Note: Names have been changed
I'll never forget the counseling session with Al and Olivia. They had been high school sweethearts and, now in their mid-50s, had been married almost 35 years. Al was about to retire after 25 years at a paper mill. Olivia was a registered nurse. They had three grown children and six grandchildren.
Al sat stone-faced in the corner chair in my office. Olivia fought back tears as she explained why they were there. "Al says he doesn't love me anymore. He's found someone else."
"Al, is this the situation?" I asked.
He cleared his throat and spoke softly, "Yeah, I guess it's so."
I listened as they both explained how they put so much energy into raising kids and building careers that they forgot to love each other and nurture their marriage. After the kids moved out, Al and Olivia never discovered how to reconnect and fill the gap of an empty nest.
Olivia recounted the wasted years of living two separate lives. She confessed that she had neglected Al sexually and domestically. "He poured himself into his job. I poured myself into the kids and my nursing career," Olivia said.
Al added, "We kept drifting apart. I knew what I was doing was wrong; I was too proud to ask for help."
After a brief pause, I quietly asked, "So are you guys going to call it quits after 35 years? Is this the best answer?" Al stared out the window, and Olivia looked at the floor. "You are both believers. Is this what God wants?"
I continued to ask pointed, painful questions over the next three hours. I knew this couple was on the brink of divorce, and I probably had only one shot at helping them.
At one point, tears rolled down Al's rough face as he said, "I think I have gone too far. I don't think I can pull it back together. I don't think Olivia can forgive me. I don't think I can forgive myself. It's too late."
I looked at Al and said, "Al, it's never too late to do the right thing. You and Olivia have too much to give up. God loves you but dislikes the way you are trying to solve your marriage problems—especially when they can be corrected and prevented."
Toward the end of the session, we had made some progress but not enough. Al had to be challenged to make a decision. So did Olivia. Would she take Al back after he had been emotionally unfaithful?
I handed them two pieces of paper. "Al, Olivia, I haven't heard either of you make a strong commitment to work on your marriage. So what I'm asking you to do right now is write a letter to your children and to your grandchildren explaining that you are going to divorce. Be assured that they will want to know why. They have a right; this affects them as well."
I walked out, leaving them to face the truth, and I prayed earnestly. When I walked back into the room 10 minutes later, Al sat with his head in his hands. Olivia sat quietly with her paper in her lap.
"I can't do it," Al said. Olivia shook her head in agreement. The reality that 35 years of irretrievable investments was about to be lost had set in.
For four months, I worked with Olivia and Al, teaching them how to make changes that would bring back intimacy and purpose to their marriage. One of the things that led them to the point of desperation is that they had stopped doing the things that brought them together in the first place.
They had to reconnect with each other by going back to their dating days from the '60s: pizza and a movie every Friday night. Then they learned how to forgive each other for unfaithfulness in similar but different ways. They stopped keeping score of wrongdoings. They connected daily, even when they didn't feel like it.
They began to study God's Word together for the first time in more than 30 years. Instead of fighting to solve problems, they got on their knees and asked God to help them. They resumed intimacy in the bedroom after sleeping in separate rooms for 10 years. They rediscovered the value of touching, listening and walking together.
Two years ago I received a Christmas card with no return address. There was no writing inside, only a picture of Al and Olivia's large family: several young couples, numerous kids and a balding man and a beautiful, mature lady with gleaming eyes that said, "We did it!"
With the right spirit and actions, any marriage can be restored.
Does a person fall in and out of love the way Hollywood portrays it? Does something just happen and the light switch flips on or off in our romantic relationships?
Or, is falling in and out of love an involved process that takes time and the development of key elements? In my opinion, along with many relationship experts, the latter is the most accurate explanation.
Family Dynamics, a company based in Nashville, TN, has put a considerable amount of research and effort into the area of marriage and the "falling in love" process. Their research shows that a person does fall in love, but it is more than an emotion or "love at first sight" experience.1
In order to fall in love, a person must move from independence – needing only one's self to exist – to interdependence – being concerned about self but needing someone else to exist as well.
