By Ethan T. Marston
Copyright © 2016 by Ethan T. Marston
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
I’ve read that every time you remember something, you’re really only remembering the details from the last time you remembered it—the specifics can change over time, like some mental game of telephone (Paul, 2012). I guess that means I can’t really trust this memory, as it’s one of my earliest, but I’ll tell you about it anyway.
I had a dream when I was three years old. In it, I reenacted the ballroom dance scene from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast with Suzannah Rotz, a girl my mom babysat every now and then (and therefore the love of my life). I remember the aerial views, the rose-colored lights, the graceful sweeping motions of her dress, and—most of all—an almost tangible sense of romance. Now, over 20 years later, that dream has been reduced to a mere idea—a shadow. I couldn’t tell you how much of that dream was real and how much of it I’ve added throughout my life—I don’t know how it’s been shaped by my experiences and my expectations. I don’t even know for sure if the dream was a response to Beauty and the Beast or if it was something that originated within me.
I used to feel the same way about romantic love.
I feel like I’ve always had a good grasp on what love is, but romantic love? It’s hard to really define it, or know what makes it different from love in general. Everyone seems to have their own opinion, however—all fraught with generalizations, rosy expectations, grandiose gestures, and an overwhelming sort of passion. Most people can’t define romantic love, or even pinpoint its cause or origin, but everyone has their own experience to share. But is that experience really their own, or is it the product of their circumstances? What is romantic love?
Jungian psychotherapist Robert A. Johnson says that Western culture now regards romantic love as it once regarded deity: with spiritual fervor and mystery (1983, p. 55). Because romantic love has become the center of so many peoples’ spirituality, many resist any attempt to explain or rationalize it. Romantic love has become an idealized experience that nobody wants to quantify for fear of losing their “happily ever after.”
Whether or not they dance around a hard definition, we can still catch a glimpse of how individuals in our society define romantic love by looking at their language and behavior surrounding romantic relationships. As Johnson puts it,
In our culture people use the phrase, “romantic love,” indiscriminately to refer to almost any attraction between man and woman. If a couple is having a sexual affair, people will say they are “romantically involved.” If a man and a woman love each other and plan to marry, people will say it is a “romance.”… Or a woman will say, “I wish my husband would be more romantic.” But what she actually means is that her husband should be more attentive, more thoughtful, and show more feeling. … We assume that if it is love, it must be “romance,” and if it is romance, it must be “love.” (1983, p. 43-4).
I think it’s obviously a problem when, as a culture, we use the same term for sexual affairs as for loving, committed relationships—and for behaviors that aren’t even inherently “romantic.” Can we really call these “romantic” thoughts and behaviors “love”—the same word we use for the bond a mother has for her child? Or is romance a category of its own? As a culture, we may want to make a distinction here. If we’re not even sure how to recognize what we’re looking for, finding someone to love becomes an insanely difficult task.
In the spring of 2014 I took on that task as I debated over whether or not I had found the love of my life. I was dating a girl named Allison Tenney (sorry, Suzannah). I knew that I loved her even a month into the relationship, but was I in love with her? Did I feel romantic feelings for her? As the relationship progressed, I always enjoyed being around her, and I could see her as a potential wife, but was I in love with her? Most guys probably could have answered that easier than I could, referring to physical symptoms like butterflies in the stomach, that “warm glowing” feeling, the insane desire to kiss her—whatever. But I just didn’t get that.
I, as a man who is remarkably gay, couldn’t rely on my physiology to make that decision for me.
It seems like most people rely on their senses and their attractions to determine whether or not they’re “in love.” Many scientists familiar with neurochemistry and the inner workings of the brain would agree, arguing that romantic love is a purely physiological experience. Dr. Helen Fisher, a leading expert in the biology of love and attraction, describes romantic love as one of three interrelated motivation systems that drive mammals to mate (the other two are the sex drive and attachment) (2006, p. 89). Romantic love in other mammals is classified as “attraction,” which is characterized by “increased energy, focused attention on a specific mate, obsessive following, affiliative gestures, possessive mate-guarding, and motivation to win a preferred mating partner” (p. 90). In various MRI (brain scan) studies held by Fisher and her colleagues, individuals who reported to be “madly in love” displayed a lot activity in their right ventral tegmental area (a fancy name for “this part of the brain”) when shown images of their beloved (p. 91). This area of the brain is associated with high dopamine production.
