One of my favorite questions to ask a couple when they come to me for pre-marital counseling is why they want to get married. Often the answer is something like “we love each other.” An inward smile forms as I follow up by asking them to explain more specifically what they mean. Almost without exception, the initial reaction is a blank stare. Love is one of those words that we just love to use, often without much thought to what it means exactly. I usually let the awkwardness hang for a while, as the couple struggles to form a definition. “Is it a special feeling toward the other?” I suggest, or “kind of like, like, only really liking the other a lot — super like?” “Is it a kind of affection, like you feel for a puppy?” “How do you know when you have it?” I ask. More important, what will you do if — more likely when — you stop feeling it for each other? Does that mean it’s time to stop the marriage?
I remember one young man coming to ask for some relationship advice. He was in his early 30s, unsure which of a number of women he should pursue. “I want to be married so bad,” he said, then went on to share this fear: “I was infatuated with a woman when I was 18; I couldn’t believe the strength of the feeling I had for her. Now, I am afraid that I will be disappointed with anything less, so I am looking for a woman that makes me feel that way.” His strategy was to spend time with various women, hoping one would rekindle an emotion he felt as a teenager. I asked him, “Have you ever met a couple who have been married a very long time, whose marriage you hope to emulate? What do you suppose they feel for each other after all those years of marriage? I reminded him, with a smile, that the fate of each of us is to become progressively older and uglier; perhaps it is not infatuation that sustains a marriage.
The secret of marriage is not a couple’s feelings of love toward each other. It is not their compatibility or common interests. Those things come and go. The secret is commitment. It is commitment that defines marriage, commitment that keeps a couple together, commitment that brings feelings of love, commitment that brings shalom (peace and wholeness) in the midst of a chaotic world.
Everything you need to know about commitment is right there in the standard marriage vows. When you get married, you vow to love your spouse. But how can you promise to feel an emotion? You cannot. Love is not a feeling; it is a decision. It is a choice to treat your spouse in a loving way. The essence of marital commitment is the decision to love and cherish one person as long as you both shall live — in essence, to be joined together.
The Bible offers a helpful illustration of this concept. The Bible says when a husband and wife marry, they become, “one flesh (Genesis 2:24).” Unity in marriage means two people think of themselves not as individuals but as halves of a single body. So what are the implications of that? A husband is to care for his wife as he would care for his own body. A wife should no more deny ownership of her husband’s issues than she should react to a sore finger by saying, “Well, that’s my hand’s problem.”
This may seem unrealistic, but we actually do it well in other relationships. For example, when a couple has a child, that child is literally flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone. Parents instinctively recognize the need to care for the baby as they would care for themselves. The baby’s needs are automatically their own. If the baby needs something, it is as if the parents need it themselves. In fact, parents will often sacrifice their own needs for the baby. Even in moment when they do not like their child, the parents’ commitment to love the child never wavers.
Now, in marriage, we do not experience the same biological connection we do through birth, so perhaps a better analogy for the commitment of marriage is adoption. In adoption, a person chooses to be committed to a particular child. This is what happens when you marry: You commit for life to someone, just the same as when you adopt a child.
But what about feelings? Aren’t we supposed to have feelings of love in marriage? I remember a man who came to see me, wanting to leave his wife. “I just don’t have feelings for my wife anymore,” he said, as if he were powerless over his condition. Unsaid but obvious was this sentiment: If I want to be happy and true to myself, I can’t stay in this loveless relationship. It was as if the vow of commitment to his wife was some oppressive vestige of a traditional society. Can you imagine hearing someone say that about their child? “I just don’t have feelings for my child anymore. It would be wrong for me to continue to be their parent.” The problem is not that we are imprisoned by ancient, traditional values; it is that we misunderstand where “feelings” of love come from.
Feelings of love are the blossoms, not the roots, of commitment Feelings of love grow for the person you choose to give them to. My advice to the man without feelings for his wife was to renew his vows of commitment to his wife, to love and cherish her; in giving himself to the care of his wife, he would again find feelings for her. Indeed, unless he discovered this truth, he would set himself up for a series of relationships he would end up regretting. Those relationships would be about getting rather than giving. In those sorts of relationships, when you stop getting what you want from your spouse, you dispose of them for another. You become narcissistic and perpetually unsatisfied.
A lasting and satisfying marriage involves two people who are committed to unconditionally loving and cherishing one another. This is the hunger of our hearts. We long to be accepted and loved unconditionally. Too often we feel only as good as what we can produce or do, and we are terrified of failure, always hiding our weaknesses. We long for someone who will accept us and love and cherish us, apart from our actions. Marriage is that redemptive island of shalom in a sea of strife. Think of the wonder and security of a marriage in which both partners are given over to the care and love of the other. When they see their union as indivisible, when each knows that without a doubt, the other will be there, “for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health to love and to cherish as long as we both shall live,” when this commitment is true, there is complete security, trust and joy.
We live in a society where words like commitment, discipline and obligation are not very popular; they are often replaced by self-fulfillment, growth and self-actualization. But if you want to have the kind of marriage that endures and that fills the hunger of you heart and delivers the peace you so desperately crave, then it is words like commitment and discipline that you need to embrace.
But that is too difficult, some say. I agree it is hard but, traditionally, families and communities — even the vows and marriage ceremony — were designed to strengthen the bond of commitment in marriage. We need to let our communities and families support us and renew our vows as a couple informally on a frequent basis. For me, faith in Jesus plays a critical piece. I find that in order to unconditionally love and be committed to my wife, I need to be secure and ever cognizant of the unconditional love and grace I receive from God. I can love because I have been loved.
Despite the strains on marriage in our current society and the confusions about love, good marriages are still present, and it is very possible to have a long and satisfying marriage. And while there are many ways to have a good marriage, the foundation stone will always remain commitment.
Rev. Dr. Garrett R. Smith is the author of Comfortably Jewish: Practical Ways to Enjoy Your Family Heritage (2010) and the founder of Celebrate Life, a ministry of counseling and celebrating sacred occasions for Jewish interfaith families. He is also the director of spiritual formation and outreach at Newton Presbyterian Church. He lives in Watertown, MA with his wife and three children.