The month of love is winding down today. For the stores at least, I hope not for you. Pastel bunnies and foil-wrapped chocolate eggs are lacing the shelves that just days earlier kissed us with the sweetest messages on candy hearts. Sugar wrapped in plastic communicating love now speak of resurrected life. What an odd way to say, I love you.

And what about those who, like my husband and I, have largely kissed sugar good-bye (for the most part…dark chocolate still carries weight with me and on me and yes, I’m on a journey toward acceptance of all that). With “sugar free” not being a tasty option (for us), it is less obvious how marketers suggest we share our celebration and expression of love and hope. Not to mention how to sustain our love and hope! We find sunny tropical beach vacations advertised with flawless tanned couples smiling, twirling each other around with the promise of luxurious days reconnecting. (Clearly they resisted the candy aisle during February and live where sun shines on their skin even in winter months. We’ve escaped to the beach after a long winter before, and even with preparation we have never looked like those commercials. The real story is more like this: you see the weary couple slowly pouring out of their Uber ride at the all-inclusive destination gate with all the bags, their mis-matched summer clothes from the year before not holding up to the job of covering their new winter flesh. Next you see them passed out on lounge chairs on the beach because of sheer exhaustion, their skin flaking burnt from an unfamiliar sun with over-sized shirts because the beach is not ready for what is underneath. But by the end they are casting all care. They are even walking around with swimsuits on, clothing that is doing the best it can really, as they find themselves once again enjoying food, laughter, each other, and go for several continuous hours without a phone in hand. Fat, burned and happy, they seem to float through the airport, committed to each other again to this hard beautiful thing called married life.) No, we don’t see much reality in marketing. We don’t get the real story. For the lonely, the weary, the disconnected and discouraged among us, the saccharine-loaded messages about love and connection make us all the more ready to say good-bye to February, welcome March!

The messages we are being sold about love today include: love is out there, you are incomplete without it, all your problems will go away when you find it and it should be easy if s/he is the “one”.

Online dating websites promise the world to the lonely, to the hopeful yet, to the ones starting over, to the grieving, to the farmers-only. And for good reason. Marital love invested in wisely, is wonderful. As John Wayne puts it in our favorite scene in the movie McClintock:

“…all the gold in the United States Treasury and all the harp music in heaven can’t equal what happens between a man and a woman, with all that growing together.”

When a man and a woman choose to grow together in marriage, to lay down their interests for the sake of the other and serve rather than be served, it can feel like a slice of heaven on earth. But short of choosing to grow, we drift. And when a man and a woman choose to allow for drift in their marriage, to choose for oneself over the other, it may feel more like a slice of hell.

Have you thought about your choice to grow or drift in this way before? In your marriage or relationships? We make these choices everyday, to grow or drift. This is the way of humanity, and of all things really. Without intention we will not pay attention. I’m going to talk next month about this more, about our priorities, what we are paying attention to, because I need to come back to this more. Especially in my most important relationships, or relationship: my marriage!

Oh Father, teach us to number our days, to order our hours, to prioritize our relationships, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom! (Psalm 90:12)

***

Our own eHarmony story…

Grizz was a successful business man in Tennessee and I was lawyering in Florida, working at the Florida House of Representatives during Senator Marco Rubio’s administration as Speaker. We were both serving in ministries, leading small groups, growing in our personal and professional lives, buying homes, traveling on foreign mission trips, and were generally content. We desired to be married and have children, but we both knew what rushing could produce, and it wasn’t worth it for either of us to settle for less than what God wanted for us.

His good friend was the assistant pastor at his church, and traveled with him to the Amazon in Brazil on mission several times. On one of those trips, sitting on cots during a “siesta” in the rainforest, Grizz was encouraged to consider eHarmony, since his life was so full and relationships seemed maxed out with no new possibilities for courtship on the horizon. He was reluctant at first, but later decided to go on and for about a year, off and on, he would meet and get to know women, but was decisive and would kindly move on as soon as he knew that wasn’t his life path.

I, on the other hand, had already been engaged once before, and was extremely wary of “Mr. Right Now’s”. Because of the unfaithfulness of men in my past, I had made the classic mental leap from “one guy…two guys…to all guys were unfaithful”, so my 20’s were largely spent with God restoring my trust in Him as the Keeper of my heart. I had also come through a lot of healing with God around my identity, my worth, body image, and in my purpose. I couldn’t imagine a guy honoring all of that plus still want to provide leadership in our relationship! The bottom-line was that I underestimated God. When some women in a Bible study group I had co-led for a year challenged me to go on eHarmony, I resisted at first. I thought for sure I’d be that girl that ended up in a body bag, or I’d put a guy in one. I gave excuses as to why it wasn’t “for me” but then after one week, all those excuses dried up and resolved mysteriously. All I was left with was my fear, and God reminded me that fear is real, but a terrible excuse for avoiding something that potentially moves me toward relationship.

