When I was in fourth grade, my teacher made us color a map of the world, cut out each continent and then, like a puzzle, figure out how all seven pieces could have once existed as one solid land mass. It was easy to see how some of them fit together, but others made no sense at all.
After several minutes, my teacher put a map on the wall showing how geologists believe the continents fit together before breaking off and moving apart. According to those who study Continental Drift, the great landmasses are still drifting at a rate of about one inch per year—which doesn't seem like much until you realize how far they are from where they began.
Marital Drift seems as inevitable as the continental variety. A creeping separateness between spouses often begins on the day they return from their honeymoon and sometimes doesn't stop until one or both end up in a counselor's office, a lawyer's office or somebody else's bed. Many believe nothing can be done to prevent Marital Drift. Comments like, "I just don't love her anymore," "We've grown apart," and "I can't imagine what I ever saw in him" are common.
Counseling couples is sometimes as difficult as solving that fourth-grade puzzle. It's hard to see how these two angry, often bitter, people in my office used to fit together in a way that made them want to get married. Most of them weren't aware of the gradual drift, they just know they're a long way from where they started.
Dodge the Drift
Not only am I convinced that drifting can be avoided, I believe the opposite can occur. As the years sail by, you can actually grow closer, more intimate and more deeply in love. But you've got to make it happen.
Take a quick quiz. What were things like when you first fell in love? Wives, when your boyfriend (now husband) picked you up, was he showered, freshly shaven and wearing clean clothes? Did he bring you presents, take you places and treat you with courtesy and honor?
Husbands, did your girlfriend (now wife) care about her appearance? Did she let you know she was happy to see you? Did she appreciate your gifts, do special things for you and treat you with respect?
Did both of you feel that you mattered and know that you were thinking about each other when you were apart (as evidenced by notes and phone calls)? Did you share hopes, dreams, fears and a common vision of a shared future?
This may sound as corny as an Indiana farm, but those small courtesies, simple thrills and optimistic hopes for the future are the forces that draw couples together and help them fall in love. In those intoxicating days of new love, we never dream that Marital Drift could ever affect us.
Then it happens, but we don't recognize the effects until it has left an emotional gulf between us. When couples describe their drift, they usually attribute it to one or both of them changing. That's when I ask: "When did you and your partner quit dating?"
Too many people view marriage as a destination rather than a journey. We graduate, get a job, get married, have kids, build a career and a retirement account and then retire. At each of those stages, we apply our energies and accumulated knowledge to achieve the next goal. When the goal is marriage, we know enough to date our mate-to-be in a way that will create a stronger attraction between us. We win the heart of our beloved and get married. Then, with that behind us, we move on to the next big goal.
But that isn't how God intended marriage to work. Getting married is only one point in time. Staying married—in a way that is exciting and fun—is a process. I have a plaque in my office that says, "Getting married is easy; staying married is more difficult; staying happily married for a lifetime should rank among the fine arts." As in all fine arts, to master a technique you must be disciplined, you must sacrifice and always keep the goal of success in mind. If you desire a satisfying marriage, you must continue—or perhaps return to—doing the things that helped you fall in love the first time.
In the sometimes confusing New Testament book of Revelation, there is an unambiguous statement about love. In addressing the church in the town of Ephesus, Jesus states that they had forsaken their first love (him) and because of that were no longer acting as if they truly loved him. The solution he presents is simple: stop doing the things you're doing now and go back to doing the things you did when your love was new.
Couples start drifting because they forget what first caused them to feel close. They want the continued benefits of their early closeness, but they fail to invest the hours of talking, playing and sharing together. Relational closeness doesn't have a life of its own. To stay intimate you must continue to do the things you did when you first grew to love each other.
Reclaim Lost Love
If you want to avoid Marital Drift (and who doesn't?), start by identifying what drew you close in the first place. Then work together to design a plan that will encourage dating. Go on at least one date every month. Read a book or devotional together, preferably one with questions to discuss. Practice praying together. Make plans for a night away—without the kids. Go for a hand-in-hand walk a couple of nights a week. Reclaim the activities you enjoyed while you were dating, and revisit the places that brought joy and excitement to your relationship.
Like all marriages, your relationship will hit its share of rough spots. But as long as you're careful to do the things that keep you close, you'll face the future—both good and bad—from a stable foundation of togetherness built on God's truth.
Dr. Tim A. Gardner is author of Sacred Sex (WaterBrook) and Director of The Marriage Education and Policy Center at the Indiana Family Institute (an affiliate of Focus on the Family).
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.