How many times have we heard people say to us, “I’m religious, but I don’t practice”—as if believing were enough and practicing were outdated? In the same way, in the life of a couple, it’s easy to neglect practicing love when you’re sure you love your spouse.
It seems that should be enough to satisfy them: “You know that I said ‘I love you’ when we got married, and that’s still true!” But the problem is that, even when you know you’re loved, you appreciate it even more when you hear it said again and again, and when it’s shown and proven by gestures, words, and attitudes.
Doesn’t a fire in the hearth need to be fed regularly with logs and stirred up often to rekindle the flame? The same is true of love. If it dies out, it’s often due to neglect.
Love needs to be put into practice, just as we must exercise if we don’t want our muscles to atrophy. Like any virtue, it must be practiced and perfected in order to have a beneficial effect. If we perform acts of love even without feeling at first, it will make love grow and blossom.
Here are five things we can do daily to put our love into practice and make it grow.
1Saying “I love you”
It must be hard for some people to say these magic words in the morning or at night, given how rare it can become over the years! Engaged couples say it five times a day, newlyweds five times a week, more mature couples five times a month, and I know old couples who have not said “I love you” to each other for several years.
Part of the dignity of human beings lies in our ability to speak in order to communicate in various situations, but above all and par excellence in repeating often the essence of our commitment. The initial “yes” is renewed with these regular reminders of “I love you.”
We don’t always realize the power of these three words to incite us to take action, to shift the focus to the “you” who is the recipient of our love and who distracts us from ourselves. Plus, the word “love” is an action verb! In Spanish, they say “Te quiero,” and in Italian, “Te voglio bene,” putting the other first and forgetting the “I” altogether! There are lots of different ways to say the same thing in any language — “You’re my only love, my treasure” — with equally delightful effects.
2Saying “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you”
These brief words can be difficult to pronounce because they require humility, generosity, and renouncing retribution for an offense received. Yet this effort brings so much peace and reconciliation that it’s surprising more people don’t not practice it. It may be that they weren’t brought up learning this good habit, or because they find it especially difficult to engage in this divine, but accessible and simple act.
Here too, by practicing, we can become experts. We need to practice forgiving and asking forgiveness in the small things in order to perform them later on in more serious circumstances. Each person does their part at their own pace: one has to say, “I’m sorry,” and the other, “I forgive you.” Forgiving is a synonym for loving.
3Saying “Thank you”
Gratitude is an important virtue for everyone to practice, but especially those who have made a lifelong commitment to each other. For couples, it’s a matter of noticing the good things about the other person more often than their faults, of silencing criticism in order to encourage them more often, of rejoicing in what is good before correcting what is bad.
Gary Chapman speaks of words of thanks as a specific language of love, a good way of nourishing communion. A “thank you” from the heart restores a heart saddened by fatigue, a spouse distanced by an argument, or a mind distressed by weariness. A “thank you” brings a smile to the eye.
4Serving each other
Just as the wind cannot be seen as such, except in its effects—smoke that is blown away, or leaves that shake—love must not remain theoretical but be proven by helping others, by serving them.
The hand is an extension of the heart, as is well known. A hand works wonders by taking its share of housework, by doing its share in raising children, and by doing many different things to help one’s spouse. It’s another language of love that we should all practice.
Love has three essential markers that embody it very deeply at the heart of married life: forgiveness, service, and tenderness. In the absence of one or two of these, it’s not surprising that love withers away.
Tenderness is not all or nothing, but between passionate sexual union and disdainful and cold coexistence, it manifests itself in daily gestures, words, smiles, and affectionate benevolence. Chaste embraces, delicate caresses, and tender words and looks nourish fleeting but comforting moments between loving spouses.
Indulging in these acts of tenderness helps us to touch our spouse’s heart. This was called courting in the days of courtly love, forgotten in the tornado of the sexual revolution. Tenderness surrounds sexuality and gives it its rightful place.