The Idea of a “Love Bank” Isn’t a Myth… But the Idea that Your Spouse Must Make Deposits Is A Lie

If you’re married, engaged, or hope to eventually be married, I highly recommend that you read Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage. Seriously, I feel that every time I sit down to read another chapter, the Holy Spirit uses this book to change some area of my heart or some long-held cultural perspective of marriage that I’ve been clinging to.

Chapter Two, entitled “The Power For Marriage,” lays the foundation for the rest of the book, namely that marriage is meant to be undertaken only through and by the power of the Holy Spirit. He turns the widely-accepted pop psychology idea of a “love bank” on its head, saying:

“The picture of marriage given [in Ephesians 5] is not of two needy people, unsure of their own value and purpose, finding their significance and meaning in one another’s arms. If you add two vacuums to each other, you only get a bigger and stronger vacuum, a giant sucking sound. Rather, Paul assumes that each spouse has already settled the big questions of life – why they were made by God and who they are in Christ. No one lives a life of continual joy in God, of course. It is not automatic and constant. If that were the case, Paul would not have had to start verse 18 with an imperative, exhorting them literally to ‘go on being filled with the Spirit!’

We are often running on fumes, spiritually, but we must know where the fuel station is, and even more important, that it exists. After trying all kinds of other things, Christians have learned that the worship of God with the whole heart in the assurance of his love through the work of Jesus Christ is the thing their souls were meant to ‘run on.’ That is what gets all the heart’s cylinders to fire. If this is not understood, then we will not have the resources to be good spouses. If we look to our spouses to fill up our tanks in a way that only God can do, we are demanding an impossibility” (Keller, 52).

Do I love it when Josh shows up with gerber daisies and roses after a long week away at a conference? Yes.

Do I love it when he cleans up the kitchen while I’ve been at Georgetown all day, even though I made the mess? Yes.

Do I love cuddling, hugs, and dancing in the kitchen? You better believe it.

Do I love it when he asks me to process my day with him? Absolutely.

But should he have to do those things for me to be able to love him in return? No.

Keller says that “Self-centeredness is a havoc-wreaking problem in many marriages, and it is the ever-present enemy of every marriage” (56). This self-centeredness is prevalent even in Christian ministries and marriage materials.

The next few quotes from Marriage Builders curriculum is a great example of how many well-intentioned people approach marriage counseling or marriage building:

“Inside all of us is a Love Bank with accounts in the names of everyone we know. When these people are associated with our good feelings, ‘love units’ are deposited into their accounts, and when they are associated with our bad feelings, love units are withdrawn. We are emotionally attracted to people with positive balances and repulsed by those with negative balances. This is the way our emotions encourage us to be with people who seem to treat us well, and avoid those who seem to hurt us.”

“The emotional reactions we have toward people, whether attraction or repulsion, is not a matter of choice. Love Bank balances cause them.”

“When a man and woman are both in love, their emotions encourage them to make each other happy for life. In fact, the thought of spending life apart is usually frightening. It seems to them that they were made to be together for eternity. In almost every case, a man and woman marry because they are in love, and they are in love because their love bank balances are above the romantic love threshold.”

“But what goes up can usually come down, and love bank balances are no exception. As most married couples have discovered, the feeling of romantic love is much more fragile than originally thought. And if Love Bank balances drop below the romantic love threshold, a couple not only lose their feeling of passion for each other, but they lose their instinct to make each other happy. What was once effortless now becomes awkward, and even repulsive. Instead of the look of love, couples have the look of apathy. And without love, a husband and wife no longer want to spend their lives together. Instead, they start thinking of divorce, or at least living their lives apart from one another. It should be obvious to you by now that the Love Bank is an extremely important concept in marriage. If you want your instincts and emotions to support your marriage you must keep your Love Bank accounts over the romantic love threshold.”

You probably get the point by now, but if you’re interested, here’s the full article. There is a lot of other similar material out there in Christian bookstores, unfortunately. It’s selfishness disguised as love. It’s manipulative. If you want my candid opinion, it is advice like this that has likely led to staggering divorce rates in the Church. This sort of advice breeds the very self-centeredness that Keller is speaking of. This “deposit” for “deposit” mentality is much like “tit-for-tat” strategy in war – no one ever wins.

But there’s hope! Your spouse doesn’t have to deposit into your love bank for you to be able to love them with your whole heart. Pastor Kevin D. Young speaks of “Spirit-Powered, Gospel-Driven, Faith-Fueled Effort.” And I can’t think of a place where it is more necessary than in marriage.

Keller says that “the gospel, brought home to your heart by the Spirit, can make you happy enough to be humble, giving you an internal fullness that frees you to be generous with the other even when you are not getting the satisfaction you want out of the relationship. Without the help of the Spirit,  without a continual refilling of your soul’s tank with the glory and love of the Lord, such submission to the interests of the other is virtually impossible to accomplish for any length of time without becoming resentful. I call this ‘love economics.’ You can only afford to be generous if you actually have some money in the bank to give. In the same way, if your only sources of love and meaning is your spouse, then anytime he or she fails you, it will not just cause grief but a psychological cataclysm. If, however, you know something of the work of the Spirit in your life, you have enough love ‘in the bank’ to be generous to your spouse even when you are not getting much attention or kindness at the moment” (57-8).

The gospel, thorough the power of the Holy Spirit, enables us to love. And love completely, without abandon, and without any thought of self. Josh often tells me that when he’s “good with God,” he’s “good with me.” He recognizes that his love for me is merely overflow from his relationship with the Lord.

So, that paints marriage in a whole new light, right? It’s causing me to reevaluate all of the places where I’m serving Josh well, as well as the places that I am aware that I’m not serving him well (and have probably felt valid in not doing so).

How about you? Why do you serve your spouse? Where does your heart need to change? Where are you loving solely for your own benefit or to get your way? How can you better reflect the gospel?

Because that’s our job, after all. We’re to reflect the gospel in all that we do, and especially in this mystery called marriage.

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