Is it Love?

It’s pretty obvious to anyone with a pulse over the age of 12 that there is a major difference between infatuation and love. The words, “I love you” though, seem to still get thrown around in a lot of different ways, especially in the movies with relationships developing in less than two hours. The phrase there doesn’t carry the same weight as the couple that says it to each other after 50 years of marriage. Although it is wrong to think of infatuation as love, it is also wrong to act as though infatuation doesn’t matter.

Infatuation is a reality, and a necessary one. John Paul II used the term, “sexual urge” to describe much of what our idea of infatuation entails. He said the sexual urge is God-given, therefore good and necessary. He wrote that the sexual urge provides the catalyst for real love to develop. It is not the same thing as lust, which is a misuse of the sexual urge.

In Love and Responsibility, John Paul II unpacked the meaning of the sexual urge and what it means for men and women. He was ingenious in his approach to explaining what it is that we feel, what we are made for, and what will satisfy the deepest longing of our hearts. With surgical precision he offers an analysis of love from psychological, metaphysical, and ethical considerations.

In one section, entitled, “Love as attraction,” he explains something interesting about the qualities of another person that we are attracted to. JPII writes, “The kind of good to which any given man or woman is capable of reacting to a special degree depends partly on congenital and hereditary factors, partly on characteristics acquired either under extraneous influences or as a result of conscious effort on the part of the particular person, of work by the person on himself or herself. This is what gives a person’s emotional life the specific complexion, which shows itself in particular emotional-affective reactions, and is of great importance in determining what will attract that person. It largely determines to whom a given person is attracted, what in that particular person exercises a particular attraction.

John Paul II wasn’t exactly the easiest author to understand, so his meaning might not jump right off the page. I’d like to try to unpack this a little. There are a few really striking concepts that are proposed here. First, infatuation is more the result of the one infatuated than the object of the infatuation. It may seem as though the attractive man or woman is “doing” something by being attractive, but in reality, the one attracted is the one doing something. He or she is “being attracted.” Certain qualities might be attractive about another person, but that’s mostly because there is a disposition to be attracted to those particular qualities. An example is how I really love the way my wife’s sense of humor can make me laugh in almost any situation no matter how much tension there might be. Someone else might not be attracted to this particular quality to the same degree (though something would clearly be wrong with him.)  There is something in me that is disposed to being attracted to this particular quality in this way.

Why are we attracted to the specific qualities we are attracted to? JPII says that it’s because of the genetics we are born with, the way we are raised, and many other possible influences. The underlying implication here is that, wherever they come from, our attractions can, and will, change! As we develop, we will be attracted to different qualities.

This concept has a few consequences. For those of us that get married, we need to know that we will not always be attracted to our spouse in the same way. This is where the sexual urge leads to real love. Real love is a choice, which often necessitates the choice to suffer. Love means choosing to stay faithful to one’s vows even after the attraction has morphed into something else. Couples who are together for many years can look back and see the ebb and flow of attraction that occurs over time. When there’s more of an ebb, and less of a flow, it might be difficult to still treat our spouses the same way we did when infatuation was running high. It might even be painful.  But these couples will also say that because of the ebb and flow (and not despite it), their love deepened.

A second consequence of this truth is that there may be good reason to delay dating. If some of our attractions are based on deep wounds, and we set out to heal those wounds, we need to know that those original attractions would no longer be present in the same way once the wounds are healed. An example here might help to clarify. The wounded daughter of an alcoholic can walk into a room and pick out the one guy out of twenty who is also an alcoholic. His alcoholism doesn’t even have to be obvious at the moment she sees him, but some hidden unhealed force attracts her to him. If that same woman experienced healing from the wounds left by her alcoholic father, she wouldn’t be attracted to the same guy in the room. Now imagine if she had married the alcoholic before she was healed, and then experienced healing later in life.  What would happen to her attraction and feelings toward her husband?  Children of alcoholics aren’t the only ones with these wounds. Sexual trauma, abuse, neglect, and even miseducation can influence the qualities we are attracted to in others.

It would make sense, then, to hold off on dating if you know there is a deep wound that needs to be healed. Unfortunately there is no standard way of figuring out how much a person is really going to change, but this is an important area where a psychologist can offer a lot of help to discern individual situations. It’s also true that we will be changing for the rest of our lives, developing as we mature, hopefully in the direction of healing and wholeness. Therefore it is not the need for healing itself that should stop a person from acting on their attractions and pursuing a dating relationship, because we are bound to experience changes in attraction no matter how long we wait to meet our spouse. JPII is simply stating (in a not-so-simple way) that attractions are built on parts of the person that can change. However, if there is a significant amount of healing that is needed, especially in areas that may affect the way one is attracted to another, it would be wise to work on those areas first before looking for a husband or wife.

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