What is love?

teenloveOne of the things my pastor told my husband and me in premarital counseling is that we should think of love as a verb, not a noun. The Christian couple, he said, should know that love is what you do, not what you feel. On a somewhat related note, my father told me that he had counseled couples for marriage who wanted their vows to read "as long as we both shall love" instead of "as long as we both shall live." Dad pointed out that they'd need something to keep them going after their first week of marriage. It seems to me that society views love as an emotion, even a sacred emotion. It's not, as Jenny Sanford wrote in her statement last week, "a commitment and an act of will."

There's a huge chasm between people who think that the goodness of a thing is determined by strength of feeling and the people who think the goodness of a thing is determined through some objective measure. And I'm not sure I've ever seen the former viewpoint so well represented as it is in this horrifying (to me, at least) article by Neely Tucker in the Washington Post. He writes that Sanford's affair with an Argentinian woman is completely different from all those seedier political sex scandals because he actually loved this woman. There is clearly a difference between New York Governor Elliot Spitzer paying tens of thousands of dollars to prostitutes and what we know of Sanford's relationship with the woman who is not his wife. But both cases deal with lust and a decision to forsake marriage vows -- and I'm not so sure the distinction is as important as Tucker seems to think it is.

After describing their love letters as adult epistles from the heart, we get a lot of quotes about how all everything good about romance comes from passion and suffering, not the drudgery of fidelity:

It's pretty much Shakespearean now. The governor's wife has taken the children and left him, but says she'll have him back if he repents. Lawmakers are calling for his head. Paparazzi are circling outside the Buenos Aires apartment of The Other Woman.

"There is something admirable and authentic in his and Maria's passion for each other, empathy for each other, honesty with each other," writes Cristina Nehring, author of "A Vindication of Love," a new book about passion and romance, in an e-mail after reading the pair's letters. "That said, the relationship of course represents a moral dilemma, to which the answers are not obvious."

Many other people are quoted talking about the moral dilemma. And how do I put this? I don't want to speak for all religious people, but there are quite a few Christians for whom the answers are exceedingly obvious. Last week my mother and I were talking about how apparent it was that Sanford had serious feelings for this woman not his wife. She told me that during the course of her (quite passionate, incidentally) marriage, she had met men with whom she would have been much more compatible than my father. She said that the Christian woman must make the immediate decision against pursuing such relationships with people who aren't her spouse. That God had given her my father and she was the man to whom her love must be directed. In other words: it is an obvious answer. It might be difficult to live the way God wants you to, but it's obvious none the less.

And yet nowhere in the Post's secular paean to romance is this idea even broached. Is it because newsrooms don't even understand the specifics of marital commitment? Do they assume that people who are faithful simply never had an opportunity -- or a real desire -- to break their vows? I kind of suspect that's the case. But this piece actually feels like something of an assault on traditional values.

The thing that got me was that the entire piece seemed like a tribute to the most juvenile forms of love. Now that I am married, my understanding of romance, fidelity and love are so much more developed than when I was crazy and single. Take this sample, for instance:

"Happy love has no history," Denis de Rougemont wrote in "Love in the Western World," more than two decades ago. "Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon and doomed by life itself. What stirs lyrical poets to their finest flights is neither the delight of the senses nor the fruitful contentment of the settled couple; not the satisfaction of love but its passion. And passion means suffering."

And: "How widespread and disturbing is our fascination with the love that breaks the law. Is this not the sign that we wish to escape from a horrible reality?"

The horrible reality: That perhaps we have found, against all odds and comforts, a love that transcends the meaningless of life, of our reality of dry-cleaning receipts and stubble in the bathroom sink; and that this balm is denied to us.

Sigh. A few centuries ago, Luther responded to this idea that family life is drudgery quite well.

It's a shame that no opposing perspective was permitted to share space in Tucker's article. Sure, we're all obsessed with love that breaks the law. But some people actually mature beyond the Romeo & Juliet idea of romance and are much better off for it.

Trust me -- being cognizant of how your behavior affects others doesn't make your love life less interesting. Far from it. It deepens the passion and the intimacy. That the Washington Post would articulate a love-sick teenagers view of how romance should be is disappointing, to say the least. Believe it or not, religion has something wise to say about all these affairs of the heart. If the Post can mock religion in the Style pages, certainly it can discuss it in other ways as well.

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