We spent almost all of our first year together apart. This South African girl was stateside at college and her Midwest all-American guy was in Europe learning the ways of books older than either of us and cultures more ancient than the books.
I made a strange discovery in the midst of my missing him.
What I had felt at midnight under a cherry blossom tree on the capital mall; what I had felt walking home in a DC rain storm, sweating from the humidity, hand-in-hand; what I had felt over candles and chocolate mousse on board a Potomac river night; what I had felt when he first whispered the three most electrifying words in the English language – I love you – I couldn’t seem to access anymore.
Airmail arrived slowly; phone calls were few and far between, memories faded faster than the photographs I had. And it scared me. I knew I wanted to marry this boy with the green eyes and baseball-mitt-sized hands, but I didn’t feel it in the goose bump inducing way I used to on our first fourth of July.
So I called the man who had known me the longest. I called my dad.
I shared with him, half embarrassed, my discovery that what I knew and what I felt didn’t quite match up anymore. “Dad, I know I love Pete, and that I’m going to marry him. But I just don’t feel like I love him, you know? With him gone so long I can’t find the feeling anymore.”
I could hear my dad’s smile echoing through his words from all the way across the Atlantic, “Oh my darling, that’s because you’re confused. Love is not a feeling; it’s a choice.” And with those eight words he permanently changed the course of my and Pete’s future.
Over the next decade we would come to learn what he meant. How the feeling of love ebbs and flows, but the choice is what keeps a marriage in tact. How the romantic feeling is nice, but you need the discipline of the choice when faced with frustration, despair, and homesickness. With one of us always being away from family, home, culture and familiarity the choice became our anchor.
I loved Pete because I chose to and I chose to because I loved him. And walking in that truth I bumped smack into what Christ had been saying all along. Love is an action and a choice, often way before it is a feeling.
Love your enemy. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love one another as Christ loved us. Love protects, trusts, hopes, perseveres. Loves prays for those we may not like and who certainly don’t like us. Love chooses to go the extra mile.
Marriage is not for the feint of heart. Cross cultural marriage where one partner experiences the loss of identity in ways that run deeper than just a change of name, can be especially hard. There are a hundred every day ways that can chafe the feeling of love. Not being able to buy the toothpaste, make up, bread, clothes, or books in your own language that you are used to. Missing milestone moments or the chance for passing conversations after Sunday afternoon tea.
Knowing that your marriage is not dependent on your feelings is the only cement that will keep it together over the long haul.
And when a relationship is built on that kind of choice the feeling becomes a no brainer. It trickles down the spine from the head and spreads good old fashioned goose bumps wherever it goes. And we now see that as the reward of a choice hard won.
A postscript: I wouldn’t apply this kind of choice unless it was in the context of a loving marriage. Where abuse or other broken elements are present, very different choices would likely be necessary.