Question: “Do you really believe ‘love is a decision?’ Doesn’t everyone have a different definition of what love is? Some parent could be spanking their children with a belt claiming that they love them. Or giving them drugs ‘because I love you…’. It’s hard to wrap my head around. My heart says something totally different. I just wanted to get your thoughts and words of wisdom.” — C. (3 separations in 27 years)

Brenda: Yes, both my husband and I (I discussed with him) truly believe love is a decision.
Love can be a feeling, such as the romanticized “falling in love,” which science says will eventually be followed by “falling out of love.” However, within the sacrament / covenant / commitment to marriage, we go beyond feelings to pledge ourselves — in our vows — to be with this person. That means, we put our vows to action through words, choices, decisions, behavior, actions, etc. — in spite of our feelings or emotions at the time — to decide to love and act accordingly.

Many of us already embrace that “love is a decision” — that is, in some situations we will decide to love, thus choosing to act in love in spite of emotions within us in a particular moment. This is often the case when we choose to love our parents, our siblings, our children or grand-kids, and a close friend. While we may do this effectively and without thought when it comes to others, we may struggle in doing so with our spouse, a parent, or family members.

Take for example, this “love is a decision” scenario. A child’s behavior may be getting on your last nerve; however, you still love them, care for them, address their needs, and do all you can to help the child feel your love, so the child is “feeling loved” by you. Even if I’ve been hurt by a child’s words or actions, the goal is to avoid lashing out at the child in my hurt, anger, or shock at such language or behaviors and, instead, I decide to love.

  • I decide to love by remaining calm, brushing off the comments, or taking other action. While I know I may continue to be on the receiving end of negative or hurtful words and actions at any point in the future, I want to honor and “love” this person in my actions and word choices.
  • I also want to give this person the benefit of the doubt. Even though I may feel hurt or anger, perhaps that wasn’t the person’s intent (and I’m sure I’ve unintentionally hurt, angered, or offended this person, too). Of course, if I get overwhelmed, then I will kindly ask the person to stop, change the subject, etc.
  • I can also remove myself from the situation if I feel myself getting overwhelmed by unpleasant, negative feelings because I do not want to do or say something I will regret.

Remember, we can’t change others; we can only change ourselves — that is, our reactions to others, what choices we make, words we say, actions we take, or behaviors we engage in — in response to what others may say or do. We can also “work on ourselves” by diving deeper into our interior self to explore our own feelings and emotions; combat our own negative self-talk; observe what situations or settings trigger us; and explore the childhood baggage, family-of-origin issues, unrealistic or unrecognized or unexpressed expectations that will likely fuel or trip these triggers, and so on.

The emotional state of “being in love” or “feeling in love” is very different from “feeling loved.”

  • The “being” and “feeling” is internal; that is, an emotion, a state of euphoria, a time when we often can’t stop thinking about the other person.
  • Feeling loved” is external; it’s affected by how people interact with us, the frequency and type of interaction, and whether it meets our emotional-intimacy, communication-style, or love-language needs.
  • Specific to romantic relationships, research shows that when someone “falls in love,” on average it lasts about 22-24 months, regardless of who someone is with — it’s a biological fact.
  • Therefore, if a person hasn’t learned “how to love” — that is, to take action in effectively using the partner’s “love language” — before the feeling of being “in love” ends, then there will likely be a disconnect.

Love is an action; however, we can also fall in love any number of times. In a committed relationship, we can generate the feelings of “falling in love” and “being in love” over and over again. One of the easiest ways is use fun to build intimacy for a deeper connection, which can trigger “falling” and “feeling” in love.

In terms of “love as a decision,” let’s look at your comment that, “Some parent could be spanking their children with a belt claiming that they love them. Or giving them drugs ‘because I love you…’. It’s hard to wrap my head around.”
To your point, two criteria are helpful in evaluating the action or words of the parent (or adult, spouse, partner, guardian, care-taker, etc.). These two things, at minimum, are helpful to consider if this is truly motivated by love — or if we are just telling ourselves that is the case, such as to rationalize, justify, diminish, or let ourselves off the hook for behaving this way.

  • One is to apply the standard of our motivation behind an action, words, or decision that is “wanting and seeking the good of the other.” In some cases, people THINK they are “wanting and seeking the good of the other”; however, the REALITY may be “I’m trying to bend you to MY will of what I personally PERCEIVE is best,” which is more about the person who is doing such things. The definition of “love is a decision” is correct; however, in your example, the parent’s words, actions, behaviors chosen are not.
    Thus, there is a second thing to consider.
  • The other is this: Regardless of how a parent may rationalize or make excuses for these types of behaviors, it must be viewed from the child’s perspective — or whoever else may be on the receiving end. In situations such as your examples, a child on the receiving end would likely NOT “feel loved.” Unfortunately, in this world some unfortunate exceptions exist, such as someone so desperately craving attention that some negative attention may be less painful than no attention at all.

Individuals in such situations may not be self-aware or may not recognize what’s going on. They may be on automatic pilot in repeating the harmful, dysfunctional, manipulative, destructive, and abusive words/choices they were exposed to in their family of origin or experienced themselves as a child. Such beliefs and behaviors may also be expectations instilled in them during their formative years or learned (consciously or not) through the media, popular culture, environmental factors, and so on.

For me, embracing the concept that “love is a decision” is possible thanks to a definition, standards, AND role model who demonstrates positive examples of applying “love is a decision” in daily life. The person whose standard I look to as a role model is Mother Teresa (that’s why posts some of her quotations).

Some people find it helpful to apply “the golden rule,” a professional code of conduct (e.g., first do no harm), an ethically driven or a faith-based perspective, or another standard, code, or philosophy outside of themselves to elevate their choices or keep them accountable.

Many individuals, couples, and families use the teachings of a particular book, religion, prophet, or visionary leader. For example, people may look to Jesus or Muhammad; reference the Torah, Bible verses and stories, the “7 Habits of” series; follow the “10 commandments” or “8 beatitudes”; apply the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Dalai Lama, Maya Angelou, Martin Luther King Jr., or Oprah Winfrey.

Committed couples may meet regularly with a mentor couple who has the type of relationship to which they aspire; this is often an experienced married couple who will constructively and kindly share their challenges, failures, successes, and joy in loving their spouse. Other people benefit from the wisdom of a family elder, 12-step program sponsor, parenting or family-life coach, or spiritual director who can guide them in their journey of practicing “love as a decision.”

Note: Abuse of any kind should not be tolerated; if you are experiencing abuse or are in an abusive relationship, immediately seek professional help.

Updated September 28, 2020; added statistics regarding how long “feeling in love” typically lasts.

Brenda Dow, Marriage Educator and Relationship Coach |