Friday, July 04, 2014

About our 18 wonderful years.

It’s an old joke:

It’s our 20th wedding anniversary. We’re celebrating 18 wonderful years together!

Brett and I repeated that more than a few times as we approached June 18, the day our marriage hit the big 2-0. In our case, though, it’s not just a punch line; it’s the hard truth that too many married couples are unwilling to admit.

I hesitate to even bring this up for fear of (1) hurting our friends whose marriages did not survive or (2) rehashing our own nastiness, which is now in the distant past. But as Brett said, if this can help just one marriage (or one hopeless spouse), it’s worth it.

When we got married in that little church in 1994, we both thought we were in for nothing but love songs and butterflies, for anticipation-filled days spent longing for our imminent reunion after work and for romantic evenings spent out on the town or cozy at home.

June 1994
Of course, we knew there’d be hard times, but relationship issues? US?! Never!!!

So when we found ourselves thinking all hope was lost, when the suitcase was packed and the car was speeding away, it was stunning. How had this happened? How had we fallen to the point that we thought we’d be better off apart than together?

The “why” is nobody else’s business, but let’s just say things were really bad. We both yelled and cried and threw things. (The diamond setting in my wedding ring still has a prong that’s just a little off-center.) There were times when Brett left for a night or two, and there were times I was the one to leave. There were family meetings, long phone calls, hang-ups, and slammed doors. And yes, there was even the dreaded, “I don’t love you anymore.”

But with God’s grace and a whole lot of prayer and support, we survived. One of our counselors wisely told us, “You won’t ever forget this time, but eventually it will feel as if it never happened.” It was hard to believe that then, but now? It’s true!

How did we turn things around? For one, we went to counseling, first with our minister, then with a church friend, and later with an “outside” Christian counselor. It was not fun, and there were plenty of times we could’ve chosen to skip a session or quit going altogether. Honestly, sometimes it was just guilt that kept us going back for more hard questions and tear-filled hours. But go back we did. Is guilt a good reason to go to counseling? Not really. Am I glad our guilt (not to mention my fear that I’d have to spend a Christmas morning without my babies) kept us working through our troubles? Absolutely. Guilt, fear, and concern for our children motivated us when anger and frustration threatened to sabotage our efforts.

Another major help for us: a marriage enrichment workshop. Our church offered “His Needs/Her Needs” at just the right moment for us, and by the time we struggled through the 12-week group therapy program, our marriage was in a much better place. (Our classmates also voted us the “most improved” couple at the end!) Reading the book and doing the weekly assignments worked for us. Full disclosure, though: For other friends who went through a similar program, all this openness and discussion only led to more discord with their spouses. In our case, the program helped us put in the hard work necessary to salvage our relationship and rededicate ourselves to each other.

Our friends and family were instrumental throughout the healing process. They listened when we just needed to vent, they offered childcare when we needed counseling, and in one particular case (as referenced in Brett’s eulogy for his dad), they offered advice. Through it all, they gave us support to keep trudging along through the hardest days.

Time was also our friend. As we worked through our differences, we went out of our way to celebrate our similarities. It took a long time for the tension and residual animosity to go away, but in the meantime it was mighty comforting to share a good belly laugh, to check out our favorite bookstore, to re-watch a classic film, and even (hide your eyes, kids) enjoy a good roll in the hay. Our reconciliation was not linear, mind you; in fact, a few years after our initial crisis we returned to counseling to make sure we stayed on the right path. All along the way, though, we relished those reminders of why we married in the first place.

For our 10th anniversary in 2004, we stood before a goofy Elvis impersonator and renewed our vows in Las Vegas.
June 2004
It was a fun way to celebrate our recommitment to each other, but honestly, the silly ceremony came long after we had rededicated ourselves to our marriage.

As I said, I don’t bring this up to hurt our friends whose marriages didn’t survive. In some cases involving abuse or addiction, a spouse must leave the relationship for his or her own (or the children’s) well-being. In many other cases, one spouse is not willing to stick it out in spite of the other’s best efforts. Divorce happens. A LOT. I get that. That’s a big part of why I feel so blessed that our marriage survived. We beat the odds!