Dopamine is sort of like the doggy treat of neurochemicals—the brain releases the hormone to reward good behavior. The brain definitely considers furthering the species (mating) good behavior, so when you see or spend time with a potential mate, you are essentially on drugs. You think I’m kidding? Dopamine activity is “associated with ecstasy, intense energy, sleeplessness, mood swings, emotional dependence, and craving” (Fisher, 2006, p. 92), all of which are experienced in romantic love—and drug addiction.
Though dopamine is the main culprit, people under the influence of romantic love may also experience other neurochemical changes. Increased testosterone, for instance, is associated with feelings of lust in both men and women (Van Goozen, et al., 1997). Increased norepinephrine—a hormone similar to adrenaline—gives symptoms of “a pounding heart, elevated blood pressure, and other physiological responses” (Fisher, 2006, p. 92). In a comparison of an OCD group, a recently in-love group, and a control group, researchers found that both the OCD group and the recently in-love group exhibited decreased serotonin, another hormone which “most likely contributes to the lover’s obsessive thinking and impulsivity” (Marazziti, et al., 1999).
Though this seems like an intense addiction, physiological effects of romantic love seem to be fleeting. In a study by Bartels and Zeki, participants had been “truly, deeply, and madly in love” for over a year longer than the participants in Fisher’s study (2000, p. 3829). Their love also registered as less intense than that of Fisher’s participants, who took the same survey (Fisher, et al., 2005, p. 60). In their own supplementary study, Fisher and her associates discovered that individuals who have been in love longer show love activity in different areas of the brain than their honeymooning counterparts—areas that are associated with attachment behaviors in other mammals (p. 60). So maybe romantic love isn’t the only thing couples can experience. Perhaps romantic love can eventually evolve into something more lasting.
Long story short, romantic love is at least initially supposed to feel like being on drugs, and I wasn’t getting any of that with Allison. Maybe my brain just isn’t “programmed” that way. But is physiology all there is to romantic love? Were my options for an eternal companion based solely on my neurochemistry? I’m a gay man, but I had always dreamed of marrying a woman (literally), and as a member of the LDS (Mormon) Church I believed that only a marriage between a man and woman can last forever. That made it especially frustrating when I felt for other men the sorts of things I wanted to feel for Allison. How could I ever marry Allison when I didn’t feel in love with her? Was “just love,” without the excessive dopamine, enough? Was it even real?
Around the same time that I grappled with those questions, Allison and I became very close friends with a few other men who also experience same-sex attraction. Since we all were LDS, they also believed that marriage could only be between a man and a woman in order to be eternal. Because of this, they had also tried dating girls in the past—though to varying levels of success. I was able to share with them my hopes and my frustrations, and, for the first time in a long time, I felt completely open and authentic. I loved these men deeply, and I loved that fact as much as I was terrified by it.
I soon found myself praying some interesting prayers: Please help me to express my love appropriately. Please bless my relationships to be what you want them to be. I was terrified of falling in love with these amazing men, and in contrast I wanted desperately to fall in love with Allison. I thought that if I fell in love with one of my friends, I would be helpless to that love, and that I would abandon all of the goals and values that I held dear. I was caught up in the mysticism of romantic love—a product of my culture. To me, romantic love was some mysterious force that happened whenever you grew too close to someone, and I had no control in the matter. I thought that if I did fall in love with one of my friends, it would ruin our friendship forever.
Left and right, movies, songs, and books were telling me how I was supposed to love Allison and how I was supposed to love my friends, and I was tired of it. Eventually I learned that, as Wesley Hill put it, “You can’t very well commit yourself to pursuing chaste same-sex friendship as a gay Christian and expect that romantic, erotic feelings won’t, somehow, be involved in the pursuit” (2015, p. 76). Maybe romantic love and general, friendly love weren’t as cut-and-dry as I was trying to make them out to be. Besides, I couldn’t very well be expected to follow Christ’s admonition to “love one another” (John 13:34, King James Version) when I was trying hard not to care “too much” for someone. I decided that I shouldn’t hold back from loving my friends because I was afraid of falling in love with them—I’d deal with that if and when it happened. I was tired of being afraid of the nebulous notion of romantic love. I was going to love as God and I saw fit, not as I was expected to by the culture that surrounded me.
