I used to love sappy romantic comedies… before I got married. The Notebook was my jam just about every other Friday night, along with frequent showings of Ten Things I Hate about You and Love Actually. All were routinely accompanied by a too- large bowl of ice cream or buttery popcorn. And as I watched I would heave heavy sighs, swoon over their grandiose expressions of “love,” marvel at the subtleties woven into their unspoken language, and, generally speaking, turn into a puddle of ridiculous, nonsensical tears.
Talk about embarrassing.
And then I got married and realized very quickly it was all garbage. Total, utter garbage. Those movies, storylines, books, articles… every single one only a caricature of love- distorted, exaggerated, and unrealistic. Within the whole are bits of color and pieces of lines that seem honest, that give some sense of an image, but everything else is bloated and unnatural; a false representation of the facts.
I think I’ve watched The Notebook once since being married, and I’m fairly certain I rolled my eyes through the entire thing (or however much I could stomach). Because I know now that actual married life doesn’t get edited and coiffed like the beautiful people and magical moments in those types of stories. The endings don’t often bring satisfying closure. I doubt my husband and I are going die peacefully next to each other while holding hands. There are no hidden lagoons filled with swans in the Midwest.
Notice how markedly absent all the in-between years are in that movie. You know why? Because the in-between years don’t win awards and sell millions of books. But it’s in those very years of mountains, valleys and endless plains, grinding out the monotonous tasks of daily living and raising a family, physical changes, emotional roller coasters, misunderstandings, running from and then back to each other over and over- it’s in the in-between where love develops its roots, spreads, and grows.
After nine years of marriage, love in our house looks a lot like my husband cleaning out my van just because, washing the dishes after dinner, folding a load of laundry, or calling the cable company to negotiate our current rate. Talk about sexy. Have YOU ever had to deal with your cable company? Lord have mercy.
Now, I’m going to make an important distinction here: love and desire are not the same thing. Desire is a feeling, love is a choice. Desire is emotional, love is action. Desire isn’t reliable, love is. Caricatures of love would have us believe that desire is love. Oh no.
“4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Tell me that you’re “falling out of love” with someone and I will tell you that is impossible. I will also probably roll my eyes. That has to be one of the most ludicrous expressions ever created by western culture. Maybe your desire has waned because you’ve discovered something you don’t like, or you feel too tired to put in the work of growing roots so you stop trying, or the hard parts feel way too hard so you let your lack of desire dictate your decision to choose to love that person. There is no “falling out of love,” only lack of desire. When you love someone you are choosing hard labor. Desire is not enough to carry any relationship very far. Desire is driving a car, but leaving it on the side of the road when it breaks down. Love is driving that same car, but staying to fix it no matter the location or weather condition; choosing not to walk away despite how impossible the brokenness may seem.
Desire can also disguise itself as love’s sustenance, and without it love dies. LIE. What sustains real love is choosing patience instead of irritation, kindness instead of frustration, selflessness instead of selfishness, hope instead of despair, protecting instead of damaging, persevering instead of abandoning.
At one point a number of years ago my husband and I were walking the line of divorce. I told him that I didn’t think I loved him anymore. Looking back, what I realize I actually meant was “I don’t want to be patient or kind to you anymore. I would rather be angry. I don’t want to honor you. I would rather be selfish. I’m keeping a running tally of all the things you’ve done and are still doing wrong. I don’t trust you. I don’t have hope for our future. And I certainly don’t feel like persevering through this mess.”
I had to choose love over succumbing to a lack of desire in those moments, as did my husband. We did not like each other, but we made the decision to say yes every time we wanted to say no. It was incredibly difficult, but suffering produced perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope (see Romans 5:3-4).
Don’t look for an accurate image of love in the caricatures. They will always be misleading. And never trust desire to dictate love’s decisions. When you choose love, you are choosing the whole- not parts. You are embracing the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the easy and the hard. You accept the pain along with the joy. When you do these things and love this way, you nurture the roots of your relationship. And when you learn to love well, desire often reappears or is strengthened in unexpected ways.
Jesus didn’t pick and choose. He loved us wholly and then commanded us to “love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) I’m sure the human side of him tired and hurt from the constant heartache, of feeling so deeply and passionately for humanity yet knowing the thoughts and hearts of the people surrounding him and bearing the weight of their rejection over and over. Still He persisted, fought, and died for us… all for the sake of love. Even though we deserved none of it.
Loving means dying to oneself to bring life to another. It means serving instead of waiting to be served. It means giving instead of expecting to receive. It means holding on even when everyone around you would understand if you let go.
I took this photo many years ago when I was a college student studying abroad in Mexico. When I look at this picture I see decades of two lives intertwined spent living, working, struggling, fighting, celebrating, laughing, crying, persevering- two people who didn’t give up on each other despite the influence of a world so steeped in desire. They made it. I wish I could go back and ask them what life is like on the other side of the in-between.
But I guess that all just depends on how well we choose to love each other where we are right now.
Peace & Love, Amy
(Important Note: This essay is not a case for justifying abusive relationships of any kind. If you are in such a relationship, please get out and seek help.)