Vulnerability is terrifying. This is what makes it so beautiful!

I signed on for 2 months with eHarmony, and within days had matches from all over with all kinds of guys that would never work for me. I had agreed to go on with 2 boundaries: (1) I’m not initiating with anyone. If a guy cannot make the first move after algorithms have done all the work to create the moment, then I am not the woman for him. And (2), I would only meet him with friends around, and would keep community as a vital part of our dating relationship. I had a good life, and I didn’t want to attach even emotionally with someone if it wasn’t worth risking the good life I already had!

Grizz and I were technically matched within the first couple weeks I was signed on, but I missed him. I missed a lot of matches actually, I just blurred over them, freaked out a bit and usually went on with my day ignoring it completely. I went on a date without eHarmony’s help that month, and thought for sure God would bring marriage about in an organic way like meeting through friends still. But then God surprised me in a way only He could.

It was the week after Christmas, I was still visiting my mom in Alabama on vacation from work. For 4 mornings in a row I woke at 4am and couldn’t sleep. I’d go into the living room, read the Bible and journal for a while, and then would go back to sleep around 5:30 for a couple hours. Finally on the 5th morning I was tired. I prayed that if God had something He was trying to show me, to please just do it already because I wanted sleep. That morning something shifted, He revealed some places in me that were refusing to trust Him, I was fearful and He wanted to free me into wider places of goodness and love, but I needed to surrender. I thought for sure He was finally sending me to Africa to work in a jungle in tents with bugs. I cried. Hard. I expected the dream of getting married and raising a family was washing away with the tears of surrender, but I yielded to whatever He had in mind for me. Then I went back to sleep.

The pages of my journal that week were filled with one word: nudge. Every morning I wrestled a little more with God, until I gave up the fight, because I sensed Him nudging me from a nest I was afraid to leave. I carried that word with me into 2008, and watched an epic marathon of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that New Years, to some how absorb Frodo’s courage. He was nudged from the Shire, and I sensed I would soon be nudged out from my good life too.

Since I was headed to Africa, or so I thought, I began making arrangements for change. Since I wouldn’t be meeting a man and getting married, I went on eHarmony to cancel my 2 month subscription early. I was nearly all the way through all the hurdles for disembarking the love ship when I saw this flashing icon on the screen. It was a “new feature” to eHarmony, as of that week, and it blinked on your screen so you could absolutely not miss it. It took a moment, but when my eyes fixed on it and I read the words, my breath caught in my chest: “Jonathan has nudged you.” (Two things: Jonathan is Grizz. And, nudge! Are you kidding me? I know. Crazy.) Bless this man, he had initiated and when I didn’t respond he thought he would move on, but couldn’t. He sensed God nudging him too, to keep my profile active and not accept my silence. When eHarmony came out with the “nudge” feature, he was prompted to use it for one last attempt to connect with me.

God nudged Grizz. God nudged me. Grizz nudged me. Thank you God and eHarmony, for that nudge!

To finish the story quickly, we met one week later in Nashville, with my friends. We courted from a distance for 3 months surrounded by community on both sides, got engaged, and were married 7 months later flanked with mentors and family and banquet rooms filled with people who nurtured us along the way.

***

Our love today…

A nudge started us on our path, then the use of “guided communication” in the eHarmony structure helped us filter one another through our shared values and brought us into “open communication”. And while the landscape has changed, as have we, the path has remained the same. We continue to benefit from third-party guidance in our communication (through sermon notes, books, and so on), we are wise when we sift our choices through our values and we aim to practice openness regularly.

Dating websites may help you make the connection. Sugar hearts and sugary-sand beaches may help you affirm your commitment. But one of the lessons we have learned through our many years of singleness, in our meeting on eHarmony, and now having been married nearly 10 years, is that a loving marriage must be sustained by open communication. 

And sometimes this communication feels a lot like confession.

A lot of water has passed under our marital bridge since we met on eHarmony. I’m sensing a nudge to pay attention lately, to observe who we were, who we are and who we are becoming. Not only notice it, but give it room to be different than what I imagined. Embracing open communication means too that we may need to grieve some of what will never be again, before we begin a new kind of cherishing. To grieve a thing doesn’t mean we will never take joy, in fact we may have more room to take joy in once we clear out some of what is distracting us from experiencing our best love.

