Marriage. For many single women, it’s the ultimate goal to experience happiness. It’s the handsome prince on the white horse sweeping her up into his arms and cantering off into the sunset. It’s the laughter. It’s the butterflies when lips touch. It’s the white lace and candlelight. Love is effortless. Love is all consuming. Love is addictive. Life doesn’t really start until you find that special someone. Jerry McGuire‘s “You complete me!” strongly resonates with society, suggesting you aren’t really whole until you find your soul mate.
I can honestly say that I didn’t start out in this group of whimsical women. I did not have my wedding planned out at 16. I never owned a bridal magazine until I had an engagement ring on my finger and knew I needed to pull something together. I always tried to keep my feet on the ground, not in the clouds. But, I must say the whirlwind of the wedding and honeymoon even brought out that naive hope in my heart of living “happily ever after” effortlessly.
If we subscribe to Hollywood’s version of love, we believe we should “follow our hearts.” Sounds so beautiful, doesn’t it? How simple is that? We believe love should be effortless. If it starts to become work, we are with the wrong person. You shouldn’t have to force love. It should descend like fairy dust upon the fortunate few who are lucky enough to find it. And, if the feelings of love should fly like a bird from their shoulders, then we should follow it until it rests upon the next person to captivate our hearts. Just like you shouldn’t keep hammering a square peg into a round hole, you shouldn’t keep working at a relationship that offers you no reward.
We’ve been sold the biggest fantasy wrapped as reality. This is why half of all marriages fail. Our expectations are all out of wack! This is why we are never content and are always searching for our “happily ever after,” trying on new relationships like new running shoes. We love them at first with the flashy new colors and cushion soles, but when they wear out, they are thrown out. Society has been trained to keep looking for the next best thing to make us feel good. Why wouldn’t that translate to our relationships?
There are two types of love we will explore. One is an addiction and one is an action. One is a feeling and one is a choice. One is the fantasy and the other is the true fairy tale.
To be transparent, I will share some of my story. Pain is the fastest teacher, although learning things the hard way is not necessary if we would just follow God’s principles. It spares us much heartache. When I was first married, I thought I was one of the few people who had been blessed with that special effortless love only a select group experience. I adored my new husband and he adored me. We had dated for a year with all the romantic bells and whistles needed to bring out all those fluffy feelings, while keeping Godly principles in place. When we were first married, making him breakfast in bed, designing romantic “getaways” using wall posters, ocean CDs, rolling chairs as airplanes, and a fake passport to tropical destinations, back rubs, and gazing at him adoringly as he slept all came so easily. But, like anything, what you focus on is what you cultivate. Over time, our focus shifted.
We had some pretty tough first few years with outside disappointments in career and health hitting our young marriage. Soon, because of our frustrations and failure, we focused on career over each other. We were so comfortable that our marriage was secure, we gave ourselves permission to neglect it – believing it would always be there. It was a slow fade that wasn’t noticeable in the day-to-day living. It was seen in those moments when we gradually stopped doing what we used to do to keep our marriage strong. It was one less kiss goodnight. It was one less conversation on the porch swing watching the sunset. It was one less morning cuddle. It wasn’t that we weren’t still loving, but we were putting our energy towards big goals, time was money, and we were forgetting to cherish what we had.
It all came to a head when we were forced to separate for about a year. My career was going well and I wasn’t ready to leave it, and his dreams were taking him to a foreign country to continue his education. We thought we would be o.k. in a long-distance marriage. After all, this was the one area we had down. Our marriage could handle anything! This separation was only temporary until his training was over. Our overconfidence was our downfall.
At first, being alone was the toughest thing I had ever experienced. We had married right out of college, and before that I always lived with roommates, so it was my first time living by myself. The big house was so empty without him. But, I loved him. This was what he wanted, and I certainly wasn’t about to hold him back because I was a needy wife. Besides, my job, the house we owned, and the life we had in Florida was our security blanket. He wasn’t ready to let it go anymore than I was. Career and financial security took the place, temporarily in our minds, of our commitment to always be together.
So, I stayed behind while he left the country. Unfortunately, our marriage was already worn down by years of hard work, jobs on different schedules, stress, and few hours spent together. It was much weaker than we knew.
To fill the void, I threw myself into work, marathon and triathlon training, and church activities. Then, to my surprise, as time past I found I could live life without him. I developed new friendships that filled the void of his absence. I fought off depression with the endorphin highs of training. The pain of missing him in my heart gradually lessened, and finally ended. He also learned to live his life without me. We became two separate people with separate friends and separate lives. When he came home, I suddenly realized I wasn’t in love with him anymore and that he felt the same way. The feelings had grown cold. It was then that we were faced with a choice – give up or dig deep.
