Forget about candy, flowers, pink and red hearts and cherubs poised to make people fall in love this Valentine's Day.
Romantic love, according to the leaders of three churches, is often a misleading infatuation that gives way to a relationship based on communication, trust, friendship and spirituality as years go by.
"I thought when I got married I was in love," said Georgia Wieler, principal of the Fairfax Baptist Temple Elementary School. Her husband of 32 years, Ted Wieler, is a minister at the church.
"We have learned that you don't know what love is until you've had a chance to grow together and faced some challenges together."
"I tell every young man that comes through marriage counseling that within a marriage, there's a different kind of happiness and a different kind of love," Ted Wieler said. "They don't believe me at first, but two or three months into the marriage, they understand."
After over 37 years of marriage, Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Braxton, pastor at the Burke Presbyterian Church said she and her husband still like each other and have found their strong faith has helped keep their marriage strong.
"The beauty of marriage is that after so many years, I'm still learning things about Bob," she said of her husband. "The human creature was created to be so complex and deep, we keep learning new things about each other all the time."
Four months into her marriage, Rebecca Benner of the Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church said she and her husband both came into their commitment without the "little voice in the back of our head saying if this doesn't work out, I can just leave," which she thinks helps to decrease the possibility of divorce.
"So many people go into marriage with these inflated expectations," Benner said. "I really think more marriages end than have to and I really think that's a tragedy."
Feb. 14, Valentine's Day, is often thought of as the most romantic day of the year. People send flowers, cards, chocolates and other trinkets to express their affection to loved ones and friends. It is a tradition that dates back centuries, some believe to a Roman priest who secretly wed young men after marriage was made illegal to preserve the Emperor Claudius' army. Others believe the holiday is in commemoration of a man who helped Christians escape Roman prisons, while others think it may have been named after a man who fell in love with his jailer's daughter and would secretly write her letters, according to the History Channel's Web site.
Whomever St. Valentine actually was, or whatever ties he may have had to religion, have little importance on the observance of Valentine's Day, Ted Wieler said.
"This isn't a religious holiday for us at all," he said. The church does offer a Valentine's dinner for couples that includes a spiritual message, but the focus of a strong married relationship comes not from hearts and flowers, but from the covenant made between the married couple and God.
"There are three people in every marriage: a husband, a wife and God," Wieler said. "It is important for a home to have a strong spiritual foundation."
IN ORDER TO prepare young engaged couples for the reality of marriage, those who wish to be married in the Fairfax Baptist Temple must complete 12 hours of marriage counseling, led by Wieler and three other ministers.
"We talk about what they've learned about each other by going through this workbook that asks them about situations they most likely wouldn't have thought of on their own," Wieler said. "We talk about the roles in a marriage and each other's spiritual life so they know what their background is."
Wieler said the Bible indicates that the husband is supposed to be the "spiritual leader" in a relationship, but must also be caring and gentle with his wife.
Divorce, he said, is "selfish."
"The Bible clearly states that when a man and a woman are married, they are one flesh. Getting divorced is like saying I'm going to cut my arm off. It just doesn't work that way," he said.
Going into marriage expecting the flush of a new romance to last for five, 10 or 20 years is a bit unrealistic, Benner said.
"Love is more of an action than a feeling," she said. "It's all well and good to be romantic, but that's not real life. The challenge of love is to act loving even when we don't feel loving."
Many people treat relationships like comparison shopping, which can leave people one of two ways.
"You can either have a closet full of clothes because you don't want to commit to one thing, or you can wind up with nothing because you think something better might come along," Benner said.
With so many marriages ending in divorce, even couples who truly believe they'll stay together forever split up because "there's always that little voice in the back of your head that says if things change I can just get out," Benner said.
She and her husband "have no question" about each other's level of commitment to each other "because we know ourselves well enough to be realistic about what we want and what we need. We realize the superficial things that we are initially attracted to either go away are aren't enough to hold a marriage together," Benner said.
Marriage should be seen as a partnership of two people who want to work toward the same goals and have the same priorities, she said.
STILL, BENNER looks at her parents' 37 year marriage as an example of what can be accomplished by a couple that stays together through the good times and the struggles.
"My dad said he had no idea he could love my mother as much as he does," she said. "The love of a 35-year-old marriage feels differently than the love of an engaged couple."
The role of God in a Unitarian Universalist relationship is "less direct" than other denominations, Benner said. "We put a lot of responsibility on the people in marriage to make it work. I think the community can do more to support couples in marriages."
Braxton agreed with Benner's analogy, saying "we live in a throw-away society. So much of what we have, we use up and throw away and just buy new. We want to do the same with relationships, and we can't."
In their 37 years of married life, Braxton said she and her husband have had their share of troubles, which has only made their marriage stronger.
"By working through problems, even if one partner has an affair, a couple can come out of it with a richer, stronger and deeper relationship," she said. "The central affirmation of the Christian church is that the love of God is forgiving. If couples can come together from that point of view, they know they have the love of God to help them."
Having ideals and high expectations at the beginning of married life is normal, she said, but through the "wisdom of experience and age" Braxton often talks with soon-to-be married couples about the reality of marriage.
"It is important to accept people as they are right now, today, and not expect them to change once they're married," she said. "We are there to encourage and build each other up in relationships."
Valentine's Day does provide an occasion for something Braxton said is essential to every relationship — a tune up.
"We get our cars tuned up every so often to make sure they run properly," she said. "It's much more necessary with a relationship. We need to take the time to nurture it."