Lasting love is an art to be learned, requiring a range of virtues, insights, and skills.
Love is an emotional attraction between a subject partner and an object partner. Guided by ethical norms, give and take between subject and object partners leads to unity, fulfillment, and development.
At the core of human beings is heart. Deeper than emotion, intellect, or will, heart is the impulse to love and to be united in love with the object of love. Heart inspires two types of desires: (1) to seek value for our own happiness, and (2) to manifest value for the joy of others. Motivated by true love, people cultivate beauty, truth, and goodness for the joy of others, and they delight in perceiving beauty, truth, and goodness in their beloved.
Love has a creative power. Love cultivates value or enhances the latent potential for value within the beloved. For instance, the loving spouses will invest effort to make their spouses better looking, better educated, more altruistic, or more socially involved. The place to nurture and educate such a heart is in the family school of love. We can acquire and control money, power, and knowledge, but love is beyond human control. We need maturity of character and heart to channel the power of love and protect us from being disintegrated by it.
Love reveals a person's inner nature. Subject and object partners are able to interact because their natures are complementary. Lovers see an unfolding reflection of themselves in each other. Our deepest joy comes from discovering someone who resembles our inner ideal.
Love is connected to destiny. People in love exist for a person who in turn exists for them. Through the awakening of love, a woman's femininity becomes the object of a man's love, while the man's masculinity becomes the object of a woman's love. The decisions people make about expressing this love affect their course of life.
True love is altruistic. It motivates us to sacrifice for others. It is human nature to desire genuine, unchanging, and unconditional love. Love is not just a feeling; it is a decision. It is not whom we love that counts, but rather how we love. “Love is an active ... verb,” according to marriage counselor Frank Pittman. “It is something married grownups do no matter how they feel.”[i] True love is centered not on our own feelings but on the welfare of our beloved. Emotionally, true love inspires empathy for our beloved. Intellectually, it is a quest to know everything about our beloved. As an expression of will, it means a commitment to act for the happiness and welfare of our beloved, even at the risk of our own life.
Pitrim Sorokin categorizes love according to its intensity, duration, extent, purity, and adequacy. Honest reflection upon these questions can help us improve the quality of our love:
Intensity: Am I able to give everything for the sake of my beloved, even at the risk of my life? This is the highest standard of intensity in love.
Duration: Am I committed to the relationship for the long term? Most people do not want a love that lasts only for a day, a month, or a year.
Extent: How wide is my love? The broadest scope of love embraces family, clan, nation, and world.
Purity: Do I love my beloved for who he or she is? Love that uses someone as means for achieving another goal is not pure love.
Adequacy: Are the results of my love consistent with the goal of love which is to bring lasting happiness to the other person? When love produces harmful results, it is inadequate love. [ii]
True love is unchanging. It has an internal focus and does not vary depending on our mood or diminish when our beloved is absent. It is unconditional, not depending on the other person's actions. When children misbehave, parents do not withdraw their love. True love is capable of forgiving the shortcomings of others. True love recognizes the uniqueness of the beloved and does not try to fit him or her into a mold. In true love, husband and wife respect each other's personality and character and want to help each other grow. Such experiences of true love produce lasting joy and fulfillment.
One of the most fundamental insights is learning to discern true love from infatuation, crushes, and unhealthy attachments. Infatuation has an external focus and diminishes with separation. It is changeable, conditional, and short-lived. Some people fall in love with the feeling of being in love, and do not care who the object of the moment is. Although it may be an exciting catalyst for a lasting relationship, infatuation is inadequate for sustaining a relationship.
In a way, infatuated people are in love with themselves, and they project part of themselves into another person. They fall in love with their projection and do not see the other person for who he or she is. Vanity and illusion are at the core of infatuation. When the beloved is revealed as being different from the imagined ideal, disappointments and quarrels follow.
Some people search for love, hoping that it will compensate for their incompleteness. They focus on taking love rather than giving it. Some are not prepared to give love, and others give love in a way that crushes the receiver.
The powerful emotions of falling in love are often “sexual love mingled with psychological drives,” according to psychologist M. Scott Peck.[iii] A relationship driven by premature sexual desire can become possessive and manipulative. For such a person to say, “I love you,” really means, “I want you for myself.”
There is a simple way to identify true love. It is a willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of others. In contrast, self-centered love sacrifices others for the benefit of ourselves.
Romantic love is often pictured as an escape from the mundane life. Romantic love has its roots in the Romantic Movement, which blossomed in 19th-century Europe as a sort of secularized mysticism.
Madame de Stael, one of the theoreticians of French Romanticism, considered romantic love to be a way to achieve the kind of ideals that people traditionally sought through religion. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that the passionate life consisted of living in the present in anticipation of eternity; the experience of passion allows finite lovers to taste the infinite. According to Romanticism, the infinite needs to be incarnated and revealed in two finite beings who give it verbal expression.
The object of Romantic love portrayed in music, literature, and art is often inaccessible. The beloved may belong to the enemy clan (as in “Romeo and Juliet” and “West Side Story”), be already married (as in “Bridges of Madison County”), have a sickness (as in “Love Story”) or perish in a tragic accident (as in “Titanic”). In these bittersweet Romantic tales, there are external obstacles to the fulfillment of love, but the real barriers are internal and reside in the character of the lovers.
The appeal of Romanticism is the escape from the mundane and the pursuit of the ecstasy of losing oneself in a relationship of love. However, without grounding in moral and ethical principles, romantic impulses become decadent rather than blossoming into true love.
[i] Pittman, Frank, Grow Up! How Taking Responsibility Can Make You a Happy Adult, New York: Golden Books, 1998, p. 159. [ii] Sorokin, Pitrim, (ed.), Explorations in Altruistic Love and Behavior, Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1950. [iii] Peck, M. Scott, The Road Less Traveled, New York: Touchstone, 1978, p. 84.