At the top of a roller coaster in early July, I asked Allison to marry me.
She said “yes.”
At first, I thought I was doing something rebellious and new by refusing to pursue romantic love, by following my Disney-themed dream instead of my hormones. I even thought of myself as cool and nonconformist as I spurned the notion of romantic love, thinking that what Allison and I experienced was better. After calming down—and humbling myself a little bit—I decided that the love Allison and I share wasn’t necessarily better, just different. And it definitely wasn’t new or nonconformist. Through my studies, I’ve learned that marrying for reasons other than romantic love is pretty vintage—and I’m not talking exclusively about loveless marriages either. Yes, romantic love has been around for a long time as well, but it was never the top reason to get married like it is now (in Western culture, at least). While I haven’t had nearly as much time to research the topic as many of today’s professional anthropologists, I’ll try to provide a brief—and therefore limited—history of romantic love.
Some of the earliest records of romantic love come, as can be expected, from ancient Greco-Roman sources. Though affairs were common amongst upper class citizens, the lovesickness so associated with romantic love was considered a form of madness, and even fondness between husband and wife was frowned upon (Coontz, 2005, p. 16). As backwards as it may seem, extramarital affairs were even considered the highest form of love in twelfth and thirteenth century aristocracies (p. 16). Marriage, to them, was a political and economic pursuit—love just wasn’t a player. In various cultures, the upper classes usually used marriage to hoard wealth and resources, only marrying when one stood to gain something by it (p. 6).
Marriage in the lower classes was a bit different, but love was seldom the main reason to get married. Consistently, and across cultures, marriage in the lower classes “spoke to the needs of the larger group. It converted strangers into relatives and extended cooperative relations beyond the immediate family or small band by creating far-flung networks of in-laws” (Coontz, 2005, p. 6). Into the Middle Ages, lower class marriage was largely utilitarian. Many lower class people probably considered love in marriage a bonus, but few could afford the luxury of seeking it out. Potential spouses would consider each other’s skills and assets as much as they would consider personality and attractiveness (p. 6). Back then, husband and wife wouldn’t pursue separate careers; they became business partners, and courting resembled a job interview much more than it does today.
Even though romantic love was never necessary for marriage until very recently, so many people in Western culture are convinced that it’s the only way to go. Unfortunately, I know this firsthand. When Allison and I were engaged, we decided to share my unconventional experience of being both gay and Mormon with the rest of the world through the Voices of Hope Project (Marston, 2014). While the vast majority of responses were positive, there were many instances where people we had never met came out of the woodwork to tell us that our love wasn’t real, that our marriage was doomed, and that I needed to “be true to myself.” (Because they, complete strangers, knew me so well that they knew I wasn’t being true to myself.) These people were convinced that a gay man couldn’t possibly love a woman. They told us our marriage, without romantic love, would at best be a dreary middle school shuffle—not the Disney waltz I dreamed of. They regarded romantic love as the most necessary thing for a happy and successful marriage.
Luckily for us, we didn’t give a sizzling sassafras about what they said. While romantic love is great, I certainly wouldn’t call it necessary for a happy marriage. I’m not even mad; I just find it ironic that the people so convinced that Allison and I were ignorant could be so ignorant to the world around them.
There are still some cultures today in which romantic love is definitely not the norm. It’s not just because they haven’t been “enlightened” yet—as my ethnocentric antagonists might assume. Romantic love simply is not the global ideal. Many modern, African lower and middle class communities “consider too much love between husband and wife … disruptive because it encourages the couple to withdraw from the wider web of dependence that makes the society work” (Coontz, 2005, p. 18). Women caught in the throng of romantic love will often deny loving their husbands when asked, since it’s considered inappropriate. So when you get down to it, these marriages may also be loveless—it’s hard to know.
