July 11th, 2020 was my 28th wedding anniversary. Our 28th wedding anniversary. By the grace of God. When we were preparing to get married we did some pre-marital counseling. I don’t remember much of it, but the biggest part I don’t remember is being told that the “worse” part of “for better or for worse” is far “worse” than you can imagine it can be at that point in your relationship. Most of our marriage was what people would define as good, but there were a few years that definitely put the “worse” part into practice. I would say that we both had ample opportunity to call it a day, call us incompatible and beyond repair. At times it felt to both of us that it might be easier to just start over with someone who really “got” us or just be on our own. Either of us could have made a good case that we were in the right and often there were people around us who even encouraged such an option. Leaving would have been understandable.
But after being separated emotionally and even physically for a period, here we are, trying to find an interesting way to celebrate this milestone during a pandemic. We settled on an afternoon at a local pool and dinner out. Occasionally, I have thought about what I would say if someone were to ask us to speak about how we made it out the other side of separation, addiction and leukemia (because, you know, the opportunities are just rolling in to do so! ) . Or, more realistically, how would I answer you if we were having coffee and the subject came up. What’s the key?
Was it just us sticking to our guns and gritting our teeth in the name of God, ending up together but still miserable? There is nothing God honoring about that scenario. Just to be able to say “we didn’t quit” is not enough to keep us going strong as we move forward. It can be valid for a short stent, but it is not a long term solution to a solid marriage. It’s not about winning by digging our heels in to weather the storm, it’s about continuing to thrive and embrace each other as we invest in our marriage day after day. So, what would I say to someone who asked me how we reconciled and gave “us” another shot?
There is not just one answer, but I would say that the primary way we eventually found our way back to each other was by working on ourselves. This is the exact opposite strategy we had been using the rest of our marriage. We went to countless counseling sessions in order to “fix” our marriage, which was basically an attempt to fix the other person so we could be happy. If “he would just….” Or “she would just….” Then everything would be hunky dory! We created lists and assignments about how each of us would implement changes that would satisfy the needs of the other person (if you have been married for more than say, a week, you know the list of which I speak). This ended in failure and resentment every time.
When we finally each focused on ourselves, the primary goal of any recovery group, we made progress. Instead of looking to the other person to make us happy, content and whole, we took it upon ourselves to become the kind of person that could be content and happy and whole regardless of what other people did or said or how they behaved. In recovery terms, that is called “detachment with love”: Separating yourself spiritually and emotionally from other people so you can think and feel and act in ways that honor who God made you to be and what He is calling you to.
“The two shall become one” is a phrase used in many a wedding and sermon regarding a married couple. Over the years, though I believe it is true at some level, I realized that I had taken this principal to the extreme. Yes, we are one, but we are also an “I”. I am accountable before God for myself alone. I can’t blame or use my spouse as an excuse to not follow God’s lead on something. I am responsible to keep my side of the street clean even if theirs seems to be a wreck. I am the only one who can make me “OK”. That’s not my spouses job. Often we ourselves are not OK and we try with earnest manipulation to make it our spouses fault.
We also would do well to remember that being “one” does not require us to take on his/her foul mood or angst or depression or illness. I can be empathetic without allowing my day/week/life to hijacked so that we are both miserable in the end. It’s OK to be OK even when they are not OK. During our time apart, I learned I that to become “one” with someone I had to bring a whole-me to the table. He cannot complete me. To put someone in that position is to make them an idol. It puts them in the place where God alone needs to be, because while my husband is a fine husband, he makes a pretty shoddy god.
When we both got serious about focusing on our own emotional and spiritual health and becoming the type of caring, selfless, confident, serving, tender, gracious, understanding, tolerant, forgiving, encouraging, interesting, loving and whole-hearted person we could be, our marriage became, well, easy (er). Any time either of us falls out of alignment by expecting the other person to meet needs that only God or ourselves can meet, it becomes hard again. Then we evaluate and observe what we have been doing that smacks of anything that does not follow what we know to work: bringing our best self to the game. That’s something that only we can do as an individual.
It took times of struggling and learning and stretching to make it sound like a good idea to stay together. If you would have told either of us two years ago that we would be content and dare I say, happy, in our marriage, we would have had gigantic doubts and I, with dramatic flare, would have rolled my eyes and said, “we’ll see.”
But here we are. After 28 years we are giving a whole new meaning to, “It’s not you. It’s me.” I am 100% the only one with who I am “till death do us part”. I am a full time job. I owe it to myself to put the work in to become the kind of person that brings every bit of who she is to my husband and accept what he has to offer as well. If I am committed to staying, It is indeed me and me alone who who can activate the changes I want to see in my marriage. The rest is up to God.