Has Love Expired in Your Marriage?

It was a typical dad moment. I opened the trash can in our kitchen to throw away a paper towel and spotted a large, thirty-two ounce container of yogurt sitting in the morning coffee grounds. The problem was the container still half full of yogurt. I pulled the container from the trash, wiped off the damp coffee grounds, and asked the obvious questions. Who was the culprit of such treachery? And why did the guilty individual do it?

The violator quickly admitted to the crime and explained that the yogurt had passed its expiration date. I checked the date, and sure enough the yogurt was expired by two days. My child decided the best course of action was to throw away the remaining portion of expired yogurt. But I overruled the decision, wiped the plastic clean, and put the container back in the fridge (for those who are concerned, it had only been in the garbage for a few minutes and the lid was on). I used the yogurt in my morning oatmeal for the next few days, and I’m still here to tell you about it.

Sadly, many married couples treat their love as if it has an expiration date. When their love reservoir has run dry, they just throw their marriage in the garbage and usually begin looking for a new and refreshing relationship. As believers in Christ, however, we need to be sure we are building our marriages upon the biblical definition of love and not settling for the world’s idea of marital love. As Jesus said in Matthew 19:6, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” God created marriage to be a permanent, lifelong relationship that has no expiration date. God’s intention has always been that marriage lasts until death.

Unfortunately, many do not see marriage through the lens of permanency. When emotions die, too many couples wrongly believe the marriage dies along with it. Marriages that lose that loving feeling are far too often on the road to divorce. Even Christians are caving to the cultural norms of our day, trading in their marriage for an updated model, and leaving unspeakable wreckage behind.

After what seemed like hours of uncomfortable silence, the uneasy husband sitting across the table from me finally divulged his problem. “I just don’t love my wife anymore,” he confessed. One wife blurted out to me in a casual conversation that she was no longer in love with her husband. When I asked why she explained, “Because I no longer find him attractive.” The distraught wife went on to add, “I’m numb. I have no passion for him anymore.”

Obviously, there is a lot more to both of the situations mentioned above than can be shared here. In my years of pastoral experience, however, I have heard similar struggles in a lot of marriages. Relationships that look healthy on the outside are often rusting out on the inside due to an erosion of romantic feelings. When the foundation of a marriage begins to crumble, a tragic collapse is often not far away.

In some relationships the loss of romantic passion is a sudden development. One spouse said, “I just looked at my wife across the dinner table one night and realized I no longer love her.” But in most situations this is a slow developing condition that can even creep into a stable marriage if couples aren’t mindful. This leads me to a few questions. What does it mean when passion in a marriage declines? Does a waning of passionate emotion mean that love has expired? Is the marriage over once the euphoric feelings of romance have faded? How does a couple keep excitement and romance alive in a marriage?

In a recent msn.com article Dr. Fred Nour, a neurologist from California, stated that intense romantic love has an expiration date. As a neurologist, Dr. Nour’s description of relationships is primarily based on the primal instincts of mankind and how brain chemicals affect our interactions. Despite the doctor’s naturalistic approach to love, I found the article insightful. As I read the article I concluded that some of Dr. Nour’s observations were at least worth a brief consideration in this month’s post. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with all of his naturalistic, biochemistry arguments.

According to Nour’s observations, people should expect romantic passion to last no more than two to three years. Nour said, “Romance will never last for a lifetime. You have to accept falling in love is just a phase that’s going to go away... If you accept that, you'll have fewer divorces and more happy people.” It is certainly true that most people today are in the constant pursuit of that loving feeling. Once romantic feelings fade in one relationship, it’s time to find the next one. This becomes a vicious cycle of moving in and out of relationships every few months in pursuit of the euphoric feeling of a fresh relationship.  

Falling in love in our culture has been reduced to something that just happens to us. We are told these emotions are basically beyond our control. Certainly there is an attraction that develops between a man and woman that initially draws them together, but committed and flourishing relationships grow beyond this initial attraction. God hard-wired men and women to be drawn toward one another. Sexual attraction is normal and instrumental in bringing couples together in marriage. As Nour points out, however, the emotional excitement that exists in the initial phase of a relationship does change over time. Husbands and wives that expect the same level of romantic passion to exist throughout their marriage are setting up an unrealistic expectation. All committed relationships change and mature over time. A fluctuation in emotional attraction, however, does not mean love has died and the relationship should end. As couples persevere through this change in emotional energy, they find an even deeper love on the other side.

The article went on to discuss Dr. Nour’s four “phases of love.”

1.      Mate selection: this is the phase when you’re searching for and choosing the person you want to marry. This is the period in which married couples experience the highest level of attraction. Nour argues that much of the attraction process is subconscious and driven by instinct and brain chemistry. While I reject Nour’s biological fatalism, there is no denying that people find certain individuals attractive and not others.

2.      Romance and falling in love: this is the phase that is commonly presented in romantic comedies, love stories, and romance novels. This phase of a relationship is fresh, fun, and exciting. I have asked for years why all love stories end at the wedding? The real relationship develops in the years after the marriage ceremony, but that seems boring to movie-goers. Can you imagine a romantic comedy script that focused on the daily, mundane matters of marriage? I have the decided to write a series of romantic novels called Daily Love. In this series I am going to write stories around filing taxes just before the April 15th deadline, getting your car towed to the mechanic after breaking down in the middle of a torrential downpour on a busy highway, living without air conditioning for the first two weeks of July, staying up all night with a sick, hallucinating child (yes, we have lived that one), dealing with a prolonged time of unemployment, and my personal favorite, managing day-to-day miscommunication between five busy people living under the same roof. I wonder how many books I will sell… Order your advanced copies now while supplies last!

