The Humpty Dumpty Syndrome
Our modern notion of “falling in love” is based on feelings. And following your feelings can get you hurt.
I was in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, at a youth conference when news broke of Katy Perry and Russell Brand ending their 14-month marriage. The Twitterati had been abuzz for only a few hours when my best friend took the stage and mentioned it.
“We didn’t see that coming, did we?” she asked 6,500 teenagers.
They burst into immediate laughter.
Of course we saw it coming! We see it coming for the majority of Hollywood relationships. If this book stays in print as long as most of my books, you might not even remember that Katy Perry and Russell Brand were ever married. It’ll be as unfamiliar as Tom Cruise being married to Nicole Kidman, or Brad Pitt being married to Jennifer Aniston. And that’s kind of the point. It was a fleeting love.
Perry and Brand were victims of what I call the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome.
In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Alice slips through the looking glass and encounters Humpty Dumpty in a strange land, and she’s quite confused by him. She can never figure out what he means because he uses a word in so many different ways. When she complains about it, he defends himself: “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
When it comes to love, we certainly force one word to mean a lot of things. Our simple English language has a single word for love. We love our parents. We love the hot guy who walks by, even if we don’t know his name. And we love a cute little orphaned child we meet on a mission trip. We might even love Fluffernutter sandwiches. We stretch one word to encompass the full range of love the average person will experience.
But other languages are more complex and precise. They identify the specific kind of love being expressed in each relationship. Take Hebrew, for example. We hesed our parents. We ahabah the hot guy walking by. We raham the orphan. (And there’s actually not a term to describe your love for a sandwich.)
Stretching and twisting the word love into so many meanings make us vulnerable to the Humpty Dumpty Syndrome.
A great fall
Ahabah (pronounced AH-ha-vah) is the Hebrew word that might be used to describe two people falling in love. This “love” is characterized by a spontaneous, impulsive display of affection and attraction. While such affection might relate to a friendship in the Hebrew culture, the word most often refers to the kind of attraction that happens between a man and a woman. In these cases, it is largely a physical attraction and emphasizes a sexual aspect of the relationship. Eros is the Greek counterpart to ahabah. Literature—both ancient and modern—celebrates this kind of love. Hollywood anchors its definition of love in eros.
Ahabah is all about loving that which is lovable. In other words, it’s not even really about the person we claim to love. Instead, ahabah is centered on our desire to possess or gain greater access to some characteristic we find attractive. Inherent to the desire to possess something is an attempt to control.
Here’s the big problem with the modern concept of “falling in love”: Since the perceived value of an object usually shifts with time and circumstances—and often diminishes once the shiny newness wears off—people often “fall out of love,” just as we’ve seen happen with Katy Perry and Russell Brand.
What does the Bible say about falling in love based on attraction? About seeking to have or possess someone based solely on how much we value certain aspects of that person? “I adjure you … that you not stir up or awaken love [ahabah] until it pleases” (Song of Songs 2:7).
In other words, “Please don’t fall in love.” An interesting phrase to find in the Bible’s most romantic book. This verse has been used by the abstinence movement to declare that sex should be reserved until after marriage; I don’t think it is only about avoiding sexual expression until marriage. The words are repeated three times in Song of Songs by observers of their love, including verse 8:4, long after Solomon and his bride are wed and have consummated their love. What could have prompted them to sing of holding back on sexual passion even after marriage? Why, in the Bible’s treatise on love and physical attraction? The Creator knows our hearts weren’t designed to be driven primarily by physical attraction. We can’t withstand the impact of such a fall.
All the king’s men
We find in the Bible a few stories of people who fell in love.
Shechem the Hivite fell in love with Dinah. The Bible says, “He was deeply attracted to Dinah … and he loved [ahabah] the girl and spoke tenderly to her” (Genesis 34:3, NASB). He ended up raping her, which prompted her brothers to seek revenge and start a war with the Hivites.
Samson fell in love (ahabah) with Delilah. She fell in love with the idea of having power over him. He ended up trapped by her, stripped of his gifting from God, and eventually, dead.
David fell in love (ahabah) with a powerful heiress named Michal. Their attraction was short lived, and she grew distant. Eventually, she hated him. At one of David’s most exciting moments as king—when he brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem—she mocked him in front of the entire household. He ended up in an empty, hate-filled marriage.
I could go on.
Perhaps the worst consequence was the fact that ahabah diminished over time. In each of the cases above, attraction gave way to distance and bitterness. But the ramifications extended beyond the relationship itself. Every time I see ahabah used exclusively to describe a male/female relationship in Scripture, it is followed by destructive developments such as intoxication, entrapment, servitude, loss of life purpose, and sometimes lifelong misery.
Couldn’t put Humpty together again
According to a recent study by Ellen Berscheid published in the Annual Review of Psychology entitled “Love in the Fourth Dimension,” “falling in love” has overtaken any other kind of love in bringing two people together to marry. It wasn’t always that way. In the early days of our Western culture, people married because each partner had internal qualities that held the promise of mutual commitment to each other. Attraction, they assumed, would follow.
For example, a pioneer whose wife had died often sought a hard-working, compassionate young woman who would care for and nurture his children. She might be looking for a generous man who offered provision and property. The relationship was built upon a solid work ethic, compassion, and generosity. These qualities topped their “lists” as they each sought a life partner to whom they could give themselves, knowing they’d be gifted back with equal commitment. Rather than springing from physical or emotional attraction, their relationship was rooted in internal qualities.
Today the most common quality a young woman tells me she is looking for is “a sense of humor.” But a humorous guy may or may not have a good work ethic, be willing to serve his wife and children, or embrace a deep relationship with God. Funny is neat, but no less superficial than external appearance.
A guy will generally tell me that he’s attracted to a girl’s eyes or smile or legs. He’s looking for beauty. These are all external qualities of attraction.
The modern trend of seeking attraction rather than looking for specific internal qualities was first identified by a sociologist in 1926, who said the “romantic impulse” would eventually create “family disorganization,” according to Berscheid’s study. In other words, “falling in love” would result in some unpleasant consequences—not just for the individual but for society as a whole.
As the emphasis on attraction has increased, it appears that the 1926 thesis that this would lead to “family disorganization” has held true. Psychological studies and surveys have found that those who enter into marriage because they fall in love tend to eventually experience a significant decline in intimacy (kissing, confiding in each other), shared activities (hobbies, games), and sexual intercourse. To say that we have seen an increase in divorce, fatherlessness, poverty, depression, and anxiety would be a gross understatement. The Annual Review of Psychology report ends with a rather hopeless admission that psychologists haven’t been able to figure out how to repair the broken love lives of Americans and “empirical tests of a temporal theory of love will require longitudinal methodology.”
In other words, “more study required.”
They don’t know what to do.
The Humpty Dumpty Syndrome has brought us the same consequences that the Bible characters experienced. And “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” haven’t been able to put us together again.
“Falling in love” is fueled by emotion. It’s based on a feeling. And following your feelings will get you hurt.
This doesn’t mean that we never give way to those feelings. It’s just that, in a healthy relationship, ahabah never grows stronger than agape.
Excerpted from Get Lost by Dannah Gresh. Copyright © 2013 by Dannah Gresh. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.