I have read a lot of books and done a lot of self analysis to understand emotions and especially the multitude of issues around love and relationships.
Peck divides what most people call love into two stages: the first initial feeling of love and the more considered, thought out acts of love that follow. He defines love as, "The will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth." Note that he does not label it a feeling, rather, it is a decision (The will to extend...).
Think of it like this. You know that feeling when you meet a new person and begin dating. The incredible energy, longing, discovery, and attention that you give to each other. That's the first stage. Really it is easy. You ignore incompatibilities and defects in each other. Life is easy. Everything is good.
Unfortunately, that is not what love is really about. If it were that easy, the divorce rate wouldn't be so high. This initial stage inv\evitably fades. Once it fades, and only then does true love begin.
Once the initial rush fades, Love is a choice--not an emotion or feeling. It is a decision that we make. We decide that we will give love to another, accept them for what they are. Only by recognizing that can we truly make a commitment to a relationship.
Another thing to note, is that Peck talks about "another's spiritual growth." He comes from a religious Christian background, so I am not sure what spiritual growth means. I don't think he means getting your partner closer to religion, but rather enhancing their emotional well-being. I interpret it to mean meeting each other's emotional needs within the relationship.
In this chart, you can see that as the feeling fades, the choice has to replace it or you're left with very little. A few things to note in the chart. Notice that I put the low point at about seven years. Maybe there's something to that seven year itch thing (some studies suggest a three year itch). At that point, you can either make the choice to love, as depicted, or you don't and the orange area disappears.
Edit: Sept 5, 2007. I am thinking that perhaps I overstated the lack of feeling over time. I do believe that the feeling can continue. Not in the overpowering sense of an early relationship, but that by continuing to perform acts of love for each other it creates a virtuous circle that helps maintain the feeling.
The other thing to think about is that in a marital or long term relationship, you can give love to a person, but if the other person is not loving you back in the ways that you need, you may need to reconsider the relationship. Before you make this type of decision, I would suggest that you get couples counseling with someone who really understands that love is a choice. You love your partner by helping them to understand that "falling out of love" is natural and is only the beginning of the next and more important phase of the relationship.
We have all heard of unconditional love. I used to think it was a ridiculous concept. How could you continue to love a person despite the horrible things they have done.Thinking of love as an action verb, rather than an uncontrolled feeling puts this into a reasonable context.
All it means is that in a relationship, I will continue to give to my partner, despite that person's flaws (within reason). I am excluding from this the obvious exaggerations. The "within reason" part excludes unwanted and uninvited physical and emotional abuse. Those are issues that require you to first love yourself by putting up boundaries to prevent damage to yourself.
So suppose that your spouse is not meeting your emotional need of providing financial support. It could be that he has been laid off because of the bad economy, or he was surfing porn at work, or maybe he is just not motivated by work and career. You feel unloved because he is not meeting your need. How do you respond?
Too often people respond by withholding their love from the jobless spouse. Perhaps he has a strong need for affection and words of love. Instead, you withhold it, perhaps thinking that you can reward him once he gets a new job. This is conditional love. It bases your giving of love on someone else's performance in some arena. This kind of relationshi is manipulative, and will likely form a negative feedback loop, as each partner withholds more and more from the other.
A better response is to not withhold the things your partner needs. To love them with your actions. Continue to state your needs. Then trust them to do their best to fulfill those needs. It takes time and patience sometimes. That is the work of love.
But What If...
Sometimes, and I think much less than our divorce rates would indicate, mutual love is not possible. For example, a person may simply be unable to give his spouse what she needs. She continues to love him, but at some point, all she does is give. Again, I am leaving out the obvious abuses here.
We should not be accounting for every dish washed vs every present, or diaper changed, or lawn mowed, etc. Sometimes one of the people is putting the effort into the relationship, while the other will not, and will not seek help.
I believe that in these cases, and only once all reasonable avenues of assistance have been pursued, then the couple should pursue separation. If the couple has truly tried and done their work, the separation can possibly be reasonably amicable--both partners serene in the knowledge that they tried, did everything that they could without surrendering their own values, but were unable to make it work.
If the people have not worked, and harbor ill-will because all they know is that they did not get what they wanted, , there will be a bitter divorce that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and tears apart families and friends. Divorce can be ugly and nasty. Chossing to love is almost always a better course.