Do you love your spouse, or do you truly cherish them? Gary Thomas encourages couples to make a daily effort to go beyond the ‘duty’ of love, and combat the natural inclination to drift apart by choosing to see the best in their spouse.
Author Gary Thomas discusses several issues within the modern dating scene – character vs. romantic attraction, the neurological impact of infatuation, the idea of soulmates – while encouraging singles to be intentional in their pursuit of a godly spouse. (Part 1 of 2)
John Fuller: Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Now that promise belongs to all of us, but our guests today believes this promise is especially important for single adults who want to get married someday. This is Focus on the Family, hosted by Focus president and author Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.
Jim Daly: And John, I love talking with single adults and on behalf of singles about family formation, because for the majority of singles, not everyone of course, but for the majority, marriage is going to be a big part of your future. And here at Focus, we want to encourage you in your journey to find a loving, godly spouse. That’s the goal. And that’s why we have our Boundless podcast and outreach to 20 and 30 something singles who want to honor God and how they live, and think, and interact with other believers. But also, as you begin dating and experiencing romantic relationships, it’s important to know where you’re headed. We also know we’re talking to a lot of parents right now. I’m one of them who have young single adults in your family.
John: And I’m another one of those.
Jim: That’s right. And today we have some valuable insights that I know you’re going to want to pass along to them.
John: Our guest is Gary Thomas. He’s a prolific author and speaker, and really a thought leader in the areas of marriage, and parenting, and spiritual formation. And Gary has written, I think at least 20 books, and one we’re going to focus on today is called The Sacred Search: What If It’s Not about Who You Marry, But Why? And, uh, you can learn more about that book and get a copy from our website. Also learn about the Boundless Outreach that Jim mentioned. Um, stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast or call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. And Jim, here’s how you began the conversation with Gary Thomas.
Jim: Let me ask you a question. Let’s get right into it. Uh, you share that you felt almost hypocritical when you wrote this book because you did a miserable (laughs) job, practicing what you preach. I love that vulnerability. (laughs) I feel sometimes as a dad, I’m not doing it as well as I should, as president of Focus on the Family. (laughs) So I share in your, uh, your sorrow, but tell me why. Why did you feel were being a hypocrite, uh, when you were seeking your mate in Lisa?
Gary Thomas: Well, when I look back at my high school and even college dating years, there’s a lot I would rather my kids not do. I think back to those old bracelets, WWJD, what would Jesus do? And I would joke with my kids, “I want you to think back on what did dad do when he dated and do the opposite?” Because I was, I was driven by infatuation. I think I was driven by other concerns that weren’t spiritually based. Now God, in his enormous grace and kindness provided a woman that has been a blessing for 28 years, that I couldn’t have dreamed of. But certainly, the process to get was broken. And I’ve seen so many people that went through a broken process and didn’t end up with a mate that isn’t encouraged, or that is a godly person. And, and the challenge is, as you hinted at, this is such a consequential decision. A good marriage is like a gift that keeps on giving. I have been blessed literally every day of my life because of one decision I made as a single man that I wanted to marry Lisa. And I’ve seen others that have to carry a burden literally every day of their life, because they made a foolish marital choice. You know, if you buy a house, you don’t like, well, you’ll take a financial hit, but eventually you can save up and move into another neighborhood. If you get a car that’s a lemon, you trade it in and you, you count your losses, marriage isn’t like that. It changes who you are. It becomes a part of your history, a part of your life. And if singles want to make one wise decision in their life next to becoming a Christian, this is the one that has to be thoughtful with their eyes wide open, with counsel, driven by the truth of scripture, and not frankly, I think the many ridiculous and misleading messages that the world gives us.
Jim: Well, you know, in part, you’re talking about the distinction between covenant and contract, which you talk about with marriage. But you suggest that singles should ask themselves why they want to get married before they consider who they want to get married too. Um, you know, (laughs) that takes a lot of maturity. I’m thinking myself when I was 23, 24, I don’t know that I would have thought that through quite that, that way. Tell me why that’s so important?
