Two days after our wedding in Chicago, Les and I were nestled into a cottage, surrounded by towering pines along the picturesque Oregon coast. A few miles to the south were the famous coastal sand dunes where we planned to ride horses later that week. And to the north was a quaint harbor village where we thought we might spend another day leisurely looking at shops and eating dinner by candlelight in a rustic inn. Other than that, we had nothing on our itinerary for the next five days except enjoying the beach and each other, rain or shine.
Neither of us could have dreamed up a more wonderful scenario. Not that everything was perfect. For instance, we locked ourselves out of our rental car the day after we arrived. When Les realized the keys were in the ignition and the doors were locked, he took his first stab at being an everything's-under-control husband. "You stay here in the cabin," he told me. "I'm going to walk to that filling station on the main road and get some help."
"I want to go with you," I responded.
"Are you sure? It might rain."
"It'll be fun. Let's go."
We walked and talked the two or three miles to find a pay phone where we made arrangements for a locksmith to pick us up and take us back to our car. Sitting on a curb, we waited, saying nothing, while a couple of seagulls chatted overhead. Les was fiddling with a stick he'd picked up on our walk when I realized several minutes had passed and neither of us had said a word. It was an easy stillness, however, a kind of eloquent silence where we were content, comfortable, not talking.
That's when the thought hit me: I had captured true love. Les and I had dated for nearly seven years before we got married, so this wasn't the dizzying, starry-eyed love of a new relationship. The love I'm talking about was clear-eyed and grounded. I had married a man who loved me deeply, just as I loved him. This was reality and I was simply taking it in, relishing the silence and stillness of having no other purpose than that of being together. We had created a marriage. And it was good. So good, in fact, that we could practically live on it. And we did, for a time.
Keep a Good Thing Going
Like any other couple, Les and I longed to find ways to make our love endure. Part of the impetus for our vision came from reading A Severe Mercy (Harper SanFrancisco), the real-life love story of Sheldon and Davy Vanauken, a couple who not only dreamed about building a soulful union, but devised a concrete strategy for creating a "Shining Barrier." Its goal: to make their love invulnerable. Its plan: to share everything.
If one of them liked something, there must be something to like in it—and the other must find it. Whether poetry, strawberries or an interest in ships, Sheldon and Davy purposed to share every single thing either of them liked. That way they would create a thousand strands, great and small, that would link them together. They would become so close that it would be unthinkable for either of them to suppose that they could ever recreate such closeness with anyone else. Total sharing, they believed, was the ultimate secret of a love that would last forever.
To secure their Shining Barrier, Sheldon and Davy would, at least once a month, talk about their relationship and evaluate their activities by asking: is this best for our love? It's a great question. Why not create a shield to protect your love? We all know couples who took love for granted and saw the soul of their marriage perish. By ceasing to do things together and finding separate interests, couples turn "we" into "I" as their love becomes lifeless.
But is it really possible to guard against losing the glory of love? Is it within the realm of human capability to keep love always protected from harm? And even if it were, is love enough to sustain a marriage? The answer, in our opinion, is no.
Make Love Complete
It's a rare week when our mail carrier does not deliver a wedding invitation to our door. Because we work with so many engaged couples, we are invited to more weddings than we can ever attend. And the ones we do attend always remind us how glorious the beginning of lifelong love is. A man and a woman make a dramatic public declaration concerning their love. It seems entirely natural to give themselves to this love totally, to dedicate the rest of their lives to the pursuit, exploration, testing, enjoying and continual renewal of this love.
We all entered marriage confident that our union would not only survive but thrive. Our confidence was bolstered by our love. But here's the kicker: no couple can completely guard their love against the circumstances of life that conspire to diminish it. (Not even Sheldon and Davy could do that.) What's more, love by itself is seldom sturdy enough to support a couple when their marriage is challenged by bad things. Love, while being a good catalyst for marriage, cannot sustain it without the assistance of four other essential components. For a marriage to flourish for a lifetime, love must work hand in hand with open communication, unwavering commitment, regular forgiveness and sincere empathy.
We have counseled countless couples who cling to the sentimental romantic notion of love expressed in songs, movies and novels. It can lead couples to believe a destructive marital myth that says: Everything good in this relationship should get even better after the wedding. But the hard truth about life is that not everything gets better. Many things do improve because of marriage, but others actually become more difficult. For starters, marriage means coming to terms with new limits on your independence. It means giving up a carefree lifestyle. And even for people who hate to be alone, marriage still becomes an invasion of privacy.
Love asks for everything, but how hard it is to give everything! Indeed, it is impossible. We are held back by busy schedules, by words we wish we could take back, by an innate tendency to look out for our own good rather than our mate's. We can declare our undying love dramatically at a wedding ceremony, but that is just a start, a mere statement of intention. Acting on that declaration takes more than love.
A marriage grows and thrives because the partners undergird their love with four other elements. They work at open communication, even when they're tired, hurt or angry. They reaffirm their commitment through words and actions, even when the warm feelings of romantic love seem nothing more than a dim memory. They freely admit their mistakes and actively ask for and grant forgiveness. And they put themselves in their mate's place to understand the struggles and challenges that he or she faces. No marriage can remain healthy when love is not renewed and enhanced by these four essential components.
Couples who use their love as a foundation on which to build a complete relationship will enjoy a great reward. Their marriage will overcome the setbacks and will remain very, very good.
Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., and Les Parrott, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University. They are the authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Becoming Soul Mates and Relationships (all published by Zondervan). Visit Les and Leslie at www.RealRelationships.com.
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