We chose to change our priorities and pursue love regardless of what we felt. I sold the house and gave up the amazing career. He found a new apartment where he was going to school that would accommodate our family of three crazy dogs, and I moved to live with him again in a new country. We sought counseling, confessed our wrongs, forgave each other, and shifted our focus back on our marriage. While I will never be so arrogant to say our marriage is rock solid as we are both sinful people who need to cling to Jesus to be the kind of spouse the other deserves, we are healing every day. And, the feelings are coming back. They aren’t coming back like they did the first time, with the rush of new young passion, because there is now much pain between us. But, like Dickinson’s “hope is a thing with feathers” softly singing, the sound is heard more perceptibility each day.
Here are seven things I have learned about love through this experience, additional reading, past relationships, and being married my first decade. If you want to really explore some of these concepts more in depth, I would recommend His Needs, Her Needs by Dr. Harley. Most of these concepts I have learned from his training. And all of them I’m still striving to improve upon.
- Emotional love is not a unique once-in-a-lifetime treasure, it is nothing more than an addiction. Rutgers University did a study of people who were going through break-ups. They saw that they experienced withdrawals in the brain’s nucleus accumbens and orbitalfrontal / prefrontal cortex region just like those coming off of cocaine and cigarette addictions. So, when you feel that rush at the beginning of a new relationship, you really are high. If separated from the source of the addiction, the feelings of emotional love do fade in time for most people if they give up all contact. Just like you can’t be an alcoholic and still drink occasionally, you can’t still allow the addictive relationship in your life. This is helpful information to those who are going through the heartache of a breakup. Completely removing yourself from the other party is the most healthy way to heal. While you may always still love the person, the feelings of addiction and pain will dull with time. Just remember that you can’t trust your feelings when it comes to addictive love. What your heart demands isn’t always what is best for you.
- Feeling emotional love is the natural result of meeting top emotional needs. Most women, me included, have the same four top emotional needs: 1) Conversation 2) Affection 3) Recreational Companionship and 4) Sexual Fulfillment. If you want to know the man’s side of things or see the rest of the needs on the list, read the book or go to Dr. Harley’s website at http://www.marriagebuilders.com for tons of free information and quizzes to uncover your top needs. Conversation for me is my strongest need and is felt by a man’s ability to communicate deep theological concepts and emotional feelings and experiences with me. Affection encompasses all those little touches seen in loving relationships – kissing, hugging, hand holding, and back rubs. Recreational Companionship is simply having fun together and spending quality time doing different activities. Sexual Fulfillment is pretty self explanatory. What I have learned is that while some of top emotional needs are very easy to keep for your husband alone based on common sense (affection and sexual fulfillment), some are not (conversation and recreational companionship). If a wife allows any other man to meet any of those needs, or if a husband allows another woman to meet his top needs, however innocent they are deemed to be, the marriage is open for trouble as affections can shift away from the marriage relationship to another person. Also, if the husband fails to meet those needs for his wife, she needs to immediately let him know what is happening and demand that he learn to meet them versus continue in silence and weakness. The onus to meet his needs also falls on her, and if she is failing he needs to tell her.
- It is my responsibility for my husband to feel “in love” with me, and it is his responsibility for me to feel “in love” with him. This was a revolutionary concept for me. We cannot generate those feelings long-term without the other person’s conscience effort. Beating yourself up for not feeling in love with someone is an unnecessary guilt trip. The feelings we feel are in direct proportion to how well our spouse has learned to meet those top emotional needs. And, keeping our marriage strong is in direct proportion to how well we guard our top emotional needs from anyone else.
- New relationships naturally generate emotional love, but keeping that high going requires deposits in our proverbial “love bank.” In the beginning of relationships, we easily meet top emotional needs because we are focusing on that person, which generates the rush of feelings – that high. Think about it, we take our new interest out on dates; we talk to them; we spend every waking moment with them; we invest in them. We also gravitate to those people who are naturally good at meeting our top emotional needs and fill up our emotional love bank. Anytime our needs are meet, deposits in the love bank are made. Any time someone hurts us with what Dr. Harley calls “love busters,” withdrawals occur. Our emotional feelings are generated by how much “love” currency is in our banks. If that special someone makes lots of deposits and few withdrawals, we feel strong love for them. However, if they continue to make many withdrawals and few deposits, the feelings fade.
- Many times as marriage grows more comfortable, we stop investing so much. The security of the legal binding contract makes us lazy, and the embers begin to die. Do you want to feel deep love for someone? The feelings can come back, but you can rarely generate it by yourself, no matter how much you want to. They have to make deposits and you have to be open to accepting them. And, they have to learn to stop making withdrawals by changing hurtful habits. The same responsibility is shared equally by both parties. If you follow this concept, the feelings of love remain strong. If you don’t, love fades and sometimes people find someone else to make deposits to fill the gaping hole in their emotional needs left unmet by their partner. You see the pattern occurring all around, but it is most clearly glamorized in Hollywood, where people follow the rush of new love from marriage to marriage.