In India, however, this is the formula: “First we marry, then we fall in love” (Coontz, 2005, p. 18). Most marriages in India are still arranged, so there’s no chance for the passionate Western romance culminating in a fairytale wedding. But love still exists in many Eastern marriages—it just isn’t the romantic love we Westerners have put on a pedestal. Johnson, who has a particular fondness for Eastern cultures, explains:
In Eastern cultures, like those of India or Japan, we find that married couples love each other with great warmth, often with a stability and devotion that puts us to shame. But their love is not “romantic love” as we know it. They don’t impose the same ideals on their relationships, nor do they impose such impossible demands and expectations on each other as we do. (1983, p. xi).
Easterners seem to be able to love their spouses and to find fulfillment in their marriages without the nebulous and complicated “romantic love” that we, as Westerners, are used to. When you stop and consider it, romantic love as we know it hasn’t even been the norm in the West for very long, so it’s odd that we’re “used to” it in the first place.
Amid utilitarian marriages, romantic love first became idealized in Western society in the Middle Ages as “courtly love,” to be practiced mainly between knights and ladies of the court (Johnson, 1983, p. xiii). Here is likely where one romantic archetype was first introduced: the pursuing male and the pursued female. This courtly love wasn’t quite romantic love as we know it though; it was characterized by a worshipful and chaste obsession, and often the lady would be married to another man. The knight and lady would treat each other as divine, so they believed that sex, a base and worldly desire, was unfit for their transcendental love experience (p. 46)—something probably no Westerner would agree with today. I’m not sure how much courtly love was actually practiced in the Middle Ages, since it was so impractical, but it was certainly the ideal.
After its courtly phase, romantic love evolved into a sort of poetic love—the type of love that pervaded poetry in the Renaissance. Poetic love is largely characterized by conflict, specifically the conflict the poet feels as he struggles between his earthly, romantic passions and his desire for a higher, more spiritual love experience. As a Christian that believes marriage continues in the Resurrection, I personally cannot identify very well with these Renaissance poets, since I believe there’s something divine about these bodies and the emotions they experience. Much of the rest of Christianity, from what I understand, believes that bodily experiences are inherently baser than spiritual ones—hence the struggle of the Christian Renaissance poets.
Petrarch, a Renaissance poet, gives us a good example of this conflicting, poetic love in his sonnets for Laura.
If my life find strength enough to fight
the grievous battle of each passing day,
that I may meet your gaze, years from today,
lady, when your eyes have lost their light,
and when your golden curls have turned to white,
and vanished are your wreaths and green array,
and when your youthful hue has fled away,
whose beauty makes me tremble in its sight,
perhaps then Love will overcome my fears
enough that I may let my secret rise
and tell you what I’ve suffered all these years;
and if no flame be kindled in your eyes,
at least I may be granted for my tears
the comfort of a few belated sighs. (Shore, 1987, p. 17).
Since, in this sonnet, Petrarch has yet to even admit his secret love to Laura, we can see the remnants of courtly love in his poetic love. He highlights and idealizes her beauty without seeming to know her personally, as was seen in courtly love, but we see poetic love in how he centers mostly on his own struggle. Petrarch talks about his fight, his fears, his suffering, his comfort—but never hers. Laura is kept at a distance—chaste, beautiful, and idealized. Petrarch even calls her a “goddess” in a later sonnet (p. 99), and hopes that she’ll be there to guide him into heaven (p. 101). This is poetic love at its finest.
Still, before the seventeenth century, most Christian writings only used the word “love” to refer to God or neighbor, not spouse (Coontz, 2005, p. 21). Poetic, romantic love still wasn’t the norm for the masses, like it is today—the lower classes didn’t have the luxury of dancing to the beat of romance. However, in the seventeenth century, activities that typically took place in the “extended household,” such as “eating, drinking, toilet, and sleeping,” began to take place “within the much narrower confines of what might be called the ‘marital space’” (Vernon, 2010). Married couples became much more exclusive not only at home, but in the way they displayed affection as well.
The bodily intimacy … which formerly marked the spiritual intimacy of friendship now became more narrowly associated with the realm of husband and wife. Friendship was being pushed out to the margins of public life, and marriage was taking its place as one of the only forms of vowed kinship that society would recognize. (Hill, 2015, p. 39).
