Happy Valentine’s Day
I’m aware that it’s risky to talk about relationships around Valentine’s Day. My readers will come from various backgrounds and have been through differing experiences, so writing a single article to communicate with them all is a challenge.
Some of you want with all your heart to be in a relationship in which you are loved lavishly and in which you free to love in return the object of your affection. You are waiting for Mr. Right and he hasn’t yet appeared. Or you are ready for the woman of your dreams who will be the love of your life, but so far her arrival has been delayed. And this may have gone on for an exasperatingly long time.
A few of you have been so wounded by the last person you gave your heart to (or maybe it was the cumulative effect of several times you allowed yourself to love, and lost) that you can’t see yourself even entertaining the thought of a love relationship. You’ve decided there is just too much potential for heartache, so you’ve given up the search.
Some of you had a good relationship with just the partner for you, but all too soon they died, a victim of illness or disease, an accident, or military action. I am so sorry for your loss and apologize in advance if my words tap on the wounded regions of your heart.
Others of you thought you had received just the sort of relationship I have alluded to, had it in your grasp, but somehow it has slipped away. Maybe you didn’t quite make it to the altar. Or you did and the marriage didn’t turn out as you’d dreamed and has died or is currently dying. My heart aches for you as I’ve been down that road myself, decades ago.
And finally, some have what you consider to be a good relationship and want some help to keep it purring along or to help it continue to grow and thrive. I am prayerful you will find some help with that as well.
It is not my intention to indicate that you are not complete unless you are in a relationship. Our culture sometimes implies that, especially in the message proclaimed in popular movies, books and TV shows. That is in no way true. In fact, the opposite is true. The only way you can really be happy in a relationship is to be whole and complete when you are alone. “You complete me” is a phrase that makes for emotional movie making (from the movie “Jerry McGuire”), but it is not a good recipe for marriage. In relationship math, one half of a person plus one half of another person in no way equals a whole. Relationships just don’t work that way. (I will confess, however, that, in my humble opinion, “You had me at ‘hello’” is one of the best movie lines ever.)
On our first date, my wife, Linda, and I closed down the Camino Real Restaurant in the strip center on the north side of Hwy 96 just to the west of I-65 in Franklin, TN. That night we talked about our histories, our desires, our dreams and our goals. In short, we began the lifelong process of getting to know one another.
My eyes were so full of her that night I couldn’t see anything else. After dinner and several refills of my glass of tea, I was still listening to her intently, but I became aware that chairs were being lifted to rest atop tables around us. “How rude,” I thought, “it’s only…” and here I lifted my arm to peer at my watch for the first time since we’d entered this slice of Tex Mex heaven, “…eleven o’clock.” Was it really that late? Where had the time gone? We had closed the place down. I had been so transfixed on those sparking hazel eyes that I’d lost all track of time.
Many of you can tell a similar story, perhaps not of a first date but of a time when you were beside yourself with the person who became (or whom you hoped would become) your spouse. When you are at that place, you are in a zone devoid of time and distraction. You cannot imagine a time when you would not feel as happy, satisfied and contented as you did at that moment. Life and your relationship seemed so full of promise and hope and potential. You could not think of any way in which you would doubt the love of your mate or regret the decision you made to commit to one another.
Then life happens.
Careers clamor for attention, pulling us away from the devotion to our marriage that had been so undeniable, so tangible. Or maybe it was the arrival of a child or children that tested our ability to balance being a spouse with being a parent. Coupleness seems to be an elusive dream, held out to us as possible, but remaining just out of reach. Why didn’t anyone tell us how difficult it was to parent well while striving to be married well? Or maybe they did, but not pointedly enough or in a fashion that could break through our tendency toward denial. We find through experience that it’s difficult to look longingly into the eyes of your partner with a child pulling at your leg or spitting up on your shirt.
There are couples that are pushed apart by hormones, his or hers. Maybe it would be better to say an imbalance of hormones. Moods are different, sometimes hour by hour, or for long stretches. We may know we don’t feel ourselves, but by the time you figure out what’s going on, a lot of damage may been done to the feelings you have for one another and the bond you want to share. And I’ve learned that this is not just a female phenomenon; men can become imbalanced as well due to the stress of living life and the relentless demands of careers.
