In my last post, “I love you, but I’m not ‘in love’ with you,” we examined the emotional, relational, and even neurochemical dynamics that are in play when a person makes this statement. For him or her, the spark is out, the butterflies are no longer fluttering in his or her stomach, the heart throbbing has stopped, and all of the excitement and anticipation is gone from the relationship.

We pointed out that when a couple falls “in love,” there are powerful chemicals at work. These chemicals (or neurochemicals) serve a vital role in bringing the couple together, rewarding them for connecting with one another, and helping them bond with one another. Once that bond has been successfully formed and the relationship has been established, the intensity of these drug-induced feelings necessarily fades over time. About that same time, true love should have begun to mature and grow into something deeper, stronger, and intensely more satisfying.

However, for many couples, the euphoria of “young love” leaves them before “true love” has taken root. This is largely due to a lack of adequate marriage preparation and a lack of modeling from their parents. Love takes deliberateness and intentionality. It doesn’t “just happen.” When it doesn’t “just happen,” many couples think the marriage is over because they no longer have passionate feelings for one another. They’re no longer “in love.”

Our media driven culture has done our marriages a huge disservice in this area. We’ve been fooled into thinking that romantic passion is the foundation and fuel for a successful marriage. However, romantic passion is simply the result of a successful marriage. A lack of passion doesn’t mean that you married the wrong person, you’re incompatible, your flame is out, or your marriage is over. Rather, it’s a warning light that there are issues that need to be addressed in your marriage. I am confident that if the issues are dealt with and if deliberate loving actions are intentionally practiced, a new and better love will take the place of the ooey gooey love.

As I stated in the previous post, I believe when someone tells their partner, “I love you, but I’m not ‘in love’ with you,” what that person means is that they feel disconnected from their spouse. I take it as a cry for help. It’s a plea for connection. They’re stuck in the middle between “in love” and “true love.” They never transitioned from the crazy, hormonal, chemically dependent love into the mature, intimate, and bonded love. “In love” needs to be replaced with this better love. When it is, we can be rewarded with those “in love” feelings all over again. I’ll address this in our next post.

In this post, I want to address what love is and what it looks like:

What is love?

We looked at the science of love last time. However, when most people speak of love, they think of it as more of an art than a science. It’s definition is best left out of the laboratory and handed over to the philosophers, theologians, and the poets.

The Greek culture did as good a job as any in defining love for us. Their vocabulary recognized that there were different kinds and levels of love. They had as many different words and combinations of words to refer to the various types of love. We have only one. When I say I love my wife, I use the same word I use when I say I love my dog and I love George Strait. No wonder we’re so confused about the nature and meaning of love.

For our purposes, let’s look at four of the more popular Greek words for love.

Eros: Sexual Passion

This is that “in love” feeling I wrote about last time. It is that erotic passion that intoxicates us, drives us toward connection, and captivates us. It is based on body chemistry and it fuels emotional and physical bonding. Eros is sexual attraction and is best expressed with the words, “I love you because of how you make me feel.”

Phileo: Deep Friendship

This is the love of companionship. Some call it “brotherly love.” It’s the love between close friends. This is the love you have for the people in your circle and on your team. You choose to connect with and love these people because you share a certain comradery. It’s best expressed with the words, “I love you because we have similar interests, goals, and life experiences.”

Agape: Unconditional Commitment

This is unconditional acceptance. This is a choice to be loving toward someone whether they deserve it or not, friend or foe. It is often called a divine love that chooses to act in the best interest of others. Agape (or Agapao) is a verb. It is love that is manifested in action, not mere feelings. You can have this kind of love for someone that is intolerable to you. It’s covenantal and based solely on the promise to love. It is best expressed with the words, “I love you based upon my decision and promise to love you, no matter who you are or what you do, I will never stop loving you.”

Storge: Familial Love

This is the love between blood brothers of the same family (not spiritual or figurative brothers as under phileo). This is when loyalty and love come together in a family unit. This is a parent-child, brother-sister, and even husband-wife love. This is the love that is thicker than water. We all have family members that we don’t like very much, but we still love them anyway and we’d give them the shirt off our back and even die for them if we had to. We can choose our friends, but we can’t choose our family. This love is best expressed by the words, “I love you because we’re kin and kinfolk have each other’s back.”

