, we must overcome the natural man, control natural impulses, and even love our enemies. This is a command that requires reason and a conscious decision.
The Book of Mormon prophet King Benjamin also teaches that love has much to do with agency. In his counsel to parents, he proclaimed, “Ye will teach [your children] to love one another, and to serve one another.” How can something be taught that cannot be learned? Once again, the scriptures are teaching us about a love that involves choosing to act, as opposed to being acted upon.
In commanding us to love, the Lord refers to something much deeper than infatuation, a love that is the most profound form of loyalty—a covenant.
Finding True Love in Marriage
But what about love between spouses— a love which involves the additional elements of romance and intimacy? Does this principle of agency in love, or the command to love, apply to marriage as well?
Once again, the Lord provides us with instruction: “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else” (D&C 42:22). It doesn’t require any guesswork here to discern that the Lord is giving us a directive, even while He is respecting our agency. As in all things, Christ provided the perfect example of choosing to love. He demonstrated a higher and more perfect kind of love—one without self-interest. He said, “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34).
Loving as He loved is an even higher form of love than loving “as thyself.” It is a pure love that puts another higher than the self. This pure love is the same love that should exist between husbands and wives. The Apostle Paul exhorts, “Husbands, love your wives, [How?] even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25).
How, then, did Christ love the Church? His perfect example teaches us what true love really is—charity. Only when we understand true charity can we fully follow the Lord’s command to love.
Coming to Understand Love
How could something as universal as love be so hard to define and so hard to find? In part, it is because love is such a far-reaching and all-encompassing principle and emotion. It is also because the world usually searches for it by starlight, moonlight, or candlelight, rather than by that “true light” (D&C 88:50), which is the “light of the world” (John 8:12).
Our Savior is the one and only Author of true love, the Author of the ultimate love story that has no end. He calls this love charity, and it endures “forever” (Moroni 7:47). Without charity and without the Atonement, none of the loves mentioned by philosophers, authors, playwrights, poets, or songwriters could ever become complete or everlasting.
Jesus Christ is the only person who ever fully understood charity and lived it. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland states:
“True charity has been known only once. It is shown perfectly and purely in Christ’sunfailing, ultimate, and atoning love for us.”
Though our knowledge is limited and imperfect, we can begin to understand Christ’s level of love by studying, searching, and pondering the scriptures and words of the prophets—especially their counsel on charity. However, to fully comprehend Christ’s charity, we must also learn by faith, by following His example, and by learning through sacrifice (D&C 88:118).
Elder Bruce C. Hafen stated it well when he said:
“Perhaps those who seek apprenticeship with the Master of mankind must emulate His sacrificial experience to the fullest extent of their personal capacity. Only then can they taste His empathy and His charity. For only then are they like Him enough to feel His love for others the way He feels it—to love, ‘as I have loved you’ (John 13:34). That is a deeper, different love from ‘love thy neighbour as thyself ’ (Matt. 19:19).”
As the one perfect marriage and family Counselor, the Lord is the only one who can help us find the happily-ever-after kind of love—not only in the poetic sense, but also in its literal, eternal, and ultimate sense.
Saying “I Love You”: A Commitment
Because love is as much a verb as it is a noun, the phrase “I love you” is as much a promise of behavior and commitment as it is an expression of feeling. When we choose to love (the verb) and decide to act by expressing and showing it, only then can love (the noun) begin to blossom.
This is also the way faith works: “Ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6). In our marriages and family, we receive affirmation only after we act on our love and put it to the test.
“I love you” is a phrase we should be using in our homes much more than we do. If we don’t teach our children to use this phrase, they’ll be uncomfortable with it throughout their lives.
As my wife and I raised our children, we concluded our family prayer and scripture study each morning with everyone hugging each other. Each said, “I love you”—brothers to sisters, sisters to brothers, parents to children, husband to wife. It is a wonderful way to start the day and a good way to fulfill King Benjamin’s advice to teach our children to love (see Mosiah 4:15).
Though every family expresses love in their own way, we should always ensure and never assume that our children, spouse, parents, sisters, and brothers know and feel our love for them. As Elder David A. Bednar reminds us:
“We should remember that saying ‘I love you’ is only a beginning. We need to say it, we need to mean it, and most importantly we need consistently to show it.”
Deciding to Love, and Keep Loving
Scripturally, the Lord is very clear with us in matters of love—you can’t “fall out of love,” because love is something you decide. This being true, we must make the conscious decision that we will love our spouse and family with all our heart, soul, and mind; and that we will build, not “fall into,” strong, loving marriages and families. As President Spencer W. Kimball said, “Don’t just pray to marry the one you love. Instead, pray to love the one you marry.”
Editor's note: This article was originally published on LDSLiving.com in June 2017.