It’s Valentines Day. This day elicits joy from some, sorrow from others, and a frantic last minute search at stores from husbands trying not to admit they forgot.
At the heart of Valentine’s celebrations, lies the notion of true love. Images of people snuggling up close to a fire, holding hands through a romantic movie, and other displays of romantic affection dominate the American celebration. In so many ways, Valentines Day stands as the pinnacle of romance. Though down from the previous year, Fortune estimates that people will spend $18.2 billion in the days leading up to and on holiday.
With all of the emphasis on love, you would think that marriages in America would be pretty happy. However, the divorce rate stands at roughly 50% (though this statistic is misleading and needs revision). With the rise of no-fault divorce, the number of people divorcing because they are no longer happy has continually grown. We have even seen the invention of terms like “expressive divorce” and “conscious uncoupling.”
But perhaps Valentines Day isn’t the solution. Perhaps it is part of the problem.
Our cultural celebration is not so much the celebration of “love” in a broad sense, but of love in a very narrow sense, i.e. we idolize the notion of being “in” love. The elation, the nervousness, the endorphin rush, etc. are part and parcel of being “in love.” This romantic notion stands as the central focus of Valentines Day as an ideal that we are to embody and cherish.
Moreover, we “fall” in love. In what appears to be a near fatalistic conception we fall, as if lacking all control or will. The movies portray strangers across the room whose eyes meet and they fall headlong for a stranger, or circumstances beyond their control force them together in spite of themselves. The movies imply that happiness is found in embracing the one fate brings into your life.
But the problem with both of these is that they are thin. If we can fall in love with someone, then we can certainly fall out of love with them, especially if being “in love” is defined merely as a set of emotional and hormonal responses. Sooner or later the butterflies wear off, and life replaces the fanciful romance of youth.
Settling into the routine of life does not mean that love dies, but rather that actual love may begin. When we remove the preposition “in” and focus on what love requires, we find a more robust picture. Love, biblically speaking, is an act of the will on behalf of the beloved that is accompanied by emotion. The Bible knows nothing of love that does not act for the good of the other. By way of example, “For God so loved the world,” would not make sense without the following assertion, “that He sent His only begotten Son” (John 3:16).
Herein lies the difference between loving someone and being in love with someone. The emotional appeals of Valentines Day are not inherently bad. They are, however, insufficient to sustain a long-lasting relationship. That sustenance must come from a deeper, more robust form of love that is based, not in emotional whims but self-sacrificial acts on behalf of the beloved.
If we are to celebrate love on Valentines Day, let us celebrate the latter because true love doesn’t look like two strangers meeting across a crowded room. Rather, it looks like an elderly man caring for his wife suffering from Alzheimer’s, even when she can’t remember his name.