Some spouses are driven into separate corners by their dreadful fights. With raised voices and a vocabulary that would never be thought of as characteristic of lovers we duel with words. We angle for power, or a small measure of revenge, or the last word, or just to be heard and understood. And our relationships suffer significantly.
Maybe you were turned down or turned away so many times you quit asking. Giving up seemed easier or wiser than continuing to live with the pain of rejection. You made yourself scarce, either physically or emotionally. You might never have packed a bag, but you moved out all the same. You took up a hobby, gave in to a distraction, worked late at the office, went out with friends, immersed yourself in the kids, or got lost in video games and media.
Maybe you were hurt by things she said or devastated by things he did. The vows you made didn’t seem to mean as much to your partner as they did to you. A little at a time, or in some cases all at once, you chose to close off parts of your heart to protect yourself. Now, months, years or decades later, you find it difficult to open up as you once did.
It may be that there was no direct hit to your marriage, but it suffered anyway though a quiet neglect. An apathy set in that was fostered by inactivity. The love you felt for each other and the passion for life you thought would last forever became less intense due to the absence of effort. Like a houseplant that was left unwatered in your living room while you were on an extended trip, you now see in your relationship the browned and cracked leaves of neglect instead of the green foliage of a plant brimming with life.
I’d ask you to ponder a thought before we continue. Are you ready? Here it is—
Is it any wonder that you act less like a valued treasure
when I treat you like you are not treasured?
The Road Back
Wherever you find yourself, no matter the condition of your relationship, there is a way back to one another. I’d like to suggest an avenue for healing, one road back to each other. It’s summed up in the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:21,
“Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be,” (NLT).
In the context in which this metaphor occurs, the Master is speaking about the way we deal with wealth and material goods. But the principle he is stating is universal. You can know what it is you treasure by looking at what you think about, what you spend your time and energy amassing, and what it is that you want in your heart of hearts. Your treasure is what you live for and what you’d be willing to give your life for. Your treasure defines you, but more than that, what you treasure shapes the way you arrange your day, how you spend your minutes, and what you choose to do and not do, say and not say.
When I sit with a couple for the first time in a counseling session, I’m looking for something. In addition to a description of the problem or problems they say are the reasons for their appearance in my office, I want to know if they treasure one another. While I do listen to see if their stories have the ring of truth and to discern whether their emotions are congruent with their words, I want to know how they think about each other. How does she treat him? What is his affect when he speaks of her? What is the aura of their connection with one another? In effect, I’m a Treasure Hunter attempting to discover if they value one another.
My question for you on this Valentine’s Day is simple: Are you living as if your spouse is your treasure? Don’t answer too quickly, because the answer you would give with your lips may not be the same one you are communicating with your life. What you intend may not be what is being betrayed in the day-to-day living out of your vows. I’d like to help us explore this concept in the next few minutes.
One additional disclaimer before we get to the meat of our discussion. It is not my purpose today to heap on guilt or to assess blame. There is no benefit in beating yourself up or in dumping responsibility on your partner. I’ve learned in the last 30 years of working with people (and in my own repeated failings to live up to my intentions) that a candid look in the mirror can be a healthy and worthwhile step to take on the road to wellness. That is what I’d like these next thoughts to give us: an honest reflection.
The word “treasure” means, “a store-house for precious things; hence: a treasure, a store.” Our English word is derived from the Greek word “thésauros,” which you may recognize as the root word for another English word “thesaurus,” “a storehouse, a treasury of words.” The question we’re examining today boils down to this: Am I treating my partner as if they are a precious treasure, a storehouse of all the good, pleasant and loving things I want for them? Use these thoughts to guide your assessment. With each one I intend to describe a need, and then a tool to help you enhance that particular aspect of married life.
