Jim and Shirley celebrating their 63rd anniversary
On August 27, 2023, Shirley and I celebrated our 63rd wedding anniversary. To help us prepare for the occasion, I decided to give some thought to a topic I call "the thrill of the chase." There is nothing in human experience quite like the exhilaration of romantic passion when it first breaks into the senses. It is called being "smitten," and for good reason. The head spins, the heart thumps, and nothing else seems to matter. It isn't love, but it feels for all the world like the real deal.
If you have "been there and done that," you know what I'm talking about. I encountered it one spring day during my junior year in college. I was having lunch in the cafeteria when I turned my head to the right. Sitting about 20 feet away was a very pretty co-ed who was also having lunch. I stopped eating and stared at this girl. She then looked in my direction and our eyes locked. Then this little charmer smiled at me. I looked away for a few seconds and then glanced back to see if she was still looking at me. She was. We both smiled and BINGO! An electric shock pulsated through my brain. For at least 10 minutes, we played this flirtatious game that almost became embarrassing after a while. I couldn't stop looking her way.
I was so taken by this encounter that I didn't do the logical thing. I should have carried my tray over to her table and made her acquaintance. All I could do was stare and smile. Finally, we both rose and went in different directions. I hurried to my next class, but you can be sure that I heard nothing the professor said that afternoon.
Our next meeting occurred on campus a few days later when I saw this girl talking with friends. I wasn't going to repeat my mistake. I meandered toward her and asked her name. She flashed that beautiful smile again and said her name was Shirley Deere. Even her name attracted me. I learned she was a sophomore, and I wondered why I hadn't seen her before. As soon as it was natural to do so, I asked Shirley for a date, and she graciously accepted.
At the appointed time, I came to the girl's dormitory and waited for Shirley to appear. I'll never forget the magic of that moment. She floated down the staircase like Cinderella at the ball. She was wearing a stunning black fitted dress with a white pearl collar. Video didn't exist then, but I wish I could have captured the scene. It was pure enchantment. All that was missing was a glass slipper.
Because it was Sunday night, we first went to church. After the service, we drove to Hollywood, where we ate at a classy Italian restaurant called Miceli's, which is still there. I told the host where we would like to sit, and then helped Shirley with her chair. I asked what she wanted to eat and conveyed her order to the waiter. We engaged each other in lively conversation for more than an hour, mostly about Shirley. Then I paid the check and took her to my car. I walked on the outside of the sidewalk nearest the street, which was (and should still be) symbolic of a guy's responsibility to protect the girl in his care. I opened the car door for her, and we drove back to our college. I parked, came around to her side of the car, and walked with Shirley to the front of her dorm. She thanked me with a smile, and we said good night. I didn't try to kiss her, because that would have put her in a compromising position on a first date—as though she owed me something as a "payback."
We must have done things right on that delightful evening because it became the prelude for the journey that created many unforgettable memories. Shirley was chosen as homecoming queen her senior year, and I was very proud of her. She was also senior class president, and the faculty selected her as one of a few students designated "Who's Who in American Colleges and Universities." Obviously, I wasn't the only person who was dazzled by Miss Deere in those days.
Speaking of memories, one night during our second year together, I knew Shirley was upstairs in the dorm, and I asked one of her friends to deliver a Coca-Cola to her room. Before giving the bottle to the courier, I opened it and slipped a little love note in the neck. Then I resealed the cap. When Shirley took a sip of the drink, she discovered my message. She told me the next day how romantic she thought it was. So did I.
Our courtship wasn't all sweetness and light during those halcyon days. Love affairs are rarely without drama. We had our ups and downs and highs and lows as our love for each other unfolded.
We broke up once after I graduated and had gone into the Army. I came home on leave, and we just couldn't make it work again. We both thought our relationship was over and grieved for each other. But we resolved it and pressed on. The thrill of the earlier days came and went, and came again. Neither of us was perfect, and we still aren't.
There were occasional power struggles and other quirky little things to be worked out. Though it wasn't entirely clear at the time, our love for each other was growing at each stage along the journey. By the time we stood together at the altar, we knew it was for keeps. My father performed the wedding ceremony, and after he had pronounced us "man and wife," he grinned and said to me in his Texas twang, "Kiss 'er, Jim." And I did.
Now let me tell you why I have shared these personal stories with you. It has been to provide a closer look at what it means to "fall in love."
Both men and women toss those words around as though everyone understands them. I'm quite sure most folks don't. Young people often refer to a strong attraction for one another as "chemistry." They are correct, but not in the way they mean.
