A s a teenager, love had been clearly laid out for me in church services and Bible studies. Love was sacrifice, it was sometimes difficult, it endured all burdens, it was outlined clearly in the Bible. Then there were the implicit definitions, too: love was something you usually found between age twenty and thirty; it happened when God ordained it, it should be acted on (marriage) as soon as possible.
When I first fell in love with Nico, it felt nothing like I thought I was supposed to feel.
The people I knew talked endlessly of their future spouses. There was especially a practice of preparing to meet “future husbands.” We sat up in dorm rooms and in coffee shops talking about, writing to, and most importantly praying for, these hypothetical men.
This definition of love was easy to understand and easy to follow. You met someone decent enough, checked that you had compatible beliefs, avoided being alone together too often, and then got married.
But in 2016, when the search for future husbands reached a fever pitch all around me, I fell in love. I was on a year abroad at Oxford University; we met at a Christmas party.
Falling in love felt both unexpected and inevitable. It was inconvenient and new, yet unmistakable. The sleepless nights, the looking around endlessly for his car, the daydreaming. But falling in love felt nothing like I had been told it would. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty two, I had been told that love felt like sacrifice, like righteousness. And it didn’t feel like that at all.
Falling in love with Nico was easy: he was kind, honest, funny, open-minded. Perhaps most significantly, I sensed a deep understanding between us, even early-on.
But if this was love, what was the thing I had learned about in all those church services through young adulthood?
When I met Nico, I was going to a Bible study led by a woman—we'll call her Kate. Kate and I were close, and met up each week to catch up. We often walked the long path of Magdalen College gardens, and one week I told her I was developing a raging, undeniable crush on someone—not someone from church, but a boy from my ballet class.
In response, Kate said I shouldn’t see him again, and stopped on the path as we overlooked a duck pond. She turned away, facing the water, and told me about her own year abroad, when she had fallen in love with a Nicaraguan man who had asked her to run away with him. But she had already been engaged to someone from our church. “It was the most romantic moment of my life,” she told me. “But I knew it wasn’t right.” So she turned away from the brilliant sunset overlooking the Panama Canal and went home.
I didn’t ask her if she regretted it. Her words spoke of absolute certainty, but when I tried to imagine myself in her position, I felt a deep ambivalence.
When Kate looked over the Panama Canal, I imagine that devotion was what her decision was really about: to stay devoted to the certain, to the right—or to turn towards the unknown.
When it came time to make that decision for myself, I didn’t want to choose devotion; I wanted to choose love.
What was the difference between devotion and love? To me, the difference was that love looked different to everyone. Devotion, on the other hand, had a clearly defined set of characteristics.
To be devoted to something meant a commitment to it through the good times and the bad—no matter what. Devotion refined you as if by fire. It was a trial for a worthy object.
Sometimes, devotion didn’t even need to be for a person: it could be for an idea instead; the idea of marriage, the idea of commitment, the idea of holiness.
For some, devotion could be good. That loyalty—for an art form, for a set of ideals, for a path you had laid out for your life—could give clarity and focus.
But devotion had its dangers.
Devotion made it possible to “love” your future spouse before even meeting them; to pray for that person, to be implicitly loyal to that person. But devotion to an imaginary person had its dangers—it could make you ignore their very real flaws when they did show up. Devotion, not love, is what kept many of my friends in relationships with “righteous” men who cheated on them. And devotion kept my friends in relationships with men who told us women were built to submit to male authority, that men always had the last word in an argument.
I too was devoted to this vague idea of righteousness. And when I met Nico, an agnostic, I had to weigh love against devotion and decide: which was more important?
My church at the time forbade interfaith dating. At church, the world was evenly cleaved into future husbands and non-future husbands, believers and non-believers, and love couldn’t shift this impersonal calculation. At least, it didn’t for most of my friends.
It took me a while to realize I could step out of that paradigm, that love wasn’t defined for me by an external source. Again, it was devotion that kept me in church as my friends told me Nico and I would both go to hell, that they prayed for us to break up, that I was no longer fit to mentor other students or be trusted to give advice. But then it was love that got me out; love showed me a kinder, more accepting way to see myself and others. Love said, this isn’t how real friendship works.
Out of the narrative, I felt lost. My Christian friends got married, and I watched on social media. My friends from church became schoolteachers and youth pastors. We sent long, intense, argumentative messages back and forth, then lost touch.
I often wondered about the people I knew who had imagined their future spouse for so long. When they finally looked at that person at the altar, did they see them at all? Or did they simply see a reflection of their own desires, solidified by years of praying and journaling; a collage of righteousness and perfection.
At times I still felt devotion’s shadow. The narrative was strong and compelling: that you could convince yourself to be in love with an idea, regardless of the real. An idea is safe and perfect; it doesn’t require any choices. I was devoted to the idea of that safe narrative: meeting someone young with all the same beliefs, getting married on an accelerated timeline with the approval of everyone, becoming a wife (as if being a “wife” meant something new—anything other than my current self, but married). I was so devoted to the timeline someone else had set out in my head that when I did fall in love, it felt confusing and new.
But the love Nico and I have was real—it was real enough to help me see through the definition of love I had inherited from religion. And it opened the door to other loves, too, ones I had been told to ignore in favor of the love that looked like righteousness. We moved in together and adopted two parrots. I took pole dancing classes and bought a deck of tarot cards. I became softer, less judgmental.
When I look back at the decision to devotion and love, I like to imagine a shadow-life, a life where I had made the opposite decision. In this life, I am still in church, I have not lost friends, I have the certainty of community and a predetermined, supposedly holy life plan. But in this shadow-life I know I would be deeply, desperately unhappy. Devotion would have made me more holy, but it wouldn’t have changed me.
Only love could do that.