Love and Valentine’s Day

Since it’s Valentine’s Day I think it’s a good time to talk about some of the positive things I was taught about love. Stripping down the layers of indoctrination (not all of it bad, mind you) to discover how I want to think (because it’s the how–the thought process–not the thoughts that will define the way I live my life), has led me to view love and relationships differently. My parents taught me how to love by loving me. So did my siblings, my friends, and most recently, my boyfriend David, who has been a pillar of support for the last four and a half years. The way these individuals have taught me to love will probably stay with me the rest of my life. Aspects of what I believe about love have altered over time, but throughout my skeptical journey I’ve realized that the way I think about love has remained essentially the same. I still approach love and relationships now as I did when I was an adolescent: with a desire for enrichment and simplicity.

Early 20th century Valentine's Day card, showi...

Early 20th century Valentine’s Day card, ca. 1910 with no notice of copyright. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was a teenager, my parents–like many American parents–addressed sex and dating very awkwardly. When I turned thirteen, however, they did something very positive for my sexual education. They bought me a book called Don’t Take Love Lying Down, by Brad Henning (known in my group of friends as ‘the sex guy’). Henning has committed the last thirty-plus years of his life to encouraging teens to abstain from premarital sex, but he’s not the average abstinence preacher. While Henning is a Christian speaker, he doesn’t paint all teen sex as an unfortunate part of dysfunctional adolescent development. Instead, he recommends that teens regard sex as an essential element of a marriage relationship, which he defines (via Dr. Norm Wright) as “the total commitment of the total person for total life.”

Note that there is nothing about ceremony in this definition. I’ve written before about why I don’t believe in the concept of premarital sex. Henning’s definition of marriage, however, isn’t the simplistic legal(istic) definition of many religious groups, but captures the essence of the marital relationship: commitment. Whether or not sex belongs exclusively within the context of a marital commitment is a separate conversation that can begin from this point.

For me, sex–an act of physical intimacy–best compliments a committed relationship–which involves continual acts of emotional intimacy. Having multiple sexual partners in ones life does not necessarily ruin the potential for healthy love and romance, but it does make it more complicated. Having a single sexual partner and life partner makes my life simpler.

Henning’s work is about a lot more than sex, however. It was Henning’s definition of love that formed the foundation of my own personal love theory. He defines love as ‘choosing the highest good for the other person.’ According to Henning, love is not a noun, but a verb; not a feeling, but an action; not a state, but a choice. I couldn’t agree more, and I’ve added to my understanding of this principle over time. To me, the highest good does not always involve supporting a person’s actions if I genuinely believe their actions are harmful. But it does mean respecting their agency, and their right to do whatever they want to do, so long as it does not violate the agency of another human being. Choosing the highest good for the other person means helping them to be the best version of themselves. This may include encouraging them to keep promises I don’t like, or uphold a moral code I have not chosen for myself, because I value their own moral integrity above my wishes for their life. And of course, choosing the highest good for another means being the best person I can be for them: a person with self-respect, integrity, and a willingness to grow.

I could share my thoughts on love for the length of a book, but at the heart of the issue (see what I did there?) is the notion that love is active, not passive, and somewhat within my control. I can do my part to keep a relationship in a healthy state (note that I didn’t say ‘together’), and I can be loving even if I don’t feel as though I am ‘in love.’

My parents also taught me to be an empowered woman. Growing up surrounded by Christians in a college town had a profound effect on my perception of what a woman should be. On one hand, there were the mixed messages of chauvinistic biblical exegesis. On the other hand, I was surrounded by female professors, doctors, and other professionals who spoke their mind and pursued their goals. In my love life this has led me to pursue what I want from my relationships. I’ve never been the ‘wait for prince charming’ type. And while I appreciate the chase (I swore off asking guys out as a junior in high school, deciding I wanted to be chosen for once), I also think that its completely appropriate for a woman to make her feelings and desires plain. We only get what we want in this world by going after it.

This extends to serious dating relationships. If I want David to do something for me, to help me understand something, or to take a course of action I prefer, I ask. My love life became simpler and simpler as I learned to break through the cultural barriers and ingrained doctrines of feminine behavior that taught me to expect telepathy from my mortal man.

There is lots of shoddy love doctrine in the world, most of it enshrined in dogma of some kind. But there is also a lot of good information. My love life is one area that has been, for the most part, stable and healthy. I thank my partner, my family, and my upbringing for that.

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