I didn’t want to see him, let alone have dinner with him. It was Valentine’s Day, and my husband, Bernie, and I had hit the lowest point in our marriage of nine years. I felt overwhelmed and hopeless. Celebrating a romantic occasion during this season of marriage was awkward, even painful. This is where most couples walk away and call it quits. This is really hard and I don’t know how we’re going to make it. How do we celebrate this day when feelings of being in love are a distant memory?
It wasn’t always like this. Our early years of marriage were smooth sailing, and we looked forward to our time together. Over the course of our relationship, we had celebrated special days like anniversaries and Valentine’s Day (which is also the anniversary of our engagement) in a number of different ways. Some years when we could afford it and extended family members were able to care for our small children, we would get away for an entire weekend, savoring our time together at our favorite bed and breakfast on the shores of Lake Michigan. Other years we enjoyed a quiet dinner in our favorite restaurant, maybe even catching a movie afterward.
One year, as we waited for our server to bring us our drinks and were deciding on which fondue to order, the babysitter called to say that one of our daughters had gotten sick. We rushed home, put the kids to bed, ordered take-out, and watched a movie together. That anniversary stands out as one of my favorites, not because of what we did or where we went, but because of where we were at in our relationship. We were connected. We were figuring out parenting and life together. We felt loving feelings toward one another.
But now, with an accumulation of resentments and negative interactions between us, my heart felt hard. We had barely survived an onslaught of difficult circumstances, including a miscarriage, job loss, and Bernie’s serious bout of depression followed by his devastating diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Initially, our grief had brought us closer to each other, but as the stress and pain reached almost unbearable levels, our fears and anxieties went through the roof.
Communication became almost impossible. We were stuck in a cycle of unresolved conflicts, and every attempt to talk through our issues resulted in another fight. Bernie wanted to move past our conflicts and be close again; when I pulled away because of my hurt, his anger intensified. He felt rejected, like I was punishing him. I needed space and time to heal; he needed acceptance and connection.
Over an awkward, silent dinner, I looked at my husband of nine years and thought, how did we end up here? All around us couples were dining, and I silently made up stories about how happy they were, and the amazing lives they were probably living. Some appeared to be just starting their lives together, dating or newly married. Other couples looked older, and I imagined with envy that they had managed to make it through decades of whatever life threw their way. What was wrong with us? How were we supposed to mark this occasion when we didn’t even know how we were going to survive our marriage?
The Bible doesn’t tell us whether to give roses or chocolate, but it does define what real love looks like and gives guidelines for how to express it. We are told in Romans 12:9 that “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” 1 Peter 1:22b says, “Love one another deeply, from the heart.”
For us, during those difficult seasons, the most authentic way to celebrate our anniversary and Valentine’s Day was to go out to dinner and exchange cards that affirmed our commitment to one another. Cards that said, “Even with all we are going through, I still love you. We will get through this. I’m not going anywhere.” These were not the flowery, romantic celebrations we had often shared, but they were loving and sincere. They helped us to hold on, and gave us hope that we would, in fact, make it through. With God’s help, and our strong commitment to one another, we would come out on the other side.
And we have. With the help of a Christian counselor, Bernie learned how to give me the space and time I needed, even when it was uncomfortable for him. I learned how to move toward him when I felt like running away. We learned to be honest about our needs. With hard work, prayer, and plenty of opportunities to practice loving and extending grace to one another, we are on the other side of experiencing the joy of committed love. The warm, loving feelings have returned, and our friendship is deeper because of all we have gone through. We have authentically celebrated 25 wedding anniversaries and Valentine’s Days, and we continue to look for ways to genuinely love one another, in every season we are in: in good times and bad, for better or worse.
If you are facing a difficult season in your marriage this Valentine’s Day, consider these suggestions: