Ever noticed when people talk about real love—they seem to be describing fake love?
You make me happy all the time.
Love means never having to say you’re sorry.
We never fight.
He loves me like I am. I never need to change.
I’m following my heart.
I could never be annoyed with you.
In fact, a TV drama recently set off my baloney-meter. A character was talking about how he knew he was still in love with his wife by the way his stomach still did flip-flops when she walked in.
Hmm. Call me a cynic, or maybe just deprived of that level of marriage, but stay with me.
Scientifically, the first flush of passion lasts two to three years at maximum. Heart-pounding first love inevitably dissolves. And even the body’s chemical reaction to sex changes. New, exciting sex causes a boost of phenyl ethylamine and epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline), delivering a high similar to that of crack cocaine (no lie!).
So let’s step back for a minute from the Top 40, Nicholas Sparks novels, and rom-coms. Is that flush of emotion a sure-fire indicator of “real love”?
Do you “real-love” me?
My friend Mindi told me a story about when she and her husband, Hayden, were dating during college. They spent a lot of time traveling in his old Ford Escape since both of their families lived a couple of hours away.
Their relationship carried that sheen of new excitement. It was that first-love emotional cocktail which, should it ever be bottled, would make someone a millionaire. As Hayden’s car rattled down the road, they’d talk about dreams, childhoods, likes and dislikes—anything, just like enraptured, enamored couples everywhere.
“I thought it was so sweet that he just wanted to talk and get to know me more,” Mindi said.
After dating almost a year, they were chatting away, meandering down some highway, trees whipping by. Hayden suddenly turned to her and said for the first time, “Mindi, I love you!”
Her not-to-forget-but-definitely-regret response: “Do you?”
They laugh about this moment now, but that day it caused a lot of hurt.
The truth: Mindi did feel love for Hayden then. She just knew those feelings weren’t love as the Bible defines it. As unromantic as it sounds, she wanted to make sure Hayden was committed to going deeper than the emotions of excitement and passion that inevitably evaporate—i.e., fake love.
She was really asking: “Do you commit to real-loving me?”
Will the real love please stand up
Bob Lepine writes in his new book, Love Like You Mean It:
To me, saying “I love you,” to someone was essentially the same as saying, “I enjoy your company and I like the way I feel when I’m with you and I hope you’ll stop dating other people and agree to date me exclusively so I can keep feeling this way until I get tired of you.” I was clearly attaching a shallow meaning to a deep word.
(Thank you, Bob, for exonerating Mindi. Sort of.)
Most of us got married because of how our spouse made us feel when we were together. We liked the feeling. So we said “I’ll move in and wear a ring and share a house payment and have kids with you—as long as you keep making me feel that way.”
… Most of us get married to get, not to give.
C.S. Lewis would seem to agree. In Mere Christianity, Lewis remarks that like anything else in life—like learning to fly a plane in the armed forces, for example—the thrills come at the beginning. “The thrill you feel on first seeing some delightful place dies away when you really go to live there,” he explains. But when that breathlessness of a new relationship or the brand of affection we read about in fiction fades, we think we must have fake love.
And therefore, we must deserve a change.
The love litmus test
Lepine’s book dives into the definition of real love—as might have been read aloud when the two of you wore the tux and the dress, giddy and candlelit; it’s that Bible-defined love Mindi was looking for on that car ride with Hayden. He examines the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 13 as the love litmus test we’ve all wondered about.
In the killer opener of this chapter, awash in hyperbole, the Apostle Paul presents scenarios where people perform monumentally impressive or sacrificial acts—but don’t have love. The assessment is startling: Those people have nothing. Have gained nothing.
Here’s the formula Paul is proposing: Extraordinary giftedness – Agape love = Nothing.
Let that sink in for a minute.
… What that means for marriage is clear. You can be a responsible, charming, attractive, fun-loving, successful, intelligent, respected individual, admired and esteemed by everyone. You can be, by all standards, an ideal spouse. But if your marriage is not fueled by a strong and durable commitment to sacrificially love your mate, it’s not a Christian marriage. It’s a façade.
What love doesn’t say
Translation: Love isn’t defined by all the feels. By existing in a vacuum of happiness or never having to apologize. By smooth sailing in your relationship (“We never argue!”).
In fact, that kind of “love” may be the most fake—because it doesn’t do the hard, committed work of genuine love.
Instead, the verses elaborate on the indicators lighting up real love: Patience. Kindness. Humility. Generosity. Gentleness. Virtuosity. Honesty. Tenacity. Resilience.
Here’s what those verses don’t say:
Love is emotion. It feels goooood. It accomplishes its own dreams. Love never argues, never lays down what it truly wants, never hamstrings its personal comfort or convenience. It is good-looking in all things (faking when necessary); protective of one’s time, energy, career, and future; it makes sure others pull their weight. Love always says whatever it’s thinking.
Love sticks around till emotion do us part.
Real love: Start here
If you’re wondering if Mindi ever said “I love you” back … she did!
Now married, Hayden and Mindi are learning to real-love each other every day.
Spoiler: Aside from those first few years, genuine love is frequently counter to what comes naturally for anyone. But real-love marriage is less about us and more about Christ, the Ultimate Model of Love.
After all, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives” (1 John 3:16).
If this is true—that genuine love is revealed in its sacrifice for the other (its patience, kindness, humility, etc.)—real love is a gut-punch to its imitations.
Personal happiness and self-actualization as goals rarely deliver. Our naive expectations lead us to fragile, exacting relationships. When they fail, we’re left jaded and resentful.
The path to intimacy, fulfillment, partnership, and even the emotion we seek traffics directly through self-death—desiring the true good of the other. As Lepine clarifies, “With real love, self is not ignored. But it takes a back seat to helping your spouse flourish.”
Want to know if your love is real? If it first aims to honor God then your spouse, you’ve got the makings of a love that lasts.
Copyright © 2020 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.
Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker, and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, Permanent Markers: Spiritual Life Skills for Work-in-Progress Families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.