Some people can even go beyond interdependence and move toward the unhealthy side of relationships: dependence – needing others to exist and not being able to function without them.
In order for a person to move from independence to interdependence (the healthiest scenario), certain dynamics must take place:
Moving through these three stages, the couple thus transitions from independence to interdependence.
An interdependent relationship isn't static; it continues to be dynamic. On any given day, the relationship may move slightly toward independence or dependence. That is normal.
But some relationships move toward dependence, which is not good. Continued movement toward dependence causes a relationship to become unhealthy and ridden with psychosis.
This process also involves three stages:
Since falling in love is a process of moving from attraction, acceptance and fulfillment, falling out of love is just the opposite.
When a person moves backward through the three stages (from interdependence to attraction), the feelings of love diminish. Not only will passion disappear, but commitment will eventually disappear as well.
The trip backwards begins when one or both partner stops meeting the other's needs and when negative behaviors, like selfish demands, disrespectful judgments and angry outbursts, become a daily practice.2
Continued movement away from interdependence indicates that your marriage is in trouble and needs to be addressed. If not, the relationship is headed for at least one of three destinations:
Thus, if you find that you or your spouse is falling out of love, you must begin at the beginning and start over:
As simplistic as this process sounds, it works. Hundreds of couples are beginning to learn how to fall back in love by following the same pattern they followed to fall in love in the first place. By seeking professional help and making a commitment to this process, you can too.
You remember the sleepless nights and the lightheadedness you experienced after seeing her big, beautiful smile light up a room. You recall when just the thought of him holding your hand caused shortness of breath and a queasy stomach.
In some countries, they call that malaria.
In our culture, we call it romance.
In fact, years ago two doctors actually presented at the Congress of Internal Medicine in Wiesbaden, Germany, the idea that Liebeskummer – love sickness – is a definite medical ailment replete with physical symptoms.
At this point in your marriage, are you wondering where the "symptoms" went?
Sustaining the emotional excitement of romance, or "being in love," can be difficult at best – and physically draining at worst. The shimmer of courtship is often replaced with the realities of budget crunches and dirty diapers.
Dorothy Tennov, a clinical psychologist who worked with thousands of couples, said that romantic love, on average, lasts only three years.1 Does that sound depressing? If there's any truth to what she said, and if marriage is a lifetime commitment, we need to adjust the way we approach romance.
Romance is only one of the types of love important in marriage. If you think of marriage as a house, four kinds of love are like the components that make the house complete.
All four loves reflect God's design for your marriage. But in Western culture, romantic love has been exalted above the others.
Throughout history, songs, drama, and poems have lauded romance. Today movies and advertising do the same thing. Romance was designed by God, but it pales in comparison to the sacrificial nature of unconditional love. Romantic love looks for what it can get; unconditional love looks for what it can give.
If romance has waned in your marriage, put it in perspective. Work at renewing it. Set aside a regular date night, even if it means paying a babysitter.
Write a love letter to your husband. Buy your wife a rose. Be creative in the ways you show affection to each other.
Compile a list of qualities that originally drew you to your spouse. They probably have a little tarnish on them, but you'll likely find them with some polishing. If conflict between the two of you has squeezed out romance, get help to resolve it.
A few years into their marriage, Donna and Pete realized that their romance had taken a leave of absence. Work demands, frequent arguments, and the impact of time had dulled the luster that first characterized their relationship.
Instead of bailing out, they took a more realistic look at romance. Then they took steps to "repair the roof." They committed to dating each other twice a month, made time daily for communication, and worked out the in-law problem that had frustrated them for years.
No, the romantic "symptoms" weren't as powerful as they once were. But their love grew deeper as they worked on their marriage.
If you think you've fallen out of love, it may be because marriage requires hard work. Remember: The harder the climb, the better the view!
"We just drifted apart."
