Lately my heart has been full of yearnings and reflections regarding marriage. It’s tricky business isn’t it?
To borrow a twisted but true phrase from Taylor Swift, “Darling I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream.” We find things out about each other in marriage that are impossible to know prior to marriage. I don’t believe it matters much in this regard if you know your spouse for six months or six years before tying the knot — the lived experience of marriage will bring your “yuck” (and your spouse’s) to the surface in a way that dating or cohabitation never could. Marriage turns us inside out if we let it…or perhaps even if we don’t…but as I’ve learned, resistance to this phenomenon creates intense inner turmoil.
Marriage permits another person to see the depths of our soul — the beauty and the horror — to an extent beyond what we can even see of ourselves. Our spouses see our loveliness because they experience it more intimately than anyone else ever could. And they see our hideousness because we hurt them more acutely than anyone else ever could. We see the brilliant ruby and also its initially hidden impurities. We see the beautiful oak tree in the sapling that is our beloved, and we also see the darkness that could impede that tree from reaching majestic heights.
Marriage is pretty radical in concept when you stop and think about it. “I will commit my entire LIFE to another (flawed, selfish, unable to completely satisfy because s/he is human not God) human being. I will make this promise on an emotional high and without any crystal ball to foresee what minefields lie ahead. I will blabber on about sickness and health, plenty and want, without any way of knowing, here at this alter, what it will LOOK like and FEEL like to have my wagon hitched to yours when the shit goes down. I will share my money with you, my time, my gifts, and my resources. I will open myself to the possibility, desired or not, of having children with you, despite being unable to appreciate the effects kids will have on our relationship and our identities. I will abandon myself as king and instead submit to this union as superior above all else on earth. I will NEVER LEAVE (physically or emotionally) no matter how you change and no matter how I change.” It’s crazy. Really crazy.
I just finished reading The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller which I cannot recommend highly enough. It inspired me and challenged me deeply. In his book Keller makes the case that inevitably in marriage, whether it takes a few months or a few years, three things are bound to happen: (1) you will discover that your spouse is selfish, (2) your spouse will discover that you are selfish, and (3) each of you will secretly decide that the other person is the more selfish one. Though Keller’s book is chocked full of wise insights, I keep going back to this simple one. It’s so true! I look back on my engaged self and realize how naive I was. Not because marriage is awful and I thought it would be a walk in the park — that’s not what I’m saying. But it’s true that I didn’t know, and couldn’t know, the intensity of marriage’s refining fire, the uncomfortable depths to which marriage would penetrate my heart, the bravery to which I would be called to name unlovely things in my husband, and the humility I would be required to put on to hear that there are unlovely things about me too.
I learned recently that when covenants (such as marriage vows) were made during biblical times, animals were slaughtered right there at the ceremony and their remains were strewn about for all to see. The rabbi conducting the ceremony would say to the individuals or parties making the covenant, “If you break this covenant, may what happened to these animals happen to you.” (And I thought the Unbreakable Vow from Harry Potter was intense). My husband has long said to me, “I will never leave you.” It is so sweet and earnest and I know his loyalty is absolute. But marriage is HARD, and he is so different from me, and sometimes we struggle to speak the same language, each finding the other impossibly bewildering, or infuriating, or cruel. I told Simon a little while ago that occasionally when he will utter that doting phrase to me, I panic a little inside and think “So…you’re going to be here, like, forever?!”
There is a beautiful Sara Groves song that near-perfectly captures what happens when you have an argument with your spouse. The storm can come out of nowhere and it seeks to destroy…but eventually, hopefully, graciously…you catch a glimpse of that boy you love, that girl you fell for, and you remember that they love you and are for you. Or, better yet, you catch a glimpse of yourself and you see how ugly you’re being. And you then have the responsibility to mend the bond, to beseech your lover to once again see you for your gold, not your debris. To say, with wet eyes perhaps and a repentant heart for sure, “Oh, baby, it’s ME. That girl who captivated your heart. That boy who shelters your spirit. Please forgive me; please see the good in me again. It’s safe for you here once more.”