We started this clearing out just recently, gently, with conversation and confession. Grizz registered us for the FamilyLife marriage retreat called “Weekend to Remember”. We attended one last year in Asheville, N.C., and it was beyond our expectations, so incredibly good and surprisingly impactful. These weekends are hosted around the country, and scholarships are even available at times, we highly recommend them! Our year went in a different direction after last year’s retreat, the ripple effect of communicating on a basement-level, he and I heart-to-heart. Since similar material is shared at these retreats, I was surprised when Grizz registered us for the same retreat in the same city again this year. I thought perhaps it was too soon, even unnecessary. But any weekend together alone in a city with good restaurants and shopping sounds like the best gift to us, so I didn’t question it out loud for a second!

As we drove through the breath-taking Appalachian mountains on I-26, I became aware of how distracted my soul was, how disconnected from Grizz and our dreams. I had been checking boxes, marking through tasks on lists, packing bags, posting new notes on deadlines and taking shallow breaths, for days. My prayers were choked with immediate needs and urgent demands. Thoughts toward Grizz were focused on being productive, what we both needed to do next. My thoughts toward God were not very different. I quickly journaled where I was at, kind of a retreat “before” picture of my soul and my sense of connection with my man.

By the end of the first session that night I was in tears. I was aware of the desire of my heart again, the gap between mine and his, and mine and His. I was starting to warm to attention, giving it and receiving it, and grief came in with its disappointments and sadness for what is not in this season. I realized my activity was working as a dam holding back hurt I wasn’t able to put anywhere safe yet. But Grizz and God both made the space for it last weekend, and I received the release. The guided communication of the speakers offered us the aid we needed to move back to our values and communicate openly again…and for me it brought confession. I was holding on to resentment Grizz knew nothing of, and it was toxically working against us like a mold we couldn’t see or smell, but it was having effect. We moved toward each other to share and I wasn’t sure how it would come out. I moved the words in my mouth out slowly and carefully. It was like the first day of summer, the first bathing suit in the first pool, the first toe dipping in just enough to see if the water was warm enough to take the plunge. We dipped in respectively, kindly, with the other’s heart in mind. We found the water was surprisingly warm, warm enough to go a little deeper.

There is nothing, nothing, like a warm pool of water after a winter all closed up. Even for the flaky-skinned among us. What mysterious grace God gives to a man and a woman willing to grow together.

It was only a splash, but it was enough to spark renewal in our hearts toward each other. We found each other, the two who stood hand-in-hand floating to the moon in love on a stage 10 years earlier, and we greeted them as friends. We weren’t them anymore, but we loved them, and we want to stay close friends forever. But the us we are today is more precious to me than those two on that stage who knew nothing of critical this-changes-everything business decisions, of infertility grief, of ER visits and EKGs, of little babies and tough decisions, of brave stands and private heartbreak.

Grizz and I with the speakers for our marriage retreat, Bill and Pam Mutz. They have been married over 40 years, are the proud parents to 12 kids and enjoy 19 grandkids. They were a total delight as they shared vulnerably in their failures and trust in God. I’m considering a home in Lakeland, Florida (not really, but maybe really) where Bill is serving as Mayor just to be closer to their leadership!

But we would not have reconnected with each other had Grizz not been intentional in creating the space for us. Without intention we will not pay attention. Without choosing growth we will drift, in all our relationships – with God and humans. A year was not too soon, and we will not let a year pass now without pulling over and committing again to open communication. Better yet, we see the rewards that come with going after it throughout the year, like celebrating love beyond February 14th. If you want to schedule a get-away, or even a date night for you two to reconnect, here are 30 Ways to Start a Conversation With Your Spouse. Just get your toe in the water. Maybe it’s warmer than you think!

***

There is not enough sugar on the planet to adequately communicate to my husband how his perservance of faith and continual acceptance of me has meant to my soul.

And perhaps that’s what God thought when He looked at us. No gift would adequately convey the message, I love you, well enough so that we would believe Him. Nothing, that is, except than laying down His own whole life.

God sent Himself, His own Son Jesus, to tell us on Valentine’s Day and the other 364 days of the year what we most long to hear. There has yet to be, nor will ever be, a gift so grand as the one He has given to us, the clearest communication of love displayed over the ultimate weekend to remember.

And really, what an outrageous way to say, I love you.