You've all seen it in the movies, read it in books, and heard it from friends. There are many attempts to define love, but too many of them fall far too short of the mark. Why? Because they focus on emotion rather than will. In other words, they tend to talk about being "in love" rather than what it means to love someone.
Now, I do not mean to disregard the emotional aspects of being in love. They are a very important part of a truly loving relationship. However, as is the case with all emotional responses, the intensity of the feeling can vary greatly, and can even disappear, at least for a while. The problem with focusing so much on the emotional aspect, is that it has resulted in people disregarding the willful aspect.
People choose to get into relationships, even to get married, based on a fleeting emotion rather than on a steadfast decision of the will. The break-up and divorce rate shows the results of having relationships founded primarily on emotion rather than will.
Part of the problem is that we phrase the question wrong. We usually ask, "What is love?" This question assumes that love is simply one thing. However, I would maintain that we are really talking about two things. One is the emotion of "being in love" and the other is the willful act to "love" someone. I also think that, when people ask what love is, they mean (even if unknowingly so) the willful act, but the answer they receive is almost all about the emotion.
So, what is the difference between love and being "in love?"
Being in love is the emotional state of attachment to another. It can range from a passionate euphoria to a nice comfort and feeling of belonging together. Like all emotional states, it can fluctuate for many reasons, including time, tiredness, hormones, and circumstances. I have been married for 24 years. There have been many times where I have not felt "in love" with my wife (but not nearly as many as when I have felt in love with her).
The problem with basing a relationship primarily (or solely) on being "in love" is that there is not sufficient support for that relationship when those feelings aren't around. When you become annoyed over some trivial habit, or when you have a strong disagreement, being "in love" won't help you weather through the situation because, in those circumstances, you don't feel very much in love. This leads to the trite comments, "Well, I thought I loved you," and "I fell out of love."
To love someone, on the other hand, is a willful act. It is not simply riding the tide of emotion; it is making a deliberate choice. There are actually many choices involved in this. Ultimately, they all come down to one very specific choice - to desire the best for the other. This love is truly self-sacrificing. This is not a negative thing, but is very positive even when it means inconvenience or even hardship to some of your own hopes and desires.
It is this choice that weathers the difficulties that can occur in any relationship. It is this choice that helps to hold your tongue from saying something truly hurtful in an argument. It is this choice that carries your relationship through those times when you do not feel particularly "in love," and having withstood all of these challenges, it elevates the emotion of feeling "in love" to greater heights than it could ever reach on its own.