Falling in love is easy.
It involves butterflies and long walks on moonlit beaches. You hear wedding bells, see fireworks and fall into something that feels perfect.
Staying in love, however, is not so easy.
Once the initial shine of new love has worn off, obstacles and hurdles appear seemingly out of nowhere. There are warts; there are regrets — there is baggage.
Sometimes, staying in love feels impossible.
Though divorce statistics jump all over the place, there is little denying that we are a culture prone to giving up on love. We are a culture that believes when the going gets tough, the tough just go. We run from the pain and challenges in our relationships and wonder how we could ever feel so far from someone we once felt so close to.
But what if staying in love is possible? What if working hard, instead of giving up, is the key to passionate, long-lasting, true love? What if real relationship starts when we get real about staying in love?
We've all wondered what it's like to be truly treasured by someone. To be needed and missed and loved. Not just for a long weekend or even a decade, but for 20 years, 30 years, 40 years and more.
I believe it is possible to experience a love that goes the distance. It's a gift God longs to give us, and there are four things we can do to accept that gift:
Make love a verb.
For many of us, the concept of love is difficult because we never learned the right form of love. We focus on the external qualities of love and ignore the internal. We treat love like a noun. It's an experience that happened. A moment. A thing.
But in John 13:34, we see a different side of love. John says, simply and honestly, "Love one another." It is not a one-time event. It is not a fireworks feeling or a field of flowers. It's an action. A verb. It's not just about choosing the right person; it's about becoming the right person, the type of person who loves the way Christ loved us.
Put your spouse first.
For years, I waged steady opposition to my wife's plan to add a garden to our yard. I reasoned that when you consider all the time and money invested in a garden, you're no better off than if you'd bought your veggies at the grocery store. Besides, the crop I care about (coffee beans) grows on trees, not in gardens.
For a long time, I had a good case going ... until I read Philippians 2:3 again: "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves." I wish that were a complicated verse with multiple Hebrew variations. But it's pretty simple: Value others (in this case, your spouse) above yourself.
Don't try to prove you're smarter or better at the family budget. Plant your wife a garden. In order to stay in love, we need to change our approach to determining what is valuable. We have to demonstrate an interest in things because they are interesting to the people we are interested in. By doing this, we learn to put our spouse first.
Pay attention to your heart.
Imagine you are a mug with thousands of tiny beads inside. Each bead represents a negative feeling or painful experience or unfulfilled expectation. You are careful to keep them inside. Then you meet someone and think she just might be the future Mrs. Mug. So, you are gentle and thoughtful around her. You make certain that as few beads as possible spill out on the road to the altar.
But a month or a year later, suddenly there's an issue: She gets upset for no apparent reason; or you don't call, though you said you would; or she feels ignored. Your mugs bump into each other, jostling your beads. Jealousy spills out. Anger overflows. All the stuff that was hidden during the courtship is on display.
This is the type of situation the Bible anticipates when it implores us to guard our hearts. When your emotional "beads" get bumped, stop and think about what you are feeling before you speak. Name what you are feeling with specific words: "I feel jealous" or "I feel angry." When you name your feelings, they lose their power. If appropriate, tell your spouse what's going on in your heart. Healthy people stop doing hurtful things when they learn what the issues are. And they stay in love by paying attention to their hearts.
Fill the gaps.
In every relationship, there are gaps between what is expected and what actually happens. We have fairytale views of how marriage will be, and they fail to materialize. We have expectations of how a spouse should act at a dinner party, and that doesn't go as planned. We have ideas about when our partner should come home at night, and the reality is different. Gaps open up all around us.
When that happens, we have two choices: We can believe the best, trusting that there is a reasonable explanation for our spouse's behavior. Or we can assume the worst, reading disrespect, hurt and a thousand other things into those situations.
Into those gaps, 1 Corinthians 13 walks boldly. Long used in weddings, these popular verses describe the nature of love. Beyond the verses about love's patience and kindness, we find a plea for the gaps. We find help for the holes. Verse 7 says love "always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres."
In a marriage, that means when you have a chance to doubt or trust, you trust. When you have a chance to give up or hope, you hope. When you have a chance to quit or persevere, you persevere.
One of the most powerful ways to fill the gaps is to believe the best about your spouse. Such an attitude communicates, "I trust you. Even before I hear your explanation, I trust you."
It is possible to stay in love, but it does take more than fireworks and moonlit beaches. Falling in love only requires a pulse. Staying in love? That requires a plan.
Andy Stanley is a pastor, author and founder of North Point Ministries.