How do we guard against our relationships growing cold? By remembering that love is more than feeling... it’s an act of will
I remember speaking with a couple in their mid-twenties; they had a baby girl aged six months and were about to divorce. I asked the man why he wanted to leave his wife. He said, ‘I don’t feel in love anymore.’
As he spoke, I couldn’t help but gaze at the little bundle that his wife cradled in her arms. I said, ‘Did nobody tell you when you married that there will be times when the feeling of love will diminish? Did nobody warn you that love that lasts, does so by loving – at least for a time – with not the heart, but the will? Did nobody say that unless you understand this, you are doomed to move from relationship to relationship at the mercy of your feelings?’ He looked genuinely surprised. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Nobody told me that.’
Nobody told him this, yet that simple warning might, perhaps, have at least made him realise that these feelings are common – that, like many others, he could come through that experience. Perhaps that simple warning might even have given a baby girl her father back. I am sometimes asked what I believe is the greatest threat to families today. There could be many answers, but I am sure that the idea that love is just a feeling must be one of the greatest. When the Bible talks about love it often does so not in terms of feeling, but of ‘doing’.
I have long felt that the reading of 1 Corinthians 13 at wedding services is often lost on the couple. And this is so because on that day they feel so in love. But that incredible passage talks not just of the emotion of love, but its acts – the doing of love. The New Living Translation puts it like this: ‘Love never gives up, never loses faith… and endures through every circumstance.’ I know full well that in our human frailty this is not always possible, but it is a million miles away from the message of modern society: that you and I have a right to be happy; a right to have a partner who fulfils all our needs; a right to always feel in love.
I often go to write my books in a small cottage in west Wales. One August afternoon I took a break and was walking on the beach. It was a wonderful day. The sun shone out of a cloudless sky. It felt good to be alive. I walked along the beach then made my way back to the cottage. As I reached the road I saw an old fisherman sitting on a bench. ‘It’sglorious, isn’t it?’ I said. I don’t know if he was having a bad day or was just tired of tourists, but he said, ‘You should see it in January.’ The next day I walked on the beach again. It looked as lovely as it had 24 hours ago, but this time I imagined the hills, the bay and the sea whisper to me, ‘Will you love us in January?’
I believe that the need to love in January comes to every marriage. This is a time when we do not feel ‘in love’. In may be that everything cries out, ‘Walk away – it’s over.’ But over the years I have seen many couples fight to keep their relationship alive in January by doing love. They love at that time as an act of the will. I think of a husband who vowed to stop his sarcastic comments and instead began to build his wife up in front of others. I remember another couple who sat down one evening and went through a box containing photos of their family life. She said, ‘It was a trip down memory lane. We made ourselves remember better times – times that were good, that were full of laughter. It made us see how foolish we were to say, “We’ve never really been happy.”’
And I remember a church leader and his wife when they faced a time of January love. They had three children, led busy lives, and somehow they had grown apart. It seemed their marriage was at an end. But they decided to give their relationship one last chance and to try something new.
They agreed that each Tuesday night they would spend the evening on their own together. Sometimes they went to the cinema, sometimes they went for a walk, and sometimes they had a drink in the corner of the local pub. It’s true they could afford babysitters, but they were not a wealthy couple by any means. It is simply that they made time with each other a priority and they planned it into their lives.
They had those Tuesday evenings together for at least 12 years and didn’t stop them until after their kids had left home. Did that evening every week save their marriage? Who knows? But I do know this: it became important to them. There was no point ringing them on a Tuesday night – their mobiles were turned off. It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t expensive, but their ‘date night’ did give to each of them the dignity of time.
But although the unwillingness to even try to love through January makes it hard for relationships to survive, it is another destroyer of families that is uppermost in my mind just now.
THE START OF THE AFFAIR
As I write, the news is full of people having affairs. Tiger Woods is taking a break from golf to try to rescue his marriage after his infidelity; John Terry has lost the England captaincy because of his relationship with a fellow player’s girlfriend; Ashley Cole is alleged to have cheated on wife Cheryl; and a government is shaken because of the affair of one of its ministers. But the affair is not just played out on the large stage – it is in our homes, offices and churches. Just this week, I have been talking with a Christian man whose wife has just told him she is having an affair; a Christian leader has told me about his own infidelity; and I have been asked to help a Christian couple where the husband is in an affair.
In the work I do with Care for the Family, time and time again I see the affair entering the lives of ordinary families. I watch openmouthed as it robs children of their mothers and fathers. And I am devastated as I observe the affair steal from people a lifetime of ministry and wreak havoc in churches. It achieves all this so easily and for so little – sometimes a one night stand.
It is true that the end of the affair is often total devastation – one Christian leader described his affair as ‘unleashing a tsunami’ – but one characteristic about affairs is that they often begin in a seemingly innocent, inconsequential way. I believe in what I have come to call ‘the ten-second rule’. It is the notion that so often the battle against the affair is not won or lost at the bedroom doorway, but after somebody smiles at you across a room and you have ten seconds to decide whether to walk those 20 paces to them or keep talking to the boring lawyer next to you. To say no to even the possibility of the affair during those ten seconds is relatively easy, but after we have crossed that room it is so very much harder. You may say to me, ‘Affairs are much more complicated than that.’ Maybe you’re right, but time and time again people have said to me, ‘If only somebody had told me earlier of the power of those ten seconds.’ There is no better example of how the affair both traps and then wreaks its havoc, no better illustration of the ten-second rule, than the story of King David and his relationship with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.
