Can We Choose Who *Not* to Love?
"You can't choose who you love" is not an excuse for inappropriate behavior.
Posted Mar 21, 2018
In my last post, I discussed the problems with using the language of choice when talking about romance or love. There, I argued that we don’t choose when or with whom to fall in love—instead, love happens to us (if we open ourselves to it). The points at which we do have choice come before and after we fall in love: before, when we can choose which people to meet and date, and after, when we can choose whether to continue seeing them or break it off.
Both of these stages are relevant to the saying “you can’t choose who you love,” which makes me twitch in the same way that “choosing a romantic partner” does, as I described in my last post. Ironically, given the point I made there, both stages also show in what sense you can choose romantic partners, even if you can’t choose to actually fall in love with them.
More important, you can choose not to fall in love with someone. To be precise, you can choose to avoid situations where you might fall for somebody you shouldn’t. Just as important—but more difficult in practice—you can choose to try to stop being in love with someone who turns out to be wrong for you.
Before you fall for somebody...
Although both of these choices can be difficult, the first is easier to make. “I couldn’t help falling for” someone is all too often used as an excuse, especially when an illicit affair is brought to light, whether in the context of adultery or an inappropriate relationship at work (all the more relevant now given the #MeToo movement).
However, “I couldn’t help it” is never an excuse, whether you’re in a committed relationship, in a professional situation with another person you’re attracted to, or simply drawn to someone inappropriate (such as your best friend’s ex). Although you may not be able to help being attracted to someone, you do have a responsibility to recognize that attraction early enough to take steps to avoid those feelings getting stronger.
When you realize these burgeoning feelings are inappropriate, you have to do whatever you can to avoid them becoming stronger and potentially irresistible. Of course, sometimes feelings take you by surprise, and in even rarer cases this may happen mutually (which can be fantastic if there is nothing inappropriate about getting together). In most cases, though, you know when the person you find attractive is someone who is inappropriate for you to be with (for any reason), and you must make the choice not to fall in love with them by heading off such feelings before they develop.
In the worst case scenario, when you don't head off these feelings in time and you fall for someone you shouldn’t, you still have the responsibility to stop yourself from acting on them inappropriately. But this is much easier to do if you don’t let the feelings develop in the first place.
After you’ve fallen for somebody...
This choice is much more difficult to make. It has less to do with falling in love with an inappropriate person and more with realizing that we’ve fallen in love with the wrong person, or a person who changed after we fell for them and became the wrong person. By “wrong person” I don’t mean a bad person, necessarily, but the wrong person for you, a person that no longer makes you feel the way you want to feel (as I wrote here), whether that means they no longer “do it for you” or, worse, they actually hurt you (emotionally or physically).
Unfortunately, many of us continue to be in love with a person who is wrong for us or hurts us, whether we stay with them or even after we leave. (Sometimes we stop being in love with them but there are factors that make it difficult to leave.) The part of us that loves others is often in conflict with the part that’s supposed to love ourselves, and even when we know someone isn’t right, we find it hard to stop loving them.
This is why it’s crucially important to reinforce our responsibility to ourselves to avoid people who hurt us, as difficult as that may be. Sometimes we need to rely on and trust friends and family members that can see the problem more clearly than we can, and listen to them when they tell us to leave our partners (and stay away from them if we are tempted to return to the relationship). As difficult as this can be, we owe to ourselves to recognize that we have this choice, and we have a responsibility to ourselves to use it to make ourselves happier, healthier, and safer.
What We Can Choose and What We Can't...
Much of romance and love is out of our control, which provides rich material for novelists, poets, and songwriters. (Oh, and bloggers too!) As important as it is to recognize this, it’s just as important to acknowledge the choices we do have and the responsibility we have to ourselves to make these choices well, which is especially difficult in an area of our lives that is defined by emotion. We don’t want to be completely rational about love and romance—that would defeat the purpose. If we can achieve the right blend of emotion and reason, though, as well as know when we should exert control and when we should love with abandon, we can steer our love lives to avoid inappropriate entanglements and disastrous people, and experience all the joy, warmth, and intimacy that we deserve.
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If you are currently in an abusive relationship, there is help and support available. Please reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 in the US, 0808 2000 247 in the UK, or similar organizations where you are. No one deserves to be abused—no one.