Love: How Are You Doing With That?

Posted on November 24, 2016

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On Sunday, we had a guest preacher at our church.  She is not only a pastor, but also a clinical psychologist and a seminary professor.  The sermon, titled “The Lord Has Done Great Things” was an encouraging message about how in our sorrows and losses are the seeds of future joy.  The scriptural basis was Psalm 126 with particular focus on verse 6, “Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.”  By way of example, she used her own remarriage, making the point that “any story of remarriage is a story where threads of sorrow, disappointment, and heartache are woven together with hope, restoration, and God’s incredible grace.”[1]  Abundant life and joy involves being able to hold the entire range of human experience which includes our sorrows as well.

It was a beautiful sermon, and I found myself strangely and deeply saddened by her story despite the happy ending of currently being in a happy marriage of 13 years.  You see, in her first marriage, both she and her husband were pastoring a church together at the time of their divorce.  This was two pastors, one of whom was also a clinical psychologist, who could not make their marriage work.

In pointing that out, my intent is not to sound judgmental about their failed marriage.  I know virtually nothing about their story and the relationship problems that led to the end of the marriage.   Nor is my intent to convey a sense of hopelessness about the prospect of anyone being able to sustain a happy, satisfying marriage (though perhaps that might have been partly what I was feeling in the moment).

My view is that marriage (when it works) is the greatest experience that human beings can have this side of heaven.  In scripture, even before the fall, the first time something was not good was when the man was alone.  The solution God came up with for this problem was marriage.  At the time, our relationship with God had not yet been damaged by sin so we were still in unbroken fellowship with God.  Yet, one human being still needed another human for a partner.

Further, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul proclaims that love (agape in the Greek) is more important than anything else we do or experience.  Paul describes the attributes of this kind of self-sacrificing love.  In the middle of this discussion, Paul seems to digress into a discussion of our future experience in heaven and our spiritual maturity.  In verse 12, he states “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  This knowing and being fully known is a description of perfect intimacy.  Heaven will involve a state of perfect intimacy.  Paul is not changing topics here, this is part of the discussion of love.  In verse 13, Paul returns to theme with “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

The experience on Earth that most closely resembles this description of intimacy is marriage.  This is the human relationship in which we are most able to know and be fully known.  When it works, it is great.  It is also the relationship in which we are most vulnerable.  Consequently, when the marriage is distressed, the pain is devastating.

Drs. John and Julie Gottman have done decades of research into why marriages succeed or fail.  They have been able to identify those patterns that are problematic and what separates the relationship masters from the disasters.  Dr. Sue Johnson has also spent decades perfecting how to help distressed couples come to a place of secure attachment and intimacy.  I have had training in both Emotionally Focused Therapy (the most empirically validated couples therapy, which was developed by Sue Johnson) and Gottman Method Couples Therapy.  In this post, I am feeling more philosophical than clinical.

I have at times asserted that marriage is a rather straightforward proposition.  One of my close friends (who is also a pastor) has pointed out to me that just because something is simple does not make it easy.  This is certainly true.  If it were easy as well as simple, I would be retired already.  No one would have need of my services.

So here’s what I think about how marriage works (at the risk of sounding terribly unromantic).  You meet someone that you like.  First, it is important that you find the person reasonably attractive.  After all, this person is going to be your lover for the rest of your life.  Finding them drop dead gorgeous does not really add value here.  How attractive you find your partner a decade or two down the road is going to depend more on the quality of the relationship rather than how much you looked like Barbie and Ken (or Brad and Angelina) when you got together.  Most romantic relationships inherently begin with some level of mutual attraction.  Even if the relationship started out as platonic, at the point it turns romantic, there is mutual attraction.

Second, (and this one is probably most important) your partner should be someone you like.  This is not just about attraction, but about who this person really is.  Your friendship will sustain you more than your passion will as you go through life.  Third, it really helps if you want similar things in life, and have similar values.  Throughout the marriage, you both will change.  At the point that you get married, you are not yet fully who you will become.  As you go through different life stages and gain life experience, your values and goals will be refined and changed.  This is to be expected.

You make this person a promise that is something like this.  “I will be your friend, lover, and partner for the rest of our lives together.  I will treat you with kindness.  I will have your back.  I will build you up.  I will consider not only myself, but you as well in my decision making.  I will act responsibly in the best interests of our partnership.  I will accept your influence in my life just as I will offer you mine in yours.  I will comfort you in times of sadness and stress.  I will assume the best of your intentions.”  I recognize that these are not the standard words you hear at weddings, but in essence that is what you are promising.

You might note that in wedding vows, there are not a great deal of conditional statements.  For example, the vows do not say, “I will be loving to you as long as you are loving to me.”  And you don’t promise, “I will treat you well unless I am tired, stressed, or we disagree about something that is important to me.”

For a number of years, The Love Dare has been a popular marriage self-help book in Christian circles.  The simple idea is to make a decision for 40 days to unilaterally and intentionally offer expressions of love to your spouse.  Day 1 is “don’t say anything negative.”  Definitely simple.  Whether this is easy depends upon your personality and the relationship history.

Back in the 80’s I remember a leadership development video featuring Lou Holtz (whom at the time was head football coach at Notre Dame).  Holtz’ 3 central points were 1) Do right; 2) Do your best; and 3) Treat others the way you want to be treated.  He asserted that this answered the three fundamental questions 1) Can I trust you? 2) Are you committed? And 3) Do you care about me?

In Paul’s letters to the churches at Ephesus and Colossi, he discussed the marriage relationship (see Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3).  Peter does the same in 1 Peter 3.  The observation I would make here is that in all of these, the apostles talk to the husbands about what the husbands need to do and to the wives about what the wives need to do.  The scriptural mandate is not to fix your partner, but for you to be the best partner you can be.

When couples come to therapy, each partner has often been through years of failed attempts to fix their partner.  They come in looking to me as their last hope to fix their seriously defective partner.  Here’s the problem.  First, I don’t fix people.  Second, you can only work on you.  You cannot control your partner.  If you instead approach marriage with the mindset of how can I best make you feel loved and valued, there is tremendous power to heal and grow a relationship.  Note that what makes your partner feel loved and valued may not be the same as what makes you feel loved and valued.

Peter wrote “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).  In our relationship with God, we don’t really get any better until we realize we are loved whether we get any better or not.  Perhaps in our marriages, your mate will not be a better partner until they know that they are loved by you as they are.

Let’s try a little self-assessment developed by the Apostle Paul.  How are you doing at loving? 1) Love is patient.  2) Love is kind.  3) Love is not envious, arrogant, boastful, or rude.  4) Love does not insist upon its own way.  5) Love is not irritable or resentful.  6) Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I know you just skimmed through that last paragraph because you already know the scripture.  I am trying to save you thousands in therapy or tens of thousands in attorney fees so take some time there.  Love is patient.  Do I treat my partner with patience?  Love is kind.  Do I show kindness to my partner?  You get the point.

I believe in growth and change.  I believe that human beings are capable of creating and maintaining healthy relationships.  I believe that distressed relationships can be healed.  Injuries to your attachment can be healed.  I can testify here.  I have seen it happen in many marriages.  If it were not so, I would be in a different line of work.

Healing a marriage might be hard work, but it is totally worth it.  Love and intimacy are the greatest experiences we can know as human beings.  We were made for relationship.  Isolation kills us.  Love and intimacy insulate us from the stresses of life.  Secure attachment increases our resilience.  Love covers a multitude of sins.

[1] If you would like to hear the whole sermon, it should be available for the next few months here: http://www.rbcpc.org/media/sermons/.

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