In the early months, sometimes years, of marriage, most people are still "in love." After many years, however, a truly loving marriage becomes a rarer commodity. Along the way, things sour romantic and caring feelings. The longer the pain goes on, the more entrenched it becomes. Resentment, hopelessness and battle fatigue characterize many long-term relationships.
And yet, it doesn't have to be this way at all. When young couples realize how fragile their precious love really is, they will take strong measures to protect it. Unlike those who allow affection to slowly, almost imperceptibly, drain out of their marriage, they will rush to block the tiniest leak with a powerful plug. Not one ounce of warmth will be permitted to escape. Similar tactics are used by those who employed marriage counseling, allowing them to rebuild a damaged relationship. Now that it is whole again, they remain vigilant against the minutest emotional assault. Having learned the hard way, these couples know that love requires not only nurturing and maintenance, but also protection.
Love flourishes in an atmosphere of respect and concern. Therefore, all married individuals need to learn to show respect and concern for their spouse and ensure that they receive respect and concern in return. Let's look at this two-pronged strategy for protecting love, starting with the importance of showing respect and concern for one's own partner.
There are times when a person feels irritated – many times, in fact. Feelings of irritation must be noted and not allowed to take the reigns of the vocal apparatus. "I feel irritated/annoyed/frustrated/furious/upset and I cannot speak until I calm down" is a safety-enhancing marital mantra. In the moment, one can say to one's spouse, "I'd like to collect my thoughts and talk to you about this later today." Then, the intervening period can be used to restore emotional equilibrium.
Speaking in anger leads all too often to abandoning feelings of respect and concern. Minimizing communication during times of significant irritation is a powerful way to protect love. On the other hand, venting emotion can have disastrous consequences, as stated in the Talmud, "He that wreaks his vengeance destroys his own nest" (Sanhedrin 102b). Although there is certainly some satisfaction in speaking one's mind, there is more satisfaction in creating and maintaining a lifelong loving marriage.
And this brings us to the second aspect of protecting love: ensuring that your spouse treats you with respect and concern.
Each person teaches others how to treat them. A person who tolerates mistreatment destroys their own relationship. After all, one cannot truly love (or even like) a person who routinely hurts them. One must prevent that hurt from occurring by stopping it in its tracks.
At the first sign of disrespect or lack of concern, one must stop the train. "Hold on! We can't go any further until we straighten this out. This kind of behavior harms us both; it hurts me and causes me to withdraw affection from you. It harms our marriage. It has to stop now." Whether the offence was a bitterly sarcastic remark or a forgotten birthday or anything else, it must be addressed at the earliest opportunity. When words are insufficient to affect a change, stronger action must be taken (i.e. arrange a meeting with an advisor, rabbi or counselor). It is inadvisable to let little things pass, because the path to marital unhappiness is a slippery slope. It's all too easy to let love slip away completely.
Protecting one's love is an actual mitzvah since it is the route to protecting shalom bayit, a peaceful home. Vigilance in this regard pays off with a lifetime of love.