Category Archives: Marriage

It’s Not About You

My friend saw an article about marriage on the Internet the other day and wanted my opinion.  The article was from Relevant, a Christian magazine, and it was titled “Marriage Isn’t About Your Happiness.” **

My friend asked me to read the article and then give her my opinion.  She felt as if the article basically stated that marriage is about giving and your happiness shouldn’t be a factor. I can see how she might see it that way, and it would be easy to read the article and think the author was advocating for endless self-sacrifice for the sake of your partner.

And she is advocating for endless self-sacrifice…but not in the way you think.  I think a quote from the author might clear things up a bit.

“I heard a married man on TV say (regarding whether or not he was going to stay in his own marriage), “I shouldn’t be with someone if I’m not happy.” It’s an attitude many people have, and hearing it made my stomach turn.

What an accurate reflection of the self-centered society we live in, everyone believing their main goal in life is their own personal happiness. What a small and shallow way to live.

If you’re getting married with your own happiness as your main goal, you will be disappointed in a severe way.

Marriage is not about your happiness, it’s not even about you. It’s about love—which is something we choose to give time and time again. It’s about sacrifice, serving, giving, forgiving—and then doing it all over again.”  **

You can see how my friend, who has been in a few failed relationships, would question the author’s assertion that happiness is what marriage is about, especially when you consider that it was her unhappiness that finally gave her the strength to leave her spouse.

But the author’s main point is summarized easily. “If you are getting married with your own happiness as your main goal, you will be disappointed in a severe way.”   You got that straight!  As a matter of fact, when my husband and I were getting married, a thrice married coworker of my husband told him “Marriage is either the best thing that happens to you or it is hell on earth.” Again, you got that straight!

Before I can proceed, I probably need to state a few personal beliefs that I live by, because without stating that, I stand to be just as misunderstood as the author of the article mentioned above.

  1. You are responsible for meeting your own needs. The only time someone else assumes that role is while you are too young or too old and feeble to care for yourself. Any other time, you are fully responsible for yourself and meeting your own needs.
  2. You are responsible for making yourself happy. We human beings essentially choose our own emotions based on our thoughts. No one can ‘make’ you feel anything until they have a gun pointed at your head…then they are capable of forcing you to feel something, which is usually crushing fear and desperation. Most people don’t have a gun pointed at your head, which means that no one can ‘make’ (force) you to feel anything, which also means that someone else cannot ‘make’ you happy. If you want to be happy, that’s your responsibility.
  3. You are responsible for contributing to the health and stability of your partnership/ marriage, but remember that you are only ½ the team. If one member of the couple no longer contributes to the health and stability of the relationship in any way (and they are doing that on purpose, by choice, and not because of terminal illness or disability) then you are NOT in a relationship at all.

Okay, having said all those things, the author is right. Marriage is not about your happiness.  It’s not that marriage cannot contribute to your happiness, because it can.  But marriage, in itself, is not about making you happy.  Saying that marriage is about your personal happiness is akin to saying that going to college is about your personal success.  Sure, going to college can contribute to your personal success, but if you go to college and then sit on your butt and refuse to work hard and continue learning, you are probably going to fail in the long run.