So many couples cite this as the reason for their divorce that you might think it's inevitable. Is it? If not, how can you prevent it?
Robin admits that she and her husband, Tony, are drifting apart. "We have different interests now. He's immersed in his work, and I'm at home all day with our three sons. I gave up my career to raise a family while Tony gets promotions. When Tony gets home, he has nothing left for me. He doesn't really love me."
Many couples seem to feel marriage is like selecting the right plane—and then putting it on autopilot. That's a good way to ensure that spouses eventually drift apart.
Here's how it often works: One partner is satisfied with the relationship as it is, but the other's needs are overlooked. In the case of Robin and Tony, Tony has been the mostly happy one. He has a beautiful wife, three great kids, a relationship with the Lord, and a job he enjoys. He's seen himself as having made the right choices—so from now on, it's smooth sailing. Autopilot has seemed to work for him.
Robin, on the other hand, is wondering whether she made the right choice of "plane." She needs more of Tony's presence to feel valued.
In a bid for Tony's attention, Robin has started distancing herself from him. His reaction is to feel inadequate, disappointed in himself that he can't make his wife happy, unworthy of her love, and confused. He's thinking, What am I doing wrong?
Instead of disclosing her needs, Robin is expecting Tony to do some mind-reading. When he fails, she withdraws her love. He, in turn, feels rejected and helpless to please her. Closeness evaporates, replaced by confusion and disappointment.
The result: Their relationship feels empty. They're drifting apart.
Robin and Tony need to understand that marriage is a growing, living relationship that needs nurturing. Before nurturing can be accepted, though, both partners have to be willing to take responsibility for their feelings and behaviors.
Using "straight talk" to acknowledge emotions without blaming can lead to resolving conflict. Robin could start the process by saying something like, "Tony, when I've had little adult conversation all day, I really need to talk with you."
Is this statement blaming? No. Is it clear what she needs? Yes. This will prevent defensiveness, contempt, and withdrawal.
Robin also can set the stage for solving the problem by putting the kids on a schedule that allows her "alone time" with Tony. The degree of closeness in a marriage reflects the overall climate in a home, and "climate control" takes spending time together.
Robin needs to know how to handle her resentment, too. When thoughts like He doesn't really love me arise, what should she do?
When such a thought strolls into the entryway of her mind, it doesn't belong to her yet; she doesn't have to feel guilty about it. But when she "camps on" this resentful thought instead of analyzing and rejecting it, it takes on a life of its own. She accepts ownership and buys into deception. She allows the thought to keep her from respectfully telling Tony what she's experiencing.
There's hope for Robin and Tony. They're both Christians who take their relationship with God seriously, and have been asking Him what to do about drifting apart. With His leading, they're working on making changes like these:
There are as many reasons for drifting apart as there are marriages. But the way to prevent that drift begins with a single step: taking yourself off autopilot.
It was late Sunday night. Julia had slipped into something more comfortable. I could hear water running and smell scented soap. I knew what she was up to, and I loved her for it — she was cleaning the kitchen.
This is usually one of my household duties. After a weekend of nonstop activity, it would be understandable if Julia just plopped down and rested. Instead, she chose to clean the dirtiest room in the house — for the sake of the family.
Acts of sacrifice, sprinkled freely throughout a marriage, make love richer and deeper. We know that, so what's the problem with doing it? Self.
Self constantly asks for more: What about my needs? What about my hurts? What about my time? Sacrificial love challenges us to give to our spouse in uncomfortable or unreasonable ways — ways that cost us emotion, time and pride.
If we pray to become more selfless, God will act. But self-giving love as a regular virtue in marriage means that we deal with some tough questions:
How can I love this way when I'm feeling unloved?For newlyweds, giving comes easier. After a few months, though, we need renewable motivation to maintain selflessness for our husband or wife, in spite of the cost to ourselves. Selflessness has to start with turning to Jesus.