What I'm about to share with you now is extremely important for anyone wanting to understand the meaning of love. The emotional rush that occurs when two people "fall" for each other is often misinterpreted as "love." In reality, what they feel early on is driven by hormones designed to create precisely that excitement. It is physical attraction, of course, but it's much more.
One female hormone called oxytocin is almost mischievous in its influence. It is stimulated in women by another hormone called estrogen. Oxytocin is nick-named "the cuddle hormone," and you can figure out where it leads. When a girl likes a guy and feels safe with him, her oxytocin levels rise, giving her a sense of hope, trust, optimism, confidence, and a belief that all her needs are about to be met. She may begin to fall in love with him, or something that feels like it, but not because he is the perfect human being. He is perceived as perfect because she feels like he is. Hugging and snuggling cause oxytocin levels to surge, which leads to more hugging and snuggling. Talk about a tender trap!
Our biochemistry is designed to guarantee the continuation of the human race, with its array of hormones, receptor sites, neural wiring, and neurotransmitters that carry impulses from cell to cell. Oxytocin is a major component of that system. Dr. Louanne Brizendine writes, "From an experiment on hugging, we also know that oxytocin is naturally released in the brain after a twenty-second hug from a partner—sealing the bond between huggers and triggering the brain's trust circuits.1 So ladies, don't let a guy hug you unless you plan to trust him."
Do you think you can convince your starry-eyed daughter that the way she feels is really hormonal and is probably temporary? No chance. You just have to hope her boyfriend doesn't know how oxytocin works.
On a side note, this hormone is very influential in the development of maternal attachments. Jeffrey Kluger is the author of an article entitled "The Science of Romance: Why We Love." It was published in Time and included this finding about oxytocin:
"New mothers are flooded with the stuff during labor and nursing. It is one reason they connect so ferociously with their babies before they know them as anything more than a squirmy body and a hungry mouth. Fathers whose wives are pregnant experience elevated oxytocin too—a good thing if they're going to stick around through months of gestation and years of child-rearing. So powerful is oxytocin that a stranger who merely walks into its line of fire can suddenly seem appealing to a woman."2
Sue Carter, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois, wrote, "In one study, an aide who was not involved with the birth of a baby would stand in a hospital room while the mother was in labor." She says, "The mothers later reported that they found the person very sympathetic, even though she was doing nothing at all."3
What I have described about oxytocin in girls and women has a counterpart in boys and men. Not surprisingly, the male version of this hormone is testosterone. It operates in its own way to create predictable responses.
Let me tell you about my own early experience with those hormones. When I was thirteen, my family took a car trip to see relatives in Idaho. Something was definitely going on inside of me, even though I didn't have a clue what it was. I just remember fantasizing from the back seat about meeting a cute girl—any cute girl—who would be standing on the street corner when we drove into town. I actually looked in vain for that girl. Would you believe that she did exist? I met her a few afternoons later on a tennis court. She was an older woman of fourteen who was carrying a big tennis racket. I took one look at her and said to myself, "I knew she was here!" I was drunk on testosterone, and she had to be high on estrogen and oxytocin. It was a match made in heaven, albeit a temporary one.
This little princess and I banged the tennis ball back and forth until sundown. I then went home knee-deep in love, even though she beat me soundly on the court. It was a thrilling afternoon, but the affair never went anywhere. In fact, I never saw her again. She did, however, give me much to think about in years to come.
Later that summer, my family flew to Fairbanks, Alaska, where my father was the visiting evangelist. That gave me an opportunity to meet a number of teens in the church who invited me to go out for a Coke one evening after the service. As the five of us rode in the car, I'll never forget a pretty native Alaskan girl who was sitting in the front seat. At one point, she whirled around and said to me with a grin, "I'll bet you a nickel that I can kiss you without touching you."
I said, "How are you gonna do that?"
She just smiled and said, "You'll see." It sounded like a good idea to me, and I took her up on it. This mischievous girl then gave me my very first kiss, dropped the nickel in my hand, and said, "You win!"
Man! Did I love that! I offered to make the girl the same deal, but she refused. It was all very innocent, but I still remember that exhilarating experience to this day. I had just crash-dived into adolescence. And obviously, testosterone and maybe a little oxytocin were again flowing through my young body.
I've explained this hormonal system to illustrate how fickle and unreliable feelings of love are in teens and young adults. It creates fun moments, but these emotions can't be trusted an inch. They might lead to something more permanent, but more likely they will not.