Gary: Because most Christian singles today, I believe value the same things about marriage as non-Christian singles. They haven’t connected their faith with their romance and their view of marriage. So, for them, the why of marriage is sharing an infatuation, sharing sexual chemistry, enjoying each other’s company on a date. Those are the things that most people are drawn to. And if those three things are present, they think, “Well, this is a great match. And if they’re a Christian, then what’s the problem? Well, there’s no other question.” But those things have been proven not to hold a marriage together. You have to understand the why of marriage. Infatuation we’ll get into neurologically is proven to always fade rather quickly. Sexual chemistry, though it’s important part of marriage, it doesn’t hold a marriage together. I, I think of a Hollywood actress who was involved in a cable television show. In the height of her fame, released a book, a sex manual for couples. And in it, she described her husband as an artist. She said he had this virtual so move that would send her over the top. Within weeks of that book coming out, they announced their separation within a year. They were divorced. So apparently being good in bed doesn’t mean you’re good in marriage. And the fact that you get along well on a date, that you like the same movies and the same kind of pizza, it just doesn’t factor in when you’re going through raising kids together, suffering cancer, unemployment, building a life together, those things that our culture values, that’s not the why of marriage. Those things are passing. And so, if we don’t know the why, we can’t know whether somebody qualifies as a good who.
Jim: Uh, Gary with that in mind, uh, should a couple wait a couple of years so that infatuation stage passes (laughs) them and their clarity comes, and the fog of the moment, uh, you know, dissipates?
Gary: I’m asked that all the time, Jim. And here’s the thing, the Bible doesn’t give us a calendar. And so, I don’t want to create one. Here’s what I’m more concerned as a pastor when I meet with a couple, are their eyes opened? For instance, if they can tell me the three major weaknesses of the person they want to marry, and I think that’s an accurate depiction of what they’re facing, then I think despite the fact that they’re infatuated, they’re making a wise decision, they’re saying, “You know what I realize, this is a challenge. This will be a challenge. This will be a challenge. And this is a strength, and this is a strength. And this…” I just want to see that they’re living in a world called reality. (Laughs) And if they’re there, I think they can make a wise decision. Where I’m concerned is when I’m, it’s clear, the couple really doesn’t know each other. They don’t even know their weaknesses. And that’s what I’m thinking, they’re not ready.
Jim: Well, and in that context, Matthew 6:33, which John opened with, which is seeking God first, which is the bottom line, you use that thread throughout your book to kind of bring people back to the anchor. I actually, interestingly enough, that’s what I applied when I was single. That was the very verse about wanting to do it God’s way. And it was fabulous. And I met Jean in a very, I think God centric way. Um, you’re striving for that, but is there only one person out there for me?
Gary: No. And I think that’s one of the most destructive myths that Christian singles are holding onto. Now we sort of Christianize it as if God created one person just for us. But I found that leads people astray more than it’s helpful. And the key verse in this, I believe that’s pretty definitive is first Corinthians 7:39 when Paul is talking to widows, but it also refers to single women. And first he discusses that singleness is an option and they might want to consider that. But then he says, if she wants to get married, that’s fine. And this is a quote, “She is free to marry anyone she wishes only in the Lord.” So, Paul is saying, we’re not to seek some fulfilled destiny. We’re not supposed to try to second guess God, we’re supposed to look on things like character. And that’s where Proverbs comes in. And scripture is so helpful because Proverbs 31 lays it out entirely on the basis of character. It’s telling men, a noble wife who can find and says, you look for this, this, this, and this, not a sense of destiny, not trying to second guess God, but this is what a good woman is. This is what you do not want to be led astray with. First Corinthians seven, going back to that, Paul says we want to marry for sake of righteousness. If a guy is in a dating relationship, or he’s got a series of dating relationships, he’s not behaving himself sexually, he says to him, “Go ahead and get married.” In other words, get married for the sake of righteousness because you want to live a righteous life. Nowhere in scripture is the sense that there’s just we’ve got to find the one out of 7 billion people on the face of the earth that God has created just for us.