I remember a conversation Simon and I had a few years ago about apologizing. We decided, after fighting, that it was so much more validating and honoring of the victim, so to speak, for the wrongdoer to boldly own his/her offenses. Instead of saying “I’m sorry IF you were hurt by what I said,” offer words that are truthful about the sin committed: “I’m sorry I said those cruel things. I was angry and my intention was to hurt you.” Honesty is so freeing. It’s terrifying, but it’s liberating. What if we told the truth about our own hurtfulness and also the hurt we experience from our spouse? Some people are great at this, too good at this actually — they have no problem “letting someone have it” with the truth (though I don’t know anyone who naturally volunteers the truth about themselves in their worst moments). These folks need to practice the art of speaking the truth in LOVE. Others, like me, are pretty good at being loving (or appearing loving), but are paralyzed by conflict and find truth-telling difficult. So we stuff everything; we aren’t honest. We love, but it’s inauthentic because it lacks TRUTH. We must strive to care for each other with surgical honesty and extravagant love simultaneously. I’m typing these words, proclaiming a doctrine of sorts that you might think I’m somewhat proficient in, but the truth is that I struggle with this incredibly. Keller details this phenomenon better than I can in a masterful explanation of “the power of truth” and “the power of love” — a combination made possible by “the power of grace” — in his book (p. 137-167).
It is God’s goodness to me, as well as my husband, that I am a terrible actress. I wear my heart on my sleeve. So even when I want to hide and stuff and pretend, it doesn’t work so well because, in a testament to the exposing power of marriage, Simon sees through my facade. My gentle husband doesn’t always respond to me perfectly during these times, but he is learning my needs. I don’t always tell the truth to the extent I should — to the extent that is respectful of myself and of Simon as well — but I’m trying. We cycle through conflict, same song, different verse, over and over again. Sometimes we learn something from it. Sometimes we just find that the sun has come up and we keep going. Occasionally, we stumble upon some mighty truths about who we are and what we need and what we lack — and just maybe we risk sharing these epiphanies with each other. When this happens, I usually feel like I’ve earned a semester of credit towards my DMP (Doctorate of Marriage Practice); maybe after fifty years of study; I’ll get my diploma.
If I can geek out on psychology for just a second, take a gander at the above chart. My husband is an ISTJ; I am an INFJ (if you don’t know your Myers Briggs type, you should, it’s awesome!). If you’ll notice the top far-left box (Simon) and the 3rd box on that same top row (me), you’ll see that the lists of our “functions,” or, as I understand it, how we prefer to use our brains to make sense of the world, are exactly the opposite of each other. Oh the joy! The things that are easiest for him are hardest for me; the things that I rock at are difficult for him to utilize. I’m full of feelings and visions and dreams; he’s a wealth of facts and synthesized details and reason. I offer tears; he offers solutions (this often causes mutual frustration). I’m a personality theory junkie, but hopefully my point stands in a general sense: I’m married to a person who is quite different from me. Often, we don’t understand how the other person works. I don’t know if God thinks this is funny on some level, but I do know he thinks this is beneficial for both of us. How better to make a sapling into a towering oak? Challenge is the soil in which character grows.
And so we move forward. We keep butting heads, we keep holding hands, we keep trekking down the same path together (and amassing children along the way). I’m looking at this lovely picture of our wedding rings (taken by our friends at Beautiful Mess Photography — shameless plug) and it’s occurring to me that the wedding ring’s symbolism of marriage extends beyond what I originally thought. Certainly it’s a metaphor for the never-ending bond that spouses commit themselves to, a reminder that one’s vows are permanent and forever, to be discontinued only by death. But perhaps it also represents the circular progress we often make in marriage. The two steps forward and one step back. The recurrent arguments, the regular struggles, the seasonal nature of committed love: hot summers bleeding into colorful autumns, dying in the harshness of winter, being born anew in spring. Again and again.
Here we are in our everydayness, a few months ago. The wedding finery lasts only a day, the hard but redemptive work goes on for a lifetime. We hurt each other, we misunderstand, we make assumptions, we fire zingers, we fail to love. But, by the grace of Jesus, we also see the glimmering gold in one another, the brilliance, the beauty, the splendor. We remind each other of the gold within when the rest of the world regards us as less. We harness truth to refine each other and we harness love to hold each others’ hearts in safety. I don’t remember if this picture was taken during an emotional summer, fall, winter, or spring. — sometimes we cycle through all four in a day! I only know that our journey is ongoing and unending. On hard days it can feel like a curse, but on good days (which happen to be the days I’m not being selfish), it’s the greatest blessing I have ever known. He will never leave me. I will never him. I have a partner for this life and his faithfulness is sure. The splendor of our marriage twinkles in the darkness, and over years and kids and tears and love, it will become a mighty torch in the sky.