Years ago a handful of long-haired hippy types from across the pond sang a song about how “all you need is love.” I don’t really understand why those guys were – and still are – so popular. Their music has never appealed to me. But I’m guess you’ve heard the song. It seems to reflect a deeply held belief in our culture about relationships in general – they can work as long as you have feelings of love toward another person.
So what happens when you don’t have love? When you “fall out of love” with the person you married?
I have known people whose primary reason for getting a divorce is that they just didn’t feel like they were in love with their spouse any more. Some have made excuses for their behavior that led to the divorce – infidelity, emotional and physical abandonment, etc. – by saying that they just needed to follow their hearts and their hearts told them they weren’t in love any more. One person I know told me that she wasn’t sure she was ever really in love with her husband, and that is how she rationalized leaving him.
This is what happens in a culture that tells us to focus on feelings of love rather than commitment to love. There is a world of difference between the two. It isn’t that feelings of love are bad; they’re very good and you want them in your marriage! But the foundation of your marriage should not be those feelings. It should be your commitment to love.
Commitment to love means…
Commitment to love means deciding to act in a loving manner, even when you don’t feel like it.
Commitment to love means forgiving your spouse even when your spouse doesn’t deserve it.
Commitment to love means doing what is best for the relationship, even if it isn’t what you want to do.
Commitment to love doesn’t mean that you won’t have problems in your relationship, but it means that when you do, you work them through together, rather than seeing them as a reason to let go of the relationship.
Commitment to love means sticking with the person you promised your life to even when your heart tells you that you might be happier with someone else.
Commitment to love means fighting your sinful nature when it tells you to be selfish.
Commitment to love means being there when you don’t want to be there.
I realize that most of this sounds a lot like commitment to love isn’t very pleasant, and it certainly doesn’t have the sound of fairy tale romance. But the truth is that life isn’t a fairy tale. The happily ever after doesn’t happen in this life – that’s later, when we get to heaven. Right now we’re still in the tough part of the tale.
But even in the tough part there is joy, so please don’t think I’m saying your marriage has to be miserable to be awesome. However, just as the heroes in the tale are defined by the struggle, so your marriage is defined by its challenges and how you face them.
The Triangular Theory of Love
Here’s the part where this actually makes your marriage more awesome. Years ago a researcher named Robert Sternberg came up with a theory called the Triangular Theory of Love, to try and explain how love operates. Complete love, he said, includes passion, intimacy, and commitment. All romantic relationships must include each of these to some degree in order to survive. In a long term relationship, there is interplay between these three factors – as one increases or decreases, so do the others.
When you think about these three factors, there really is only one you can have direct control over. Yes, you can foster intimacy and passion, but other factors can get in the way. Commitment, though, is a choice you can make every day. Every day you can say, “Today, I am going to do something good for my marriage.” The outgrowth of that is that passion and intimacy will grow, and with them those feelings of love that we all like to have.
What does commitment look like?
So what does that commitment look like in the day to day? Maybe it looks like picking up that marriage book you keep hearing you should read. Maybe it means working through a video series with your spouse, or a Bible study series for couples (there are a lot of good ones out there, trust me!). Maybe it just looks like taking five minutes every day to talk with your spouse and express appreciation for him or her, or maybe it looks like the two of you together going and getting help for big issues that you still haven’t gotten over. No matter how it looks specifically for you, for all of us it looks like making a choice, every day, to do what you can to live by the promise you made when you got married.
Here’s a little song on the topic by Andrew Peterson, who sums this whole topic up pretty well in the chorus when he says, “That’s what the promise is for”:
I am not a marriage expert. The only experts I know when it comes to being married are over 70 years old. Everyone else still has growing to do, as far as I’m concerned. But I have studied marriage in the Bible, in research, in my own life and in the lives of others. I don’t have an awesome marriage – I think I have a good marriage, and I’m always trying to grow. So here’s my humble yet confident attempt to share some of what I’ve learned.
If you want to catch previous posts in this series, check them out here: Part 1