Jim: Okay, but we’ve got this infatuation. Now let’s come back to that.
Jim: Because it seems so natural, uh, when you’re single and you’re saying, “Lord, okay. I feel like you’re allowing me to seek a mate. And that’s what you want me to do. And I certainly am grateful for that Lord.” (Laughs) And you start looking. How again do you get the handle on this distinction between infatuation and doing it in such a way that is uplifting righteousness? It seems to me those can be in conflict at times because infatuation, that’s the mechanism that God has put in us to draw us together, and then we’ve got to move it quickly to something else. In fact, you say in your book that infatuation only lasts maybe 12 to 18 months, uh, describe that. I mean, most of us won’t even understand that, but that’s what’s happening to us biochemically, right?
Gary: It is actually, and for some, it would be less than that. We’re all, we all to have different brain mappings, I guess, would be the best way to describe it. For some it might not even last that long, but even then, if you look at a brain under a scope and infatuation at say 13 months is demonstrably different than one at six months. And if we’re not aware of this, see, we spent so much time teaching singles to be good stewards of their sexual purity, which we need more, not less, I’m a big fan of that. But I don’t believe we’ve taught Christian singles as much to be stewards of their emotional health.
Jim: I agree.
Gary: They don’t understand how transcendent infatuation feels. It carries you away. And yet neurologists now, because we know so much more about the brain in this generation than any previous age that it literally makes us blind. That statement love is blind is true. We literally start to relate to somebody who doesn’t exist. The term neurologist uses idealization. And so, we see strengths that others wouldn’t pick up. You know, somebody does something innocuous, uh, a guy in a gallery in a college café she drops a fork and he picks it up instead of just leaving it there. And she’s overcome, “Look, he picked up the fork. (laughs) He’s so kind and thoughtful. He doesn’t leave it for other people. And, uh, you know, next to Jesus Christ, I don’t know anyone with this character that has ever walked the earth.” And everybody else’s like, “He just picked up the fork. What’s the big deal?” (Laughs) And then this is just as destructive, they miss the negative clues. He’s an angry person and she redefines it as passionate. And what every pastor and counselors heard so often when somebody has been carried away by infatuation into a long-term commitment, it’s five, six years later, he’s not who I thought he was. And that’s a true statement. They related to somebody who didn’t exist. They created somebody else in their mind. And that’s what singles have to watch out for. There has to be sufficient time till get through that brain fog and you can have an accurate picture of who really am I relating to?
Jim: Uh, we’ve described infatuation, but I’m still not sure on what the definition is. What does it mean to be infatuated?
Gary: Dr. Helen Fisher’s a biological anthropologist and she’s actually studied this. And here’s some key markers for somebody who’s head over heels in infatuation. Part of what I just said that you tend to focus on your beloved’s better traits, and you minimize their flaws. You can have extreme energy, even hyperactivity and sleeplessness. One or both partners develops a goal-oriented fixation on winning the beloved. In vernacular language, I’d say is you’re so focused on getting and keeping the person. You don’t have any neurological energy leftover to think, are they worth getting, are they worth keeping? It’s just, I want to get the goal. And really what I think another way to describe as it makes you feel desperate, fearful, and clingy. (Laughs) [crosstalk 00:13:06]
Jim: And it makes you write poetry.
Gary: Yes. You’re afraid that they won’t love you back. You feel desperate to win them and clingy to make sure they don’t get away.
Jim: But again, it doesn’t have to be, uh, kind of described on negatively because God has put that mechanism in us to draw us to each other, that infatuation, there’s got to be a healthy element to it.
