Is It the Thought That Counts?

Why Good Marriages Keep Learning

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Staff Development, Campus Outreach

While you may not recognize the name Henry Van Dyke Jr., most spouses are well-acquainted with his work. It comes up in that dreaded moment when you realize an attempt to pursue and bless your spouse didn’t land. And by “didn’t land,” I mean, when it landed, it landed like a bomb, not a blessing. In moments like these, spouses have looked for solace, again and again, in the timeless wisdom of Van Dyke Jr.: “It’s the thought that counts.”

The original quote was this: “It is not the gift, but the thought that counts.” While this maxim may have some value when a genuinely thoughtful gift misses the mark, the sentiment shouldn’t become a target for anyone pursuing a spouse. In fact, it’s quite ironic that a pithy statement centering on the word thought is, in reality, often used to excuse away thoughtlessness.

Thoughts That Really Count

Imagine if my wife, Julia, were to buy me the nicest hairbrush (I’m bald), and then spend hours knitting me the most comfortable Duke Blue Devil blanket (I’m a Tar Heel). After she presents her gifts, I sit in dumbfounded silence until she breaks in: “Well, it’s the thought that counts!” As I’m uploading the pictures of my newly acquired items to eBay, I would say (in the most loving way), “Well, those were some bad thoughts!”

The picture may be silly (unless you live in North Carolina), but the point isn’t. The thoughts that really count in marriage are not random thoughts that misfire, but informed thoughts that land as pleasant to our spouse. The apostle Peter charges husbands, “Live with your wives in an understanding way” (1 Peter 3:7). Good intentions are important, but in marriage in particular, as we model Christ and his church, we should want to aim higher than good intentions.

“Stop trying to love and pursue more. Instead, aim to love and pursue better.”

Most spouses are overwhelmed at any suggestion that they are not doing, loving, or pursuing enough. If that’s you, this is meant to be an encouragement: Stop trying to love and pursue more. Instead, aim to love and pursue better. We’re in need of a love like the one the apostle Paul prays for in Philippians 1:9: a love abounding “with knowledge and all discernment.” The call is not merely to love more, but to love in better, wiser, more discerning ways. If there is any earthly relationship that should model this kind of love to the world, surely it’s the marriage covenant.

With each passing year, we can love our spouses with an ever-increasing knowledge of who they are. This results in spouses who are consistently learning, and then seeking to love each other in light of what they’ve learned. These are thoughts that truly count.

Love in an Understanding Way

Again, this vision to love and pursue in light of what you have learned about your spouse is explicitly given to husbands: “Live with your wives in an understanding way” (1 Peter 3:7). Husbands, live with your wives. This is not a distant or passive word. Peter is calling husbands to be present in the home with their eyes and mind and heart open — like a student sitting in the front row, fully present and eager to learn about this beautiful gift called “wife.”

The word understanding in verse 7 is literally “according to knowledge.” Most husbands actually do love their wives according to knowledge; unfortunately, it’s a knowledge of ourselves and not of them. Julia and I now laugh at the many times I was baffled when a pursuit I thought was amazing landed in the exactly opposite way. Looking back, they were indeed amazing pursuits — that is, if I were pursuing myself. Husbands, the kind of love and pursuit in the home that God calls us to simply cannot be accomplished by going through the motions. He’s calling for a genuinely engaged husband who is regularly learning and then loving his wife in light of what he learns.

While Peter focuses here on husbands, and while the weight of pursuit rightly and beautifully falls more heavily on husbands, who imitate the Christ who laid down his life for the church, the practical principle is a good one for wives too. It’s hard to overstate the blessing that can result when both husband and wife seek to bless each other in ways that land as pleasant — when we, as spouses, “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).

Loving Different People Differently

As with all aspects of the Christian life, Jesus models loving others according to an accurate knowledge of who they are. Jesus consistently engages needy people in unique and personal ways. Following the death of their brother Lazarus, Mary and Martha both have an encounter with Jesus. It’s interesting to note that while the sisters say the same words to him initially — “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32) — Jesus responds to each differently.

He immediately comforts Martha with truth: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25–26). Jesus then asks her, “Do you believe this?” inviting her to lean on this truth. His words gave Martha a place to stand in her heartache, and it seems to have landed as pleasant to her.

Moments later, when Mary speaks the same words, we might expect Jesus to respond the same way he did to Martha. Instead, he allows her space to weep. After they show him Lazarus’s tomb, he weeps as well (John 11:35). Two women in the same devastating circumstances at the same moment, and yet Jesus engages them differently — because they were different.

Now, neither of these is in the context of marriage, but the interactions paint a picture of what it looks like to pursue in an understanding way — in a way that lands. These are thoughts that count: intentional, sacrificial initiative shaped by insights into who this particular person is.

Every Marriage Grows and Changes

What benefits come when we begin loving in an understanding way? For starters, as the marriage gets older, it will never get old. The joy of learning does not end. The future years will bring limitless opportunities to understand our spouse better.

“With each passing year, we can love our spouses with an ever-increasing knowledge of who they are.”

It doesn’t take long in marriage before you begin to discover that with each passing age and life stage, the ways we feel loved will often change. Julia used to love it when I would surprise her with a late-night date to see the newest movie. Now, twenty years and five kids later, taking her to a late movie is essentially an expensive nap in uncomfortable clothes. But you know what? I have learned that she loves when I immediately help clean up after dinner so that we can take a walk in the neighborhood, holding hands and talking about our day. For my wife, that’s a pursuit that lands.

Over the years, we have experienced how toxic it can be when we belittle one another based on our differences in design and desires. It was common for us to make the other person feel like differences were actually deficiencies (sadly, we often thought they were). This all began to change as we committed to learn each other’s unique design and desires, and attempt to love in light of what we learned.

Julia learned that taking the time to write an encouraging note and stick it to the bathroom mirror is a pursuit that lands as pleasant to me. I, on the other hand, learned that taking the time to actually clean the mirror is a pursuit that lands as pleasant to her. We found so much joy and peace when we began to celebrate who each other is, before complaining about who each other is not. Over time, these are the thoughts that count.

Learning Each Other for Life

While spouses often feel an initial wave of excitement as they embrace this kind of informed pursuit, a word of caution is wise. This commitment can be made in an instant, but the real impact will not happen overnight. The process of learning who your spouse is, and loving in light of what you learn, will take time — and a willingness to make (and receive) a lot of mistakes along the way.

Julia and I just entered our third decade of marriage, and, by God’s grace, we both joyfully remain students at heart, eager to learn and then love in light of what we learn. We have gained so many individual and informed thoughts about each other (and our kids!), and trust me when I say, those thoughts have really counted.

(@MattBradner) is a husband, father of five, and staff member with Campus Outreach. Matt serves on the East Coast development team and primarily focuses on the spiritual and relational health of the staff.