My husband and I have been together for over eight years, married almost six. It wasn't until I entered the extremely fulfilling, yet surprisingly isolating, world of stay-at-home-motherhood that I realized I would finally have to deal with the ever-creeping feelings of loneliness, agitation, and tension. I have always considered myself happily married. Overall, I am overwhelmingly grateful for my husband, my children, our home, and our life. But no life is without conflict. And it was in these moments of impact, when my husband and I collided on the issues of finances, parenting, and even time management, that I thought we needed some help. I never left an argument thinking, "Wow. We really handled that well. I am really pleased with the compromise we came to and am glad that we are both happy. I feel so much closer to him now!" After we had either completely exhausted or totally dodged each topic, I usually felt a little rejected, lonesome, and disconnected. I cannot be a positive and productive wife and mother if the underpinning of unrest always lurked behind every good day.
Thus far, my techniques were unsuccessful. I had exhausted all my resources (my parents, girlfriends, other fire wives, Oprah, Dr. Phil) years ago. And no time-consuming hobby, intense work out, liberating girls' night, or deep conversation with my husband ever kept those bothersome stirrings away for long. I began to eliminate distractions, one by one, and focus more and more on finding the source.
Is it my circle of friends? Is it his job? Is it my past? Is it the full moon? What is it? How can we love each other so much and be so committed to our marriage, yet still argue? Why do we argue? And, most importantly, how can I make it stop? A few months after I wrote "The 'L' Word", we found ourselves in a marriage help group...at church. (Read more in "Re|Engage".)
Our first night at Re|Engage, I walked into the church's gym apprehensive, yet elated. I was nervous because I have always been intimidated and skeptical of religion, bible-thumpers, hypocritical Christians, and any authority figure in general. However, I was also excited because I had pushed for counseling on, ahem, several occasions. Since "the divorce rate for firefighters is three times that of the general population, which is the highest rate in the nation, second only to that of the military" [source], we were blessed with twelve free counseling sessions per year. Only, we never went- for various reasons.
The mental catalogue I had been keeping track of all these years- an extensive list of past hurts and my angle on recurring, problematic themes in our relationship- was about to be divulged. Our unsolved mysteries had been provoking me and boiling under the surface for so long. I couldn't wait to let it all pour out like hot lava. I had played it out in my head so many times over the years. My talking points were well thought out. I would deliver them calmly and concisely. Then, I fantasized, an esteemed and wise someone would pet my head, wipe away my tears, and then say, "It's ok. It's all his fault anyway." The glowing, molten lava would stop in its tracks, cool, and then a beautiful island would immediately engender. With all of our marital problems behind us, my husband and I would sweep down the untouched, supple sands to nap in the cool shade of a crooked palm's fronds. Finally! My happily ever after! Right?! This will be great!!
So, there we sat on our first night. We had just listened to an hour long testimony from another couple, Raeul and Susan Cox, that was humanizing, uplifting, and thought-provoking. Next, we were given an information card to fill out. I had been once before, by myself, and had already been given the same card. On that previous night, I scribbled my name and address. At the bottom of the card we were asked to rate our marriage on a scale of 1-10. Without hesitation, I wrote my answer, thinking no one would ever see it.
Now, on this night, I gave my husband time to fill out his card. Then he turned it over and handed it to Raeul and Susan. After a few seconds, I felt his mood shift as he startled, spun his head to look at me, and said, "Wait. What'd you write? What was your number?" A few nervous laughs and a failed attempt to keep it a secret later, I eventually caved.
Me: Fine. You really want to know what I wrote? Really? ...Ok. I gave it a 4.
Well? What did you write?
Him: What?! I said an 8!
I would've written a '10' but there's always room for improvement!