Through Christ, we are promised God's love forever. To be selfless requires thinking about how God's love for us cost Him His Son. How can we apply this type of selflessness to loving our spouse?
Why put myself out when my spouse is acting like a jerk?What better time is there? Jesus didn't wait till we became more kind or thoughtful before He died for us. He did it while we were still selfish and uncaring. This same extraordinary kind of love, shown in small acts of generous behavior, will improve your marriage.
One of the most selfless things about Julia is the way she listens when I'm a jerk. Recently, I was pretty negative about a youth ministry we're involved in. It was hard for her to hear that I questioned why I was doing this outreach, that it felt burdensome, that I thought it was really more her thing than my thing.
Julia didn't respond in anger. She listened, expressed her feelings and prayed quietly. She offered a gentle answer that settled my wrath, allowing me to think through the real problem. (As much as I love working with kids, it drains me.)
What's the difference between selflessness and passively letting my spouse get his or her way?My friend Martha Manikas-Foster puts it this way: "Selflessness costs something dear, and conflict avoidance protects something dear. When my husband David became more willing to work out conflicts, putting aside his natural tendencies to avoid them, then I saw he was being selfless."
Often I'll find ways to care for Julia, but if it means discussing a problem and enduring the intense discussion that might ensue, I avoid it. The most loving thing I should do is pray about it, talk about it and stop pretending it's not there.
How can I love my spouse more when I feel as though I'm giving so much already?You may feel overwhelmed with work, kids and church. How can you do something extra for your spouse?
When I'm out of energy, I admit it to God, then my weakness becomes a conduit for divine strength. Maybe I'm extra tired, and Julia asks me to rub her back. So I pray, God, give me energy.
Other times we may want to be the giver but won't admitour own needs. Occasionally, the most selfless thing we can do is to acknowledge feeling overwhelmed and articulate our inadequacies.
• • •
Selflessness is not a marriage strategy but a heart transformation in Christ. "Jesus defines selflessness from the Incarnation to Calvary, so to be selfless is to identify with Him," says Martha's husband, David. "The point is to value your spouse so much that her best really is your goal."
. . .preserve sound judgment and discernment,
do not let them out of your sight (Proverbs 3:21 NIV).
I kissed my husband Charles good-bye, waved as I backed down the driveway and drove off for a weekend speaking engagement. His last words rolled across my mind.
"Be safe and have fun. I realize when you come home you'll be a new person. I'm looking forward to the changes I'll see."
We had talked the night before about not taking each other for granted––in other words, assuming we knew all there was to know about one another––and about the importance of supporting each other as individuals with ideas, dreams and goals of our own.
Yes, we were one in spirit and flesh as married partners but we were also a man and a woman who had God-given talents and gifts to share with the world. Changes and challenges were inevitable and we wanted to accept rather than resist them. We committed to praying for discernment in our relationship so we would not grow complacent.
I can say today, as my mother often said about her marriage to my father, "We're not out of the woods yet, but we're on our way, and most important, we're still together." She and my dad had walked side by side and climbed over a few boulders, as well, for more than 60 years.
The following suggestions for staying married for life (and happily so) are based on observations, conversations and trial and error in my marriage. They work––thanks to my parents' example, the advice of people I admire and the counsel and prayer of an older married couple, Rob and Grace, who befriended my husband and me many years ago.
Perhaps they will work for you too as you ask God for discernment, practice it and then experience the rewards and results in your marriage.
Being 'there' for your spouse is what being married is really about. It takes time to get to know another person. If you're not available, it can't happen. Our friends Tom and Lou go out for dinner every Friday night and they have done so for more than 30 years. When their children were young, they hired a sitter. Nothing but a serious illness keeps them from this weekly date where they focus on one another in a relaxed setting.
Russ awakens his wife Jean each morning with a cup of her favorite tea. The two then sit in bed together, talk over their plans for the day and spend a few minutes in prayer. "Our day always goes better when we pray first," said Russ.
