Marriage is seen as two individuals becoming one. Two individuals take their separate lives and merge them into a singular life, forsaking all others. With that said, is the institution of marriage on the brink of extinction? It may not be there quite yet, but the results of a new survey indicate that the popularity […]
When I was in college, I was in a creative writing class and one of our friends, Victoria, shared a story about an abusive relationship. In the story—about a husband and wife—the wife gets in her car and heads toward the highway. Her husband drives up alongside her, cursing and shouting, running her off the road, then leaping from his car to scream, “Why aren’t you wearing a seat belt? How dare you! That’s not safe.”
Victoria seemed surprised and upset when we said it was a chilling portrayal of abuse. Because it was based on her experience with her own husband. “But he really loves me,” she kept saying. And we—kids in our late teens—kept telling her, “Victoria, that’s not love.” Not that it was never love. Not that there couldn’t be love elsewhere. But she was describing something else. Something toxic where love used to be.
We see Scripture doing the same thing, telling us not only what love is, but also what it isn’t. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul tells us several times, “That’s not love.” It has been a good reminder to me when looking at my own relationships. Here are four signs in a relationship that show what love is not.
1.Love Is Not Easily Angered
About five years after our time in the creative writing class, Victoria invited me to her house to catch up. We hadn’t ever been close friends but had kept loosely in touch. I was sitting on her couch, and she was sitting in the armchair diagonal from me. We were just chatting about life. I was married now too. She had been working at a local grade school.
Victoria was so jumpy. Every time her kids made a noise, I thought she would drop her tea, and she kept looking at the front door with an expression I could only describe as fearful. I asked her, as gently as I could, “Victoria. Does your husband know that I’m visiting today?”
She assured me that he did. So I asked her, “Why are you so nervous?”
“It’s just that he might come home. Leave work without telling me. Try to surprise me.”
“And . . . why would that be bad?”
“I’ll be doing something wrong. He’ll say I’m doing something wrong.”
“This isn’t normal,” I told her. “Something is wrong, but it’s not you.”
“You don’t understand,” she said. “He loves me so much.”
But he didn’t. He did not love her. May not have ever loved her. He was an abuser, and what he enjoyed was the power and control he had over Victoria. I didn’t say that to her. Instead, I quoted Paul. “Love . . . is not easily angered.” That’s not love.
He did come home. For just a handful of minutes. Long enough to tell her, “You didn’t tell me Matt was coming over” and “We can talk about this later.” She and I both took that to be a threat. He yelled at the kids that they were being too loud. Then he left. He had somehow known exactly when I would be there, though. He hadn’t seemed a bit surprised.
This is an extreme example because it’s not just a moment of anger—it’s a relationship built around abuse by a manipulative person. And if that’s where you are, please know: That’s not love. You deserve better. You can get out and be safe, and there are so many resources available to help you when you’re ready.
But even on a smaller scale, anger chokes love out. How can you be patient or gentle or kind or forgiving when you are always angry at the person you supposedly love?
We can be angry for a time, certainly. And some of us—like me—have a harder time dealing with anger than others. But we have to learn to control it, to tame it, to deal with it. And yes, we can direct anger in constructive ways: to protect those we love, to bring justice, to defend the defenseless.
But anger is not, and never has been, an attribute of love.
2. Love Is Not Jealous
Jealousy is about what I want. Love is about what’s best for you.
When we get down to it, all jealousy has the same core insecurity. It’s centered on ourselves, our needs, and our desires. We look at others who get good things and ask, Why them? What’s so great about them? What did I do wrong? What’s so terrible about me?
When my friend gets a big promotion at work and I feel jealous, it’s not because of my love for him. It’s because I wish I were the one who got the promotion. He has it, and I want it. There’s no room for love there because I am focused on my needs, my desires, my wants. And my jealous mind says to me, Since he has it, you can’t have it. I don’t think, Oh, I should look for a similar job somewhere else. I am much more likely to start comparing myself to him in unfavorable ways. But he is late all the time, and I’m punctual.
Jealousy is about scarcity. Love is about abundance. When someone we love has something good come into their life, we celebrate. We work hard to center their well-being, not our own. Awards or praise, raises or promotions, new children or new opportunities. We can mourn our lack of those same things, but that’s separate. We would never try to change places with them because we love them. We are so glad that they have this wonderful thing in their life.
Love is not jealous.
3. Love Is Not Selfish
When our family friend Shasta was going through chemo, I’d often go to her condo and pick her up for her treatments. Once the treatments had been going for a while, she’d feel pretty sick afterward, so I’d bring her home, help her get settled, and make sure she had some ready-made food to eat if she was up for it.
She often went without a meal on those days because she was either too weak or too nauseous to eat. I would often skip eating, too, because I didn’t want to leave her while she was getting her treatment. And, because a lot of people in the treatment room were sensitive to smell, I didn’t want to bring my lunch into the hospital.
More than once, we’d get back to her place and she’d tell me to go look in the microwave (she used her microwave as a cabinet because she didn’t like heating things in it), and it would be full of my favorite snacks: tortilla chips, white-chocolate-chip cookies, dates, macadamia nuts. At this point, I was often doing her grocery shopping, too, which meant she had made a special trip out to get these things for me.
It was a really sweet, loving thing.
If I had been focused only on myself . . . well, for one, I wouldn’t have been at that chemo treatment. I wouldn’t have skipped a meal that day. The more focused we get on our own needs, the more they loom up as the only thing we can think about or reflect on. We start to notice which of our needs are unmet. We insist that what I need is more important than what you need. It’s “my way or the highway.” We get to a place where we insist that if my needs can’t be put at the center, then we should break our relationship.
But if I had focused only on myself . . . I would have missed out on Shasta’s kindness. Being self-focused doesn’t just prevent us from giving love—it prevents us from receiving it.
When we focus on others’ needs, we leave space for people we love to think about our needs. By thinking about the needs of others and leaving some of my own unmet, I opened up a place for Shasta to show her care for me.
At one point during Shasta’s treatment, she didn’t have the financial resources to keep going, and she was pretty stressed about it. Her friends got together and did a fundraiser, and many, many people—some who didn’t even know her—donated.
All those people, family and friends, and strangers decided that instead of using that money on themselves, they would use it for her. They saw her need, and they wanted to meet it, and the impact multiplied beyond even her immediate community. That’s a fascinating thing about love—it keeps creating more space for itself. It spreads and grows.
Love is not selfish. Love gives, and grows, and receives . . . and gives again.
4. Love Doesn’t Shame or Dishonor
Once, when we traveled to Costa Rica with friends, my wife Krista’s backpack was stolen. She was with her friend at a local café, they closed their eyes to pray together for a moment, and the thief snuck in and snatched the backpack. Krista came and found me—I was with her friend’s husband—and told me what happened, and I asked her, “Are you okay?”
She was fine, just upset about her bag. We went back and looked around in the neighborhood, thinking maybe someone would have abandoned the bag after taking everything inside, but they hadn’t. It was gone.
The friend’s husband pulled me aside later. “Shouldn’t you have yelled at Krista a little? Or made her feel bad for what happened?”
Well, no. She already felt bad, for one. I asked him more about what was behind his question, and he told me that in his family growing up if you messed up, everyone would make sure you knew you had messed up. It would be pointed out, explained, dissected, publicly displayed, and discussed at length. By the end, he said, you would feel so stupid that you knew you could never mess up like that again.
I told him I understood why he had the perspective he did, and we laid out the situation again. Could Krista control that someone else had taken her backpack? Had she done anything wrong? Was she more important than anything that was lost in that moment?
Of course, he said, I was right. He told me he needed to think about this because his default in these moments had been built by his family, and he wanted to change it.
We could have gone a step further. What if it had been Krista’s fault in some way? What if she had not been paying attention and had gotten in a car accident? What if she had purposely broken something or thrown away something important?
Those things might have been upsetting, but because I love her, I hope that I wouldn’t publicly shame or dishonor her. When we love someone, we want to platform their best skills, abilities, and characteristics when we talk about them. Not that we’re unaware of their worst qualities or never speak of them. In fact, we are more aware of those things in our close relationships than we are in casual relationships. It’s just that we don’t shame people for not being perfect, or for being in a growth process (or even stuck with some character issues). On the contrary, to love them fully requires not only that we know and love what is broken and worst about our loved ones, but that we love them despite those things.
More than once, I’ve gathered the courage to go to a loved one to admit one of my own issues, only to be met with a laugh and a hug and some comment to the effect of, “You think I didn’t already know this about you?”
There is power in knowing my brother/spouse/parent/friend knows the worst things about me and still loves me anyway. No matter how broken or terrible we think we are, we can still be loved and still receive that love.