In this Q&A on marriage, Joe Beam, bestselling author and founder of Marriage Helper, gives practical advice on how to learn how to love well.
Q: Let’s say I want to love my spouse better, but we’re both super busy. Any ideas?
In our current culture, schedules are incredibly busy. When things are insanely busy, I recommend that people schedule romance. This means scheduling date time with just the two of you. This means scheduling romantic time in the bedroom. When I tell audiences this, they typically respond with something like, “Good grief! You don’t schedule romance. It’s something that’s got to be spontaneous.”
How to learn how to love: “When you plan things well, it can actually feel spontaneous.”
Yet the truth is, when you plan things well, it can actually feel spontaneous. For Valentine’s Day, I suggest that couples might want to flip a coin and let one spouse plan out something romantic for this year. So, for the other spouse, it retains the surprise element. One spouse gets the fun of planning it, and the other gets the fun of the surprise. Then switch it around the next year. As an example of this, one guy’s wife always wanted to go to the South Pacific, so he planned Valentine’s Day by bringing an inflatable raft into the living room, setting up decorative palm trees, cooking a Hawaiian meal, playing Hawaiian music, and wearing a hula skirt. Be creative and have fun with it.
Q: Let’s say I want to love my spouse better, but I’m having trouble feeling the same romantic feelings I had early in our relationship. Any ideas for how to recapture those feelings?
It’s important to acknowledge that feelings change for all sorts of reasons. They can mature and go deeper; they can fade because of neglect. Over time, feelings change. So, if you want to recapture some of the initial feelings, it won’t ever feel exactly the same, but you can try to go back and revisit some of the same things. You can go back to the place where you had your first date, the place you had your first kiss.
The thing that triggers emotional memories more than anything else is actually smell. Perhaps he can find the cologne he used to wear, or she can find the perfume she used to wear. Try to repeat something you did before, revisiting a place or action, and if possible, recapturing any of the fragrances. And just let yourself have fun. It won’t create the exact same feelings, but it can trigger some pretty good romance.
Q: Are there any everyday habits we can develop that will bring back the feelings?
A person can be attracted to another person in four different ways. At Marriage Helper, we summarize these ways with the acronym “PIES”:
- Physical – Are we attracted to each other physically? This is usually the most prominent attraction for short-term relationships, but merely short-term shouldn’t be our goal.
- Intellectual – Do we have enough in common that we can talk through ideas and connect through stimulating conversation?
- Emotional – Do we connect well at an emotional, relational level? Do we enjoy each other’s company?
- Spiritual – Are we aligned when it comes to core beliefs and values? Are we agreed on what’s most important in life?
Through our own study of couples as well as the research done by others, we have concluded that, if you want more romance in your marriage, you really need to prioritize emotional attraction. Most couples do things early on that evoke positive emotions in each other. Over time, however, couples get used to each other, and the emotions can drift into neutral. Sometimes, feelings can actually devolve into negative territory, where there’s more negative emotional reaction than positive.
How to learn how to love: “You’ll want to take note of anything you do or say that evokes a positive emotion in your spouse.”
So, as far as everyday habits, you’ll want to take note of anything you do or say that evokes a positive emotion in your spouse. Try to replicate those things. Similarly, take note of what you do or say that evokes a negative emotion, and try to avoid those things. You won’t get back to identical feelings as you had when you first got married, but you can get to where you have strong emotional attraction: you like each other; you enjoy being around each other. If you’ve ever seen older couples who are strongly in love with each other, this is how they do it.
I’ll also mention that learning how to cultivate an emotional connection is important for (and works really well for) parent-child relationships as well.
Q: Let’s say I want to love my spouse better, but I feel like I’m the only one putting any effort in. Any ideas?
We typically want the other person to be keeping up their end of the relationship before we think about investing significant time and effort into the marriage. We tend to wonder why we should put in the effort if they’re not doing the same. It’s human nature to feel this way. But the truth is, it’s when I invest in the other person that my feelings for the person grow.
A Christian woman once told me that she wanted to leave her husband. The feelings just weren’t there anymore. I told her, “But as a Christian…” And she said, “I know, I know…” I suggested she spend the next 90-120 days investing in the marriage by loving him well and doing thoughtful things for him. She decided to do what I suggested, and, six months later, she said, “I’m not going anywhere. I love this guy.”
How to learn how to love: “The more intentionality you put into loving your spouse, the stronger your emotional connection to your spouse will grow.”
The more intentionality you put into loving your spouse, especially where you’re not doing it to automatically get something back, the stronger your emotional connection to your spouse will grow. Another way to put it: the more investment you put into relationship, the more you’ll want to stay in it. Over time, you’re modeling this for your spouse as well. The more you invest, the more likely the other person is to respond with intentionality.
Q: Let’s say I want to love my spouse better, but I don’t feel like I’ll ever be a very good spouse. I feel guilty for hurt I’ve caused in our marriage, and I’m afraid I’ll never be any good at this marriage thing. Any ideas?
Often at root, the people in those situations don’t really believe they are forgivable. So, when your spouse forgives you and you don’t accept, then what’s really happening is that you’re not believing that your spouse is telling the truth. In the same way, when it comes to God’s forgiveness, if you don’t really think he’s forgiven you and given you a new, forgiven identity, then you’re not really believing God. I talk about this more in my book Forgiven Forever.
How to learn how to love: “Accepting the fact that God has forgiven you leads you to feel forgiven, and it’s when you feel forgiven that you begin acting like it.”
Accepting the fact that God has forgiven you leads you to feel forgiven, and it’s when you feel forgiven that you begin acting like it. If I feel dirty, it’s easy to stay dirty. If I feel clean, it’s easy to want to stay clean. When we say, “I think she thinks I’m a jerk,” then we tend to act like a jerk. If I really feel forgiven, though, that’s when I’ll accept my identity as a child of God and begin living like it.
As 2 Corinthians 5:17 puts it, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old is gone, the new is here!”
Marriage Helper provides a research-based program that thousands of couples have used to save their marriage.