Ginger and Alan work together in real estate—a business with unpredictable hours and lots of driving. One works in the field, the other in the office. "Believe it or not we rarely see each other during the day so we've made a point of having lunch together," said Ginger. "Nothing gets in the way of that one hour when we can talk, plan, laugh and debrief."
And Sally and Dave bought a hot tub where they spend their special time together each night before going to bed. "The couple that soaks together stays together," Sally joked.
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12:34 NIV).
Have you ever walked up to someone at an event, and as you begin talking, he or she nods and makes polite sounds, but is clearly elsewhere in spirit? He scans the crowd while he's standing with you. Or she peeks around your shoulder as if to say, "I wonder who else is here." It's chilling to be on the receiving end of such treatment. It's bad enough when it occurs at a social or business gathering, but it can be devastating in a marriage.
To be attentive, one must pay attention! Look your spouse in the eye. Listen for your mate's heart, not just for his or her words. This is an area of challenge for almost everyone. We lead such busy lives that many of us have made a habit of doing more than one thing at the same time. We make phone calls while driving, cook with one hand and scribble a list with the other, cut a child's hair as we help our mate with the monthly finances.
Later we wonder where the years went and why we don't feel as connected to our husband or wife as we hoped we would. We long for another hug. We wish we could laugh and play more. We notice a growing distance between us. If this is true for you, take heart. It's not too late. Regardless of how long you've been married, you can learn from those mistakes. Each of us can choose today to start paying attention to the person we vowed to love and cherish for a lifetime.
"His God instructs him and teaches him the right way" (Is. 28:26 NIV).
A friend of mine had a successful restaurant business for 20 years. He credited it to his weekly round-table meetings with his employees. "He knew his people would not be effective if they were carrying around emotional baggage," said his wife Anne. Each Monday morning Frank invited them to share anything that might interfere with them doing their job. "At the end of the meeting you could feel the change in the air," she said. "Employees felt closer to one another because they knew they weren't alone. Other people cared."
This custom inspired me. I started practicing it with my husband. Instead of assuming I know what's going on with him, I pray for discernment when I suspect something is upsetting him. Then I ask if he'd like to talk and if so, I try to listen and empathize rather than rush in with a pat answer.
Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves (Romans 12:10.
Two words spouses don't hear often enough––from one another:
Gratitude is not an option. It's actually God's will. As the apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Thes. 5:16-18, ". . . give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus."
The more we express our appreciation toward our mates, the freer we become of negative thoughts and emotions toward one another. Resentment and judgment cannot exist in the same space with appreciation.
"Gratitude is the rosemary of the heart," wrote 19th century writer Minna Antrim.
How little it would take to sprinkle rosemary into the lives of our spouses. A simple 'thank you' every single day would do it!
As we become available, attentive, aware, and appreciative toward our marriage partners, we are building a relationship that will last a lifetime—and happily so.
A 50-something couple sits at a table for two in a nice restaurant. Even the most casual observer can tell they aren't communicating with one another. Oh, she may ask him to pass the salt. Or, without looking up, he'll inquire, "How's your steak?" But there's no real conversation going on, no eye contact and no sign of the spark that once animated their marriage.
Watching this couple is sad. Becoming this couple is tragic. How did their relationship devolve to a point of coexistence rather than co-partnering? Is their monosyllabic interaction a sign they no longer love each other?
More likely, they've simply neglected the regular "checkups" necessary to keep their marriage running optimally in "all weather" conditions.
Marriage experts identify certain transition points in the life of even the healthiest marriage — transitions that, if ignored, can leave couples out-of-sync and emotionally disconnected from one another.
Typical transition points are the birth of a child, when children leave home and after during the retirement of one or both partners. If those life transitions aren't consciously noted and addressed (Who are we now that we're no longer devoted to parenting and our careers?), it can result in couples who gradually drift apart and take up separate lives, barely noticing that they've become total strangers.
