Thursday, January 12, 2017

5 Lessons from 5 Years of Marriage

Five years of marriage (as of 1/14/17), 8 years of togetherness. In the grand scheme of things it's not very long, but it feels like a noteworthy accomplishment for multiple reasons. The beginning was so bumpy, the circumstances somewhat precarious. The odds so against us, in some ways.

If I did not have an extremely healthy awareness of the fact that divorce is not something you overcome once and then never are threatened by again, I'd say HAHA to everyone who said we couldn't do it and that we were too young...
(sometimes being right is still painful)

I used to think divorce was something that just fell from the sky on you one day and ruined everything. I used to think divorce was something that happened to people who somehow were never right for each other in the first place. Because perfect-for-each-other people never get divorced, right? Five years in, I know there are no perfect people, nor perfect-for-each-other people. No perfect unions. Sometimes the illusion that perfection is real leads to disaster. It's in expecting one person to fulfill every part of you that we are let down severely in marriage.

I never thought I'd have divorced friends - not because myself or my friends are above that, it just simply never occurred to me, despite statistics. I didn't know very many couples growing up who got divorced (a product of being surrounded by missionaries, perhaps, though they are not immune either). As it has turned out, several of my dearest friends have been divorced, and many, many acquaintances and schoolmates have been divorced. It is a heartbreak that I bear with me and a sobering reminder that none of us is too good or too strong to will a marriage into lasting. Divorce is not always a result of having done everything wrong, which is what I tend to think of it as. But no matter what the cause, it is a bitter pill to swallow, even as a friend once removed.

Now I see divorce as a storm that is always raging, always whipping at the cliffs. Marriage takes place on the edge of that cliff where we cling to one another bracing against that storm. Marriage is not a calm field upon which the storm attacks from nowhere. Marriage is the improbable eye of the storm, the defiant clinging to the cliff in the face of the storm. And our muscles flex and grow as we cling to that cliff. Sorry if that's cheesy.

I don't mean to be doom-and-gloom about marriage or to simplify marriage or divorce, or even to give the impression that I'm in fear of divorce. My views on divorce and marriage may not apply to the average couple, I'm not sure. For me, I have seen staggering numbers of people I know personally go through divorce, and because of that, it feels like it's closing in sometimes. My wariness of the possibility of divorce is not lack of faith in marriage, but merely that I've grown not to take marriage for granted. Making marriage work is not a decision you make just one time, as any married person can tell you.

With that in mind, here are my imperfect pearls of wisdom, thus far...

1. Relinquish control.

A friend asked me recently what the biggest lesson I'd learned in having kids is. After basically zero thought, I said "that I'm not in control". And I think the same is true about marriage. I want to be in control because I think that will make things work well, but apparently other people don't think so.

The only thing that comes from wishing my husband or kids were something other than what they are is resentment. Sure, I pictured some (most? all?) of the dynamics of our life and marriage differently before we were actually in the thick of it, but often times, what I focused on was what I wanted my husband to be, not on who my husband really is.

Jonas and I do not share every interest or goal or value, but we try and facilitate one another's abilities to explore our personal paths. It is better to walk my own path with my hand in his than it is to be pulled on to his path, or to try and drag him on to mine. The very concept of us having personal paths was not something I believed in at first, nor perhaps something that everyone will agree with.

I'm even learning to let go of my desire to control the very concept of control. Jonas is not the "driven" one between the two of us, which is what I've wanted him to be at times, but he is almost always the self-sacrificing one. And what is true leadership if not sacrificial? Leadership is saying "I'm sorry" first, it's forgiving first, it means reaching out, even when your partner is at their worst. Leadership is not setting a goal and making your spouse claw their way to it. It's so odd, looking back, how I could have missed that truth. As if I would have really enjoyed Jonas pushing me to hit such-and-such a goal instead of allowing me to create my own goals and enabling me to reach them.

2. GET COUNSELING. Communal and professional. This is the advice I give brides-to-be at showers (ever the downer...) - it is never too early to get help.

Plenty of people say not to air your partner's dirty laundry in front of others, but I say do it (with trustworthy, wise people). My one disclaimer is that my husband knows that I'm a giant blabber, and he's learned to spell out specific things he'd rather me not discuss (I don't do it maliciously, I'm just a very open person).

