Not long after I proposed to my wife, a married acquaintance gave me some unsolicited advice. He told me that my strong, seemingly indelible romantic affections for my fiance would fade with time. It was a strange, depressing message to receive on the heels of my engagement. And it wasn’t true.
It’s of course naive to think that the emotional high present in the early days of a relationship, engagement, or marriage will remain. Just as the high of a sports victory, acing a test, or securing a promotion dwindles with time, so will any relational “high.” But this doesn’t mean that the stronger, underlying emotional power of a relationship cannot endure.
Here are 3 perspectives that will perpetuate romantic sentiments:
Our loved ones are not “givens,” but gifts. There was a time when we were single and alone, perhaps desperately yearning for relational intimacy. Then we met that “special someone,” and we praised God for his goodness and kindness in providing for us a “better half.” We need to remind ourselves that our spouses are gifts we don’t deserve.
Scripture tells us that “every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father …” (James 1:17). Our romantic relationships are not random, nor are they the sole product of our own powers. They are gifts from above, gracious presents from a merciful Father.
Often as the years roll by, we forget this essential truth. We allow another’s personality, idiosyncrasies, and flaws to wear on our patience, or even worse, warp our perceptions. Yet even on a relationship’s worst days, this person remains offered to us in love, to bless us, make us happier and holier. When we foster a robust paradigm of thankfulness, we will find ourselves more frequently perceiving our spouses with a deeper reservoir of passion.
It is not enough only to view our spouses as gifts to us. We must be willing to offer ourselves as gifts to them. As John Paul II writes, “when betrothed love enters into this interpersonal relationship something more than friendship results: two people give themselves each to the other.” Similarly, the Second Vatican Council teaches: “Man finds himself only by making himself a sincere gift to others” (Gaudium et Spes, 24).
This self-gift certainly includes the physical and sexual, but goes far beyond it — we offer to our spouses our time, our energy, our love, and our very selves. This interpretation of self-gift means that we will frequently — perhaps hourly! — be required to make sacrifices and suffer for the sake of our beloved. Yet this is the very definition of love, emulating our Lord and Savior and his gift of self. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
Self-gift requires courage. We are presenting ourselves to another unashamedly, without reservations, in an act of tremendous vulnerability. It is likely, nay almost certain, that we will be hurt. We are all sinners, and liable to take advantage even of those we love. Yet, as John Paul tells us, “the fullest, the most uncompromising form of love consists precisely in self-giving, in making one’s inalienable and nontransferable ‘I’ someone else’s property.” Ironically, when we die to ourselves in self-gift, we actually acquire more abundant life.
Sex is kind of like the nourishing food of marriage
To gift and self-gift we must also add growth. Scripture urges us: “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5-7). The more we grow in holiness, the more capable we are of appreciating the God’s gifts and giving ourselves to others.
Both spouses need to commit to growth, and not just of the spiritual variety. We need to seek to develop intellectually, socially, and physically. People who aren’t seeking to grow, whose lives are static or in regression, are usually less interesting or appealing.
This is love
The paradigms of gift, self-gift, and growth are certainly oversimplifications. Yet they encapsulate a significant portion of marriage. Ultimately these three themes aim at securing not just sentimental affections, but real love — an intentional, committed, responsible union with another person. As John Paul II explains, love is “an interpersonal fact,” not simply a “psychological situation.”
All the same, there is no reason why our marriages cannot retain a strong emotional impulse. Certainly it will change over the course of time, but it is best to consider this as a deepening and maturation, rather than a regression or loss. As we approach 10, 20, or 50 years of matrimony, perhaps our hearts will no longer flutter. But with the grace of God they may still burn.
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