Gary: Well, God designed infatuation. He designed our brains. It has a good creational purpose. It’s just that we have to know it’s not a good enough reason to marry someone. If you know it can’t last more than 12 to 18 months, why would you connect yourself to someone for five or six decades? One of the saddest things I’ve heard as a pastor is a woman who admitted. she got married primarily on infatuation, they got married too quickly. She said, “Gary, we had a great nine months. We haven’t had a good nine weeks since.”
Jim: Wow. Let me drill into that because there was a statement in your book that really caught my attention and it fits right here. You said, “Just because you’re in love with someone doesn’t mean you should seriously consider marrying them.”
Jim: That sounds (laughs) contradictory. What in the world are you talking about?
Gary: Yeah, I know it sounds bizarre, but just let me tell the singles. Here’s a woman who had been through two divorces already and they were painful divorces. I mean, the guys had cheated on her. They’d gotten a little rough with her. I mean, just horrendous situations. She’s with a third guy, worried that maybe he wasn’t as committed to her as she was to him. And she wanted my advice. And she began to describe some things that alarmed me. One, she caught him on the phone telling another woman, not his sister, not his mom, that he loved her. That’s a big red flag. He could be somewhat emotionally abusive in a way that would send her into crying fits. And as she’s just describing the dynamics of this relationship, I’m thinking, why are you in this relationship? I mean, I, I just said, “He seems to me very similar to the guys that you had this problem with before.” She said, “Gary, you don’t understand. I am deeply and passionately in love with him.” So, I took a deep breath and I said, “Were you in love with your first husband?” “Oh, absolutely. I was devastated when he left me.” “What about your second husband?” “Oh yeah, it was different, but yeah, very much so.” And I said, finally, “Maybe you need to find a reason other than being in love to marry someone because it’s led you to two bad relationships. It might lead you into a third. It’s leading you to men that aren’t healthy for you, that aren’t good for you.” But because it’s so ingrained in our mind that if we feel this head over heels in love, we don’t even question whether we should marry him. That’s what we value most. And even a woman who had been burned twice, living by that philosophy was ready to make a third decision on the same basis, we just can’t let it go.
John: Well, that’s a really challenging perspective we heard from Gary Thomas, who has written a really profound book called The Sacred Search: What If It’s Not about Who You Marry, But Why? And we do recommend of course that you get a copy of that. Our number here, 800-A-FAMILY, or stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. And let’s go ahead and return to the conversation with Gary on today’s episode of Focus on the Family, where I asked this question.
John: Gary, you talked about a study that really showed the value that women in particular place on romantic love. And it seems like there’ve been some changes over the years in that regard.
Gary: Uh, there have been. And when you look historically just a few gen, couple of generations ago, if you present it to a woman, a guy has this trait, this trait, this trait, this trait, this trait, but you don’t have that over the top, weak in the knee feeling of infatuation would you marry him? And I don’t remember the exact number, but it was over 80% that said yes. Nowadays less than 10% would say yes.
Gary: You know, and I’ve been pushed back on this, is interesting at a college setting, a woman said to me, young woman said to me, “Here let’s be honest, don’t you want them to be in love with the man on their wedding day?” And I said, “You know, I get what you’re saying. And in a perfect world, romance is a wonderful thing. I think it’s good that we celebrate it. But here’s the thing I want to be walking my daughter down the aisle toward a man that she respects, because respect is something that grows. If he’s a respectable man, her affection for him will increase. I want her to walk down the aisle toward a man who’s pursuing God because his wisdom will grow, his character will grow, there’ll be more of him to love and appreciate. I want her to walk down the aisle toward a man who will die for his family, who will be engaged with their kids because when she has kids, she’s going to care for them in a way she can’t even imagine caring for those kids now. And the thing that will thrill her heart the most is if he’s involved and there for her family.” And I said, “I want her to marry a man who is so strong and selfless in his love that if she gets cancer and loses all her hair, he will kiss her bald head and make her believe she is the most beautiful woman on the face of the earth.” And I said, “If she’s walking up the aisle toward a man like that, and doesn’t have a lot of feelings, I’m going to say, honey, it really doesn’t matter. But if I’m walking her up the aisle toward a man who has none of that, but she says, she’s head over heels, I’ll be doing my best to pull her out the back door, (laughs) because those are things that don’t last, character is something that lasts.”
