I was working late one night when the phone rang. A woman seeking counsel spoke my name and hardly waited for me to respond before unburdening herself.
"I've been married six months, and already the honeymoon is over. Tonight, my husband went out with the guys after we had a big argument. I feel alone and rejected. I sat here thinking, Is this all there is to it?" Her voice cracked with emotion as she said, "Please tell me there is something more."
I assured her there is, indeed, something more. Marriage can and should be an intimate relationship that lasts for a lifetime and grows stronger and closer over the years. That's the kind of love for which the human heart longs. Every human heart — yours and your spouse's.
I've enjoyed that kind of relationship with my wife, Dottie, for more than 45 years, though it hasn't always come naturally. I had a lot to learn when we were first married — and still do. But our relationship has grown, partly as the result of three specific ways we choose to love each other.
An accepting love
Many relationships falter due to a lack of "accepting love." In such a case, one or both of the people in the relationship feel a need to live up to the other's expectations in order to be loved. This is performance-based acceptance, and it's often a carry-over from childhood. When did your sweetheart feel most loved by his or her parents? Was it when A's showed up on the report card? When his or her team won the game? When a task was completed just right? If so, your spouse probably equates love and acceptance with performance. For many people, performance-based acceptance is programmed deep within them. They give love and feel loved on an "I love you if" or an "I love you when" basis.
A performance-based attitude will poison a relationship. It will produce a score-keeping dynamic that operates in fear, suspicion and disappointment: If I just do better, he'll love me more, or I bent over backward for her, and this is the thanks I get? It becomes a treadmill of effort and expectation.
But a love that lasts takes an altogether different approach. It's an "I love you, period" kind of love, one that is commanded in Scripture: "Accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us" (Romans 15:7, NASB). Does Jesus extend acceptance to people based on their performance? Does He redeem sinners based on their good works? Does He withhold kindness from those who don't measure up? Of course not. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV). His acceptance of us is based on His love for and commitment to us, not on our performance.
There is such joy and security in knowing that your beloved accepts you — no matter what. Your husband repeatedly forgets to pick up his clothes as he promised, but he still feels your love. Your wife sometimes seems to give more attention to the dog than to you, but she still feels your love. Your acceptance of each other is based not on performance but on your love for and commitment to each other.
But won't that kind of acceptance just encourage bad behavior? It is true that "I love you, period" involves risk. My wife can testify that I really mess up — often. I'm not as considerate as I should be, I make cutting remarks when I am tired — I could go on and on. But do I act that way because she accepts me as I am? No, not at all. In fact, because she accepts me for who I am, I want to please her and bless her even more. I seek her forgiveness when I blow it, and the knowledge that she loves and accepts me, period, motivates me to make her security, welfare and happiness as important to me as my own is. And that cycle of accepting and being accepted builds strong and lasting trust, comfort and security in our relationship.
A loyal love
Imagine me strolling along a beach on my honeymoon with Dottie. I turn to her, look deeply into her eyes, and say, "Honey, of the 3 billion women on this planet, you are on my top 10 list." And imagine also that she squeezes my hand and smiles, saying, "Thanks, Josh. That means so much. It thrills me to think that I'm among the 10 women you love most. Just to be on your list, sweetheart, is good enough for me."
Does that strike you as realistic? Is that the response you would expect? Not me. Dottie would be extremely insulted and deeply hurt if I said something like that. And she should be. She wants to be No. 1 in my life. And I want to be No. 1 to her. That's how we were created. Human beings are designed to want the exclusive, loyal love of another.
God himself exemplifies that kind of love. The Bible refers to God as a jealous God (Joshua 24:19). The words jealous God in Hebrew are el qana, which also denotes zeal. The word jealous in English is mostly used in a negative sense, but in Hebrew it expresses not a suspicious, insecure emotion but rather passion and caring, most often in connection with the relationship between a husband and wife.
When spouses reserve their love and devotion exclusively for each other, it deepens and strengthens the relationship. A husband can demonstrate loyal love by speaking respectfully to and about his wife, by refusing a co-worker's flirtation or by turning his glance from titillating images. A wife can show loyal love by choosing not to share herself emotionally with another man or by rebuffing children's efforts to pit Mom and Dad against each other. Both husband and wife can show loyal love by maintaining healthy boundaries with people of the opposite sex and by regularly praising — and never criticizing — each other in public.
An enduring love
About 50 years ago, the Beatles released a song that asked, "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?"
The song reflects a universal desire. Whether young and just beginning a romance, older and starting over, or many years into a marriage, everyone wants a love that endures. But how can you be confident that your love for each other will stay strong, no matter what, and last a lifetime? Is it possible to love and be loved "till death do us part"?
I have watched couples go through difficulties that eroded and destroyed their love, but I have also seen love endure and triumph over the most extreme and excruciating circumstances. I know couples who have chosen to cultivate a love that lasts a lifetime. Dottie and I have made that choice.
You, too, can allow the never-ending, never-failing love of God to empower your love for your spouse. Through God's grace, you can offer your spouse a love that "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:7). Such love requires a shared determination to weather storms and a refusal to consider other options, such as divorce. It takes prayer, both together and individually. It involves learning what makes your spouse feel loved, not only as newlyweds but also through the changes and challenges of each new phase in life. It relies on courtesy and careful and constant communication. Couples must take the time and make the effort to truly listen to each other and regularly refresh their commitment — with date nights, for example, or occasional getaways.
As I told my late-night caller, the "something more" for which she longed is more than possible; it is available. It's experienced by nurturing an accepting, loyal and enduring love — the kind of love every human heart craves, a love that lasts a lifetime.Josh McDowell is an internationally known speaker and author. His books include 10 Ways to Say "I Love You."
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