A peek at what a decade of marriage has been like for me:
I wouldn’t call these our “honeymoon years,” exactly, because we never really got any sweet, idealistic years of basking in marital bliss. I found out I was pregnant three weeks into our marriage and everything after that was a blur. We launched into ministry, helping with a new church plant. My husband closed down his business to get a more stable income while we waited for our son’s birth. I tried to navigate my own career and creative aspirations while the quick, urgent life changes of motherhood begged my attention.
We survived our first few years alright and have a lot of stories to tell. Some of it was really super fun. But as far as the health of our marriage, most of what was happening in and between us was happening quietly or was completely hidden. There was a lot we were both feeling and thinking but never talked about. There were a lot of unmet needs and expectations, a lot of confusion about roles and responsibilities. A lot of surprises. A lot of loneliness and disappointment.
How long does it take to really know a person? I’d say it takes as long as it takes you to figure out what you really hate about them. For us, I think it probably took us about 5 years to start seeing the ugly side of each other. Or at least choosing to see the ugly side of each other more than the ugly side of ourselves. These are the years we started blaming each other–silently, of course–for all that was wrong in our marriage. This is where bitterness sets in. Resentment. And detachment.
You see, I’m not much of a fighter, at least not about personal things. I fight about ideas. I fight about issues. But I don’t want to fight about the thing you did to me that made me want to throw you out the window. I’d much rather suck it up or stew in it and pretend I’m above being hurt or angered by you.
My husband, on the other hand, is a fighter. And every time we fought during those first half a dozen years, I walked away feeling secretly small and powerless in our marriage but also cocky and proud of how I’d maintained my composure and never let on how small and powerless I felt. (“Ha! I won!”)
But Years 7-9 were the years I learned how to fight.
I learned how to yell back. How to allow myself to be hurt. How to let someone else see me cry. How to defend myself if I had been wronged. How to say things like “I feel…” and “it feels like…” and also “we need to talk about…” How to face it all head on and let it all out in the open. I learned how to give him space to be mad and frustrated and disappointed with me without shrinking under the weight of it all. And I learned to walk away from a fight trying to understand what was really happening under it all.
These were, coincidentally, the years between our third and fourth child. And this time in our marriage was like a gritty, get-your-nails-dirty Spring cleaning; like shaking the dust off a rug you should have been vacuuming for the past seven years but were too busy to take the time. It was sort of like a huge, deep gasp for air after a long, exhausting run. And it was pretty ugly but also pretty liberating. And when we decided to go ahead and have a fourth baby, it felt like a really big leap into what we knew was another emotional and relational abyss (because pregnancy and babies can be like a marital black hole). And the truth is that we weren’t really ready to do it again, and we knew it, but we were okay with what we knew it would do to us and to our marriage.
Because sometime in the past few years, Years 9-10, I learned how to let marriage (and motherhood) do its job. And I use the word “learned” loosely because I’m still nowhere near completion. But much of the work of the past few years started with a small but conscious decision to allow this work of womanhood–being a wife and a mother–actually make me a better woman. And that means looking harder at myself than at others. And that means trying to root out some of the things in me that have not only contributed to my marital problems, but also my problems with my family, my church, and my friendships.
And, let’s be honest here, it has not been fun. Maybe some woman somewhere falls into marriage and motherhood with grace and competence and only becomes more of her perfected self as she does. But, geez, as I get further and further along into this wife and mother thing I only become more aware of how bad I am at it.
Don’t misunderstand me. I know I’m a good catch. And so does my husband. So I’m not saying that all of our marital problems are my fault or that I’m a hopeless mess.
What I’m saying is that a good marriage exposes us for who we truly are and, if done well, makes even the best people better. And, now ten years into marriage and 9+ years into motherhood, I have a good grip on the worst parts of me and I’m ready to get better.
The nature of intimate relationships–relationships like marriage, motherhood, etc.–is that they reveal our deepest desires and hopes and longings either in the way they fulfill them and make us feel more alive and more ourselves or the way they leave them unfulfilled and leave us disappointed and dejected. (You can quote me on that.)