When it comes to communal counseling, I don't have secrets from my husband or my best friends, and that means they can tell me when I'm being an ass and they can comfort me when I'm struggling and they can send me back to my husband to patch things up when need be. Multiple divorced friends of mine never talked about their marital turmoil until divorce papers were drawn up. The one I can think of who was open about her marriage being on the verge of collapse did talk about it - it felt dark and heartbreaking and helpless, but that couple actually stayed together, and it was an incredible testimony in several ways.

I often think about that part of marriage ceremonies where the priest/pastor/officiant asks the congregation whether they will support the marriage and be their community of accountability. I think everyone says "we will" every time, yet we so rarely share or probe that deeply into one another's friendships, thinking "it's none of our business". I understand that there's a fine line, but let us at least give one another a chance to uphold our communal vows.

When it comes to professional counseling, WORTH. IT. It doesn't save marriages in every case, but it's very rarely totally useless. I think the cost of professional counseling would have been prohibitive for us, but I also know that we could have asked our parents (on both sides) for the money and they would have willingly given it. I probably would have been too ashamed to ask for money for counseling, as it was remarkably difficult to overcome the shame of going to counseling in our first year of marriage in the first place. Thankfully, it was free to talk to the pastor of our church (who also married us), who's not always the gentlest counselor, but he said some things that we needed to hear, and we had the added benefit of him knowing us a little bit. I'm so thankful that we went, as it was a major pivot point during a pretty rough stretch. Within the past few years, our church has begun offering free professional counseling as well.

3. Nurture your sense of self, as well as your sense of place in things other than your marriage; spirituality, community, society - if you need space to be a whole individual such that you can be a good partner, make it happen. The same applies to parenthood, in my opinion. I still feel like this advice rubs up against Christian cultural conventions, but I'm not saying "think only of yourself", I'm just saying don't let yourself be swallowed. Don't let your husband or your kids be what defines you, because then you will fall apart when they disappoint you. As an introvert, I need space to be alone or be myself. If you're an extrovert, you probably will need more than just your partner for social and emotional health, and it's better to realize that and cultivate those other relationships than resent your partner for not being enough.

4. Throw out conventions. I have trouble discerning between what is good about tradition and orthodoxy and what is truth that has become twisted by time. So often, I find that bucking convention really means carving away at the callouses that have grown over something that was once beautiful. Like the leadership issue - Biblical truth is solid, it's our cultural and sinful interpretations that have us operating in the opposite direction, all the while thinking we're doing it "right". Church culture tends to think that the man, in being the "head of the household", should make the big decisions and be the breadwinner. I've seen the attempt to stick to marital gender-norm expectations cripple relationships more than once, and I wouldn't be surprised if Jonas ends up being a stay-at-home or work-from-home dad down the road, while I have a more typical "career". Let's get rid of that stigma - doesn't it make sense that doing what we're suited to would make a marriage stronger rather than threatening it? Unconventional roles don't need to cancel out mutual respect.

5. Put down the phone. This one is hard for me. I use my phone and computer a lot in every-day life; for work, for school, for recreation. Even though I'm pretty good at setting aside media at events or in gatherings, being with my husband isn't really an event (unless it's a date), it's every day life! So, we have to make a very conscious effort to connect during every day life. Put down our devices when we talk to one another, and even schedule time to spend with one another at home. Otherwise, it is incredibly easy to drift apart or not appreciate your partner as anything beyond part of your mundane routine.

The first few months of our marriage were so happy, but the second year was hell. Since then, there are have been long stretches that just felt blah - sometimes so mundane that I forgot what being in love meant. Being in love is quieter with time, and parenthood complicates that, and now we battle busyness. I cherish the good and fun and intense times, and I plod through the not-as-great times, knowing that it can and will be vibrant again. I am not so naive as to believe that we will never go through hell again, whether self inflicted or as the result of tragedy that seems insurmountable (grave illness, loss of loved ones). But I'm also encouraged by what we've persevered through so far.

We're taking it slow - a day at a time - but I fully plan to be a gnarled old couple, a rarity in a sea of wrecked ships, though it is assuredly not by my own strength that such a thing has been or will be achieved. Maybe it sounds sad, but 5 years really feels like something to be proud of.

Top photo from our reception in 2012, by Kappen Photography.
Illustration by Wiebke Rauers.  

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