4 Facts About Love That Goes the Distance
I have worked with couples for over twenty years doing couples counseling and premarital counseling, and have noticed premarital couples nearly always give me the same answer to the first question I ask them.
Question: Why are the two of you seeking to be married?
Answer: Because we love each other.
For many years I have responded to the premarital couples by saying, “Good. But you’re going to need a hell of a lot more than that!” I laugh when I say it and the couple always laughs with me. It’s a great ice-breaker, and yet it couldn’t be more true. Because the love they are talking about is nearly always a certain feeling they are feeling, and that feeling is not love. I’ll explain what that feeling actually is below. Let’s talk about love that actually can and does go the distance.
1. Love that goes the distance is not the same thing as what many people call love.
I would bet almost any amount of money that very few if any couples who have been married more than ten years will disagree with this. What most people call “love” in the United States is just a feeling. Love is considered an emotion, but it’s actually not. The emotion people commonly call love is actually a feeling called attraction. Attraction is a powerful feeling that sweeps away people caught in its path. It comes with intense and powerful sexual feelings, psychological and emotional obsession with the object of one’s attraction, inability to think of hardly anything else, constant cravings to be in the company and presence of that person, and acute pain when one is not with them. It’s an awesome feeling, a powerful and potent natural high! While attraction may, and often does, have a genuine love contained in it, it is not love itself.
Attraction is a feeling and like all feelings, it waxes and wanes, comes and goes. Think of feelings like waves. They have a beginning point where they rise up. They gain in power until they crest. Then they crash on the shore and are gone. Every feeling you have ever had worked this way, and so will every feeling you will ever have as long as you live. For that reason, it’s important not to mistake attraction for love.
Don’t get me wrong. Enjoy that powerful feeling while it lasts! But plan for it to fade and know the work of love at that point has barely begun. The feeling of attraction is so potent that some people get addicted to it. They find themselves longing for it so desperately when it fades that they consider taking huge risks and having an affair, or leaving their partner, just to get into another relationship where they can feel that feeling again. The more convinced you are that attraction is love, the less likely you are to understand the next three things I’m about to share with you and if you don’t understand and do those things, you will not build and fortify real love in your relationship. If you don’t build real love, attraction is all you will have, which is scary, because it can–it must–fade and change with time. Sand can feel very squishy and pleasant between your toes on the beach, but you do not want to try to build a house on it. So every person who wants to grow, to become mature in love, will have to abandon the idea that love is a feeling.
Love that goes the distance is not the same thing as what many people call love.
2. Love that goes the distance requires particular skills and, for most people, these skills will take time to cultivate.
The skills needed for real love are those such as listening, responding, turning toward, accepting influence, expressing curiosity and gratitude, non-defensiveness, and many others. Saying you “love” someone does not mean you have developed the skills necessary to love them well, or even that you know what particular skills are needed.
How you learn these skills is not as important as realizing you need to learn them and finding a way to do it that works for you. Some people will do it in therapy. Some will take a weekend workshop, or join a Sunday school class, or talk to another couple they look up to and be mentored by them. Some will just argue ferociously for years, reflect hard on what’s happening and try to remain open to what they could have done differently and, over time, discover what they need to do. There is no one-size-fits-all way to do it. That last way of doing it is what my wife and I did.
We met when we were ten years old. We started dating at 17 and were married at 19, in 1988.
(Do the math, it’s a pretty big number. 😊)
Like the majority of couples who marry young, things were hard for a long time. By the time we had been in the ministry for ten years, we had been married for sixteen, and had learned so much, but the hard way. While we both had a couple of individual mentors, older friends and leaders who challenged us and helped us grow into better people, we didn’t have another couple we were really close to that was at least ten years ahead of us who could help us learn critical lessons and skills, and sort out what did and did not matter. So it was our privilege then to be able to pour our hard-won wisdom and experience into young couples who needed the marriage mentors we never had. We are pleased that to this day, many of those couples are now our dearest friends and, in many ways, like family to us. We continue to be able to love and support them in their marriages and families. I’m obviously a big advocate of therapy, but whether you do therapy or any of the other things I’ve suggested or not, I highly recommend finding a mentor couple if you’re fortunate to have potential candidates in your life.
Perhaps the most important thing I can say in this section is that if you want a connected, happy, fulfilling relationship, you will have to work on it. Nearly everyone says relationships take work, but after working with couples for twenty years, I really don’t think most people understand what the work actually is. It is not simply the work of gritting one’s teeth and holding on tight and trying not to get thrown off the rollercoaster you are on with your partner. That’s certainly part of it sometimes, but the work of love and relationship is the work of cultivating skills.
Now there are some lucky couples that are incredibly compatible, who just happen to have somehow already developed many of the necessary skills for loving well. (Temperament? Good examples set by their own parents? Relative absence of emotional trauma in their lives? It’s probably many things.) I call these couples “unicorns” because they are so rare many people will never see one and thus not even realize they exist. They are the exception not the rule, so unless you are one of those couples (you know if you are, because your relationship is extremely satisfying and you are both extraordinarily happy together and both sense this incredible “soul mate” level of connection) you will likely not just meet someone, experience powerful attraction, get married, do a date night once a month, and put it on autopilot, transitioning effortlessly from attraction into mature marital love. You will, like most couples, need to cultivate the skills that will help you love well. Love that goes the distance requires particular skills that will need to be intentionally cultivated because they do not come naturally to most people.
3. Love that goes the distance requires cultivation of moral and personal character that you will need to develop in order to consistently use your skills. These character qualities include selflessness, sacrifice, self-control, accepting responsibility, apologizing, and more.
How do you cultivate these qualities? Largely by taking every possible opportunity to rise to whatever love demands/needs/requires of you in the moment. Developing character is like running a marathon. You don’t “learn” it. No one has ever “learned” to run a marathon, because it cannot be “learned.” No, to run a marathon, you simply learn to run a mile, which is quite learnable. Then another mile on top of that, and so on. Eventually running the marathon is simply a by-product of having learn to run so many miles. That is how you cultivate character–by doing one noble action at a time. Good character, then, is a by-product of having learned to do many noble actions consistently, one after the other. Love that goes the distance requires cultivation of moral and personal character you will need in order to consistently use your skills.
4. After what has come before in this essay, it is obvious that love that goes the distance is something you learn to do over time.
You get better at it the same way the way you get better at anything: practice. Lots and lots and lots of practice. The more you practice, the better you will get. This of course then loops back to 1, 2, and 3 because you start by understanding that 1) love is not something you feel, but something you aspire to, strive for, practice, learn, and do. In order to do it, you will have to 2) learn the skills it requires; and 3) cultivate the character it requires to use the skills you learn. Love that goes the distance is something you learn to do over time.
Does this sound overwhelming? It’s not meant to, but as I look over what I have written, I can easily understand how someone might feel that way. Please know I’m simply trying to say that the idea “Love is all we need” is way off, and to paint a vivid picture of what the development of “true love” looks like, and how it happens. It describes a process, something you work toward over a lifetime, that happens in fits and starts. I don’t want my posts, ideas, and books to result in people feeling beaten down and like connected, happy relationships are out of reach. This couldn’t be less true.