So St Valentine's day is upon us again. It tends to be a busy time for us in Care for the Family, for almost invariably the media will ask us to make a string of comments on love, romance, and marriage. Usually a journalist will say something like this, "But some marriages must be dead with no chance of ever finding love again." I always give the same reply, "Perhaps they are, but don't ask me to spot which ones. Over and over again I have seen marriages that, by most standards, seemed over, suddenly find life again." And so often as I answer, I find my mind going back down the years to some of the couples who have crossed our paths.
I remember a cold snowy night in Canada and the marriage seminar held just outside Toronto. The auditorium was filling up when one of the stewards took me aside. "Do you see the couple in the front row?" They weren't difficult to spot - Canada is no different to the rest of the world when it comes to meetings - the whole front row held only two people. "Yes," I said, "I see them." He leant in close to me and whispered, "They're in the middle of a divorce - they don't even speak to each other. Nobody knows why they've come."
The seminar was scheduled to run from 7.30 to 10 pm and by the first break at 8.30 I too was wondering why this couple had made the effort. By now there were others sitting around them but the pair had pushed their chairs as far apart from each other as possible without inconveniencing the people on either side. They didn't speak or acknowledge each other in any way. When others went to get a coffee at the interval, they remained seated and again didn't say a word.
And that's how I thought they would stay until the close of the event, but I was wrong. At 9.30 I began to speak about what I call, 'Loving Against the Odds'. It's based on my belief that every marriage goes through a period when at least one of the partners does not feel in love. At such times everything screams, 'Let go - get out of this relationship - nobody could have done more - you've married the wrong person.' I talked about the fact that unless we are prepared, at least for a time, to love not 'because of' but 'in spite of'; not as an emotional feeling, but an act of the will; we will never know a deep relationship with any person. In short, we need to fight to keep our love alive.
At 9.45 the man suddenly reached out and took his wife's hand. She immediately pulled her hand back and then, as I watched, slowly put it back in his and, with her other one, covered his hand. For the last fifteen minutes I could hardly concentrate - I was watching those hands!
Am I saying that a touch saved their marriage? Of course, I don't know - but it just may have. The strange thing is that although a relationship may break up gradually over a number of years, often it's not because of some traumatic event. More commonly it is an accumulation of small hurts, unrealised expectations, and what someone once called, 'a creeping separateness.' And sometimes the smallest thing can kick life again into that relationship; sometimes, something as small as a touch.
In Care for the Family we see incredible pain on a daily basis so I don't make these statements lightly, but I am convinced that many relationships could be revolutionised by the power of touch. I once saw a letter from a woman who wrote:
My husband says I'm not interested in sex and I suppose he's right. But what I really crave is for him to hold me - just to hold me. And the strange thing is that, if he did, I think I'd want sex.
And then my mind goes to another place and another seminar. This time the event is over and the auditorium is clearing. I stay at the front talking to some people when out of the corner of my eye I see a young couple who seem to want to speak to me but are hanging back. When the last person with me leaves, this young couple make their way forward. His eyes scan the auditorium to make sure it's empty and then he says, "Some time ago I had an affair. I was so ashamed and I asked my wife's forgiveness. I took my wedding ring off and gave it to her and said, 'Don't put that back on my finger until you feel you can trust me again."' He held his left hand high, smiled and said, "Last week she put the ring back on my finger." He looked elated, but I turned to see how his wife was coping with all of this. Her head was bowed.
I said to him, "Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I think when your wife put that ring back on your finger she was not saying, 'I trust you again', but rather, 'With all my heart I want to trust you again."' As I spoke she lifted her head and said, "That's exactly how I feel."
That young wife was prepared to forgive her husband; she loved him. She was determined to do all in her power to rebuild their relationship, but he wanted it to immediately return to the way it was before. Her forgiveness was real, but she needed time to allow trust to build again.
I am tired of hearing so-called experts say that affairs are good for a marriage. The affair leaves people broken. Just recently I received one of the most poignant letters we have ever had in Care for the Family. The woman who wrote had been at a conference where I had told the story of a young man who came to see me some years ago. He told me he was leaving his wife and two small children for the woman he was having an affair with at his office. He really didn't want to see me but his wife had begged him to come.
We only spent a few minutes together but in that time I outlined for him what I felt the next two years held for him in his new relationship. "For 18 months or so you'll enjoy wonderful sex, riveting conversations and almost teenage excitement. But then the relationship will begin to settle down to something approaching normal and the everyday pattern of bills, leaking taps and household chores will invade your love nest. In Dr James Dobson's immortal words, 'The other man's grass may be greener, but it still needs mowing!"'
"And one day you'll wake and you'll wonder what your kids look like first thing in the morning when they get out of bed. And then a really strange thing may happen. It's not impossible that you'll think of the wife you've left and the things that drive you crazy about her now will not seem such a big deal. You'll catch yourself thinking, 'Why was her dress-size so much more important than the woman she was? She was always there for me."'
George Bernard Shaw was right - 'There are two great tragedies in life: one is not to get the desire of your heart. The other is to get it.'
That young man never did leave his wife and children.
Let's go back to the woman who wrote to me and who heard me tell that story. Here is part of her letter:
As I sat there listening to you, my husband's arm was around my shoulders. But a few weeks later I discovered he was having an affair. I confronted him and he eventually decided that he would leave me. He called in our two children to tell them the news - they were then aged twelve and ten. I will never forget their reaction. Their world fell apart as he told them he was leaving because he loved someone else. My son literally bent double as if hit in the stomach.
It was the trauma of an affair that caused one of the first couples who ever came to one of our seminars to attend. They had been married for 14 years and came to the event 'as a last ditch effort to save our marriage.' In the letter the wife wrote to me afterwards she said:
I could not forgive him no matter how sorry he said he was. But then you spoke about God forgiving us and I thought, 'I want my kids to have a mother and a father.' We are going to try again. Here's to the next 14 years!
That was 12 years ago. Last year ago she wrote to me again. This time she sent me a family photograph and I saw her and her husband flanked by two smiling teenage children. I got all our 50 staff together, held up the photograph and said, "This is the heart of what we do and I would have done it all - all the books, all the travelling, all the seminars - just to see these two kids with their mother and father."
Those memories and a hundred others come flooding back to me as I think of the past 13 years. Some of them make me sad and others fill me with joy, but mostly the memories warn me that none of us should take our relationships for granted. Hard times hit us all. We must stand by those who have known the pain of family break-up, never forgetting that we ourselves are not immune. It could happen to any one of us tomorrow. People sometimes say to me, "Don't you feel an incredible pressure on your family to be perfect?" The short answer is that we don't. When Care for the Family started we decided to share not out of perfection but out of vulnerability - freely acknowledging our own tough times - both past and potential.
It was a good decision. People seem more helped when you share the things you got wrong than your clever answers. And, if nothing else, it keeps us sane.