Why do some married couples grow deeper in love, while others experience more pain with each passing season of life? What can we do to keep a new love young until we’re old?
As the old couple held hands and slowly rose to their feet, so did the audience. The congregation’s ovation was sweet and deafening. We were recognizing a couple in our congregation for their 71 years of marriage. And everyone could see not only that John and Phyllis’s love survived the tests of time, but they had the marriage all young couples long for.
There is something winsome about couples who fall more deeply in love as the years go by. It is the stuff of life’s best dreams.
Every young married couple wants that. Newlywed couples never consider the possibility of drifting apart through the years, walking on eggshells with each other, and regularly having their hearts broken in their own home. No young husband or wife ever went on a honeymoon expecting it to be the start of their great marriage pendulum—a life continually swinging back and forth between pain and numbness, apathy and anger.
There is something holy about an old love.
But this question begs for an answer: Why do some married couples grow deeper in love, yet others experience more pain with each passing season of life?
Many couples—good couples, couples once in love— intended to spend long, happy lives together, but instead the years brought not more love, but more strain, less closeness, less trust, and less knowledge of one another. Their story is one of drift—a drift that left them in the same house but millions of miles apart.
Look around you—look at some of the core families in your church, consider some of the homes of the prominent Christian leaders you know—and you will see time is not kind to all marriages.
Old love tells us that real love exists. Failed love makes us wrestle with this question: Why does love grow for some but wane for others?
We start with two important truths. The first is that the desire to love and be loved is instinctive. That desire is hard-wired within all of us, whether we are saints or scoundrels. In the same way a whale seems to instinctively migrate across an ocean or a newborn calf knows to stand and nurse, God places within every human heart the inborn desire to love and to be loved.
But the second truth begins to explain the disparity between lives: While the desire to love may be instinctive, the ability to love is not. The ability to love, among other things, requires wisdom and an understanding. We need to understand what creates and fuels a lifetime love.
A long-term love is not self-generating; it is not some spontaneous surprise that keeps showing up like a perennial plant that sprouts anew every spring. Instead, a deep abiding love must be created and powered by something. Any couple who wants to grow old together—and to enjoy growing old together—must understand and then commit to that something.
While I appreciate the counseling classes I have taken, I probably owe most of my educational money to an old woman from my first ministry. I was in over my head, trying to counsel couples whose marriages were drifting and falling apart. This old widow turned a light on for me.
“You tell those couples that their being in love doesn’t have much to do with who they are married to,” she said. “It has everything to do with how they treat who they are married to! Being in love with our mates has more to do with us than it does them.”
She was right. And as she fleshed out the story of her own marriage, she helped me see how old love comes to be.
In plain words, a lifetime love does not come because our mate has enough magnetic traits to hold our love for the rest of our life. It isn’t possible. The truth is, no matter how many qualities my wife may have, no matter how much I may appreciate her or admire her, no matter how well she treats me, no matter how high a pedestal she might put me on, she cannot cause me to deeply love her.
Where Are You Investing?
There is a powerful truth about the string tied to our heart. Our heart and our love are tied to our own investment! In Matthew 6:21, Jesus points out the principle that where my investment is—whatever I choose to treasure—that is where my heart will also be. We normally think about that principle only in relationship to the investment of our money, but it far transcends the dollar sign—it is a pattern of the human heart. We love not only what we invest in, but who we invest in.
Here is a simple illustration. A man has no affection for a stray dog that shows up in his neighborhood. Instead, the man is repulsed because the dog has mange, is ugly, and has no endearing qualities. But since no living thing should starve, the man begins to feed the dog scraps from his supper while waiting for the animal control officer to arrive. And since nothing should freeze, he allows the dog to take shelter in his shed when the ice storm hits.
And something begins to change. After only a few days of these investment activities, the man takes the dog to a veterinarian and spends $276 to treat it. Three years later, when the dog dies, the man cries like he has lost his best friend!
What happened? Did the dog change during those early days? No, the man changed. His investment, his caregiving, brought his heart into it.
That principle affects every part of life. Why does a momma love her baby? It is pretty simple. A woman spends years dreaming about her baby. She endures weeks of morning sickness, and invests money, time, and energy getting a nursery and everything else ready for her child. The day of delivery, she suffers through 20 hours of very hard labor. She takes her baby home and nurses it, holds it, and sings to it. She has sleepless nights walking up and down the hallway with a colicky infant.
