Love is a word often overused, but seldom understood
"Will I ever love the way I used to?"
This question gets asked by many of the couples I work with in marriage counseling. One spouse or the other recognizes that he or she feels little, if any, of the love which was felt early on in the relationship.
And we find ourselves struggling with this strange, wonderful, and often troublesome concept of "love."
What is love? It certainly is a word we use frequently.
We can love Chicago-style hot dogs, our new car, a movie star, a place, etc. and then use the same word to describe the deepest feelings we have toward the most important people in our lives.
Actually, love probably suffers from overuse.
For example, the classical Greek in which the New Testament of the Bible was written has literally dozens of words which we translate as simply "love."
When one word is used in so many situations, it loses much of its distinctive meaning. Yet love is the word we've got, and I doubt if we'll change the way we use it.
So maybe we can at least sharpen our understanding of what it means in a particular situation -- marriage.
First, love is an emotion. It can be an emotion that overwhelms us (the early infatuation that is part of some relationships) or one that develops slowly in intensity and depth.
It often involves a desire to be with the other person, a warm glow when we are together, or a deep sense of connectedness.
Now, as with all emotions, we seem to have little control over whether or not we feel love. But it is an emotion that can be cultivated. We can grow in our love as we know another person more fully and intimately. We can discover new and more meaningful ways to love our partner. Our love can become richer and more rewarding over time.
But love also seems to involve our rational, decision-making selves as well.
There does seem to be an element of choice in love.
Often, older couples will share with me how there have been times in their lives together that the feeling of love seemed muted, and that their mutual choosing to love each other was what got them through.
And certainly we all must choose to allow ourselves to risk experiencing, expressing, and cultivating the love we may have toward another.
There is, likewise, a physical element in love.
This is not exclusive to marriage, but is part of other loving relationships as well.
A parent cuddles an infant, two brothers hug, a friend puts his arm around another's shoulder.
Certainly in our marriages our love is often experienced in physical terms -- from holding hands to "making love" (yet another use of the word). The power of such physical expressing of love is clearly evident when our marriage is troubled: touching is usually one of the first things we lose.
Love is a word that implies values and ethics as well. Religions often use love in this manner, but it has meaning in marriage as well.
Our love for our spouse implies certain beliefs about what a marriage is -- the roles, responsibilities, and rights we each assume; how we are to treat each other; and so on.
The "Great Commandment" that many of us were raised on (loving God and our neighbor as we love ourselves) is an example of the ethical dimension of love.
Finally, love has a spiritual meaning, too. Spiritual is a word that is just as hard to understand as love (and often just as misused).
In marriage, we are referring to that inner sense of being part of something bigger than we are, of finding a true connectedness with another person at a level of depth seldom experienced.
It is a rare, but powerful, part of love in marriage.
Back to the question we started with. As our marriage moves through time, we will never love our spouse the way we used to. Our love may wane, become hidden behind a cloud of hurt, anger, and disillusionment, or even die.
But it may also grow and mature to become deeper, more complete, and more fulfilling than we had ever imagined.
And though love is an emotion, we do have some choice.
If the love is there (or even if it was there), we can choose to do everything we can to enable its growth or its rebirth. Such choosing is no guarantee of success.
To choose not to work at our love, however, is to assure failure.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaracare Counseling Center in Naperville, Downers Grove, Geneva, and throughout the North Shore. His book "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children" is available online.