When I married my husband, Robbie, his favorite time to introduce some “romance” was in the middle of a fight. I think he thought his gestures would stop the fumes coming out my ears. It didn’t work.

Years later, we still struggle with our understanding of what romance is. I continually remind him that sitting together on the couch with the television news broadcasting, while he surfs social media and I piddle with my newest hobby, does not add up to “quality time.” He can’t understand why that many hours in the same vicinity doesn’t count for something. And he’s not alone.

Recently, a man named Don* contacted me about an article I wrote on romance. His wife, too, had been disappointed with him, even though he felt he paid her hours of attention. And since they both started working from home, he was spending more time with her than ever before. He thought that was sufficient. But when he wanted to go hunting or fishing with friends, she was hurt.

Both Don and my husband have come to their wit’s end trying to figure out how to make us women happy. After talking with them and a few exasperated wives, I’m convinced romance has acquired a case of mistaken identity. Neither husband nor wife really knows what romance is. They just know when they haven’t had it. It’s especially frustrating when there has been a lot of talking, but nothing seems to change.

This is where husbands and wives often miss each other—how does one define “romance”? You can talk about an issue all day, but unless you have the same definition, no one comes to a real understanding.

What romance isn’t

Before we can define what romance is, let’s establish what romance is not.

1. Romance is not love.

Love is far more important than romance in any relationship. Love is spiritual. It’s a bond. Love is commitment. It’s a promise kept. For anyone who may be thinking, “My spouse must not love me because he/she never does anything romantic,” you need to throw that lie right out of your head. The apostle John said it this way, “Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Listen, there’s nothing “romantic” about bringing home a paycheck, doing chores, or raising children. There’s nothing romantic about taking care of a sick spouse or holding on through years of grief. There’s nothing romantic about sticking to the relationship when it would be easier to give up. But all of that is loving—the deepest kind of love. Romance can be created by anyone at any time. But real love can only be achieved by determination and hard work.

2. Romance is not sex.

Sex can be romantic. Solomon said, “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin” (Proverbs 30:18-19).

Think about the image Solomon is painting. When a man is with a virgin, he must be gentle, patient, and giving. He can’t only think of himself. He must caress and relax her, and that starts by making her feel safe.

Obviously, a married woman isn’t a virgin anymore, but those needs to feel safe and cared for during intimacy continue throughout marriage. There is beauty in appreciating your spouse’s body, looking into one another’s eyes, and whispering intimate compliments. The closeness and connection sex creates is supernatural when it’s done as God intended.

But sex can also be very unromantic—selfish, one-sided, and cold. When one spouse turns sex into an emotionless goal of self-pleasure, it becomes a romance killer. Many women treated this way only have sex out of obligation or as a means to an end, like some kind of bargaining tool. And no one gets the long-lasting benefits.

Then there is the romance-for-sex ulterior motive scam. This unspoken suggestion says, “If I do something romantic, then you owe me sex later.” If there is an ulterior motive, a spouse won’t be fooled. In this case, your actions are manipulation, not romance.

What romance is

Romance is an expression of appreciation and value. It says, “You are special to me, and I want to celebrate you.” Romance is a way of communicating to your spouse that you haven’t taken their love for granted.

Remember those early days of your relationship before marriage? Remember those wonderful romantic gestures like sending flowers, going on dinner dates, planning surprises, dancing? Those weren’t expressions of love—how can you love someone you barely know? Instead, those were signals to the other person that you saw something special in him or her. That person wasn’t like everyone else, and you noticed.

All of that romance was before marriage in order to win the other person, to woo them in your direction, pulling them in closer. So now that you’ve won, what’s the point of romance after marriage?

I’m glad you asked! When you learn what romance is, you recognize three reasons it’s important in marriage.

1. Romance in marriage says, “You are still important to me.”

Your spouse wants to know you still care about making him or her happy. You still see and appreciate the value your mate brings into your life. Romance shows you are still willing to make sacrifices on his or her behalf. That’s why flowers and dinner dates matter—you spent your hard-earned money or time to purchase the gift or plan the event. It really is the thought that counts.

2. Romance says, “I know you.”

Everyone desires to know and be known. God made us that way. In marriage, we want to see expressions of that knowing. Women don’t just want flowers. They want to know that you know her favorite flower. A husband doesn’t just want sex. He wants to know you still find him attractive and like being close to him. We all want to know our spouses love us inside out and appreciate and value our personalities and quirks.

The Bible often uses the word “know” as a euphemism for sex. That’s what makes marriage a unique relationship. You don’t just know each other, you know each other. You understand each other more deeply, intimately, and personally than any other person on the planet. And it’s more than just head knowledge; it’s heart knowledge, too.

What other way is there to express that kind of love than romance?

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3. Romance shows you don’t take your spouse’s love for granted.

Marriage expert Dennis Rainey once said that a marriage is like two boats in the ocean. If you don’t keep the motors running, the boats naturally drift apart.

In the same way, if you don’t put effort into your marriage to stay close emotionally (keeps the motors running), one day, when the kids are grown and gone, you will wake up as strangers.

Romance gives a couple the opportunity to make special memories and strengthen the bond between you that will last throughout the years, even when kids are no longer there to keep you together.

So, how can you add romance to your life?

What romance is in your relationship depends on your spouse’s personality and preferences. Romance is different for every couple. A girlfriend of mine hates to get flowers. She thinks they’re a waste of money. She’d rather go horseback riding. Another friend wants her husband to clean the kitchen while she takes a bath.

When Don asked for advice, I told him his wife wanted to spend time with him but not just sitting around the house. He didn’t have to take her shopping or walking in the park. One of the best trips Robbie and I took was a guided trout fishing trip. I’ve never seen him more in love than the way he looked at me when I pulled in a three-pound brown trout. The trick is to know your spouse.

Men, 1 Peter 3:7 says, “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way.” Know her favorite flowers and colors. Pay attention to what makes her happy.

Women, Ephesians 5:33 says, “Let the wife see that she respects her husband.” Appreciate his hobbies and interests. Let him teach you about the things he loves, and use that knowledge to show how much you appreciate him.

Romance takes work, sacrifice, and time, but your efforts count. Your attempts at romance may not be perfect, but anything you do to make your spouse feel known sows seeds of love that will bear fruit your whole life long.

*name changed

Copyright © 2020 by Sabrina Beasley McDonald. All rights reserved.

Sabrina Beasley McDonald has been writing about God’s plan for marriage and family for over 19 years. Sabrina holds a Masters in Marriage and Family Counseling from Liberty University. She is the author of several devotional books, including Write God In Deeper: Journal Your Way to a Richer Faith.