Through the adventure of making a life together, I’m thankful it is not uncommon to sometimes feel a little lost, tired or even exasperated by the path. Ten years ago, when I married, I remember thinking “That won’t be us…that doesn’t have to be us.” In my naiveté, I thought true love was a protective force that could keep us immune from common relationship struggles. I have come to realize that being an exception is not a mark of more passionate or powerful love. Love becomes powerful and passionate as we embrace the common struggles, learning to survive and wrestle through them. There is more love in the act of perseverance than avoidance. Being lucky is not the same as being loyal.
Relationships are sometimes credited as good or strong because there is the absence of hardship. However, there is a difference between living in a way that is tidy versus in a way that is steadfast. Sacrifice forges love and challenges every cheap imitation of love within us to measure up. In this way, I have found my marriage to be humbling and confrontational to my methods of self-preservation. And frankly, I have always hated that, before becoming deeply grateful for the way this sacrament has been a means of grace and growing up, too. I am learning to trust in the process of covenanting. There have been seasons of our marriage where we weren’t sure we were going to make it, days when I didn’t want to make it anymore and recovery felt hopelessly illusive. This article is written with those seasons in mind and for the couples that like us, have felt the anguish and heartache of being in it.
When you’re questioning love because you no longer like the person you’ve chosen to spend the rest of your life with, well, that’s a bit of an awkward place. I remember emotionally-charged thoughts running through my mind, “I can’t stand you…we are a mistake…you are the enemy of my soul.” I harbored feelings of nauseating disgust and total annoyance, met by equally endearing bitterness from my spouse. Was there a way back to love when you take offense at the mere presence or personality of your beloved? We were disillusioned, exhausted and frustrated. Attempts to work things out fell flat and seemed futile. Friends would divorce and it made us wonder what was worth saving about our dilapidated marriage. I felt as though I had become the worst version of myself.
When I would feel stuck, insecure or claustrophobic, I would start moving further away from the relationship, as if I was somehow going to find myself if I could be more on my own. Perhaps that’s what I tried to convince myself of to justify the distance. I would invest myself into the places where my presence was being praised and yielding higher returns of appreciation such as work, ministry, various hobbies and friendships. He would do the same and our lives would run merely parallel without much actual connection. It seemed to be better than outright fighting but I think we were just sinking deeper into the quicksand.
We didn’t know what to do or how to fix things. We just knew we needed something to change because we were both dying. We felt like our marriage was killing us. And that became the turning point. Our marriage was killing us, we did need a change and finally admitting that we didn’t know what to do opened us up to consider more options. That was terrifying to recognize but it also brought just enough relief from the oppression for hope to spark again, too. We let others help us make space for hard, honest dialogue about what we were each going through. The process was painful and full of mistakes. We were learning to stop fighting one another to fight for every piece of ground to regain for our marriage, most of which we had to build over again, in a new, different and healthy way. But it was new through redemption. It was still us, still our life and circumstances. First surrendered then re-shaped and reclaimed, like restoring some discarded, dysfunctional treasure becoming repurposed. We were experiencing a beginning again. It came at a price though, letting go and saying goodbye to many of the ways we had become familiar with. Here were some of the lifelines that helped us make the journey back to one another:
We had to get honest and open.
We had felt on our own because despite how many couples go through this, no one really knows how to talk about it. There came a point though, when I didn’t care who found out how messed up we were. We were committed to figure out how to get better and that meant being authentic through whatever it took. That wasn’t permission to be mean, it just meant healing was going to require us to be brave and gracious.
We leaned into the relationship.
When we were leaning out, it was an escape from facing issues that were upsetting, unresolved or embarrassing. We find our most true self in relationship to one another, not outside of it. I’m a seemingly wonderful person when no one is close enough to activate how selfish I can be. Intimacy leads me to work on vulnerability and sensitivity where I can discover what it takes to be truly humble, sacrificial and loving, too. Our goal wasn’t so much to get back to who we were before but to move forward into who we could be and what we could have together in our marriage.
We each did self-care.
We had been relying on the other to meet too many of our own needs that we weren’t taking responsibility for ourselves. That kind of pressure wasn’t fair and only resulted in disappointment. We made more space for each of the ways we found rejuvenation. We honored what the individual needed to be healthier and our relational health improved too.
We built up our network of resources.
Our resiliency progressed when we had more to draw from. We sought out couples who were more experienced, read good books to increase what we could learn, made more enjoyable memories and sought professional help. Not everything worked but our context grew and we learned from all of it.
We found ways to celebrate.
We went on adventures and dates and caught ourselves laughing together again. We played. We simplified. We found an “us” we had lost. We became alive when we celebrated and so we started changing it from a rare luxury to a frequent reminder of the joy we found in being together. By holding onto these anchors, they helped us hold each other again. We saw affection and tenderness grow. These are elements more fragile and responsive than I knew. I’m challenged to cherish my spouse more. I deeply value the lessons but there is no formula. Even as I write this today, I believe there’s no guarantee we’ll make it. But I don’t put stock in a guarantee anymore anyway. We’re going to keep living out our vows, discovering the depths and challenges of what that looks like for today and tomorrow and the day after that. So, I write this for me too, with hope that I’ll return to these truths if I find myself again at the threshold of a season that no longer needs to scare me. We all have parts of our path that we don’t like going through. You may feel lost but know that you are not gone. There is a way back, it just may require a little trailblazing. Journey well, fellow travelers.