It takes time, perhaps years as it did with Shirley and me, to understand the characteristics that matter most in a potential husband or wife. He or she knows little in the early days about the other person's hopes and dreams, fears, anxieties, general health, ambitions, irritabilities, tenderness, longings, anger, joy, addictions, integrity, appetites, strengths, weaknesses, emotional wounds, motivations, disappointments, morality, family history, sexual experience, intelligence, work habits, finances, faith, talents, thrift, personal secrets and how the other person feels about having children. The list of critical traits is almost endless, and it is a mystery at first blush. Indeed, one's fascination with the other may be determined entirely by something as impermanent as physical attractiveness. A romantic young lady might say, "I love him because he has such a beautiful head of hair and a great smile." Right, but does she know this guy could be bald and obese at 40? Is there anything else she should be considering in a romantic relationship? I certainly hope so.
If a relationship is established and thrives, admirable characteristics with lifelong significance may come into focus. As a man and woman learn more about each other, and if they like what they see, a deep and abiding bond can develop between them. If that test is met, it is natural at some point to begin thinking about where their relationship is headed. Is it a desire to marry and spend one's life with a spouse, or is it merely a function of "puppy love" that will eventually fizzle out and die?
What an awesome question that is. How can anyone know his or her own mind for certain about something so important? If you stop and think about it, what a guy and girl are about to do could affect the rest of their lives. Every day from that point forward will be influenced by that decision. Furthermore, an individual doesn't make such an important decision in isolation. It also depends upon what the other person is thinking. Those are incredibly complex issues on which so much depends.
I will tell you honestly that I had a hard time making a decision to marry Shirley. She had been my sweetheart for three years, and I cared for her dearly. But there were other considerations. I had no money, and I was planning on going to the University of Texas the following fall to begin working on a Ph.D. How could I afford to take on the responsibilities of a wife and one or more children? Also, I wasn't sure if I understood the difference between love as the world knows it, and rock solid, forever love that will go the distance. Shirley had too much self-respect to press me on the matter, but I knew she wanted to get married. I had to decide what to do.
We were sitting in my car one rainy Saturday morning when I quietly shared all these thoughts with Shirley. I then told her that I just didn't know which direction to take. After sitting and thinking for a while, she turned her beautiful blue eyes toward me and said, "You just have to decide what you want." Until then, I had been depending on my emotions to tell me what to do. But at that moment, I made the decision to love her unconditionally and forever.
Ultimately, love comes down to that—a decision. It is far more than an unreliable feeling. Emotions are ephemeral. They may flourish one day and disappear the next. They are wonderful when they take you on a ride "somewhere over the rainbow." But emotions can drop you like a rock on a cloudy day. You certainly can't build a marriage on them. I wrote an early book titled, Emotions, Can You Trust Them? I devoted 200 pages to answer, "No!"
It is so important that you understand that. At best, marital love is a choice to become "one flesh" with another human being in a biblical sense. During a traditional wedding ceremony, the minister doesn't ask the bride and groom if they promise to stay together for as long as they feel good about each other, or to remain committed "for as long as we both shall love." No, they are invited to make one of the two most solemn oaths of their lives—pledging that the union therewith cemented will continue "in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, for better or worse, forsaking all others, 'til death do us part." That is the stability on which a successful marriage is rooted. It is the difference between "love at first sight" and "forever my love." The gap between those concepts is a chasm.
My Cinderella and I have now been married for more than six decades, and our relationship is just as vibrant and fresh as it was when we were young. Actually, it is more so. We share a similar sense of humor, and we continue to be precious to each other. I love this great lady with all my heart today. We have both developed spiritually and still enjoy a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. Our commitment to each other has never wavered. The big "D" word has never entered our conversation or thoughts—not once.
These 63 years have been an incredible journey, and with the Lord's blessing, Shirley and I will continue to walk hand in hand through this winter season with which we now find ourselves. Then we will spend eternity with each other and with Jesus!
If you are married or plan to be, my prayer is that you, too, might experience a love for a lifetime.
God's blessings to you and yours.
James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
Dr. James Dobson Family Institute
P.S. Unfortunately, the summer months have resulted in a decline in our overall donations. If God has financially positioned you to give to help JDFI this month, it would be a tremendous encouragement to the ministry. Thank you.
1 Louann Brizendine Ph.D., The Female Brain (Morgan Road Books, 2006), p. 68
2 Kluger, Jeffrey (January 16, 2008) Why We Love, Time Magazine,
4 National Center for Biotechnology Information, National Library of Medicine, NIH
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