You Must Choose to Love Your Spouse

Gary Chapman
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Love is the most important word in the English language, and the most confusing. I say it is the most important because Jesus once said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35 NIV). I say it is the most confusing because we use the word love in a thousand ways. You will hear people say, “I love hot dogs. I love the mountains. I love the beach. I love my dog. I love my new car.” Then two romantic lovers will say, “I love you.” What is that supposed to mean?

Through the years, I have asked many couples to give me their definition of love. Definitions have varied greatly. Some have placed a strong emphasis upon the emotional and physical aspects of love. Others have emphasized the self-giving nature of love. The most unique definition I ever received is: “Love is a four-letter word composed of two consonants, L and V; two vowels, O and E; and two fools, you and me.” I suppose there is some truth to that.

Love Is More than a Feeling

When we look at what the Scriptures say about love between a husband and wife, we may be shocked to discover that the husband is commanded to love his wife and older women are told that they are to teach young women to love their husbands (Eph. 5:25; Titus 2:3–4). In our culture, we don’t think of marital love as something that can be commanded or learned. Many couples have sat in my office and said things like: “I wish I could love her, but I just don’t have it.” The implication is that love is something you feel and “I just don’t have love feelings.” I am empathetic with that. I understand what they are saying and why they are saying it. They do not feel the euphoric feelings they felt before they got married. What many fail to understand is that what we commonly call “falling in love or being in love” is temporary. Studies reveal that it has an average lifespan of two years. The movies and songs have led us to believe that if you have the “real thing,” those feelings will last forever. That is simply not true.

That is why husbands are commanded to love their wives and older women are told to teach younger wives to love their husbands. The kind of love that leads to long-term, satisfying marriages is not a feeling. It is an attitude with appropriate behavior. Now don’t misunderstand me, emotions are important and one of our deepest emotional needs is the need to feel loved. That is why the euphoric feelings during the “in love” stage of a relationship are so satisfying. But when these feelings subside, as they always do, we must then choose to love and learn how to love. If we do this effectively, it will stimulate warm emotional feelings in the one who is loved. The emotions are my response to the words and actions of the one who chooses to love me.

What Marital Love Is All About

When the Scriptures command husbands to love their wives, it is not a command to have warm positive emotions toward her. Emotions cannot be commanded. We do not choose our emotions. What we do choose is our attitude and our behavior. That is what is commanded of husbands. We are told to love our wives as “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25 NIV). This kind of love is self-sacrificing for the benefit of the one loved. Romans 5:8 states that God showed His love toward us in that while we were filthy, selfish, and hateful, Christ died for us. As husbands, we do not wait for our wives to be loving toward us. With the help of God, we take the initiative to love her even if she is not lovely.

In the same way, what older women are to teach young wives is not how to have positive emotions toward her husband, but how to choose a loving attitude which will express itself in words and deeds. Again let me say, we do not choose our emotions, but we do choose our attitude and our behavior.

A Description of Love

Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13:4–8 for the best description (not definition) of love I have ever found. Read it slowly, with thought as to what implications it would have in marriage. The words are often read at weddings as a model of true love.

“Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”

We do not choose our emotions, but we do choose our attitude and our behavior.

This description of love is too much to digest at one sitting, so let’s just look at a few of the key ideas. Love is patient and kind, never demanding its own way; not a “know-it-all” but understanding; slow to take offense; courteous; it exhibits a positive attitude toward problems. All these characteristics of love are directed toward the well-being of the one loved.

Do these qualities of love require a warm “feeling” toward the one loved? Do not answer too hurriedly. How warm do you have to feel to be kind—to be patient? You see, the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 does not emphasize emotions, but attitude and action—which are not beyond our control.

Turn to God for Help

It would be unfair if I did not express clearly my deep doubts that you will be able to demonstrate such self-giving love without the aid of the Holy Spirit. We are not, by nature, lovers. By nature, we focus on our own well-being, not that of others. As Christians, we have “outside help.” “For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love” (Rom. 5:5). God’s love is poured into our hearts, and we become His agents of expressing love to our spouses. No one in all the universe is in a better position to love my wife than I. I must not forfeit this opportunity. If I am willing to turn to God and ask Him to love my wife through me, I can become a lover par excellence.

What happens often is that I let my negative emotions block the flow of love. My wife does something that upsets me. I experience the emotion of anger or hurt. If I follow my emotions, I will lash out in harsh critical words. My words stimulate negative emotions in her, and she reciprocates with harsh words. But if I acknowledge my emotions, and choose an attitude of love, I will be patient, giving myself time to cool down, and then lovingly share with her my hurt. If done in a kind way, she will likely have a positive response. Uncontrolled negative emotions destroy marriages.

For Further Reading:

The Marriage You’ve Always Wanted

by Gary Chapman

Respected marriage counselor Gary Chapman looks at the key issues that will help you build the marriage you’ve always wanted, answering...

book cover for The Marriage You’ve Always Wanted