It is time to change the meaning of the word “love.”
The word is mostly used according to the first definition given in the dictionary: “an intense feeling of deep affection.” In other words, love is what one feels.
After years spent speaking with couples before, during and after marriage; and of talking to parents and children struggling with their relationships, I am convinced of the partiality of the definition. Love should be seen not as a feeling but as an enacted emotion. To love is to feel and act lovingly.
Too many women have told me, bruises visible on their faces, that the husbands who struck them love them. Since they see love as a feeling, the word hides the truth, which is that you do not love someone whom you repeatedly beat and abuse. You may have very strong feelings about them, you may even believe you cannot live without them, but you do not love them.
The first love mentioned in the Bible is not romantic love, but parental love (Genesis 22). When a child is born, the parent’s reaction to this person, who so recently did not exist, is to feel that “I would do anything for her.” In the doing is the love—the feeling is enacted. That is why we often hear the phrase “you don’t act like you love me.” We know in our bones that love is not a feeling alone, but a feeling that flows into the world in action.
Between human beings, love is a relational word. Yes, you can love things that do not love you back—the sky or a mountain or a painting or the game of chess. But the love of other people is directional. There is a lover and a beloved—you don’t just love, but you love at someone. And real love is not only about the feelings of the lover; it is not egotism. It is when one person believes in another person and shows it.
In Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye asks Golde whether she loves him after a quarter century of marriage, her wry answer is exactly on point:
Of course it is possible to perform all sorts of duties for someone and feel little or nothing for them. Love is not about being hired help. Love is not an obligation done with a cold soul. But neither is it a passion that expresses itself in cruelty, or one that does not express itself at all. The feeling must be wedded to the deed.
We would have a healthier conception of love if we understood that love, like parenting or friendship, is a feeling that expresses itself in action. What we really feel is reflected in what we do. The poet’s song is dazzling and the passion powerful, but the deepest beauty of love is how it changes lives.