Making a marriage work for the long haul seems to require, first, working through these longings and expectations to find what is good to desire and reasonable to expect. And then building a marriage where the right desires and expectations of both people are happily met. Some of this is work a couple does together. Some of this is work that needs to be done alone. I’m guessing all couples are at a different place on this spectrum. Maybe some start off the bat with all their longings and expectations met in each other and then they ride off into the sunset on unicorns to find the gold at the end of the rainbow. (For the record: we are not those people.)
For the rest of us, this means not only sorting through our own needs/desires and expectations but also responding to those of our spouse (or our children). I struggle with both ends of the equation. Maybe I always will.
This is all fresh on my mind because last night we celebrated our tenth anniversary.
Making it ten years felt really, really big and important and also really, really ordinary. It felt big because I know that a lot of marriages don’t last this long. And ordinary because ten years is small potatoes compared to twenty or fifty and we still have a lot of work to do to last that long. I wonder how many seasons we’ll pass through these next few years. I wonder what thoughts I’ll be sharing ten years from now.
Until then, here are ten quick tips for those who are newly married or not so newly married but are really struggling through a difficult season like one we’ve been through:
- When you’re angry, do the dishes. Or scrub the bathtub. Or fold laundry. It spends your angry energy, gives your mind time to work through the anger, and it gets something done that needs to be done anyway. There have been a lot of nights when a midnight load of dishes was just enough to get me to bed in peace.
- Practice speaking positively, both to/about your spouse and about your life together. I am notoriously negative, so this is hard for me. But affirming what is good and going well really makes the hard stuff a lot easier to work through.
- Take sex seriously, but with good humor. My experience is that most couples have at least some sexual issues to work through, whether it’s small stuff like how frequently you have sex or big stuff like sexual addiction. My advice is to be as open and honest as humanly possible. Call it like it is. Get help if/when you need it. If you don’t, it will ruin your marriage. But don’t give sex more power over your marriage than it should have–it’s supposed to give life, not steal it.
- Be okay with unresolved problems. I am learning to let a little conflict still linger in the air if it needs to. Some fights don’t end before bed and that’s okay.
- Let it take a while. My guess is that most couples who last 50 years didn’t solve all their marital problems in year 5. Or year 25, for that matter. Being in it for the long haul means expecting that each season of life will bring new challenges. There will be new issues to address when your first child is born. When you make decisions about jobs and houses and churches. There will be new conflicts when the kids are out of the house. Don’t be surprised by it.
- Touch each other, even if just in simple small ways–a hand on the back, a small kiss goodbye, a squeeze on his arm in bed. It does matter. We all need to be touched.
- Have kids. Don’t wait forever. Have more than one. Fall in love with your kids. And then pray that God would use the refining fire of parenting to make you worthy of being their parent.
- Learn to clarify the things your spouse does and says that hurt you. Learn the difference between what he says and what you hear, between what he does and what you perceive. Ascribe to each other the best of intentions rather than the worst. Let him explain himself before you allow yourself to be offended.
- Let your husband grow and change and take care of himself. Be cool about it when he turns 40 and buys a skateboard or starts building a gazebo in the backyard. Encourage him to pick back up the guitar or join a softball league or write a book; don’t mock him if he wants to start training for a marathon or start a new diet. Go with him to see that band he’s suddenly into or just be excited for him when he wants to go with his buddies instead. So long as he’s not neglecting you or your kids or doing anything destructive, give him space to re-imagine himself and his identity and interests as he grows older. You will want the same from him.
- Do something fun. I tend to be overly serious, but laughter goes a long way in healing wounds and cultivating affection. Find something you enjoy doing together, whether it’s coffee in the morning or long drives to nowhere. Maybe it’s card games or watching weird sci-fi movies. (Bonus points if it doesn’t cost a lot of money. Then you can do it as often as you want.) Are you having a particularly hard week? Have you been fighting more than normal? Hop in the car or pull out the deck of cards. Enjoy each other. Chill out and remember how you ended up married in the first place.