The Master points out that if the main thing for you is having more stuff or keeping safe the more you already have, your attitude and actions will reflect the importance you’ve attached to money and things. If you see possessions and cash in other-worldly terms, what Jesus calls “laying up treasure in heaven,” you’ll treat them differently and hold them more loosely than if you see stuff and money as an end in and of themselves.
Wealth and things could be treasured, but you could also overly-value your career, or alcohol and drugs, or pictures online of people wearing very little, or food, or hunting, or Pininterst-ing, or being right, or any number of things.
The principle Jesus is pointing to is universal: What you treasure you tend to put first in your life. And your “treasuring” will be played out in your words, your attitudes and your actions. Even if you deny it when asked, your life will betray your values. There will be no mistaking whether or not you value your mate when you take time to look at your time and how your spend it, your tone when talking of or with your partner, the amount of energy you make available for your marriage, and the intensity of your emotion for your partner.
“Treasuring” is very different than trying to control, attempting to get something from, or working to convince your partner of your good qualities and upstanding intentions. Treasuring includes building up the other person, being concerned for their feelings, and giving the benefit of the doubt to what they say and do. When you treasure, you hope for the best, instead of expecting the worst. When your partner lets you down, you see it as a momentary lapse rather than a fault in their character.
Treasuring is easy to do when you are first dating or in early marriage. Most anyone can pull off a night, a weekend or a whirlwind time of romance. The harder part is staying with it, treasuring a person for the years and decades involved in being married, and married well.
If you’ve been together long, things may have happened that make treasuring more of a challenge. I won’t try to minimize the pain you have felt because of your wounds and disappointments. Those feelings are real and will require your direct attention. You will have a choice to make, though—to stay awash in those wounds or to move through the hurt, back to trust and love and the ability to treasure and be treasured again. I would like to suggest the following indicators of the level of your treasuring of your partner.
So I’ll list five ways in which it will be apparent that you do or do not treasure your mate. And each of those points will come with one or more “Focus” items you can use to improve that particular trait.
1. If your spouse is your treasure it will be evident in your TIME.
Time is one of the most precious commodities we possess. Spending time with your beloved is easier when we are first dating since everything you hear is new and the process of discovery is intriguing. Courtship tends to be a time of intense focus on the other person. As the weeks and months pass, the newness gives way to familiarity. It is especially at that point that treasuring your spouse must be a decision you make.
Our calendars can be bullies, taking away our perception of choice. Work schedules and family responsibilities make it more difficult to spend time one-on-one as a couple.
Through the years some spouses have described for me the way they have felt hoodwinked, cheated or in other ways disappointed by the way their partner had turned back to life after the marriage ceremony. It was as if they decided, “Now that I’ve got you, all the good things we have enjoyed to this point will continue as I now go back to focusing on my work or my hobbies or the family instead of treasuring you.” That makes about as much sense as believing your car will continue to make good time on your trip across the peninsula even as you shift the transmission from drive into neutral.
When careers and family pull at you, it will be a challenge to create couple time, but create it we must. Time to talk. Time to enjoy moments together. Time to strengthen the bond we have as partners. It won’t happen accidently; it will be the result of conscious decision.
I know time is difficult to come by, but try this exercise in order to make the most of the time you have.
FOCUS: The Eight Most Important Minutes in Your Day. Make it a point to reconnect or reconnect with your precious one in four two-minute segments: the first two minutes you are up together in the morning, the last two minutes before you part for the day, the first two minutes you’re together in the afternoon or evening, and the last two minutes before one or both of you falls asleep.
2. If your spouse is your treasure it will be evident in your TONE.
It is a sad but true statement of fact that we often talk to our spouse in a tone we would never use with a friend. Because we are angry or hurt, we often hurl words at our partner like a dragon in a video game hurls fireballs at an enemy. That is no way for people who love one another to behave.
You may have learned the limerick in grade school, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” You know now that is far from the truth. Words can cut deeply and leave nasty scars.
John Gottman is a famous researcher on marriage and what makes relationships great. His book The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work is a valuable resource for any married couple. One of the most important things he teaches people is to start gently when bringing up a topic which may lead to conflict.