Does this sound familiar? The oblivious husband, bobbing along without an emotional care in the world. And the wife, intuitive to a fault with countless emotional worries, questions, comments, philosophies, assumptions, and rulings. We obviously had a lot to sort out.
|So trite, yet so true. [source]|
After each week in the uncomfortable holding pattern of "open group", we waffled back and forth questioning whether or not we would return. This process was not fun. And we weren't really getting anything out of it. But, something kept pulling us back. At long last, we made it to a "closed group" and began the 16-week curriculum. All the issues we had dealt with in our relationship were still lingering, in my opinion. I couldn't wait to bring it all out in the open and start the healing process! My husband, on the other hand, thought all the little problems had been resolved years ago and was there to support me, but was overall content in our marriage. Poor thing.
In previous relationships, I fought every fight. I picked all battles. To sum up, it didn't work. Early in our relationship, I discovered my husband and I both had very strong personalities and realized I would need to try something new if we were going to stay together. In my efforts to better myself and try a different method, I accidentally became passive aggressive. Such has been the pattern in my life, from one extreme to the other. For years I would hold many convictions and perceptions in (no matter what he might say, I did actually hold some things in...lol), trying to avoid conflict, and then explode every once and a full moon. My husband felt blind-sided and repeatedly shut down. Then, already hurting and now facing a brick wall, I would collapse. This was our "crazy cycle". (The "crazy cycle" is one of the priceless gems we took from studying Love & Respect. I have been attempting to tackle a post about this mind-blowing book, but it's pretty difficult to trim down. Go. Buy it. Read it. It's amazing.)
I don't know why getting your teeth cleaned by the dentist, getting your oil changed or a tune up at the mechanic, and referring to google maps for directions are all socially acceptable, but seeking marriage help is not. It is my belief that the most important decision you will ever consciously make in life is choosing your spouse and, in turn, nothing will ever affect your life greater than the health of your marriage. Had we not explored a new church, and had that church not happened to be offering a free marriage class open to everyone (not just members of the church) I don't know when/how things would have ever improved. And that, they did.
Enough background information, let me share with you what we learned and what changed. We sat down in a circle, introduced ourselves to the five other couples, and opened the Re|Engage book. "Principle 1: Recognize your inability to love." My inability to love. Inability to love? Huh? Excuse me?! Um, have you met me? That's all I do is love. I love my parents, my children, my siblings, my husband, my dog, and even the sweet nurse at the pediatrician's office. I love, and I give, and I sacrifice, and then love some more, and give and give and give until there's nothing left! But no one ever appreciates me. No one ever gives back. I deserve more. I'm supposed to stand up for myself and draw boundaries- not to be told I don't love enough! This part must be just for him.
I read on to explore the definition of love, "You might have read it, seen it in a movie, remembered it from a fairy tale or simply imagined it in your own mind. You might have thought you had it, only to find out that what you really had was a cruel joke, a cheap counterfeit or possibly a well-orchestrated lie. [Can I get a, "Mmmm hmm," ladies?] Whatever the origin of its exisitence inside of you, what you are certain of is that it is impossibly lost."
Re|Engage's teachings made me think about my own perception of love. These images flashed in my mind:
Allie and Noah
Harry and Sally
Hubbell and Katie
Carrie and Big
Johnny and Baby
Loretta and Ronny
Rhett and Scarlett
Ross and Rachel
Ellie and Carl
Hmmm. Maybe my perception of love is a bit distorted. You think? Although, if you think about it, we all want, need, seek out, pine for, expect, deserve, that kind of love. We're all the same- the naive, the wise, the hopeless romantics, the cynics- we all want to be loved unconditionally.
|- George Carlin [photo source]|
No one ever gets married thinking they will get divorced someday. They both stand at the altar, on the beach, or in the courthouse and agree to make each other happy for the rest of their lives. Hand in hand, they both believe they aren't like any other couple. They're different. Their love will grant them a lifetime of laughter, sex, fulfillment, bliss, passion, success, and peace. (Or, in other situations, they marry for money, companionship, an arrangement, etc. But for the most part, we're all that first couple.) "We'll do things our way. It'll be fantastic. And after everyone stops doubting us, they'll start asking us for our secret. 'Just how do you keep the love alive after all these years?!,' they'll say."