Jim: Gary I’ve got to ask though, I’m the single and I’m again, seeking the mate. And what you’re saying, theoretically, it’s resonating with me, I get it, I understand it, but how do I truly learn to develop that ability to place character over infatuation? When you just told me a little while ago, that infatuation makes me blind and stupid. (laughs) I mean, how am I going to learn to do that? What are the hooks that I can say, okay, I’m 25, I’m falling in love. I’m not sure if he’s got the character that I want. How do I learn to put character above infatuation?
Gary: One, recognize what infatuation is doing to you. Uh, it makes you vulnerable and stupid. And so just enjoy the feeling but recognize I’m very vulnerable to my feelings. I’m really literally, I don’t mean as negative, but I’m acting kind of stupid. I’m not, I don’t see things. So, seek counsel, uh, seek those character-based traits. And I hope we have time to get into it. I’d like to say I think eight-character traits that are essential for us to be, and for us to look for, for a successful marriage. If we’re talking about the why of marriage, if infatuation isn’t enough, what can we look for? And, and then you go through that list and then you can begin to see, okay, this makes sense because it’s perfectly possible to become infatuated with somebody who would be sterling marriage material, but you’re not marrying him because of the infatuation.
Jim: Yeah, it can happen that way. Um, Gary, let’s also come back to this idea of finding the number one person that God has selected one person for me. And I got to find that girl or that guy. Uh, you kind of do a little shift on the acronym. Uh, the soulmate, you move from S-O-U-L to S-O-L-E. Uh, what do you mean in your book about the soul, S-O-L-Emate?
Gary: Well, the reason I debunked the soulmate, S-O-U-L is that it comes from Plato, not scripture. He really is the one who surmised that, what he says in his book Symposium, he has a character named Aristophanes, who said that there’s this ancient prototype human that was male and female together. They called them round people. And the problem is that they were becoming too powerful and threatening the gods. So Zeus came up with the plan, I’m going to cut them into separate the two halves. There’ll be desperate to find their missing half that they won’t have anything left over to challenge the gods. Then once they find each other, there’ll be so clingy and desperate to stay together that they’ll leave us alone. And that’s what Zeus did. And thus, the gods were saved. And nobody believes that worldview now, but we still have this sense that there’s this one lost person that will connect us. The biblical worldview couldn’t be more different. The biblical worldview is not that I’m incomplete because I’ve been separated from an ancient half human, instead I’ve been separated from God by my sin. And so, I’m not finding someone to complete me. I’m finding someone with whom I can share my love with God, with whom I can share the journey toward learning to love other people, with whom I can share Matthew 6:33, “Seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” And so, soulmate, S-O-L-E is just walking out the biblical commands of loving, walking out the biblical command of serving God in his kingdom. The richest marriages I’ve seen, and this is what I would tell singles, the most intimate fulfilled marriages I’ve ever witnessed are marriages that exist for something bigger than themselves. They’re passionate about the kingdom. They worship God together. They serve God together. That just staves off the boredom that affects so many relationships that are self-centered.
Jim: Gary, we’re coming in for a landing. And when I think back on this conversation thus far, some people could think that is a really unromantic approach to marriage. You’ve told us, basically, the person you love doesn’t necessarily need to be the person you marry that, uh, you know what, you gotta be aware of infatuation, ’cause it makes you blind and stupid. (Laughs) And then you get down to it and you’re going to seek out character over attraction, really. That’s the bottom line and what you’re saying. Uh, speak to that person why what you have said, it seems counter-intuitive to your emotions, but it is right on the mark when it comes to what God wants in your life.