This is where we see the beginning of some of today’s stereotypically romantic displays. For example, before this shift, it was considered normal for two close male friends to share a bed, but today such a practice would be labeled romantic and assumed sexual in nature.
In the eighteenth century, Western culture tipped even further when it experienced a radical shift in thinking called the Enlightenment. During the Enlightenment, romantic love “overwhelmed our collective psyche and permanently altered our view of the world” (Johnson, 1983, p. xiii-xiv). Love became the most important part of a marriage, and young people were now free to choose whomever they wanted to marry, when before their marriages were typically arranged by family members (Coontz, 2005, p. 5). Marriage used to be considered far too important to be left to the decision of young people, especially if that decision would be based on something as transitory as romance. Now Western civilization was faced with the challenge of marrying for love, but marrying stably as well. As Coontz puts it, “For the next 150 years, societies struggled to strike the right balance between the goal of finding happiness in marriage and the preservation of limits that would keep people from leaving a marriage that didn’t fulfill their expectations for love” (p. 5). In other words, with the right implementation of romantic love, marriage became a lot happier, but much less stable.
Despite the instability of romantic love, marrying for love certainly had its benefits. After the Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century, marriage for love began to erode social boundaries. Marriage was “increasingly defined as a private agreement with public consequences, rather than as a public institution whose roles and duties were rigidly determined by the family’s place in the social hierarchy” (Coontz, 2005, p. 147). There wasn’t such an impassible line between the social classes anymore. Another benefit was that male dominance in the household was drastically curbed, now that women had more freedom in choosing their husbands. Women’s rights began to develop because marital decisions were now founded on love and reason, not on the husband’s will alone (p. 149).
Then, in the early twentieth century, Western romantic love took on a heavier mantel of exclusivity. Unfortunately, same-sex friendships declined to the shallow levels that are commonly seen today, and romantic partners became a priority higher even than family (Coontz, 2005, p. 207). By the mid-twentieth century, industry had advanced so much in North America and Western Europe that a family could thrive on a single spouse’s income, and the “male breadwinner” archetype was introduced into romantic love. Soon after this, as must naturally follow the right to choose whom to marry, people began to demand the right to divorce (p. 8). Women were winning increasingly more rights, and this “male breadwinner” business just wasn’t cutting it for them. Thus, romantic love simultaneously made Western marriage more fair and fulfilling, as well as more optional and fragile (p. 301).
And that brings us to romantic love as we know it. Our culture’s ideal today is that marriage be based on romantic love, an “intense, profound love,” and that “a couple should maintain their ardor until death do them part” (Coontz, 2005, p. 15). Just like the memory of my Disney dream, romantic love has been reimagined and reformed with every new thinker until becoming what it is today. I do think there are a lot of helpful and fun pieces to today’s version of romance—for example, Allison and I have fun going on dates, giving each other things, and being close—but there are also many unrealistic and harmful expectations in today’s ideal of romantic love. A good example of current cultural expectations surrounding romantic love is seen in Taylor Swift’s hit single, “Wildest Dreams”:
Say you’ll remember me standing in a nice dress,
Staring at the sunset, babe
Red lips and rosy cheeks
Say you’ll see me again
Even if it’s just in your wildest dreams …
You see me in hindsight
Tangled up with you all night
Burning it down
Someday when you leave me
I bet these memories
Follow you around. (Swift, 2014).
Here, Swift doesn’t even pretend that this passionate romance will lead to a committed relationship. Her idea of romantic love is based on the desire to be deified by her lover—she wants him to think of her as an ideal, not a person. She defines romantic love as treating another person as deity, coupled with sexual and passionate encounters. Johnson sums up this harmful perception of romantic love when he says that romance is egotistical, “For romance is not a love that is directed at another human being; the passion of romance is always directed at our own projections, our own expectations, our own fantasies” (1983, p. 193).
I agree that this can be the case—that romantic love can be selfish, obsessed with who we want a person to be instead of focused on who that person actually is. That is the facet of romantic love that ruins relationships, the reason why knights and ladies kept their distance, unwilling to let the other reveal him- or herself as human. This telling of romantic love certainly coincides with the physiological approach as well: that romance is just a neurochemical drug addiction designed to propagate the species.
