If Mary would only shape up I could love her more.
She felt the same way about me.
There have been times when I've thought to myself, I could love Mary more if only she would stop scolding me so much, or if only she would be a little more contented and even-tempered.
Mary has had similar thoughts, except that she would finish the sentence a little differently: I could love Richard more if only he would be a little more considerate, or treat me as though I were more valuable to him.
We had bought into the world's notion that our love for each other depended on how the other person performed. If I didn't love her as much as I should, then it was obviously her fault, not mine. And if she would only shape up, I could love her more. She felt the same way about me.
Slowly the words of our Lord Jesus began to penetrate our dulled senses: 'This is My commandment, that you love one another" (John 15:12). Love is commanded of us. Like it is our responsibility! Like it is something we can just do if we so choose! Like we can do it regardless of what the other person does! There is no honest way I can say, "But I can't love her like I should." What I am really saying is, "But I won't."
We have made up our minds that we can, and we will!
We can do all things through Christ who infuses us with His strength, and that includes growing in our love for one another. We are going to see to it that by His grace and by His power our Love Test score improves regularly. And here are some of the practical things we do to help our love grow.
We think about each other's positive traits. When our love began to cool in those earlier years, we had the tendency to finish off the job, to throw ice water on it by occupying our minds with all the things we didn't like about each other, and by feeling sorry for ourselves because we had to put up with all those undesirable traits. There were times when we were so consumed with the negatives that we could not see the positives, and that is guaranteed to be a love killer.
Now we try to let our minds linger instead on each other's strengths. We do slip back into our old habit patterns periodically, but other people often help us get our perspective refocused. People will sometimes tell me about a positive contact they have had with Mary and mention what a help she was to them. It will inevitably remind me of one of her strengths. Mary says, "Women who have worked with Richard have told me how he has respected their opinions, and that has helped me appreciate that trait in him." If you are having a difficult time focusing your mind on your mate's good traits, listen to what some of your friends are saying. They may be able to help you.
It might also help to think back to the good traits you observed in your mate before you married. I can remember counseling with a woman who talked for nearly an hour about her husband's faults. When I asked her to tell me about some of his strengths, she sat there silent for a long time, then honestly admitted that she could not think of even one good trait. When I asked her what had attracted her to him in the first place, she began to recall some of the good things she saw in him before they married. I suggested that she write those things down, then add to the list daily as she thought of other positive traits he possessed. It helped her begin to appreciate him a little more. And when she began to show her appreciation, he became a little more thoughtful of her.
And that leads naturally into the second thing we do to encourage growth in our love for each other: We try to act in loving ways. One of the most powerful truths we know in the realm of personality and human relationships is that our feelings are determined by our actions. If we want to feel loving toward each other, we need to do loving things, to act in loving ways, to saturate our minds with the fifteen characteristics of love in 1 Corinthians 13 and then depend on God's power to help us put them into practice.
I realize that what we are saying sounds like double talk. First we tell you how we try to improve our Love Test score, and then we say that we improve our score by improving our score. But that's a biblical principle. In the letter of our Lord Jesus to the church at Ephesus, He said, "But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you are fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first" (Revelation 2:4,5). That exhortation has to do with our relationship with Christ, but the same principle operates on the human level as well. We ask ourselves: How did we act when we felt loving toward each other? What did we do? What was it that pleased our mates, that said "I love you" in the language he/she understood? Now we need to do those things again. As Jesus put it, "Do the deeds you did at first."
Something very interesting happens when we do that. For one thing, we begin to feel good about ourselves because we did what God wanted us to do. We always feel better when we know we have pleased Him. Second, we feel good about the results. Loving deeds usually elicit a grateful response, and we feel good about that response when it comes.
Do you see what is happening? Our good feelings are building a positive emotional attitude toward each other that replaces the old negative one, and that helps us to feel more loving toward one another again. Since we like what is happening and want to see more of it happen, we do more of the same. And that keeps our love growing.
Mary has been particularly aware of this in her life. She says, "There are lots of days when I just don't feel like being nice. I would much rather be grumpy and grouchy with Richard, and snap at him for little things. But I know I should speak pleasant words, in kind tones. So I choose to do it, asking the Lord to give me the strength to follow through. It's amazing how much better I feel toward him before the day is over. "
A third thing that helps to build our love for each other is spending time together. We have learned through the years that it is easy for us to drift apart. I could get over-extended in my ministry, and Mary could get preoccupied with the children or with her friends, and we would lose the intimacy of our relationship. Sometimes we each get edgy and irritable about it without actually recognizing the reason why. It is essential for us to spend some time together every day and to keep our two worlds merged into one if we are to enjoy a warm and loving relationship.
Sometimes we will talk for awhile when I get home from the office at the end of the day. If that is not possible, we try to lie together and talk about the events of the day before we drop off to sleep at night. Once in awhile we get away together alone for a few days, away from distractions, interruptions and responsibilities, and just enjoy each other. Such times are necessary for the renewal of our spirits and the rejuvenation of our love.
Mary admits, "There have been times when I have felt so distant from Richard and so involved in my own world that I did not even want to get away. I wanted to stay home and continue my lifestyle and not have to think about working on my relationship with him. When that happens to me now, unlike in the past, it usually doesn't take me long to remember what my priorities are to be. God wants me to put Richard and our marriage before my own wants, and when I do that, I find myself content and happy in the situation which I had been resisting."
One other practice has helped us increase our love level: focusing our minds on the Lord. The more I understand how much God loves me, the more it enables me to love Mary. The more I comprehend how much He has given to me in Christ, the more I want to give of myself to her. The better I grasp how much He has done for me, the more I want to do for her. The more I acknowledge how much He has forgiven me, the more I am willing to forgive her. And the more I simply think about Him, the more I want to be the husband He wants me to be.
As we study God's Word, the thing that He impresses upon our minds more and more these days is His ultimate purpose for our lives: to glorify Himself by making us more like His Son. As we allow Jesus Christ to control us and live His life through us, He reproduces His character in us. And His character is love.
The most important means by which our love for each other can continue to grow is for both of us to abide in Christ, to be aware of His presence in our lives moment by moment, and depend consciously on His power to make us into the people He wants us to be. As we get to know Him better and become more like Him, our Love Test scores are going to improve continuously!
Having a happy and satisfying marriage takes time. Don't expect overnight changes. Just work on a few things at a time. The four suggestions in this chapter are worth your careful attention. Commit them to memory and begin to work on them. Remember that Satan is not pleased with your desire to have a successful marriage and he will do all he can to destroy it. Don't let him win this battle.