These more complete definitions of love may help us understand more fully what is going on when a person says, “I love you, but I’m not ‘in love’ with you.” What they could be saying is, “I feel a familial bond with you. I share a certain comradery with you due to our shared interests and experiences. However, I no longer feel sexual energy, attraction, or desire for you. I storge you and I phileo you, but I no longer have eros for you.”

This idea of eros being the most important form of love without which no marriage can survive is a relatively new concept. We don’t arrive at this conclusion by nature, but by nurture. It comes from our cultural programming. All four of the above kinds of love are important, but if we had to rank them in order of importance, eros certainly would not be listed as the key to lasting happiness. In fact, eros often times sacrifices lasting happiness for momentary pleasure. However, our culture has defined romantic love as the only kind of love that really matters in the end. So many marriages, which could have been rescued, have been pronounced dead simply because the eros caught a cold.

The Best Description of Love

I believe the best description of love ever was penned by St. Paul. In his letter to the Corinthian church, he uses the word love (agape) nine times in thirteen verses. In verses 4-7, he writes,

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

This is God’s description of love. It’s the love that is desperately needed in our marriages. It is the commitment to love. It transcends feelings. It is covenantal. This is what we promised to do in our vows on our wedding day. This is the love that keeps us acting in loving ways toward one another even if we have a day or two when the embers have gone cold. It is the love that hopes and believes against all odds that love lost can be love rekindled.

I believe that when these characteristics of love are present and manifested toward one another, it gives us the greatest possible chance of reigniting the flame. Passion ebbs and flows. Desires wax and wane. Feelings are difficult to create, but they do appear when you focus on these practical outworkings of love.

Here is my challenge: If a person will focus on being loving, commit to practicing these loving actions, and focus on their family loyalty, connections, and camaraderie, I believe the feelings will show up. However, if you focus on the feelings themselves they will elude you. I don’t believe that we bring back eros by focusing on eros. Romantic gestures, fancy get-aways, diamonds, flowers, chocolate, whipped cream and drinking wine from one another’s navels–this is not the key to obtaining eros, passion, or excitement. You can’t manufacture eros, especially after there have been years of baggage packed into a relationship. For couples who have been together for more than a couple of years, eros only happens after they sacrificially act in one another’s best interest regardless of how they’re feeling at the moment.

Will you commit to loving your spouse, regardless of how you feel? Will you follow these steps toward true and lasting love?

Love is patient: “I will tolerate problems in my spouse without becoming annoyed.”

Love is kind: “I will be friendly, generous, and considerate of my spouse.”

Love does not envy: “I will honor and esteem my spouse over and above myself.”

Love does not boast: “I will not seek attention and praise separate from my spouse.”

Love is not arrogant: “I will not act like I am more important than my spouse.”

Love is not rude: “I will not be offensive, impolite, or discourteous toward my spouse.”

Love does not insist on its own way: “I will be mate and marriage-oriented.”

Love is not irritable: “I will not use anger or frustration as a means to get my way.”

Love is not resentful: “I will not keep track of my spouse’s wrongs or get bitter.”

Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing: “I will never say, ‘gotcha!’ to my spouse.”

Love rejoices with the truth: “I will be happy when my spouse is right.”

Love bears all things: “I will not quit when the going gets tough.”

Love believes all things: “I will believe the best about my spouse’s intentions.”

Love hopes all things: “I will be confident and optimistic about my spouse’s growth.”

Love endures all things: “Our marriage can and will overcome every assault against it.”

How does your love measure up? This is the kind of love that Christ has for us. Are you following his example in your marriage? Could you imagine what kind of fate would be in store for us if Christ’s love for us was based solely on his feelings of attraction and our desirability?

If you were on trial for loving your spouse, would there be enough evidence to convict you?

Working on developing this kind of love is not the end. It’s only the beginning. Non-contingent mate-oriented, self-sacrificing love has serious positive ramifications for us. The paradox is that, while it is more blessed to give than to receive, when we give in this way we have the potential to receive the kind of enjoyable feelings that we’ve been talking about. It’s not the motive behind our love, but it certainly can be the result if you’ll do the work to reconnect with your spouse.

In the next post, I’ll give practical ideas of how we can keep love alive in our marriages even after the honeymoon is over and when real life has taken over. I believe there is great hope for couples to experience genuine, deep, and abiding love if they will do the deliberate work. Cruise control won’t work. Regaining and sustaining “that loving feeling” takes sacrifice, vulnerability, intentionality, and intimacy. But it is possible and it is worth the work.