But this can’t be everything. Where does the dancing come in? The roses? The gifts and acts of kindness? I see those things all the time—I’ve done them myself with Allison! That can’t all just be a ruse to get the other person to idealize you. So what is it?
As it turns out, it’s the real love hiding behind romantic love.
In all of the articles, books, and stories I’ve read while trying to elucidate romantic love, each author distinguishes romantic love from some other form of love. Some simply call this counterpart “love,” others “real love,” “true love,” “Eastern love,” “friendship,” or “charity.” All agree, however, that this other form of love is the selfless counterpart to the selfish romantic love. Johnson says that this love “affirms and values another human being as he or she is” (1983, p. 191). He says that romantic love isn’t really its own separate emotion, but “a complex of attitudes about love—involuntary feelings, ideals, and reactions” (p. 45). Our love biologist, Helen Fisher, agrees with him on this when she says that romantic love is not an emotion, but a drive, like hunger or thirst (2006, p. 93). There is something in romantic love that echoes real love, but romantic love is not itself a form of love. It is a vehicle for love. It is a drive, a shadow.
In Plato’s allegory of the cave, he describes a group of men who were born and raised in the same dank cave, bound so that they could only face the wall. A fire burned behind them, and every so often objects passed in front of the fire, casting their shadows on the wall. To these men, those shadows were reality—not the objects themselves. When one of the men was finally loosed, he was so uncomfortable to discover the true nature of the world that he wanted to return to the familiar shadows of the cave. The people of our culture are so confused about love because they, like the sorry souls in Plato’s cave, are trying to make sense of something by studying its shadow instead of the thing itself.
So what is love—in its truest form?
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Whether or not you agree that he was the Messiah, Jesus Christ was certainly one of the greatest philosophers in the history of the world, and he defines the greatest love within the context of friendship. Why friendship? Christian theologian Paul D. O’Callaghan said,
Giving one’s life for a stranger might be heroic and valiant, but it does not arise from the bosom of love as such would for a friend. There is no “greater love” because no other act of self-giving would carry the same abundance of love. Giving one’s life for a friend embodies the force and dynamism of love in a way that could not be for a stranger or enemy. (2012).
Friendship could also be considered the least binding loving relationship, having no contracts, set duties, or obligations—so dying for your friend is more voluntary than dying for your spouse or child. By this definition, love is characterized by voluntary giving and self-sacrifice within the context of an intimate relationship—a relationship with someone whom you know, understand, and care about. Another word for this greatest love is “charity.”
The apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Corinthians, describes charity in these famous verses:
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4–7).
This charity is the love that Paul encourages the Church to adopt; it is the bond of fellow Christians. “These bonds go deeper and demand more of us … than any others, even than those of family,” writes Paul Griffiths, professor at Duke Divinity School (2006). By practicing charity, we can experience love that goes beyond that of natural, familial ties.
But does this love only apply to friendship? Can it not exist between—for lack of a better term—“romantic” partners?
While many aspects of romantic love are characterized as selfish—especially those that have to do with the neurochemical drive—we can sometimes see charity shining through the vehicle of romantic love. Charity can work through the drive of romance to help us truly love a person, instead of objectifying the person as a means to propagate the species. Other romantic displays that are used to win the favor of the beloved then become heartfelt instead of selfish. Romantic partners can definitely experience this charitable, friendly love, and the romantic drive can even lead them to it. Romantic partners can even be friends, though perhaps in a deeper way than your typical friend. People of our culture aren’t altogether ignorant of this either—I’ve heard many newlyweds describe their spouse as their “best friend.” Whether or not that’s true isn’t as relevant as the fact that they recognize the overlap between friendship and romantic relationships.
Authors like C. S. Lewis wouldn’t like that sort of overlap. In his book, The Four Loves, Lewis attempts to categorize human love, saying it has four different forms: affection, friendship, Eros (romance), and charity (1960). Skipping simple affection, Lewis describes friendship as a chummy, shallow sort of love (p. 85); Eros as selfless romantic love (p. 95); and charity as the love that God inspires us to attain (p. 126). Many scholars disagree with Lewis’s categories, so I know I’m not alone in my surprise at Lewis’s definition of friendship. It directly opposes Christ’s references to friendship, and it mostly just shows us Lewis’s own cultural situation. His definition of friendship speaks “to a specifically English male experience of friendship—taciturn, understated, indirect, shy—which in some other cultural spheres would seem peculiar at best, barely worthy of the name of friendship at worst” (Williams, 2012). As human beings, we tend to want to organize and simplify things, but I don’t think that Lewis did friendship justice.
