Some years I have dreaded Valentine’s Day. Trying to choose a card with mushy words that I don’t mean and I don’t feel at the time. Painful. On the day a poor excuse, ‘I thought I’d save money this year,’ when really I thought giving one would be dishonest. I feel ashamed to write those words.
When you first fall ‘in love’ there is very little effort involved. It happens, it’s amazing, it’s a high. It lasts a few months or a few years. I plugged my ears when people told me it’s not going to stay that way, at that intensity. The problem is I love that ‘in love’ feeling, the thrill of falling. The spontaneity, fun and discovery of it all. For me the whole experience had a multitude of books and films to live up to. After all I dreamed of fairy tales my whole life. Didn’t I deserve my happily ever after?
Tim took a long time to decide to propose to me. I thought he never would, but he did. He picked me up early on a grey winter’s morning for a surprise day trip, we drove six hours to Buckden, North Yorkshire, hiked up ‘Buckden Pike’, he proposed to me at the top, then we ran down the other side, ate lunch at The Buck Inn, drove to Skipton to find a jeweller’s to buy a ring, still muddy from the walk, and then drove back to the South coast in time to tell everyone that evening.
Tim got all his indecision out before we were married. Once he decided he stuck with the decision to love me. I didn’t get why it took him so long to be certain. Yet, on our wedding day as we said our vows the enormity of the promises hit me. ‘Forsaking all others.’ For a second or two there I did wonder whether the brave thing to do would be to run out. I didn’t have a black book of past lovers to regret forsaking, I only had one kind-of-boyfriend before Tim, but it was the finality of the decision to love this one person for the rest of my life that hit me. I didn’t run. I stayed and said the vows.
On a few occasions those promises are all that has held us together. I don’t say this to shock, I say it to be real. What I’ve learned is that love is something you do every day. There is no magic recipe, just a million little decisions following that big decision. Sometimes it’s easy to make those decisions, other times it’s through gritted teeth when the feelings aren’t there. It’s through times where there’s no money for romantic getaways or much of anything, times of depression, times with children waking through the night and times when we drive each other mad with rage. I decide to stay every day.
One thing I’ve learned is that my happiness is not dependent on Tim or what he does for me. In my worst times, my thoughts tend to go towards, ‘I’m not happy, therefore I should get out. I deserve better.’ I miss the point at those times in my pride and self-centredness. Usually, I’m making unhelpful comparisons with what I think other people have, or what someone else could give me. If I lose contentment, my fickle heart starts to wander. Thankfully, the tug of the Holy Spirit on my heart has always kept me from wandering too far away.
As scripture says, love ‘is not self-seeking'(1 Corinthians 13:5 NIV). It’s not what I can get, but what I can give. Love is self-sacrificing. It doesn’t mean tolerating abuse, or becoming a doormat, but it does mean giving of self, choosing to put someone else’s needs first – and a lot of thinking the best of them rather than focusing on faults. If a relationship is right then the other person is doing the same…then it’s a win-win. When it’s lop-sided, one or other suffers heartache, though there are times when patience is needed to carry each other when one or other has nothing to give. Patience and forgiveness, knowing we’re both capable of screwing up.
When I look back on almost twenty-one years of marriage, I see that the challenges and struggles have made us stronger. The everyday actions of staying, of being there, of sharing laughs and sorrows, our lives and dreams, triumphs and disappointments, working together to raise our children, building a home, our same old bed, all of it is filled with love. Just maybe not the kind you see in a movie. Real love is much grittier and messy round the edges, but it has a more lasting quality.
The grace of God sustains us in this journey into love. His perfect love is the example and where we find ultimate contentment. The love of a man and a woman in marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with the church (Ephesians 5:25-33). He lays down his life, so we lay down our lives for each other.
I haven’t made it yet, I’ve still a lot to learn about loving this man I decided to stay with ‘for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until Christ comes or calls us’.
I browsed the Valentine’s cards with more excitement this year. There’s hope yet.