If you’ve ever read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you will recognize this awesome passage where Stephen Covey confronts a man who says that he’s fallen out of love with his wife:
“You don’t understand. The feeling of love just isn’t there.”
“Then love her. If the feeling isn’t there, that’s a good reason to love her.”
“But how do you love when you don’t love?”
“My friend, love is a verb. Love — the feeling — is a fruit of love, the verb. So love her. Serve her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?”
He was speaking of being proactive — actively seeking out what you want, rather than being reactive and waiting for those things to find you. But ultimately, what does that really look like?
My wife Mel and I met at a hardware store in 2003. She was the gardening specialist, and I was the gardening manager. We weren’t supposed to date, which made things exciting. At least once a shift, I’d tug her into a secluded section of the store and we’d kiss. I fell in love with her eyes, her charm, her body, her smile, her walk — all of it gave me chills. And ultimately, we fell in love with each other. It wasn’t something that we had to work all that hard for. It felt natural.
But over 12 years, we’ve grown very comfortable. We speak candidly, and with three young kids, sometimes the best we can do is spend 30 minutes together in the evening watching a show on Netflix. I’m not sure how to define love. But what I can say is that I never thought it would look like two people on a sofa, one with a laptop, the other with a tablet, space between them, and Parks and Recreation on the TV.
And right there in those moments of being together but sitting apart, it can feel like falling out of love. But that really is the question of romance, right? If you can fall in love, you must be able to fall out of love. And when you think about it that way, it seems like love is a self-driving vehicle that may or may not stay on the road.
But that really isn’t the case. Yes, you probably fell in love with the person that you are with. Falling out of love, though, takes a lack of action, and staying in love means putting your hand on the wheel.
Love is a constant gesture. It is a million “I love you” text messages, phone calls to show you care, warm embraces, tender hugs and kisses, dates, smiles, and winks. Love is watching the kids when your partner needs a break. It’s finding a compromise where no one wins 100%, but it’s something everyone can live with. Love is washing work shirts for your partner because they are pinned between the late shift and the morning shift. Love looks like managing the budget because your partner isn’t always so good at that sort of thing. Love means proofreading a million college papers, and working a crappy full-time job at a hardware store so that your partner can finish a degree.
Love is watching the kids while the other does homework, goes to a second job, invests in a hobby outside the house, or enjoys a little time alone. Love is making sure that free time is equally distributed. Love is looking at the person you are with, and even though their body isn’t what it used to be — it’s a result of giving birth to the children that make your life warm and wonderful — and realizing that there is so much beauty in sacrifice.
Ultimately, this is what Covey meant when he said, “Love is a verb.” And for those of you with children, you know what this looks like. You know how much love there is in staying up with a sick, feverish, child, or hunching next to squirmy grade-schooler, helping with homework, feeling tired and frustrated after a long day.
But for some reason, a lot of couples don’t apply that same understanding of love as an action to their relationships.
All of this reminds me of a Huffington Post article written by Sheryl Paul, best-selling author and counselor.
“It’s a tragic reality that far too many people walk away from solid, healthy relationships with partners that they truly love because their experience doesn’t match the cultural expectation. […] It’s time we change ‘you complete me’ to ‘you inspire me to become the best version of myself’ or ‘with you, I will grow and evolve in my capacity to love.’ It’s time to dismantle the fantasy so that people on the threshold of marriage can create the healthiest possible foundation on which to begin their lives together.”
I’m not going to say that Mel and I are amazing at all these little things. But I know that I feel her love in her actions. And I feel confident that she feels my love in my actions.
The reality is that real, long-term love isn’t drug-like or euphoric. It’s practical, sacrificial, and passionate. It’s intentional. It’s about action and compromise. And most importantly, it means reaching deep inside yourself, and realizing that sometimes you don’t always love the person that you are with. Sometimes they are frustrating. Sometimes they don’t load the dishwasher correctly. Sometimes they make the irritating laugh that was charming at first, but over the years has crawled under your skin like a tick. And sometimes, they just really piss you off. In those moments, you have to reach down and make a conscious choice to love them despite their flaws.
It isn’t easy, but neither is marriage.
Love is a verb.