Mike considered himself a good lover. That is until his wife, Tina, asked him to move out after nine years of marriage. "It has become painfully clear that I don't know much about what it means to love," he admitted. "I mean really love."
Why is love so difficult? Why do so many couples like Mike and Tina start out with good intentions and then stumble? The answer is that many don't really understand love. Over the years, I've counseled couples whose functional definition of love could be summed up as "a feeling that you feel when you feel that you're going to feel a feeling that you've never felt before." Add to this confusion the expectation many couples have that love will never change—and disappointment is guaranteed.
But just as each year has different seasons, there are also seasons to a relationship. God designed each season to produce a different kind of love.
The First Season Face-to-Face
Falling in love is the first, and sadly for some couples the only, season of love. Often couples confuse infatuation with love. A husband might see his wife as he would like her to be—a warm, caring person who always keeps his needs foremost in her mind. Who she truly is—a woman who can be angry and upset with him at times—is irrelevant.
Judith Voist, in her book Love & Guilt (Simon and Schuster), provides a humorous, and yet truthful, distinction between love and infatuation. "Infatuation is when you think he's as gorgeous as Robert Redford, as pure as Solzhenitsyn, as funny as Woody Allen, as athletic as Jimmy Connors and as smart as Albert Einstein. Love is when you realize that he's as gorgeous as Woody Allen, as smart as Jimmy Connors, as funny as Solzhenitsyn, as athletic as Albert Einstein and nothing like Robert Redford in any category—but you'll take him anyway."
Tina and Mike, in their nine years of marriage, had never moved beyond infatuation. During their courtship, they experienced the electricity of eros, or romantic love. It was new, exciting and intense—everything they assumed love would be.
When they were dating, Tina and Mike experienced an all-absorbing involvement in one another—seeing each other daily and talking by phone late into the night. They yearned for physical closeness and held hands whenever possible. "Our love felt so real," Tina says, "and I thought those feelings would last forever."
Of course the feelings didn't last. Soon after their honeymoon, life got in the way. Mike worked hard to establish himself as a top salesman in a major communications company. His 60-hour work weeks didn't leave much time for his wife. By their fifth anniversary, Tina was busy, too, keeping up with three active preschoolers.
Looking back, they realized that since their wedding day, they had done little to cultivate their relationship. In fact, with each passing year, they ran their life more as "married singles" than as a married couple. What communication they did have focused on housekeeping and childcare.
Like many couples, they were treating love as a commodity. But love isn't like a piece of furniture that sits off in the corner, needing only an occasional dusting. Love is more like a plant that requires careful, long-term attention. For ten years I lived in Nebraska, where I learned about farming. The first lesson was that planting a seed is only the beginning of the growth process. Many long hours are spent cultivating, fertilizing and watering before the seeds grow into mature plants. It's not always fun, but when the harvest comes it's worth it. And so, in the romance stage of love, the seeds are planted. But without constant care and attention, romance can't grow into mature love.
Mike and Tina were relieved to learn that there were steps they could take to turn their disillusionment into a deeper level of love. I encouraged them to find three other couples who would pray for them and their marriage on a daily basis for the next six months. Then I helped them shift the focus away from the tension between them by having them concentrate on becoming friends as well as lovers.
To help establish that friendship, I recommended that each day they read a devotional from Quiet Times for Couples (Harvest House), by H. Norman Wright. The devotionals are short and easy-to-read, and rather than focusing on problems they focus on growth.
Finally, I encouraged Tina and Mike to go out on a date at least twice a month. Often I encourage couples to see a movie, but with two stipulations. First, the film must end early enough that they can go to a restaurant afterward to discuss it. Whether they liked the movie or not is irrevelant. The point is to share thoughts and feelings. And second, during their dates, they can't bring up any conflictual issues. A date is a time to enjoy one another.
By nurturing their friendship, Tina and Mike were able to move beyond the disillusionment of lost romance. This is a necessary step that bridges the first and second seasons of love.
The Second Season Shoulder-to-Shoulder
Many couples miss the rollercoaster highs and lows of early romantic love. But as their love deepens, they will enjoy the beauty of phileo—the bond of friendship. Friendship love combines the intensity of romance with the stability of knowing a spouse is committed to learning how to appreciate you for who you are rather than what he or she thinks you should be.
In this second season of love, couples begin to understand that love is a deliberate choice—not merely a feeling. To build on this deeper level of love, I often encourage couples to choose a meaningful act they will perform for each other. I ask them to write it down somewhere so they can keep track of what they've done. Most of us tend to overestimate the loving things we do for our partner, and underestimate the loving things they do for us.
The action can be something simple like taking out the trash. It might be a phone call or a card. My wife, Carrie, and I have devotions together in the morning. I always try to get her a cup of coffee before she asks. I like to anticipate her need and go ahead and meet it.
The deeper sense of friendship that develops in the second season leads to a different kind of communication. You're eager to learn how to read your mate. What are his or her unique needs and desires? What shows that she's hurt or discouraged? What indicates he's unhappy or anxious?
Several years ago, Carrie and I decided to read the book Prayer by Richard Foster (HarperSanFransciso). We would read a chapter independently, then talk about it and practice a particular approach to prayer. Often we found out more about one another in meaningful, intercessory prayer than we did in long conversations.
While partners are learning more about one another, it's also a time to learn what methods of communication are most effective. For Mike and Tina, their pattern of communicating—a brief comment here, a short observation there—created what Paul Tournier calls "dialogues of the deaf." They were talking but not being heard.
Carrie and I have experienced that in our marriage. I sometimes hear my wife express concerns in prayer, things she has already expressed to me, but her words didn't register before because we were communicating on the run.
An excellent tool to help spouses draw one another out is the workbook Experiencing God (LifeWay) by Henry Blackaby and Claude King. I encouraged Mike and Tina to set aside at least 30 minutes a week to share what God was teaching them about their individual relationships with him and to ask some open-ended questions of one another.
I reminded Mike that in conversation, men like to get to the bottom line. But women aren't looking for a summary statement. For them, the bottom line is the process of sharing together. What may seem like "small talk" to Mike is probably "important talk" to Tina.
While romantic love is almost always a face-to-face relationship, friendship love is often shoulder-to-shoulder. Spouses are working together on something greater than both of them. They don't just find their oneness in each other, but in shared interests and in working toward a mutual goal. Spiritual growth was such a goal for Carrie and me when we worked through the Experiencing God workbook and applied the truths to our marriage.
The Third Season Soul-to-Soul
As Mike and Tina made progress in the friendship stage of love, they were excited to learn that in the third season of marriage they would experience more passion and intensity than ever before. Couples build on the foundation of romantic love and the security of friendship love and then discover that real love involves an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person. That's when agape, or sacrifical love, begins to take root.
In Mere Christianity (MacMillian), C.S. Lewis observed that many people have the mistaken idea that "if you have married the right person you may expect to go on 'being in love' forever. As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change—not realizing that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one. In this department of life, as in every other, thrills come at the beginning and do not last. … Let the thrill go—let it die away—go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow—and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time."
Couples in this season experience a sympathetic sensitivity that accepts each other's weaknesses and shortcomings. This mutual acceptance comes largely with time. When God makes a squash, he takes six months. When he makes an oak tree, he takes 100 years. Couples who want a deep, sacrificial love know that growing such a love, like growing a tree, takes time.
While acceptance is vital in this stage of love, author Leighton Ford adds an important twist to it. He said, "God loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way." The third stage of love goes beyond acceptance to growth. Because you love each other, you want to see your mate become the person God designed him or her to be.
The seasons of love don't always follow a set sequence. Rather, the growth of love is more circular. I've worked with couples who are experiencing all three stages at the same time. Also, none of the stages has a prescribed time limit. I know couples married less than ten years who were already enjoying the harvest of love in season three, and others married for 35 years who were still riding the roller coaster of the first season.
Most people don't have a clear understanding of the depth and breadth of true biblical love. For that reason, I encourage couples to look up three different versions of 1 Corinthians 13. I then have them write out their own paraphrase, in 1998 language, of this chapter of Scripture. Couples have told me it helped them personalize God's truth about love.
To make love practical, as well as personal, I challenge every spouse to do one thing for his or her partner every day for the next month. Pick an act of kindness, and practice it for 30 days without calling attention to it. Observe the difference that comes when you work to build, encourage, nourish and cherish the love you and your spouse share.
Gary J. Oliver, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Marriage and Family Studies and professor of psychology and practical theology at John Brown University.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.