David is on the rooftop of his palace and sees a beautiful woman bathing. To have turned on his heels at that point would have been easy, but he lingers and says ‘What’s her name?’ The trick of the affair is that the initial stages seem harmless: a cup of coffee with somebody who is willing to listen, a chat in the car and a little advice about the job application, the offer to pray together about the pressing issue in the church’s leadership team. And so it proved to be for a king in ancient Israel: what a simple question – ‘What’sher name?’ King David hardly felt the hook enter his mouth.
The truth is that these actions are often neither innocent nor harmless. We allow them to happen knowing in our hearts there is at least the possibility they could lead to situations that could cause incredible damage. The man who fires off a quick email to the old school friend that he has just come across on Facebook could make his wife look stupid for even raising the issue. But he’s not a child – he knows where that action could lead.
THE COST OF BETRAYAL
Another characteristic of the affair is that as it develops, its ‘cost’ increases. Did David foresee that his frolic with the beautiful woman he saw from his rooftop would end with a loyal subject being lured to his death, the death of a child, and the shaking of the kingdom? Of course not.
It’s as if, at the beginning of the affair, the cost is negligible, but that quickly changes. In the early stages the price is rarely on the ticket – in fact, at the beginning, the price tag reads ‘Free’. There’s no harm in it – some flirting, a little time together. But as it progresses, it’s as if there’s somebody at the back of the store changing the price ticket because suddenly it’s got more expensive. It now calls for a little deceit – ‘I’ll be home a bit later on Tuesday, darling.’ But, hey, even if the price is getting higher, the rewards are fantastic – fun, almost teenage-like conversation, incredible sex. We say to ourselves, ‘This is the person I should have married.’
Then one day we walk into the shop and the price tag has changed for the last time. And now it reads ‘Everything’. We gasp when we see it. We protest that we couldn’t possibly pay it without losing almost everything we’ve ever loved – our husband or wife, our children, maybe friends and wider family, and perhaps our home or even our job or ministry.
A third characteristic of the affair is two stages that always occur – they are so clearly illustrated in the story of David and Bathsheba. It matters not whether the parties involved end up happily married or whether they split acrimoniously after just a few days. The first stage is ‘temporary insanity’ and the second ‘an almighty crash to reality’. One minute David is running around trying to get into bedwith Bathsheba because he is intoxicated by her – the next he is sober in the extreme as he tries to deal with the incredible fallout of his actions.
The two stages are present in modern affairs as well as those of ancient Israel. For a while, everything in the new relationship is thrilling and fun, but then the second stage kicks in – the excitement dies, and the couple discover that even in their new love nest the taps still leak, the bills still need paying, and babies still wake up crying in the middle of the night. In short, they discover that ‘the other man’s grass may be greener, but it still needs mowing.’
I know full well that an affair could happen to any one of us, but that doesn’t stop me getting angry when I listen to so-called experts talk about affairs being good for a marriage. Can marriages recover from affairs? Of course. Can those marriages be stronger than they were before? Yes, without doubt. But an affair is a breach of trust so great that it tears at the very heart of a relationship, and although the love may return, it may take a long time for trust to be restored. Over the past 20 years or so I’ve seen all kinds of things destroy families. But I believe that nothing comes close to the affair for having the ability so quickly and with such surgical skill to decimate families – and often for so little. It’s as if the affair whispers: ‘Trust me. I know you’ve heard what this can do to families, but it will be different for you. Just take the next step.’
And affairs are bad for children. Over the years I have listened to the stories of many people who have experienced family break-up, but one small boy sticks out in my mind. He was ten years old and his father had just left his mother. He was sitting on a step outside his house, looked up and said, ‘My father doesn’t love my mother anymore and he has left us now – what does a kid do?’
I know that marriages break up. I know that some marriages cannot survive. I understand that. But the affair is in a class of its own for destroying the world of ordinary families – families that weren’t perfect, but could have made it and been relatively happy together.
Some years ago I went to see a London play in the last scene of which the lead actor breaks down in tears. It was one of the most brilliant pieces of acting I have ever seen; his wailing seemed to come from his very soul. After we left the theatre my friend said, ‘I have never seen such a portrayal of grief. I felt I could hear the mucus catching in his nose as he wept.’ It is the picture I have in my mind of King David. What started with something that seemed so innocent has now developed into its full and ugly shape and, like so many affairs since, it has demanded way more than it ever warned would be the price. And David sobs from his heart: if only he could rewind the clock; if only he had not begun this thing; if only he had not even said, ‘What’s her name?’
How do we help each other in this? It must be by shouting two messages. To those who have had an affair it is the message of repentance, forgiveness and restoration. Even if it that is not possible with their husband or wife, it is still possible with God. We should move heaven and earth in the effort to stand with, and restore, those who have experienced this – believing with all our hearts that it could happen to us. And what of the second message? It is to those on the edge of having an affair to consider not the starting price, but the end cost; not the thrill of the sex, but the life of regret; not just what would make us happy, but what would make those we love – perhaps our children – sad. And perhaps also it is to consider something George Bernard Shaw said: ‘There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire… The other is to get it.’
Adapted from The Sixty Minute Family (Lion Hudson) reviewed this month.