Photo by cyrus gomez on Unsplash
Photo by cyrus gomez on Unsplash

The Heart of Marriage

I often hear couples say, “I don’t feel ‘in love’ with my mate anymore.” Now, as a marriage counselor, I kind of just let that go past. It’s not really important. You might be thinking, “How can you simply let that go, isn’t not feeling in love with your spouse a huge problem?”

It’s not that I ignore the fact that someone doesn’t feel “love” for the other person; instead, I challenge their beliefs about love and its origins.

Let me ask you a question: Where does love come from? Have you ever thought about where love actually originates from?

When I look back over the thirteen years of my marriage, I’m amazed at the depth of my love for Erin. It’s funny to think about where it all started. I still remember the day—like it was yesterday—when I fell in love with Erin.

I was sitting in the back of an Old Testament theology class at Grand Canyon University. On one side were my buddies and on the other side was this beautiful girl whom I hardly knew. Her name was Erin.

Since I had been up late the night before, and since I've always been the type of student who has a difficult time remaining attentive during class lectures, I soon fell sound asleep. Unfortunately for me, of all the classes that I could have picked to sleep in, I made the mistake of choosing the one with a unique class tradition. Towards the end of the class period, the professor would call on a student to end the day's lecture with prayer.

As I slept soundly, dreaming of wonderful things, suddenly Erin grabs me and shakes my arm, and whispers, “Hurry, stand up…he just called on you to pray!”

Feeling completely disoriented, I looked up at the professor and realized that he was not saying anything. Therefore, I naturally assumed that the class was waiting for me to pray, so I stood up and began to pray. And it wasn’t one of those boring prayers, I mean it was a prayer that would have made Billy Graham himself proud. I thanked God for the professor and his wonderful insights that changed my life (I had no idea what the man had actually lectured on). But as I prayed, I started hearing laughter emanate from around the room. And then to my horror, I quickly realized that I was a complete “fool” when the entire class broke out in laughter and the professor said, “Thank you for your enthusiasm, but please let me finish lecturing next time before you end us with prayer!”

Needless to say, I was extremely attentive for the remainder of the class. The thing I remember most about that day was sitting there staring at this girl, thinking how awesome she was to have played that kind of practical joke on someone she hardly knew. I remember thinking: “Now that’s the kind of girl I could marry!” And then it hit me…I was in love.

Of course I had no idea at the time that five years later, Erin would actually become my wife. And certainly I had no idea that there would be times in our marriage that we would fight, and we would go through periods of conflict that were so painful, that we would both doubt our love for each other.

I still remember the times when I didn’t feel “in love” with Erin. I tried to figure out what was wrong with me or with her. I remember putting so much pressure on myself to figure out how to feel love towards my wife. Looking back, I wished someone had pulled me aside and spared me the torment of not feeling love for my wife, by asking me where love actually comes from. Because the answer to the question, “where does love come from,” has been one of the most freeing insights I’ve ever had in my marriage.

The reason I blow by this issue of love in our work with couples is that my assumption is that love is not about chemistry (this is a fantasy). We tend to falsely think that love is magical or that we have the ability to crank up the old love generator and create love. When I didn’t feel love for Erin, I put this enormous pressure on myself that somehow I needed to create love for her. Like it was something I could magically generate. And when I didn’t feel love for her, it was either I was incapable of generating love (like there was something wrong with me), there was something wrong with Erin—that she was unlovable, or there was something wrong with our marriage.

In reality, there is no love that comes from us. We are not the originators. God is. It says in I John 4:7-8 that love comes from God and that God is love! In verse 19 it goes on to say that we love because God first loved us.

The point is that I do not generate a single drop of love. It all comes from God. By receiving God, I receive his love. I can then open my heart and share it with others. Love feels good to me, but I am just passing it through from God to others. By making a conscious decision, I can pass love through to my spouse. It helps the process if I see her as God sees her (valuable and precious).

When people say they no longer feel love for their spouse, I assume they have the door to their heart closed for some reason or another to prevent the flow of love. This is the common link in most every intensive couple I see—that individuals have lost “heart.” They are completely disconnected from their heart—especially their emotions. I find people who exist in a black and white world—their hearts are closed or shut down. They don’t “feel” life, they rationalize or numb out to life and to their hearts. Other words people use to describe a dead heart are: detached, indifferent, numb, lifeless, heartless, alone, emotionally unavailable, or hard-hearted. Do you feel that way? Do others accuse you of being this way? It’s like what the Tin Woodman (Wizard of Oz) said, “It was a terrible thing to undergo, but during the year I stood there I had time to think that the greatest loss I had known was the loss of my heart. While I was in love I was the happiest man on earth; but no one can love who has not a heart, and so I am resolved to ask Oz to give me one.”

This is the key. I have stopped making the issue about how to love my spouse. Since I do not have any ability to create love, I make the focus on the state of my heart. The real question becomes: “Is my heart open or closed to my wife?” If my heart is closed to Erin, then God’s love does not come from him, through me, to Erin. And I don’t feel “in love.” If my heart is closed, then I have shut God’s love out. This is what is actually happening when people do not feel love for their spouse. They have simply closed their heart to their mate (for good reasons I’m sure). Our job is to do what Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” We must guard our hearts! If we want to love others like Peter talked about, “love one another deeply from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22), we must discover why the door to our heart is closed, and then, if we want, get our heart back open.

This has been extremely freeing to me. Instead of putting my efforts and energies into doing something I have zero ability to do (create love), I focus on the condition of my heart: is it opened or closed? I have control over my heart. Get your heart opened first before you can truly love your mate.

Greg Smalley, PsyD
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Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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