I was asked to study with a married woman who wanted to hear the Jewish view on love and marriage.
I started by showing her a quote by Stephen Covey, where he eloquently describes what he answered someone who asked him about his failing marriage:
“My wife and I just don’t have the same feelings for each other that we used to have. I guess I don’t love her anymore and she doesn’t love me. What can I do?”
“The feeling isn’t there anymore?” I inquired.
“That’s right” he reaffirmed. “And we have three children we’re really concerned about. What do you suggest?”
“Love her.” I replied.
“I told you, the feeling of love just isn’t there anymore.”
“You don’t understand. The feeling of love just isn’t there.”
“Then love her. If the feeling isn’t there that’s a good reason to love her.”
“But how do you love when you don’t love?”
“My friend, love is a verb. Love -- the feeling -- is a fruit of love -- the verb. So love her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?”
The woman I was learning with asked, “But if you get to the point where you don’t love anymore, isn’t it just too late?”
If love is a verb, it's never too late.
“That's the point Stephen Covey is trying to make," I replied. "If love is a verb, there’s no 'too late.' It’s a constant choice. If you don’t feel the love anymore, that is exactly the indication that we need to choose to act the love and see what happens.”
The Torah tells us that we are expected to love our fellow, to love God -- if love was just a feeling, how could this be a commandment? Obviously, there is an act that we can choose to do and this act should bring about the feeling of love.
“So do you choose to love every day?” she asked me.
I was taken off guard. “Uh, me personally?”
My first inclination was to point out all the giving, sacrificing and time investment that women naturally put into their marriages just by virtue of the housework that often falls their way. If loving is synonymous with giving, then how about all those loads of laundry, dinners, Shabbat meals, hosting, serving, dishwashing, taking care of our children, shopping I’ve been doing over the past 18 years? Surely, I do things like this every day, many times. Shouldn’t that all count for something?
It should and it does. According to Rabbi Dessler in his book “Strive for Truth,” this explains why it seems parents love their children more than children love their parents:
“We usually think it is love which causes giving because we observe that a person showers gifts and favors on the one he loves. But there is another side to the argument. Giving may bring about love for the same reason that a person loves what he himself has created or nurtured; he recognizes in it a part of himself.”
So the more we give, the more we will automatically feel more attached and invested in the relationship and therefore more loving of the object of our affections.
But on second thought, I realized that most of the giving I do in order to upkeep our home isn't done specifically and solely for my husband, and usually not with the conscious thought that I am choosing to express my love for my husband in this act.
So if love really is a choice, do I really choose to love every day? The answer, I had to admit, was not an automatic yes.
We often tend to have a subconscious wish list of how we’d like our marriages to be: more time spent talking, more sharing of feelings, more compliments, no criticism, more affection, less judging. But to whom is this wish list addressed? Usually, our spouse! How many of us go around thinking: if only I could be more loving, more affectionate, more complimentary and warm toward my spouse?
So we are essentially hoping to receive rather than to give!
Perhaps this is why love starts fading when we each start wondering how we can get more out of our marriage, thinking about our expectations, how our spouse can give us more and what we are lacking. Instead of investing and giving, we are starting the taking cycle. The choice to dwell on our expectations of our spouse, then, might be the choice to actively allow the love to stagnate and fade away.
“I always tell couples on their wedding day: be careful, dear ones, to always seek to give pleasure to each other the same way you do right now, and know, that the moment you start having demands of each other, your happiness is on it’s way out.” (Rabbi Dessler, Strive for Truth, Hebrew version, Vol. 1, pg. 39)
After this realization, I decided to take a day and be aware of the choices I make throughout the day that involve extending myself to further relationships. It wasn’t always pretty.
I found myself taking the time to call a friend and inquire about the event she had been planning for the last few weeks which had taken place that morning. I wanted her to know I had remembered what she was involved with lately, and that I cared how it turned out.
A few minutes later, my husband called to check in, his daily lunchtime call, and among other things he said: “... and the meeting went really well, thank God”.
“The meeting?" I vaguely remembered something about a meeting, but what was it exactly?
“The meeting with the donor I told you about last night?” Was there a slight flicker of annoyance detected in his voice? I immediately remembered this rather important part of his day and proceeded to react accordingly. But the interchange got me thinking: here I went out of my way to keep in mind the events in my friend’s life and I had not extended the same courtesy to my husband! I should have been the one to call as soon as the meeting was over and see how it went.
We’re all human and can’t always remember everything, but the comparison with the previous conversation made the discrepancy rather obvious.
Then at dinnertime, I quickly threw some hamburgers and hotdogs together and made a salad for the dieters among us, my husband included, feeling quite virtuous about the extra effort involved. Then my husband arrived home and ended up making himself something else because he’s not a big meat-eater and prefers a light dinner. This was all done without any fanfare and would have gone unnoticed had it not been today that I was counting my “loving choices.” I knew my husband doesn’t like hamburgers, but everyone else does, so I gave in to easy convenience and thought the salad was good enough. Well, perhaps it was, but this particular dinner didn’t exactly rank as one of the top ten loving acts toward my husband!
WHY WE DON’T CHOOSE TO LOVE
I can think of a couple of reasons why we don’t choose to love on a more regular basis the one who is most important in our lives.
Taking our spouse for granted:
This is a rather common human failing: we take those constant relationships in our lives for granted and stop investing so much hard work in to them because we figure they’ll always be there. Instead, we can spend our time and energy on others who may not be so generous and accepting. If I forget to call my friend, she may think I don’t care, may not call me for a few days, and things may escalate and cause real damage to the friendship. But my marriage? After so many years, will this kind of slight be a big deal? Of course not.
Invest the time and effort to make one conscious loving choice a day.
But then again, it doesn’t create loving feelings and closeness either.
Remember the excitement and love we felt the first few years of our marriage? Well, it might just have something to do with the fact that when a relationship is new, both partners are trying hard to give to each other and build intimacy. They are not yet taking anything for granted.
Want to recapture that starry-eyed intensity? Invest the time and effort to make one conscious loving choice a day. Don’t take your marriage for granted.
Fear of vulnerability:
Another reason is the hesitation to take the first step. We keep thinking the other one should be the first one to show affection, appreciation and acceptance. We have fears of being vulnerable. What if my feelings are not reciprocated? What if I just end up giving and giving and he remains the same ungrateful and taking spouse? If I stop criticizing, she’ll think its ok to behave this way, and continue forever!
We have to realize that all these thoughts and fears are just distractions and rationalizations for not making difficult choices and moving forward:
“The lazy one says: there is a lion outside, I can’t go out” (Proverbs 22:13).
A great marriage requires making constant choices.
Our excuses and fears are not realities unless we attribute power to them. If we remind ourselves that our thoughts are just words in our head sent there by our desire to avoid pain at all costs and our urge for comfort and convenience, we will then be free to see reality as it is: no pain no gain. In order to have a wonderful, vibrant, loving marriage, someone has to take the first step, and whoever does will inevitably benefit as a result, as an individual who has made a choice to grow.
As we approach the start of a new year, we have to take stock of our lives and set goals for the future. Achievement in any field requires choice and effort.
We all want to have the perfect marriage of harmony and love, growth and friendship. To have a great marriage, constant choices must be made -- the choice to love, to exert ourselves in the cause of spiritual growth. Nothing happens on its own. In fact, left on their own, things tend to fall apart and disintegrate, including love, admiration and respect. Without awareness and conscious effort, a once great marriage may just become an okay one.
But when loving choices are made consistently, almost any relationship can be transformed in to a great marriage.