In the heady world of male-female relationships, how can one know the difference between love and infatuation?
“But I love him!”
Those four words (along with “But I love her!” for the guys) have probably served as the justification for more life-altering decisions than can be counted. But have we stopped to ask ourselves what those words really mean?
“What,” in the immortal words of Alexander Nestor Haddaway’s 1993 hit song, “is love?”
A tragic misunderstanding
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has often been hailed as the greatest love story ever told. Two young lovers, in their desire to be with one another against the wishes of their feuding families, ultimately take their own lives, each unwilling to endure the cold, hopeless wasteland of a life without the other.
And it’s all very touching and sentimental until you take a second look and realize that the whole story unfolds over the span of a whopping four days.Did the two teenaged “star-cross’d lovers” really have a chance to get to know each other? They marry the day after they meet, and two days later they are willing to kill themselves over the loss of a person who, to their knowledge, didn’t exist just five days before.
It’s hard to disagree that Shakespeare’s lines about love are beautiful: “With love’s light wings did I o’er-perch these walls; for stony limits cannot hold love out,” for example. But it’s even harder to argue that his leading characters ever understood what these statements really meant.
We should consider that the approach Romeo and Juliet took toward “love” in Shakespeare’s play bears a striking resemblance to the approach many take today, if slightly exaggerated.
The Bible’s love chapter
The apostle Paul, under inspiration from God, wrote a passage in a letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth that has come to be known as the “love chapter.” It provides an explanation of what true, godly love is at its core. Among other things, we are told: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud…Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance” (1 Corinthians 13:4, 7, New Living Translation).
Does that sound like what Romeo and Juliet had? Was Romeo really thinking about what was best for Juliet when he decided to secretly marry the 13-year-old? By the biblical definition, what they felt wasn’t love. It was something else.
How many real-life examples of the same thing have you seen? The words “I love you” are tossed around like a crumpled piece of paper and carry about the same weight for most people. All the expressions of love are there, but so many throw in the towel in a relationship when things stop going the way they want.
That’s not love.
Love “does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil … Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:5, 8).
So it seems that what most people are calling love isn’t love. Just what is it then?
The simple truth of the matter is that our modern world has confused love with infatuation. Think about it: Almost every time we hear love referenced in popular culture, it’s something people fall into. Unexpectedly. Accidentally. All of a sudden your heart is aflutter and you feel an intense attraction to another person. That pounding in your chest sounds like “love at first sight” rather than “raging hormones.”
But the Bible makes it clear that godly love is a conscious choice one makes—an action, not an accident.
Jack Scruggs, a mental health therapist in the United Church of God with degrees from both the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, declares the dividing line between love and infatuation as simple as one word— feelings.
“Infatuation offers the possibilities of feeling good when affections are returned in kind, feeling bad when those affections are spurned,” Scruggs says. “Infatuation is mostly concerned with feelings.”
So what does this mean about love versus infatuation? Scruggs continues: “The direction of infatuation is inward. The direction of love is outward. Infatuation is most often temporary and depends on reciprocation to survive. Love stands alone, depending on nothing for its survival. Love is an imitation of God, while infatuation is a recognition of our attraction for the opposite sex. Love is a way of life.”
Time and place
Infatuation is, as Scruggs notes, a “natural attraction for a young person to feel for a member of the opposite sex.” In other words, it’ll happen whether you want it to or not.
The tough part we face, as Christians, is knowing what to do with that attraction. Experience has likely already taught each of us that such a feeling can easily blind us to reality, keeping us from seeing another person as he or she actually is and causing us to miss important warning signs.
It takes wisdom to be able to acknowledge an attraction to another person while at the same time keeping that attraction in check. (That’s another article for another time.) While there’s nothing wrong with being attracted to someone, we must be sure to handle that attraction responsibly, without giving in to its foolish desires or recklessness.
After we’ve taken the time to get to know the other person, to understand his or her values, personality and character as objectively as possible, to seek and consider God’s guidance as well as input from trusted friends and family members, and after we’ve come before God to commit ourselves to that person for the rest of our days, then comes the time to get swept up in mutual attraction.
The book of Proverbs contains these happy instructions for the married man: “Rejoice with the wife of your youth, … and always be enraptured with her love” (Proverbs 5:18-19). It’s worth noting that the Hebrew word translated “enraptured” can literally mean “intoxicated” as well. A husband and wife are then finally able to let their guards down completely, each always enraptured with the love of the other.
A time for love?
While being enraptured has a proper time and place within marriage, the Bible is clear that another type of love—that directed toward others—is to be timeless and without boundary. So important is true, godly love that Jesus Christ Himself emphasized it as the defining characteristic of Christians everywhere: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Our love—our outgoing concern for others—should be such a part of us that it defines us in the eyes of those around us. Love is not to be directed at just one individual or a select few, but the entire world.
What, then, is the real difference between love and infatuation? Infatuation is about pleasing the self. But love—love is all about becoming like God!