Gary: Jim, it goes back again to the why. I think of the mother’s day card that I wrote for my wife the last mother’s day, just thanking her for what she’s invested in our kids. And my anniversary, thanking her for how she stood behind me and beside me and with me all those years. Marriage is very difficult. I mean, life throws stuff at you every day and romance can’t survive that. But when you have a strong sister or brother in the Lord, that, that is there beside you, that has your back, that is a rock. I think of a woman I’ll never forget. She had gone through so many medical crises in her life it would make you want to cry, that one woman had to go through all of that in one lifetime. And she said, “But Gary, I can’t tell. I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through this without my husband. He held my hair back while I was vomiting. He made me feel like I was the most beautiful woman on the earth when I felt like I was the ugliest because of the treatments I was going through. Next to becoming a Christian, marrying him was the best decision I ever could have made.” And when she said is that life has been very, very difficult, but it’s been better because she chose a good man to walk through this life with. The singles have no clue what they face up ahead. They don’t know the trials or the challenges. But here’s what God says, “I’m going to let you choose who you face those challenges with. I’m going to let you choose who you walk through those trials with.” And what will matter most is faith and character, being filled with the spirit, having the wisdom of scripture invested in your family. In the end that’s what creates the most rewarding life. Jesus knew what he was talking about with Matthew 6:33, “If we seek first his kingdom and his righteous, all these other things that we desire, those will be taken care of,” if we keep our priorities first. The why really does matter to answer the who.
Jim: Well, Gary Thomas, author the book, The Sacred Search. This has been a great start to the discussion, but we’ve got more questions. In fact, I’m going to start next time with this one, winning the romance lottery. And, uh, let’s go there and can you just stay with us? And we’ll [crosstalk 00:24:54].
Gary: Would love to. Would love to.
Jim: Okay. Let’s do it. John, I so appreciate the passion and wisdom that Gary brings to this topic. He wants to help couples live godly lives, starting from day one in their relationship. And I think he’s also challenging those of us who’ve been married for several years or even decades to do better. We must continue to live out our faith in the ways we serve and love and treasure our spouse. I would say first and foremost, that’s where it starts because the world is watching to see if what we say and what we do, uh, lines up with our faith. I want to encourage our listeners to get a copy of Gary’s book. If you’re considering marriage in the future, you need this resource. And if you’re already married, pass it along to a single adult or an engaged couple that you know, and maybe you’re even mentoring. We can send you a copy when you make a monthly pledge to Focus on the Family today, at whatever amount you can afford. We need more sustaining members, if I can call it that in our financial team, who, uh, believe in the importance of godly marriage and want to help couples build a solid foundation for the future. So please consider a monthly pledge to Focus On The Family today, and we’ll say thank you by sending The Sacred Search right out to you.
John: This is a wonderful resource as Jim said, I know you’re going to find it helpful. So please donate as you can today, 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY to make that pledge, or if you’re not in a spot to be able to commit on a monthly basis, um, a one-time gift would be deeply appreciated. Uh, again, our number is (800) 232-6459 or donate online at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast.
Jim: And John, at the beginning of the program, I mentioned our Boundless podcast. Uh, it’s also a broadcast by the way. Our colleague Lisa Anderson heads up this amazing outreach to single adults. And if you’re looking for a tight knit supportive group that’s dedicated to following Christ, Boundless is for you. Boundless will challenge your preconceptions and hold you accountable to the truth. And you’ll find a lot of solid godly friends there. And parents, this is where you want to send your young adults who are in that 20 to 30 something age group. Boundless is a wonderful community of faith for them.
John: Yeah. Check it out and we’ll post a link at our website focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. Coming up next time, more insights from Gary Thomas about singles looking for the perfect spouse.
Gary Thomas: I’m trying to take on, I think, a popular myth in Christian culture. And it goes like this, “God will bring the right person at the right time if I just sit back and wait.”
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Do you love your spouse, or do you truly cherish them? Gary Thomas encourages couples to make a daily effort to go beyond the ‘duty’ of love, and combat the natural inclination to drift apart by choosing to see the best in their spouse.
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