And while, by most objective standards, this baby may not have contributed much to this family—it doesn’t matter—momma deeply loves her baby. The principle is always true—where your investment is, there your heart will be. (That principle may also explain why an irresponsible, self-centered mother you know seems to have far less of a heart for her own baby. Where there is little investment, there is little heart.)
A Choice and a Vow
Great marriages are a choice that two people must make. A flawed man will marry a flawed woman. But if he is wise, if he is godly, he will make his vow to the Lord.
His vow will be about his wife, but that vow is not to his wife. He covenants with God that as his daily act of worship he will pour his life into his wife. He will treat her with compassion and kindness, he will serve her with tenderness and courage. He agrees with God that she has a value and worth that far transcends her failings and weaknesses. He promises to invest in her on the days it is easy and she is a delight, but he also promises to graciously invest in her on the days she is less so. He also vows to invest in her, even on his lesser days.
It is his worship that is the constant, and it is his vow to God that drives his investing heart. And as the man continues his investment, God must surely nudge the angels and whisper, “Watch this! Watch how this man will love his bride for the rest of his life.”
And a woman vows with the Lord. Her vow will be about her husband, but it is not to her husband. It will be her worship that will cause her to invest daily into the good but flawed man she married. And as God blesses the covenant she has made, her heart is pulled deeper into her own home.
No one promises it will be easy. There will be a few quiet nights along the way. But the path is not lost and the marriage easily rights itself because two people keep investing in each other. A lifetime love is not accidental; it is the courageous daily choice of two people.
There are, of course, other ways to do a marriage, and those ways are far more common and popular. For example, we can ascribe to the theory that says, “I’ll love you if (and as long as) you meet my needs.” There are many marriages built on the premise that our feelings of love are just the natural result of how well someone treats us. If we love them much, it must be because they are great at meeting our needs. If we love them little, it must be because they are failing to meet our needs.
It starts simply enough. A woman decides to marry the man who comes along and makes her feel pretty enough, skinny enough, talented enough, appreciated and secure enough. And while she sees herself as being “in love” with him, it is a love that if brought into a marriage will begin to destroy it in a matter of months. Oh, the marriage certificate may last 50 years, but all the life will be drained out of it and it will have been a very hollow marriage.
At some point during the early years, this woman will conclude she does not love her husband enough because he keeps failing her. What does she do now when she does not feel pretty enough, skinny enough, talented enough, or appreciated enough? If she fell in love with him because he met her needs, it is every bit as logical to stop loving him when he doesn’t. Probably 30 percent of all Western marriages are built upon this belief system, and it doesn’t end well.
Here is the other popular way to do marriage: believe that your love is built upon common interests and the wonderful ways that your personalities match. You can use phrases like “the chemistry just seemed right” or “we were just the right fit.” In this scenario, it will be a great five- to ten-year marriage. (Well, maybe not so great, but it won’t be bad all the time!) The people in such marriages will unfortunately discover that time is not kind to common interest or the magic of chemistry. We are not like static rocks—we change. In a marriage, the interests and personalities of both husband and wife will change, and it’s unlikely the changes will be identical.
If you fall in love with someone because of who he or she is, what do you do when either they change or you change? How do you cope when he gets busy with work and she gets busy with the kids? What happens when he gets busy with the church and she gets busy with the school? He gets his feelings hurt because she’s not as available or understanding as he wants. So he takes a half-step back, removing a little of his investment in her. Or she’s upset because he’s not as thoughtful as she wants, and she takes a half-step back too.
And so begins a slow descent, leading these two to become strangers who hardly know one another. They keep waiting for the old magic to come back, but they just can’t seem to find that new common interest or wonderful chemistry of personality. It gets old living like this. Probably 50 percent of all Western marriages know this story.
Both partners will have to make the decision, of course, but great marriages don’t just happen. Marriages flourish because love is more than just a response to a pleasing personality or to having our needs met. Love grows in a man when a man pours his life into his wife. And it grows in a wife when she pours her life into her husband.
There are a thousand reasons for being stingy with one’s investment, things like hurt feelings and resentments, changing personalities and common interests, bad time management, simple distractions, wrong views of ministry, and the list goes on. The dreams of our youth never occur when we pull back from one another, but only when we consistently pour into one another. It is not easy, but it is clear; where your investment is, there will your heart be also.
And the investment is so worth it. There is only one thing better than young love, and it is old love.
Randy Gariss serves as preaching minister with College Heights Christian Church in Joplin, Missouri. He is author of a DVD series, A Lifetime Love.