Concerning the romance and falling love stage Nour suggests, “In this phase, we don’t see reality — love is blind. We see people as we want them to be, not as they are.” Dr. Nour encourages people to enjoy this phase because these intense romantic feelings will usually fade within a few years. There is no doubt marriage reveals all of us for who we truly are. While your spouse may have been blind to your idiosyncrasies while dating, he or she will not be blind to them forever. You may not have purposefully hidden your true identity while you were romanticizing your spouse, you did successfully cover a lot of warts. These imperfections always come out in time and often produce a decline in “romantic love.”  

3.      Falling out of romantic love: according to Dr. Nour, even the most adoring and passionate couples go through this phase. Because we live in a culture that primarily focuses on romantic love, this stage can be very discouraging and create conflict in the marriage. It can be disheartening to experience a declining level of passion in your marital relationship, but this a normal transition in long-term relationships. People who give up on their marriage during this period of time will never experience the beauty of true, abiding love that lasts through the predictable fluctuations of “romantic love.” According to Dr. Nour’s naturalistic assessment, this is the time to decide it’s time to end the relationship and find a new partner. From a biblical perspective, however, this is the time to renew your commitment to the marital vows you promised before God.

4.      True love: this is the stage in the marriage when love reaches maturity. Dr. Nour argues that if a person decides to stay in the relationship even after the passion ends, he or she is on course to finding true, abiding love. During this final phase your feelings will grow deeper and more mature over the years. The end result of reaching this level of love is a happier and stronger relationship that will stand the test of time.

With Nour’s ideas in mind, I would like to draw five conclusions:

1.      Variations in your marital passion is no reason to quit on your commitment. There is no denying that all marriages go through different phases. Whether or not we can clearly identify the four suggested by Nour is debatable. But it’s clear that even healthy relationships will experience fluctuations in passion, emotion, and romance.

2.      Love matures with time. Life has a way of seasoning a marriage. Daily stressors such as job demands, financial pressures, raising children, caring for aging parents, and just the normal changes people experience as they age affect all of us and our relationships. These life changes, however, are not meant to pull our marriages apart. These situations are the context in which your heart is drawn closer to your spouse’s soul.

3.      Deep intimacy is not primarily a matter of emotion. All people desire to be known by someone else. Yes, our fears and insecurities often make this challenging, but we want someone to love us for who we are. We long to share our heart with someone and be accepted by them even in light of our imperfections. If intimacy is based only on emotion, no one would experience the kind of intimacy God created mankind to enjoy. God has commanded us to be patient, longsuffering, and forgiving because He knew all human relationships would need a healthy dose of all three to be reach maturity.

4.      Love grows to maturity in the context of commitment. Biblically, marriage is relationship based on a covenantal commitment made before a holy and righteous God. The Bible does not negate or discourage passion between a husband and wife. In fact, the Bible encourages passion-filled, sensual love in marriage. But erotic marital love only flourishes in a committed relationship that is not trusting emotions for stability. Feelings and emotions can lie to you. Commit to your marriage and create a context where true love can grow to maturity. To keep the romantic fires burning in your marriage you must make purposefully investments into the relationship. Remember your commitment, and invest time and energy into fanning the flames of passion in your marriage.

5.      Refusing to love your spouse, regardless of how you feel, is sinful. God’s design for marriage is a husband and wife who are committed to their relationship. A marriage that flourishes is not built on romantic love, even though keeping the flames of passion is important. A lasting, mature marriage is based on a committed love that does not allow normal fluctuations in feelings and emotions to destroy the relationship. Both husbands and wives are commanded to love one another unconditionally and sacrificially.

Paul wrote in Colossians 3:19, “Husbands, love your wives.” God calls every husband to make the daily decision to sacrificially love his wife. Because our sin nature even impacts our emotions, we must be careful to not blindly follow them. Men, even when your emotions betray you, love your wife.

In Titus 2:3-4 Paul wrote, “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children.” I have taught on this verse many times, but as I was writing this post it really struck me that there are aspects of love that need to be taught and learned. Notice that the older women are called to “train” younger women to love their husbands. The word “train” is translated from the Greek word sophronizo meaning “restore one to his senses,” “disciple” or “to hold one to his duty.” Paul’s encouragement for the older women to train the younger wives how to love their husbands tells me that there is much more to loving your spouse than just emotion. People are not taught how to be emotional because it comes naturally. But we can learn how to love as Christ loves us.

I don’t know the condition of your marriage today. But I plead with you as a husband to love your wife, even when you don’t feel like loving her. I beg you as a wife to love your husband, even when he’s unlovable. There is no expiration date on your marital love. As long as the Lord gives you breath you are called to love your spouse. God has great things in store for your marriage if you allow Him to bring the relationship to maturity through your obedience. Allow time along with the gospel to season your relationship and bring it to its fullest potential.

Please don’t throw away your marriage like an expired container of yogurt. Submit to God’s word, love your spouse, and feel the heat of the rekindled flames of passion in your marriage.

Jay Knolls