- Even if that person does not want to learn to meet your emotional needs, this does not give you the excuse to allow others to meet them. The choice and sin to open up your emotional needs to the services of others over your spouse still falls on you. Instead, teach your spouse how to meet your needs. Seek counseling from someone who can teach these concepts. Most men in particular like a connect-the-dots concept of love. If they have a checklist that they feel is manageable, which you should provide them, they can see how to fix the problem. You also need to get a checklist from them to hold yourself accountable to meeting their needs as they learn to meet yours. It may sound unromantic, but it is extremely effective. If both parties feel there is a mutual benefit to the exercise, they will embrace it.
- You also learn that you must only do those things that have the enthusiastic agreement of the other person. If you follow this rule, no one ever feels that they are unwillingly being drug along with a martyrdom-like attitude and resentment never develops. A win-win solution can always be achieved, it just may take more time to discover it.
Believe it or not, it really is that unromantic. At first, the concept was tough for me to accept. I liked my version of love – that magical idea that there is one person who is my soul mate, who completes me. I thought I would feel the butterflies forever. The concept that a person’s talent to meet my emotional needs can evoke those once sacred feelings I thought were reserved for the holy grail of relationships seemed to make it less special. One plus one just equals two. Meeting top emotional needs and not making withdrawals equals feelings of romantic love. But, if we can learn to dispense with the fairy dust and appreciate the science of it, the butterflies are no less real, just predictable. And, the knowledge can be liberating. Successful fulfilling marriages, not just those staying together because of the children or religious commitments, have learned this equation and practice these things daily to keep the love bank currency full and generate the in-love emotion. Marriages where both parties are feeling the high of being in love, where no action is taken without the enthusiastic agreement of the other person, and that contain people who have their top needs met don’t end in divorce. It’s just that simple.
There is also the Biblical version of love. This love is a choice, not a feeling. If you do the work for the other person to generate those in-love feelings in them, you are following the definition of love that God set out. Long-lasting Biblical love isn’t something that materializes like a genie from a lamp. It is something that is the end product of 1 Corinthians 13. If your love “seeks not its own” (1 Cor. 13:5) you will work to learn how to meet the needs of your spouse, and they will do the same. You will take responsibility for them feeling in love with you and generate actions based on this, and you will do whatever it takes to fight for their heart. If you truly seek to love them God’s way, you will confess your wrongs, forgive, and turn away from anything that hurts your partner for “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). Men will give up selfishness and “love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Women will give up control and will “let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Ephesians 5:33). Respect, coincidentally, is a top emotional need for men. Seeking God first and developing His character helps us to learn to love like this, as He heals the deepest wounds in our hearts and relationships.
If you’re a Christian, there is one other thing that I think is vitally important to secure your marriage success. Pray together, out loud, daily. Mealtime prayers don’t count. This is key! My husband and I do this at night before bed. There is something about humbling yourself at your Father’s throne together that brings about a very special intimacy. And men, spiritual intimacy often brings about physical intimacy, so there’s your extra incentive as this vulnerability seems more difficult for guys to implement.
There is nothing wrong with seeking the feeling of being in love. Without it, you wouldn’t get married. God designed this emotion for our benefit. It’s fine to be high on the love of your spouse. But, just like a person doesn’t just suddenly wake up and feel good when they run a marathon with no training, people don’t stay in the bliss of addictive love without daily actions to keep this flame from dying out. Like a frog in a slow-warming frying pan, you don’t realize how far away you drifted from each other until the water is boiling. By then, it’s often too late unless radical changes and efforts are made. If we do let the embers die, we then learn that true love is a choice to continue to unlock the mysteries of the other person’s heart, regardless of the benefits to our own selfishness. Love is a purposeful commitment whether we profit from the feelings or not.
This is the love that God gives freely to us. We would be in a lot of trouble if God’s love was based upon our actions versus His choice! This is the love He expects us to give to Him and to each other. This kind of love continues determinedly on the same course, setting the sails to accommodate the feelings no matter the direction. With God’s help, may we all set the sail toward His standards, His example, His heart. May our marriage be what He designed it to be – earthly examples of His perfect love for His bride the church. If marriage, one of the few things created in the perfection of Eden and brought into our current sinful existence, can triumph by God’s grace – we can better reflect God’s love for His people in our small microcosmic image of His much bigger love story to the world.
“As the young man rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” Isaiah 62:5