Popular thinking assumes good marriages are “discovered”—you meet the right person, and it’s like planting a tree seedling. At first, you water it and weed around it, you might even stake it, but after a year or two, the tree just grows. Occasionally, you might want to keep watering it if you live in a particularly dry climate, but for the most part, you can ignore it and still watch it grow.
That’s how most couples live. They’ll talk about their pasts when they first meet, get engaged, go through premarital counseling, but after the wedding, the marriage is supposed to somehow “finish itself” just by the fact that it exists.
That’s not an accurate expectation of marriage. Intimate marriage is more like building a brick house. If you get a good start, even laying half the bricks, and then stop building, the house won’t finish itself. In fact, the reality is worse: An unfinished house, left out in the weather, deteriorates.
The same is true of marriage. If we aren’t dedicated to saying “I do” every day after the wedding, then, relationally speaking, that’s a day lost. Some couples who signed their wedding licenses 25 years ago have actually only worked on their marriages for about six months. They quit moving toward each other long ago.
Every season of life tempts us to stop building our marriages. Rather than grow together in true intimacy, far too many couples exist only on what I call “artificial intimacy.” They’ve never intentionally built intimacy but rather were trapped by an infatuation that felt like it fell from heaven.
They never had to work at it; it just was. Once it died, their intimacy died with it. An artificial intimacy can be sustained for a time by the common events of life, but usually it comes to a huge crash as soon as the couple enters the empty-nest years if true intimacy hasn’t replaced it.
Let’s look at how artificial intimacy begins, how it is temporarily sustained, and then how couples who believe they have been gripped by it can learn to grow into true intimacy.
In the beginning
Artificial intimacy begins with the onset of infatuation, a “grab your brains with a vengeance” neurochemical reaction that makes you virtually blind to your partner’s faults. Infatuation is notoriously short-lived, with a shelf life of about 12 to 18 months, but it’s intense. It’s also artificial, in that it creates an idealization of the one you love.
You focus on strengths (many of which might be imaginary) and ignore weaknesses (many of which are readily apparent to outside observers). You idealize this person to make them the kind of person you want them to be. It’s not genuine intimacy, but it feels real and is enough to lead many couples into marriage. At this point, you are relating to an idealized, fictional version of a man or woman, not that person’s authentic self.
In addition to infatuation, your relationship compatibility is also enhanced artificially via initial sexual chemistry, which tends to be very strong. When infatuation and sexual chemistry coexist, incompatibility barely even registers. You feel crazy about each other, you can barely keep your hands off each other—how could you not have an amazing marriage? You don’t even have to do anything to sustain your desire for each other; just being alive makes you feel compatible. And so, on primarily this basis, the couple decides to get married.
When spring turns to summer
When a couple sets a date for the wedding, planning the ceremony gives them something in common and keeps them going. They plan it, talk about it, and divide up tasks to make it happen. This is intimacy of a sort, but it’s a superficial intimacy, the intimacy of coworkers, not life mates. Still, in the throes of infatuation and high sexual chemistry, it feels like true intimacy and continues to sustain the relationship. They have a huge goal—the wedding day—and the anticipation of that day and their new life together can feel more real than the life they are already living.
Once the couple gets back from the honeymoon, they start setting up a home by moving into a new apartment or neighborhood and trying to join two lives. That also joins them in a common task and gives them something to talk about. What color should we paint the bedroom? Do you think we’ll be here long enough to bother with planting trees outside? Where’s our new favorite coffee shop?
As life moves on, just when things could get boring again, the couple is likely to start raising kids. That’s a big thing to have in common and requires a lot of communication. You go to childbirth classes, you build a nursery, you raise the kids, and then you have to communicate to get the kids to the right places. You share your kids’ failures and successes until you start to fight about them.
That’s when you find out how much intimacy you really have.
