Is love only how someone makes you feel?

No. It can include that, but it is primarily an act that involves the whole person, not just the emotions.

Ok, but what does that actually mean?

Brian was nervous whenever Charlotte was around. He had never felt much of anything for anyone, but she singlehandedly changed his view of people without even trying. Her radiant face and the lighthearted way she interacted with people were more than enough to make him forget his troubles. Just being in the same classroom with her was enough to fill his life with joy.

He thought he could be happy with her. He asked her to prom. She said no. She explained as kindly as possible that, no matter how much she wanted to feel the same way about him, she just couldn’t force it. The butterflies in his stomach turned to lead weights and sank to his feet.

Now what?

a man looking out over hills
friends sitting on the roof of an SUV

(Sidenote: what Brian might not realize is that, in spite of her absence of loving feelings, Charlotte did love him by being honest with him. She could have lied or made fun of his vulnerability, but instead she willed his good. In a roundabout way, he got what he wanted.)

The view that love is only a feeling can’t help Brian be respectful of Charlotte. If he thought, “she makes me feel truly alive, therefore I must be in love with her”, he would be tempted to reject her honest response. He might either doubt that she meant it, or resent her because he believed that she owed it to him to return his “love”. This is how wounds go unhealed and develop into bitterness.

Even if the feeling was mutual, and everything Brian wanted came to pass, it still wouldn’t be enough. If the relationship depended on each of them valuing the other solely because of “how you make me feel”, they would care more about how they themselves felt than about the good of the other person, who is the cause of those feelings. If they could get the same feeling elsewhere, there would be nothing keeping them together. The relationship would be built on use, not love, unless his feelings progressed into love of the other for her own sake.

The difference between feeling love and having love is like the difference between feeling a book and reading a book. Brian can hold a book in his hand all he wants, but that’s not what the book is for. The book is for reading, which usually involves holding it, but not necessarily. If merely holding it is so enjoyable, that must be some book. Likewise, Brian doesn’t have loving feelings for the sake of being pleased in her company, he has loving feelings for the sake of Charlotte’s good.

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[Love] does not seek its own interests.

St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:5

Brian can actually love her, just not in the way he would prefer. Charlotte remains an objective reality with her own life, independent of how he feels when he is around her. Those feelings reveal to Brian her inherent beauty, and how deserving she is of receiving goodness. (By the way, this beauty exists in each person, we just don’t typically experience it as keenly as Brian does about Charlotte.) Her good, in this case, is not compatible with being in a relationship with someone for whom she has no affection. As painful as it is, the loving thing for Brian to do is to will that she be available to a relationship that brings her joy. That means not being together with her. In his case, love means doing the opposite of following his feelings.

Those feelings aren’t bad, though. Love can involve feelings, but those feelings aren’t good or bad in themselves. They aren’t actions (something we do), they are passions (something that happens to us). The goodness or badness of feelings depends on what we do with them, therefore love is an act of willing the good of the other.

Let her go, Brian.

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