FOCUS: Speak gently. Try saying, “Can you help me understand?” instead of “Why the flying flip would you ____?” And maybe, “Could you talk a little about ____?” instead of, “What in the world were you thinking?”
3. If your spouse is your treasure it will be evident in your THOUGHTS.
When you think of your spouse, what is it that comes to mind? Do you ponder his good points or belabor his shortcomings? When you think of her do her positive traits come to mind or are your thoughts more likely to be on the disappointing ways she thinks and acts?
FOCUS: The Love Menu and Pet Names.
Love Menu—make a list of 10 things that your partner says them or does them, you feel loved. Then exchange lists and pick one each day to present as a gift to your partner.
Pet names—research shows that having pet names for one another adds an additional layer of intimacy to your relationship. If you’ve not done this, you might start with “sweetheart” or “honey,” and call your partner that in a text or email.
In the Song of Songs, Solomon and his wife refer to each other as “my dove,” “a lily among thorns,” “my beloved,” and “my love.” Some of my friends suggest, “handsome,” “baby doll,” “sweetie pie,” “sugar plum,” “the bomb,” “baby,” “little darling,” and “Sugar Booger.” I call Linda “Dixie cup,” and she has lately taken to calling me “Boo.”
4. If your spouse is your treasure it will be evident in your TOUCH.
Have you seen dating couples who “can’t keep their hands off one another?” That’s part of the bonding process, but it isn’t isolated just to those who are new to a relationship. Couples who have been together for a long time can also benefit from kissing.
There are three ways couples get closer—talking, touching and teamwork. Touch bonds us; talking allows the other person to know who we are. Kissing profoundly is a way to intensify our feelings for one another. Holding hands keeps us connected. Touching affirms your desire to be with your partner.
I want to be clear that what I’m talking about is not just physical desire, at least not primarily. In a good marriage that aspect of the relationship can’t be separated from a deep and heartfelt foundation of “You are what I value.” At the same time, when you treasure someone, you will tend to translate that into the language of touch. Holding hands. Pats. Kisses. Cuddles. And of course when the lights go down, much more.
FOCUS: Set aside time to cuddle, touch, kiss and be close.
5. If your spouse is your treasure it will be evident in your TENDERNESS.
Marriage is not a competition. It is not intended to be a war, fought in one battle after another. Every couple disagrees, but relationships aren’t intended to be disagreeable.
Sometimes you’ll have to decide, Do I want to be right or close? Often you can’t be both.
If all you want to do is win, you both lose.
If you ever walk away from a disagreement thinking (maybe smugly), “I won that one,” you both just lost. If you emotionally “walked away” without engaging the issue and seeking a resolution, you both just lost.
FOCUS: Practice being close by focusing on the positive, refusing to point out all the negative or quibbling over the details of what your friend or your partner has said. Be the first to say, “I’m sorry,” and be quick to accept your partner’s attempts to make things right.
You may find it difficult to imagine living your life like I’ve just described. You may have been disappointed, hurt and let down so many times you feel hesitant to give renewal a try. I can sympathize with that, but if you don’t try something new, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting. You’d like something new, you say. Then you’ll have to do something new.
The process of forgiving will have to be learned and practiced. And if you get stuck here or anywhere else along the way, it can help to talk to another couple, your pastor or a counselor. Someone from outside your relationship can often point the way to a better way of living, a better way of loving.
I’d like to issue you a challenge. I’d like for you to go on a Treasure Hunt. If you are married or in a serious relationship, you can do this with your partner. If you are not in a relationship at the moment, then try this with your friends.
1. Decide to treasure your friend or partner.
2. Give compliments and make it a point to receive the ones they give you.
3. Look for the good. Affirm the best in them.
4. Focus more on what they do right than on what you think they do wrong.
5. Exchange hugs.
6. Use your words to express your affection.
7. Bathe it all in prayer.
Over the years he may have gained weight, or she isn’t the housekeeper you’d hoped for, or he isn’t as romantic as you’d like, or she often fills the air with words. Will you treasure your partner anyway? When she makes you late or when he comes home from the office an hour after he said he would, will you remain a Treasure Seeker?