If there is any topic more popular at Catholic Match than the essential differences between male and female, it is the definition and nature of Love. Is love a fancy or a feeling … oops! that's Hartley Coleridge, actually — but certainly the debate is energetic over whether love is a feeling or a decision.
I don't claim to be an expert, but experience and observation have left me with some very strong impressions — impressions reinforced by my year's reading posts on this site — that I believe are worth sharing.
Let us begin by clarifying what love is not. First of all, love is not attraction. We can find someone extremely good-looking, find an appeal in his personality, delight in his company, enjoy mutual interests, look forward to future contacts with him. But this is not love.
Love also is not infatuation, that delicious, giddy sensation of "fluttery, butterfly feelings" that is so often celebrated as love. Infatuation is preoccupied, in fact, with my feelings, and that is its danger. We can get "hooked" by the feelings, the euphoria of infatuation; they can distract us from other, essential elements that are required in order to love truly.
The euphoria of infatuation is intoxicating. It demands more and more stimuli to achieve the heightened feelings we've come to expect. Worse, we grow discontented with the thrill we experienced last week; today we want an even greater one. Pursuit of the thrill distracts the healthy growth of a relationship, reduces it to mere "chemistry." The focus on emotion not only sabotages the development of a real and healthy relationship, but it can also cause a relationship to go sour quicker than we can say "Jack Robinson."
This is because infatuation lacks substance. Infatuation is preoccupied by the superficial. An example of this is the woman who told me she very much wanted to date a friend of mine — but the only justifications she could offer for her interest were his looks and the speculation that he would be a good kisser. She had known him for several months, engaged in conversations with him, yet nothing of his mind or character had made any impression on her. She was solidly infatuated with the man.
Love, real love, on the other hand, goes far beyond feelings. It engages everything about me, my whole self: my intellect, my ego, my will, my character, not just my heart. It is wholly concerned with substance — substance found in the worthiness of the Beloved.
Unlike attraction, which can be instantaneous, love develops on a foundation of respect. Instead of superficial infatuation, love is very closely akin to admiration. Admiration means that we hold the Beloved in high regard, in esteem, that we are aware of his excellence, his beauty of soul, his worthiness.
Both respect and admiration — and consequently love — are not so much the result of anything in us as they are our response to the character of the Beloved, to the beauty of his soul; both admiration and love honor the essential worthiness of the Beloved, in his mind, character, and accomplishments, his Faith, values, and ideals.
In fact, the theme of love, the subject of our devotion, is the Beloved. My feelings become — not secondary, but inconsequential. I become secondary. My Beloved is what counts; he is what matters — not myself, my feelings, my satisfaction, not even the reciprocation of my affections (because love is not an entitlement); only him — his beauty and worthiness, then his peace, his happiness, his immortal soul's well-being.
This self-abnegating nature of love — this putting myself and my wishes after what best serves my Beloved, shows me that I am being changed in consequence of loving. By nature I am selfish, shallow; I want my own way and the satisfaction of my own wants; to put another before myself, even to the point of sacrificial self-donation, shows me that there is something at work in me that is far bigger than myself.
This is an important revelation, because love is part of the Mystery of God. When we love, we are being allowed to share more fully in His Nature. We quote the scriptures, "God is love;" we remember that He loved us and gave Himself for us. And when we love, truly, He allows something of Himself to enter into us to make us more than we were before. It is part of His method of refining and perfecting us. It is part of the Mystery of Love that I can be lifted out of myself to care more for another than I do myself — to want my Beloved's good more than my own, even if I may not share it.
In literature dating prior to the mid-20th century, we see many references of man and woman in love choosing to love and to live for one another. Today, thanks to Dietrich von Hildebrand and John Paul II, we speak of self-donation. They are the same thing, I believe, only the latter is deeply founded upon a decidedly Catholic spirituality that, say, Jane Austen would not have been privy to.
This is where the element of decision comes into play — after respect and trust have been established, and when love has taken solid root. I want to be cautious here: there is danger in confusing the health of love and the dangers of codependency. When decision enters the relationship prematurely, we risk having an unhealthy and doomed relationship — a codependent relationship.
Codependency is an attachment developed for a man, not because he has demonstrated himself worthy but because we have chosen him to become our ideal. As with infatuation, the focus of the relationship becomes our feelings, and particularly the desperation to be loved. A codependent woman will endure insults and abuses; she even loses her sense of her own integrity trying to earn acceptance.
No! This is not the choice we want to encourage! In love, we don't try to "make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." We don't pretend that our Beloved is something other than he is. We are not unaware of his struggles with sin and personal flaws. Still, we know the fundamental bent of his character, and because it is noble and admirable, because it resonates with the most important things inside ourselves, we love him.
Only then, and in the full integrity of our own soul, we can choose to work out our love in self-donation. Only then can we give gifts of ourselves as an act of will in union with our love.
We automatically think of service in marriage, of swiping the toilet and sorting his socks and cooperating with him in the mundane business of daily living. But self-donation is possible outside of marriage. My friend Billie serves the man she loves and cannot marry by sharing meals and social outlets several times a week with him and his developmentally-disabled daughter; she has filled in the gap with the daughter when a woman's help is needed.
Where such practical acts are impossible, we can serve our Beloved through our prayers and spiritual offerings on his behalf. We serve his immortal soul with the exercise of our own for his sake. And we give him best of ourselves in our efforts to become a better woman in all ways, and in our loyalty and devotion to him in all circumstances.
It is as simple as that, but it will require a lifetime of perfecting.
Laura Lowder is a freelance writer living in North Carolina.