At the start of the relationship it was just infatuation and sexual chemistry. Then it was the joint task of planning a ceremony. Then, setting up a home. After that, raising kids. In days past, these life events could take marriages to the doorstep of death, but modern couples (who tend to have fewer children) can blow through these stages of life in two and a half decades, often leaving another 30 years or more of marriage to follow. That’s a long time to be lonely and to live with a familiar-looking stranger. If you haven’t consciously built true intimacy, the relationship is going to be seriously threatened.
Some couples have to wake up to the reality that they’ve been living relationally on shared tasks, not shared intimacy, which is built by praying together, sharing your dreams, carrying each other’s burdens, and building that all-important empathy for each other. Instead, they’re teammates, not spouses, and when you’re merely teammates and the season is over, what do teammates do? They go their own ways.
This in part explains why so many couples suddenly declare incompatibility even though they obviously once thought they had found their perfect match in each other and have lived together for more than two decades. They’ve simply come to the end of this false compatibility and realize they have very little common ground with which to face the rest of their life together. Sadly, they don’t realize it’s possible to rebuild the marriage on spiritual compatibility and by choosing empathy and intimacy.
When a couple gets divorced and each individual starts over with someone else, the second relationship initially feels more fulfilling than the first because, once again, it’s existing on artificial intimacy: Infatuation and sexual chemistry retake their place on center stage, and the two infatuated lovers enter the relationship-building practice of sharing past histories, planning a ceremony, and setting up a new life together. But the same dynamics will bring this affection to an end as well if the couple doesn’t consciously build true intimacy.
Making a marriage
A good marriage isn’t something you find; it’s something you make, and you have to keep on making it. Just as importantly (and herein lies the hope), you can also begin remaking it at any stage.
If you wake up to the sobering reality that you’ve existed on artificial intimacy, the good news is that there’s a relatively easy, though not quick, fix: You can begin now to build true intimacy. It is much better for everyone involved if instead of seeking a divorce and building yet another relationship on artificial intimacy, the couple chooses to begin building true intimacy, with God as the center of the relationship.
If you believe a good marriage is something you find, and the one you’ve found isn’t working, you can’t fix that—you simply ended up with the wrong person, and the only logical solution is divorce. If you believe a good marriage is something you make, and it’s not working, you can choose to remake it, to do something different, to build it up in a different way.
As a Christian, I believe we are so self-centered that we need to be transformed with God’s Spirit working within us to give us the full capacity to know true empathy, a willingness to sacrifice, and the ability to overcome the petty sins that destroy affection and create bitterness. That’s just another way of saying that building and sustaining true intimacy require nothing less than God’s direct intervention through His Holy Spirit.
It’s no good just starting over with another sinner who simply sins in different ways, because eventually I’ll grow just as weary with the second wife’s sins as I did with my first wife’s sins. How much better to attack the sin and grow in the grace of forgiveness than to live on a carousel of ever-changing spouses.
True intimacy is thus built via thoughtful, God-empowered perseverance: the commitment to keep doing small things that feed relational intimacy, in their proper priority. As a married couple, we persistently communicate. We don’t let bitterness grow. We keep caring enough to resolve our differences, and we go to God to forgive each other’s weaknesses.
We reserve time for each other. We make memories between the two of us—this is an intentional pursuit of deciding to do mutually enjoyable things together, without the kids. We remain the best of friends, and alarms go off if anyone else begins to feel closer or more desirable to us than our spouse. We keep praying for each other. We learn to laugh together, and we play together, work together, and cry together. If there’s not a physical reason why sex stops or becomes less frequent, we find out why our sexual intimacy is on the wane and address it.
If we stop doing the things that sustain marital intimacy, the relationship withers and dies. What’s so sad is that when couples get to the end of artificial intimacy, they often blame it on the person instead of the relationship. They say, “I must have married the wrong person,” instead of, “We haven’t nurtured the relationship.”
Intimacy is something we can choose to build and even rebuild if it has been lost. If two people want to rekindle their love, by God’s grace they can, just by doing the things couples do. Intimacy isn’t something you “have” or don’t have” as much as it is something you choose.
Copyright © 2014 Gary Thomas. Adapted with permission from Lifelong Love, published by David C Cook. All rights reserved.