Don’t get me wrong—I do find some of Lewis’s divisions accurate, I just don’t think his divisions are divisions in love, as he intended. I believe they are divisions in relationships. Once again, I think we’re looking at the shadows produced by love as it dances by an open flame. The shadows move so much because relationships are dynamic. Gay Christian author Wesley Hill gave a good example of this when he stated the following:
Many of us don’t find ‘love’ and ‘friendship’ easily distinguishable, nor—even if we’re straight—are we always able to tell where longings for same-sex closeness and desires for companionship and company begin and end. More often, these realities shade into one another, coloring and texturing our experience of friendship in complex ways. (2015, p. 76–7).
As gay Christians committed to following biblical commandments, Hill and I often find that our sexuality can blend into our friendships in interesting ways. My close, same-sex friendships don’t always fit into one of the neat little boxes Lewis tried to build, and neither do many other types of relationships.
That is yet another reason why I don’t think there are many types of love, but one type of love with many vehicles. My friend, Ty Mansfield, BYU religion professor and author of In Quiet Desperation, strongly believes that “charity is the only kind of love, but there are many ways in which love can be expressed.” I agree with him completely. He continued, saying that “the goal is to transcend the limiting expressions of temporal love and to cultivate godly love, or charity” (personal communication, September 29, 2015). To me, this means that we must use earthly vehicles—be they romantic, friendly, or familial—to practice charity.
I believe the reason charity, a strong expression of love, is so often confused with romantic love is that romance is the easiest vehicle in which we can practice charity. There’s such a drive to cultivate romantic relationships that we usually learn charity while trying to care for the person we’re obsessing over. Charity can be applied to so many other types of relationships though, so it doesn’t have to be learned within the romantic vehicle. I consider myself an example, since I still practice charity with Allison, even though I don’t have the neurochemical drive that supports the romantic vehicle most couples use. I can also express many of the selfless behaviors that are typically ascribed to the romantic vehicle with Allison, so these may have more to do with charity than romance itself.
To quote psychoanalyst Robert A. Johnson one last time, “We analyze romantic love, not to destroy it, but to understand what it is and where it belongs in our lives” (1983, p. 49). I believe it is charity, and not romantic love, that should take the lead when two people are considering marriage. Romantic love is a vehicle—a drive and a set of behaviors. It is not the state of being that is charity. If a relationship were to be based on so transient an experience as romantic love, without charity to guide it, it would be doomed. Neurochemicals and cultural expectations are not enough by themselves to sustain a relationship. There is a place for romantic love, and it can be a thrilling experience, but it is charity, and not romantic love, that “never faileth” (1 Corinthians 13:8).
On the evening of December 20, 2014, I took Allison by the hand and stepped out onto the hardwood floor, surrounded by the cobalt and pink hues of our wedding reception, ready for our first dance as husband and wife—a waltz. We rose and fell with the flowing melody, cheered on by our family, friends—and our gay entourage. It wasn’t quite as graceful as my old dream, and romance didn’t seep from the floorboards, but something even better happened.
Each and every person in that room filled me with an inexplicable and permeating sense of love.
About the Author
Ethan T. Marston was born in Utah and raised in Illinois. He then returned to Utah to study writing and nutritional science at BYU. While there, he became very involved in the LDS LGBT+ community, he emerged from the depths of the closet, and he met his wife, Allie. He and Allie are expecting their first child soon (a girl) in April 2016. Ethan enjoys nature, social activities, fluffy animals, and writing fiction. You can find more of his literary works at .
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In today’s world we are constantly being told what love is, who we should give it to, and how we should give it. We are bombarded with so many opinions that our concept of love becomes more muddled than it was to begin with. Where did all of these opinions come from? What is real love? In this essai, author Ethan T. Marston—a gay Mormon—explores these questions as he looks at romantic love through the lenses of neurochemistry, anthropology, Christian theology, and his own experience.