Have you ever woken up beside your spouse and realized you didn’t want to be there? You may have felt this way because marriage can be difficult. Trying to figure out how to relate and love each other for as long as you both shall live can seem like a daunting task, especially if you’re carrying bitterness toward your spouse. But it can also be daunting when you’ve grown familiar.
As you live, you change. I’m not the same woman my husband married 13 years ago. I’d like to think in some ways I’ve matured, but even many of my interests have changed. I’ve had children, so my body has definitely changed. Even my temperament has changed as we’ve experienced more trials in our married lives and growth together. I’m still me to the core, but I’m also different. Because of the familiarity we feel in marriage, it takes intentional effort to stay close as each person changes.
Two Sinners, One Union
You might not even realize you no longer know the person you married all those years ago. Remember the time when you couldn’t wait to learn more about your spouse? You’d stay up late on the phone and linger as you’d say goodbye—you didn’t want the conversation to end! In marriage, the wonder and excitement comes and goes, but what my husband, Thern, and I discovered is that when we have a concentrated time of sharing, some of those “warm fuzzies” come rushing back.
I think Tim Keller’s chapter “Loving the Stranger” in his book, The Meaning of Marriage, captures this tension well. There isn’t necessarily anything pulling you away from your spouse – such as adultery or a difficult or trying circumstance – instead, it’s either that you realize you married a sinner or you’ve simply grown apart. Perhaps you’ve been married for several years, and as you’ve changed you’ve become distant – operating more like a business partnership or roommate rather than a couple in a deeply loving marriage.
Keller says that you’re likely to respond in various ways when this happens:
If your purpose in marriage was to acquire a “soul mate”—a person who would not change you and would supportively help you reach your life goals—then this particular reality of marriage will be deeply disorienting. You wake up to the realization that your marriage will take a huge investment of time just to make it work. Just as distressing will be the discovery that your spouse finds you a stranger and has begun to confront you with a list of your serious shortcomings. Your first response will be to tell yourself you made a bad choice and failed to find someone truly compatible.
Instead, Keller suggests that our response should be to see marriage as a spiritual friendship where we can help each other grow “out of our sins and flaws into the new self God is creating.” We would then expect the “stranger seasons,” as he calls them, and would be willing to do the hard work of marriage and spiritual growth.
4 Minutes, 36 Questions
I’ve experienced both responses as I reflect on my marriage over the years. When I first got married, I was overwhelmed by all of the things Thern and I didn’t know about one another. I was tempted to wonder if our marriage was a mistake as a result. Thankfully, I also understood the spiritual aspect of our union and that marriage takes work, so we rolled up our sleeves.
Last year, Thern and I read an article in The New York Times about a woman who claimed that if you simply stared into a person’s eyes for four minutes and asked a series of 36 questions, you’d automatically fall in love. The claim seemed silly, but I wondered what it would do for a couple who had been married for quite some time. So, we tried it.
We sat there eye-to-eye—giddy with excitement—yet honestly feeling quite silly. We lasted the entire four minutes, but it wasn’t the eye gazing that did it for us. Instead the taking the time to ask and answer all 36 questions was deeply significant. We’ve been married for 13 years and together off and on for more than 17—yet we learned new things about each other that night. We learned fears we hadn’t expressed and childhood memories we had suppressed. It was a delight, and we’ve enjoyed greater, deeper conversation since.
Love Is Action
The author of The New York Times article wrote that love is an action, and I agree. Married couples will most definitely feel love, but our feelings are useless when it comes to sustaining marital commitment. Feelings are good but unreliable. Feelings often lie. I’ve been angry before because of something I thought—it wasn’t true, but I believed the lie in my head, felt wronged, and then became angry. And let’s be honest, most of us don’t wake up every single morning with a heart pumping full of love. That’s why it’s important to cultivate a friendship in marriage. The feelings may wane, but love—true love—bears all things and endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:7).
So what do we do when there isn’t a circumstance hindering love except for our own apathy or familiarity? We choose to love. And I think one of the greatest acts of love is through communication. Choose to reengage with that stranger in your bed. Be interested in one another. Look into each other’s eyes and say “I do” all over again.