Formula for an Actually Amazing Love Story


Every popular romance story portrays a loving bond so special it comes just once in a lifetime. How can you ensure that your own romance has a lifetime filled with those happy-ever-after endings?

Our youngest daughter, Annie, loves to hear how my wife, Erin, and I fell in love. And believe it or not, we owe that love to Leviticus.

I was a sophomore studying at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. I had a 7 a.m. Old Testament theology class — not the easiest class for me to stay awake in to begin with, and on this particular morning, the professor was lecturing on Leviticus. You know, the book filled with rules and instructions, the one that even most Christians skip during their Bible-reading programs.

Somewhere between passages on burnt offerings and admonitions not to eat shellfish, I must’ve drifted off: The next thing I knew a hand was violently shaking my shoulder. My eyelids popped open, and I found myself staring into the most beautiful eyes I’d ever seen — eyes that belonged to a complete stranger.

“Greg,” the stranger said, “you need to stand up.”

Wha? I thought.

“The professor just called on you,” she said, looking prettier all the time.

“Called on me to do what?” I asked.

She said in the gentlest voice, “He called on you to pray.”

Questions formed in my groggy brain: I’m supposed to give the closing prayer? And on the day I fall asleep? Seriously?

I wasn’t completely blindsided. After all, our professor always asked a student to close the lecture in prayer. I assumed I’d fallen asleep for longer than I thought. And why would this complete (albeit beautiful) stranger lie to me? No one — certainly no one taking an Old Testament theology class — could be that cruel.

So I stood up in class, bowed my head and began to pray. Out loud.

Now, when you bow your head and lead a group in prayer, normally everyone else bows their heads, too. But I had the distinct feeling that the class wasn’t praying. They were looking at me. I opened one eye to see if I was right and, sure enough — not only where they not praying, they were pointing! At me!

I quickly finished my prayer and sat down as the entire class broke into laughter.

The professor walked over to me. “Thanks for the prayer, Mr. Smalley,” he said gently. “However, maybe next time you will let me finish lecturing before you close the class in prayer.”

I was mortified. I turned to glare at the girl behind me — the stranger with the beautiful eyes and that cruel sense of humor — and I melted all over again. I thought, That’s the girl I’m going to marry someday! And I did.

Annie can’t get enough of that story. She’s a sucker for romance, and she’s not alone. The leading publisher of romantic fiction, Harlequin, publishes 110 titles per month and sells two books per second worldwide. Romance movies bring in the box office bucks; a single movie can gross more than $1 billion.

What is it about romantic novels and movies that captivate so many people? Romance novels and movies have the potential to set up false expectations about how married life should be, but by examining formulaic romances we can be challenged to strengthen our own marriages. Let me offer a few tips, using as inspiration Writer’s Digest’s own “Essential Elements of Writing a Romance Novel” by Leigh Michaels.

Differences are good

The first thing that has to happen in a good romance, according to Michaels, is that a man and woman have to fall in love. But that’s not enough: The characters have to be interesting, too — compelling to the reader and compelling to each other. As Michaels writes:

Without two people to fall in love, there is no story. Since you’re asking readers to spend several hours with your characters, it’s important to create a man and a woman they want to know more about.

We all know that it’s not the similarities in the characters that draw them to each other; it’s their differences. Value and celebrate your differences. Those differences are good — as long as we view those differences in the right way. Ask yourself what you love about your spouse. What are your favorite things about your spouse? I’m betting that how he or she is different from you makes a big part of that list.

Conflict is not bad

Second, all good romances have conflict — tensions that threaten to keep the lovebirds apart. Michaels explains:

The way in which these difficulties impact these particular characters, putting pressure on them and bringing out their good points and their flaws, is what makes their story exciting.

That echoes something we all know, and that the apostle Paul reminds us of in 1 Corinthians 7:28: “But those who marry will have worldly troubles.”

All couples will experience conflict. We’ll argue, quarrel, wrangle, bicker and clash from time to time. We tend to avoid conflict, but the truth is that conflict is a beautiful part of our love story — a necessary element of any romance worth its salt. We can’t avoid it and shouldn’t run from it; instead, we need to view these tense moments as James does: “When troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity” (James 1:2). The moment that we get into an argument, we have the opportunity to discover something new about our spouse, our marriage and ourselves.

Staying curious is important

Third, we should concentrate, as romances do, on developing a love so special that it comes just once in a lifetime. Again, Michaels:

The need for a romance in a romance novel seems so obvious. After all, the romance novel is a love story — the hero and heroine have to fall in love. … Each event in the story helps your lovers see each other differently, discover new traits (good and bad) and get to know each other on a deeper level.

What Michaels is talking about here is, essentially, curiosity. Those in love want to know more about each other. When I was first dating Erin, I was fascinated by every little aspect of her personality — her feelings and thoughts, beliefs and desires, hopes and dreams. We spent hours talking about these things. Most of us lose some of that curiosity the longer we’re married, but we need to stay curious. One lifetime isn’t long enough to get to know someone; they’re always changing. That’s part of the beauty, and mystery, of marriage.

Happy endings are the goal

Fourth, every love story needs a great ending — hopefully one with the words “happily ever after.” How do you ensure that your own romance has a lifetime filled with happy moments? In your own romance story, you need to develop and pursue shared dreams together. God unites couples to do together what they could never do alone.

In their book You and Me Forever, Francis and Lisa Chan wrote, “Picture marriage as a vehicle for mission, an opportunity for Christians to carry out our mission to make disciples of all the nations.” But what does that look like? The possibilities are almost endless, but it could include leading a Bible study or small group; considering foster care or adoption; spending time together on a short-term mission trip; or working with troubled youth. You could even follow Erin’s and my footsteps and mentor younger couples.

In Ephesians 5:31-32, the apostle Paul wrote, “[The Scriptures say,] ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound.” Paul was absolutely right, but it’s more than a mystery. Marriage is a romance — one filled with twists and turns, adventure and excitement, laughter, tears and love. Never forget that your story is a great romance — one that your own kids will love to listen to.

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