Everything at the store is turning pink. Hearts are strung everywhere, and you’d think the world was run on chocolate. But if you’re waking up to Valentine’s Day when marriage is hard, every little paper heart digs beneath your skin.

And if your life were a box of chocolates—it sure feels empty right about now.

People are celebrating the ones they love, spewing poetry and love songs. And that only accentuates the fact you’re with someone you’re tolerating.

Or whose words hurt you so often that your heart feels calloused, nearly unrecognizable.

Or the pain you’ve absorbed this year leaves you limping.

How do you do Valentine’s Day when marriage is hard?

You may be thinking, Do I have to? Please say no.

Relax. Valentine’s Day is a human construct. There’s no “Thou shalt buy 12 roses” in the Bible.

Good thing, you might be thinking. I was handed a bouquet of poison. I’m not much into flowers right now.

When your life is filled with betrayal or someone’s addiction or cycles that never change—Valentine’s Day might look like, We stayed married another day. Three cheers.  

Honestly? That is something to celebrate.

So let’s just say the following ideas are for those of you with the capacity for a step further than survival … Capacity to imagine something more than where you’re at.

Of course, love is exponentially easier when someone loves in return. When they do the little things—the unloading of the dishwasher, the kiss on the neck—alongside the big things (Respect. Consideration. Commitment).

Yet any love story worth its chocolate survives on the favor and kindness we don’t deserve, don’t expect. It’s a story of forgiveness and patience and unconditional-ness.

Why your Valentine’s Day matters

This kind of love says, I choose you. Through loveable-ness and unlovable-ness. When it’s easy and when it’s like tearing off a piece of my own heart.

And in that, you’re replaying what Jesus does for us: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

He explains He’s given us a gift we didn’t deserve; “it is the gift of God, not a result of works” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

We see tough marriages in the Bible playing this out: Hosea, loving his wife, who doubles as the neighborhood hooker. Abigail, who acts in fierce courage despite her husband endangering the lives of his entire estate. Sarah, who treats her husband with respect even when he tries (um, twice) to pass her off as his sister.

The biblical narrative of marriage is undeserved, all-in love.

So ultimately, this holiday—should you choose to accept it—is an opportunity to honor a spouse who’s hard to love. Who perhaps doesn’t deserve it.

What could it look like to honor your spouse on Valentine’s Day when marriage is hard?

A few practical ideas.

1. Think beyond the chocolates.

This one requires some prayer first. But it’s more important than anything else you’ll do for Valentine’s Day, with all that pink breathing down the neck of an exhausted marriage.

To prep, think about the woman who poured perfume, worth a year’s wages, on Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. Or mull over the words of David: “I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24).

Ask God what He would have you give your spouse that would be the most valuable to Him. Something you can’t wrap and slap a happy bow on.

Maybe it’s choosing to give this relationship everything you’ve got, whether your spouse receives or scorns you.

It could be giving up the one habit that divides you. The one you’re pretty sure you don’t want to.

Or perhaps it’s choosing to move toward someone despite the near-constant rejection, sarcasm, sullenness, or flamboyant disregard.

Maybe it’s forgiveness.

What’s the hard, gritty heart-work God would ask of you toward your spouse?

2. Purchase a greeting card with plenty of room to write your own words.

Restate your commitment to your spouse without glossing over what’s raw. For example:

It’s been a tough season for us. But that’s all the more reason to let you know I believe in us. I choose us. I’m devoted to you and our marriage in the sunny seasons and the stormy ones. I love you way beyond romance. I love you for life.

You could include a gift card for coffee: Let’s spend some time remembering how good we are together.

Get practical advice to build a “Love that Lasts”

3. Observe your spouse to give just the right gift. Ask God for help.

Rather than something big, ask God to show you a gift that would make your spouse feel seen and known. Think about a gift that could demonstrate

Maybe that’s a pair of gloves for all those times she’s de-icing her car—and a coupon book of days you’ll do it for her. It could be a songbook to keep practicing his music even though he’s had setbacks this year. You could try a set of paintbrushes and a gift certificate to a class, so she can explore the way she’s made apart from the kids.

4. Pry open the space to invest in your relationship.

Great marriages don’t happen. They’re made.

Think about creating space to talk. Taking the time to understand and forgive, even on this Valentine’s Day when marriage is hard. Shaping positive rapport between the two of you. Asking the kind of questions that reveal your spouse’s real feelings. None of these will likely happen in the midst of running kids to karate, paying bills, and cell phones chirping.

So perhaps this means committing to a once-a-month date night for the next six months, and get it on the calendar to show you mean it.

Maybe it means you finally make time for that weekend away, and put down a deposit. (A FamilyLife Weekend to Remember® could be a crackerjack way to do it.)

Perhaps you schedule a date night and go to work on the trimmings: the babysitter, the playlist, the no-strings-attached massage after. And you communicate, This is just a down payment. I hope to spend this year working on us. 

Because we are worth saving. You are worth loving. And I believe in a God bigger than we are.

Copyright © 2020 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, on spiritual life skills for messy families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.