When we were dating, the infatuating love I felt for my husband was intense. It started strong and only grew. As if an electric force field radiated from him, the closer I got, the weaker my knees, the quicker my heart rate.

The day we married, we exchanged vows, and something magical happened. I could sense him as an extension of me. Our lives, once parallel, were united.

That day, my smile split my face in half.

After we married, we moved into a tiny, downtown apartment. I went to grad school, and he took a job he didn’t love to support us. We shared a bed and a bedroom and a closet and a dishwasher. Before long, the sound of his voice was no longer simply whispers of affection but something less magical: a reminder to wake up for class, pay a bill or a slightly annoyed request to put my toothbrush away.

After grad school, we both took big steps in our careers, bought our first house and welcomed a little boy to our family that fall. Yet as we added people, responsibilities and careers to our lives, the chemistry of our young relationship grew more difficult to access.

When we forgot to book a babysitter, Friday nights found us at home. When we finally tucked our kids into bed, sometimes we fell asleep before talking. A subtle shift at first, as the days turned to months, and the conversations leaned toward work, parenting and home improvements, toward what we did and no longer who we were as individuals or as a couple.

Love felt like a raging fire in our first few years together. It was easy to believe it would always be this way.

But fire needs fuel and oxygen. It needs to be tended. I learned I can’t light a fire and walk away, only to come back a few years later and wonder why there are only embers.

We like to act as if we shouldn’t have to work at love, as if the existence of love without effort proves its authenticity. But nothing worth our lives is ever accidental.

Now, although we struggle for time together, we know it is essential. Every act of love is small yet intentional. And it pays off.

PC: Toa Heftiba via Unsplash

We spend the extra money for the babysitter when we go on a date night. We ask each other about our days or how we slept the night before. We talk back and forth by email and text throughout the day. We share longings and fears and prayers at night before saying goodnight.

The years of nurturing and noticing love in the mundane of diapers and mortgages and pizza-for-dinner-again taught me I don’t have to be a victim of time and circumstances. The fire of love in my marriage, whether blazing or barely warm to the touch, is my responsibility. No one can tend to it for me–only my husband and I can ensure we love and are in love.

Lasting love is not an emotion but a decision of two people who prioritize their relationship above the duties of daily life, even above children and careers and all the good things competing for our attention.

It may seem noble to spend extra hours at work or to limit your couple’s conversation topics to your kids or neighbors, but there is nothing sacred about neglecting your relationship, the empowering and life-giving human partnership you must choose again and again.

So next time you don’t feel the love, don’t despair. Instead, do two things:

  1. Remember what caused you to fall in love with this man or woman. Write it down, then let them know you remember.
  2. Do the things you did in the beginning of your relationship. Speak more affection out loud. Write more notes. Give more hugs. Spend more time together. Hold hands. Have more sex. If your relationship was about the small things back then, that truth has only become more real now that you’re married.

When we do the things that lovers do, the love often returns. It may take a few tries, and you may want to give up in the beginning. But your heart wants to remember so give it a chance.

[Original version published on Start Marriage Right, updated version at Medium.com]