Then a few hours, weeks, months, or even years later comes that one disagreement, betrayal, or conflict and one or both of you throw your hands in the air and say, "I'm done." Trite and true. Some really mean it and end up divorced, some were just angry and trying to hurt the other, some sort of mean it and then make it worse by diving into an extra-marital affair with another person or their work (yes, if you shut down from your spouse and pour yourself into your job because you get more gratification there, I consider that an affair), and some don't mean it at all but have run out of things to say.
Maybe I am really done. Maybe I need some outside help, a new perspective. Even though I was raised Catholic and therefore went to CCD once a week for over a decade, I didn't take away much from the Bible. Although somehow, I actually had heard of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 before which, according to the Re|Engage lesson, "teaches that love:
- Is patient and kind.
- Doesn't envy or boast.
- Isn't rude or insisting on its own way.
- Is not irritable or resentful.
- Bears and endures all things.
- Believes and hopes all things."
Yeah, yeah. We've heard that before. But, stop. Stop right there. Clear your mind. Now go back through the list above and read each line out loud. At the end of each phrase, ask yourself if you're honestly succeeding at each point.
Nope. I'm not. In fact, the one I struggle with the most is "not irritable or resentful." I have been bitter for over eight years. When I began dating my husband, my heart was scarred and cold. I sought out to soften and revive it, while I allowed myself to fall in love again and with him, but I never did prevail. Instead of cracking the shell and opening up, I think deep down I've been building a taller and stronger wall of protection.
"Romans 5:8 says, 'But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.' He didn't wait for us to be good enough. Rather, while we were actively sinning, He died for us! Real love puts the other person first. This isn't hard, it's impossible. This leads us to our first principle:
You are powerless to love your spouse the way you promised you would, the way they dreamed you would, and the way God designed that you should.
Ouch. That's all. Just ouch.
"The point of Lesson 1 is that our definition of love isn't big enough and that we don't have the ability to love our spouses as we should without God's help."
Well, ok. You've got my attention. So, what's next? Oh...Lesson 2.
"One of the best ways to improve your marriage is to draw a circle around yourself and work on changing everyone inside the circle."
"I am my biggest marital problem."
- Paul David Tripp, author of What Did You Expect? Redeeming the Realities of Marriage
Wait. A. Minute. I'm the problem?! So, I have an inability to love and I'm the problem?!?! Well, there goes my plan! What on earth am I going to talk about for 16 weeks if I'm not going to be reciting my mental catalogue of past hurts? I slammed down the book and threw it across the room. I was so angry. And yet, I had to know more.
Usually, seeking help in your relationship usually means your marriage is "in trouble." I didn't care what people thought. But for the record, divorce absolutely positively is not an option for us. I always tell my husband, and anyone else willing to listen, that he could do pretty much anything and I'm not leaving. He could get a girlfriend, he could spend all of our money, and he could disappear for weeks at a time. I'm not leaving. We have a guest room. And it's pretty. One of us might actually enjoy sleeping in there.
It didn't matter where our marriage was, who we were, or where we came from. Re|Engage was obviously going to be helpful if we'd been married two minutes or two decades and whether we had already filed for divorce or if we just needed a tune up. We were in. The curriculum had dared us to think like neither of us had thought before. It became a challenge- the biggest challenge of my life. And I wasn't ready to give up so easily.
I apologize it took me so long to write this one. As it turns out, it isn't easy to explain a huge transformation that happened so recently I'm not even sure I understand it all. And it's excruciatingly difficult to even elude to our marital problems (aka my faults), let alone analyze them in a public forum. Yikes. Thank you for reading!
This is part one of a multi-part marriage series.
Click on the links below for more.
Part Two [Re|Engage. The Inner Circle.]
Part Three [Forgiveness. It's what's for dinner.]
To hear the couple that drew us in, click here.
To hear our mentor couple's testimony (and others), click here.
For more information about Re|Engage,
such as a church near you that offers it
or an avenue to bring it to your own church,