Now, as we celebrate this 20th anniversary, I’m compelled to let other couples know that it is possible to survive and even thrive after a crisis. So here we go with the unsolicited advice:

1. Avoid saying, “If he/she does X, we’re over.” When it’s all hypothetical, it’s easy to declare what you would do, but when you find yourself in that situation, many variables shape your actions. Before I was married, I had my own long list of situations that would absolutely end a marriage, but now that list has dwindled to one item: endangerment. This comes with a second-hand corollary: If you know a couple whose marriage is in crisis, be careful that your absolutes don’t weaken their resolve to work toward a solution.

2. Keep the “D-word” out of your conversations. It’s OK—essential, even—to bring up your struggles. Talk about healing, about getting closer, about getting help to strengthen your marriage, but don’t bring up divorce. Once that word’s uttered and the possibility’s raised, it’s hard to take it off the table.

3. Know that no marriage is completely “divorce proof.” Many couples, especially among the church-going set, seem to think that once they’ve repeated their vows, they don’t have to worry about breaking them. Christian couples divorce all the time. Assuming that it can’t happen to you is unwise. The trick is to practice vigilance while avoiding paranoia, to be attentive to your mate without being too clingy. Many oft-repeated marriage tips help partners stay away from complacency: continue to date your mate after marriage, express your love to each other often, practice the Golden Rule, and on and on. There’s a reason those tips are so prevalent: They work! By the way, surviving one crisis doesn’t exempt you from future ones. I hope Brett and I never take our marriage, as “permanent” as we’d like to think it is, for granted.

4. Don’t assume everyone else’s marriage is better than yours. While a few couples play out every little drama on Facebook, most struggle privately. Know that those smiling faces you see at work and church may be hiding the ugly reality. Do the math: If half of all marriages end in divorce, chances are, a good number of your married friends have been or are going through some sort of marital crisis. (I think this is a big reason for this post. People who didn’t know us back then may assume we’ve always been happily married. I want our friends, especially the ones who haven’t been married very long, to see our scars.)

5. If you find yourself in a relationship crisis, have the patience to ride it out. With our situation, I found myself anxious to fast-forward to a resolution. After every counseling session, I was in a hurry to get to the next one. Each time we ended a confrontational phone call, I looked for excuses to call back and continue the conversation right away. It’s horrible to be in constant crisis mode. Your instinct will be to get out of that state ASAP, but the quickest solution is usually divorce. Pray, talk to supportive friends, attend those counseling sessions, do whatever you can to ride out the worst of it. Recovering from a marital crisis is the opposite of courtship: Instead of getting butterflies in your stomach, you’re nauseous all the time, and instead of being constantly flattered and pampered, you may feel attacked and unworthy. But hang in there! It’ll all be worth it if you and your spouse can rebuild your marriage to be even better than it was before. If your marriage does end, you’ll know you gave it your all. (Here’s a big P.S.: “Riding it out” does not mean hanging on indefinitely. A good counselor and a whole lot of prayer can help you know when it’s time to drop the rope.)

Of course, these tips won’t work for everyone, and the last thing I’m trying to do here is insult or blame anyone who has gone through a divorce. I do, however, want to encourage those couples who may be thinking their marriage is forever scarred because of their current crisis. I can’t offer any guarantees, but please know that it IS possible for a troubled marriage to survive and improve. A marriage counselor may have already told you that, but I hope our real-world, cold-hard-reality testimony will help you believe it.

As Brett and I head into our 21st year of marriage, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for this gift we received: a second chance. And more than ever, I’m thankful to have my best friend, my hero, my husband by my side.
June 2014

1 comment:

Kristi Porter said...

Thank you for sharing this. Mark and I had a very rough start to our marriage and we both say that the first two years were especially difficult. People need to know that awesome marriages probably weren't always so awesome! I'm praying that your post will really encourage someone that needs it now!