"We have concluded that first-half strategies practiced in the second half of life are a sure formula for failure," says Terry Taylor, who, with his wife Carol, founded Second Half Ministries in 1998. The Taylors encourage couples to take a deliberate approach to finishing well in all aspects of life, but especially in their marriages.
So, where do you begin? A review of expert advice and conversations with some who have been happily, productively married for 30 years or more reveals practical steps you can take to make sure you and your spouse don't wind up silently idling your engines. So check under the hood — it may be time to:
All in all, the key to not winding up like the mechanical couple in the restaurant is to realize that your life together is God's gift to you. Like all His gifts, it's meant to be nurtured and cherished each and every day.
Remember when you were dating and you could be together all evening, then talk on the phone until the wee hours of the morning because there was so much more to say? With a little effort, a similar sort of excitement can be a part of your revitalized marriage. May you close down every restaurant you visit.
Thank you to all of the donors who make the work of Focus on the Family possible.
Note: Names have been changed.
On Valentine's Day, Meg* went all out, giving her husband, Peter,* his favorite candy and tickets to a hockey game. Later that night, she wrapped herself in a special outfit purchased just for the occasion.
Peter got her a card.
At the grocery store.
That he purchased on the way home from work.
He didn't add anything to it, either. He just signed it, "Peter."
A couple of days later, Meg tried to explain that she felt a little taken for granted. Apparently, Peter misunderstood her intent because two months later, when they celebrated their anniversary, Peter didn't get Meg anything.
"How could you not get me anything for our anniversary?" she asked Peter the next day. "Especially after our conversation about Valentine's Day."
"Well, I thought about getting you something, but it didn't work out," he replied. "And then I knew not to get you a card because you said you didn't like that last time."
"It's not that I didn't like the card. It's that the card alone seemed a little sparse. But even that is better than nothing ..."
Several months later, Meg had a birthday. This time, Peter got her a present – a kitchen tool set. Several weeks before, Meg had asked to borrow Peter's tape measure and screwdriver. Peter figured that Meg should have her own small set of kitchen tools so she didn't have to borrow his.
Meg recounted all this and then explained how she had tried to get her husband to read several how-to books on loving your spouse. He would read the first few pages, lose interest and never pick the book up again.
"I've realized this is never going to change," she confessed. "But I love him anyway."
That last statement of Meg's, "but I love him anyway," is one of the most profound theological statements on marriage I've ever heard. Most of us base love on because, not on anyway. I love you because you're good to me. I love you because you're kind, because you're considerate, because you keep the romance alive.
But in Luke 6:32-36, Jesus says we shouldn't love because. We should love anyway. If we love someone because that person is good to us, or gives back to us, or is kind to us, we're acting no better than anyone else. In essence, Jesus is saying you don't need the Holy Spirit to love a man who remembers every anniversary – not just the anniversary of your marriage, but the anniversary of your first date and your first kiss. Any woman could love a man like that. Or if you love a wife who lavishes you with sports gifts, who goes out of her way to make you comfortable when you get home from work and who wants sex anytime you do – well, you're doing what any man would do. There's no special credit in that!
But if you love a spouse who disappoints you, who can be a little self-absorbed – now you're loving anyway. In doing that, you're following the model of the heavenly Father, who loves the ungrateful and the wicked.
Will you love only because? Or are you willing to love anyway? Will you love a man or woman who doesn't appreciate your sacrifice? Will you love a husband or wife who takes you for granted? Will you love a spouse who isn't nearly as kind to you as you are to him or her?
Just about every faithless marriage is based on because love. Christians are called to anyway love. That's what makes us different. That's what gives glory to God. That's what helps us appreciate God's love for us, because God loves us anyway. He gives and gives and gives – and we take Him for granted. He is eager to meet with us, and we get too busy to notice Him. He is good to us, and we accuse Him mercilessly when something doesn't go just the way we planned it.
But God loves us anyway. To love anyway is to love like God – and to learn about God's love for us.
That's love, the way God intended it.