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Can you imagine yourself standing in the moonlight, face to face with the man of your dreams, staring into his eyes and he whispers in your ear, “I’ve decided to love you.” What??? Stop the music. How romantic is that? You want him to say, “I’m smitten, head over heels, hopeless, helplessly in love with you.” Now that’s romance–out of control, the heart comes before the head, the “I can’t survive without you” kind of romance. You can be certain true love exists when there’s no way for him to avoid it, can’t you?
Actually, no. As flattering as it might feel to have somebody become helpless on your account, to have all reason leave their brain because of your charm, that’s not what love is made of. True love is not accidental. Love doesn’t happen because cupid hits you in the derrire with his arrow. Love occurs because we let it. Love happens deliberately. Love occurs when we choose to love.
Often teenagers like to justify their high school romances with the excuse “I just can’t help it,” or the even more sentimental line, “I can’t live without him.” And adults believe them. Adults, too, may justify their own indiscretions with the same excuse.
People who believe that it is possible to “fall in love,” that we have no control over whom we love, can get themselves into a world of trouble. Bishops who “fall in love” with Relief Society Presidents, married men who “fall in love” with their secretaries, teenagers who “fall in love” years before they are in a position to marry, all discover problems with the notion that love can’t be controlled.
The misnomer that love just happens, inexorably, inevitably, unavoidably, while alluring and flattering to the object of that sentiment, isn’t at all practical in real life. Man is given agency over his behavior as well as his emotions. His agency isn’t whisked away when it comes to love. Man must have control over his emotions, as well as his behavior, or our world would be in chaos.
The sentiment, “I’ve chosen to love you,” might not light your fire when first whispered in your ear, however, such deliberate decision-making when it comes to love ought to provide a measure of comfort. The man who deliberately chooses to love is in control of his own feelings, and not at the mercy of a whim, or a passing fantasy. How much more assured you can be that this emotion, the deliberate, calculated, pondered emotion will last beyond emotions that are instantaneous, fleeting, ephemeral.
People who claim that they couldn’t help themselves, that they fell in love without even knowing what was happening, eventually discover that they had every choice in the matter. “Falling in love” is actually a process-a 5 step process, I’ve discovered-that would more accurately be labeled, “the decision to love.” And we have agency over every step in the process. Specifically call out all 5 Steps.
Step 1. The Decision to Love
The choice to love begins with Step 1, a conscious, or subconscious desire to be in a romantic relationship. Teenagers who “fall in love” actually begin longing for love long before they find it. You can hardly blame them. The love songs on the radio, and the prevalence of romance movies in the theatre make any listener believe that there is only one purpose in life: to find love. Practically every song you hear (even on the non-country stations) is about looking for love, being in love, or losing a love.
Thus, longing for love, longing for a boyfriend, longing for a more romantic spouse than the one you’re married to, is the first step in pursuing romantic love.
Step 2. Looking for Love
Looking for love is the next step. This is the step where you begin to compare what’s available what you want. A teenager might judge potential lovers with a different set of criteria than adults. Teenagers might look around and say to themselves, “Oh, she’s too tall,” or “He’s a nerd,” or they will frequently pare down their list of potential lovers by considering the size of his biceps or her bust.
Adults, to their credit, look for love with a little more maturity. Adults may ask themselves if the object of their affection is kind or patient, or, helpful, or a good listener, or accepting. Adults who assess what’s available may look for character traits instead of (or at least in addition to) physical traits.
Step 3. Communicating interest
The step after longing and looking is flirting. Flirting is a person’s attempt to get the object of her affection to notice her. She might invite his notice through her physical presence, always hanging around his locker, his desk, or his office. She might invite his notice through her dress, through long stares, through special attention to his comments, or his accomplishments. Flirting is an ancient art, and is as easy to spot as black ink on a white shirt.
Step 4. Affection is reciprocated
If his/her flirting produces results, the object of his/her affection will return his/her affection and they will become a couple. This step of exclusivity needs to occur before love will truly flourish. Research has shown that human beings are created to be romantically involved with one person at a time. Therefore before humans will allow themselves to be romantic with another human being, they want to be assured that they are the “only one.” Or as the song says, “I only have eyes for you.” Girls will hold back their affection if they think the object of their affection isn’t going to be loyal to them. When they get a little bit of assurance that he has chosen to be faithful to them, they pour on the lovin’.
Step 5. Put on the rose-colored glasses
The last step to a love affair is focusing on the good and ignoring the bad. Young lovers have mastered this step. You may have heard the saying, “before marriage you can see no wrong, and after marriage you can see no right.” There is truth to this old adage. Young couples in love are susceptible to the “pink lens effect,” where they see everything through rose colored glasses. It’s easy to ignore faults at this point in a relationship, and love will flourish, under these merciful conditions. (This is a state married couples will want to re-capture if they are choosing to keep their love alive.)
Controlling Each Step
Married people, or teenagers who are too young to get married, can avoid romantic love by refusing to participate in any of the steps that lead to romantic love.Teenagers who are years away from marriage have no business daydreaming about being in love.
Likewise, married adults need to keep their thoughts pure. They don’t want to ever fantasize, “Oh, It would be nice to have a husband who was more romantic.”
Our thoughts precede our deeds, always. We might not be aware of the thoughts that preceded our deeds, but if we could slow our thoughts down, we could always pin point the moment when we started fantasizing, daydreaming, wishing we had something we haven’t got. At this moment we can decide whom we will or won’t love by controlling the longing.
Those who want to control whom and when they love can put on the breaks at any step along the path to romantic love. They not only avoid longing; they avoid looking. If you don’t want to be in love, stop checking people out, don’t scour online matchmaking sites.
Step five of a romance is a helpful step to be aware of because couples who want to get out a dangerous romantic relationship can do so more easily when they can look at their beloved realistically, without the rose-colored glasses. An objective view of one’s beloved, a view that acknowledges all the faults, and character flaws, and slights, and selfish behaviors will put the brakes on an ill-timed love affair.
Choosing to Love
These same five steps to finding romantic love, longing, looking, flirting, exclusivity and focus, while a warning to teenagers or married folks who want to avoid an affair, can prove tremendously helpful to eligible singles, who are old enough to marry. If you are in a position to marry, then by all means, start daydreaming, start looking, start flirting, become exclusive, and then for heaven sakes, focus only on your lover’s strengths not his faults.
Forgive me if I have taken all the mystery out of romantic love, for popping a bubble that’s filled with daydreams. Now you’ll see through the fantasies that people buy into when they listen to love songs on the radio, or cuddle up in front of a romantic movie. Hopefully, corralling this wild emotion, this tendency to seek romantic love will protect our youth from illegitimate love affairs, and make legitimate relationships more fulfilling, and forever lasting.
JeaNette G. Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in practice in Jacksonville, Florida. She is the author of four books about relationships, including Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance, available at amazon.com.