What I’m trying to say is that getting married isn’t a magic tonic that confers ‘happiness’. Marriage is a commitment that requires you to sacrifice for the sake of your partner which, by definition, will sometimes not be a happy thing. That’s why it’s called SACRIFICE. Shortly after my husband and I moved to Phoenix, my favorite band announced their tour dates and their date in Phoenix fell on the weekend of my husband’s 10th high school reunion in Indiana. So, which is it? See my favorite band in concert, or go to Indiana with my husband who wanted me to meet his friends?   When it came time to decide, I had two thoughts. First, there is only ONE 10th reunion, only one chance to go back to high school and laugh in the face of everyone who called you nerd-boy, now that you are a successful engineer with a nice house and pretty wife. Second…oh hell, there is no second point. I decided to be a wife and go to Indiana with my husband. I missed the concert and it made me unhappy to do so, but 27 years later what I value was that I chose my husband’s happiness over my own that day. It’s not always about his happiness when I sacrifice for him. I have cared for both of his parents as they died, and that was definitely NOT about happiness. Again, it was about choosing to be a wife, to be the woman who sees my husband’s needs and does my best to meet those needs. It would be a bitter pill to swallow for me if I was the only one who sacrificed in our relationship, but my husband constantly sacrifices for me. This is the man who paid for my seminary education so that I could follow God’s call. This is the man who committed to go wherever the bishop sent us, no matter how that would impact his career. This is the man who stopped on the way home from work one night to fix my parent’s leaky tub…and brought a huge flower arrangement to leave for my mom because my father was in the hospital after having had a stroke that morning. She came home from the hospital to find the flowers and no leaky tub…and he never said a word to me or to her about what he was going to do.  I call that choosing to be a husband, choosing to see be the kind of man who sees his wife’s needs and does his best to meet those needs.

And that’s where the happiness in marriage actually comes in.

When we sacrifice for each other, it’s not the sacrifice itself that leads to feelings of happiness. It’s that the sacrifice is tangible evidence of the depth of our commitment to each other, our desire to serve each other, and our deep desire to have a positive and lasting impact on our spouse. We love each other and so we strive to make the world a better, softer place for our partner. It’s not that different than the feeling we have when we sacrifice for our children. We know it’s the right thing to do and we know it’s hard, but we also desire for our kids to feel secure in our love and care for them; we want them to feel safe in the world simply because we are there to help them. Marriage is about creating a deep sense of being loved and valued for who you are; it creates a sense of security and safety.

Marriage is a strange exchange. It calls for you to become less self-centered even as it forces you to take responsibility for your own happiness and for meeting your own needs. It simultaneously calls for you to be invested in emotional, physical, and spiritual self-care, while asking you to give and serve and sacrifice for your partner. When both members of the couple behave in this way, marriage becomes a haven of rest and release and true contentment and peace; it is the place where you can be truly vulnerable and frail and know that you are loved.  A good marriage is like Miracle Grow for the soul.

When only one member of the couple is willing to practice self-giving, it becomes a hell of endless servitude and diminishing of self in the service of your partner’s throbbing ego, which demands adoration and abject devotion.  The marriage becomes destructive to the serving partner who can never give away enough of themselves to satisfy their partner; it is truly psychologically damaging, and I have spent many hours working with the broken partner from an unequally yoked marriage. Inevitably it is the partner with the larger ego who always speaks the words “I shouldn’t be with someone if I’m not happy.”  The lament of the self-giving partner is also inevitable: “It was never enough, no matter what I did.”

If you are reading this and realize that you will never be enough, no matter what you do, get help and if you can, get out. It’s not about your happiness. It’s about your SELF. God created you and you are enough, and anyone who causes you to believe otherwise is slowly destroying your soul. Don’t let anything, no matter how precious it is to you, destroy you. You are of sacred worth and you deserve to be whole and healthy; destroying your soul in the pursuit of making your partner happy is not the road to health and wholeness. Please, get the help you need, and then get out of that relationship.

If you are reading this and wondering if you will ever find someone capable of giving to you in the same way that you are willing to give, then I encourage you to just keep working on yourself. Become healthier and healthier. Work on the condition of your soul and on the peacefulness that can be found in gratitude, faith and mindfulness. Work on being as responsible for yourself, your needs, and your happiness as you can possibly be.  It is important to know that we draw partners to ourselves that have similar levels of emotional health and wellness, so the healthier you are, the healthier your partner will be.  Can I be sure that there is a partner for you?  No, I can’t. What I can be sure of is that any work you do on yourself pays off in dividends that are reaped across your lifetime with friends and family as well as in your relationship with your partner. So get busy making your life into a wonderful place of self-care, responsibility, gratitude, faith, friends, and service…and then see what comes your way. You’ll already be happy, so it won’t be like you’ll be waiting for a partner to make you happy.  So why would you need a partner? Because…why not?

**  https://relevantmagazine.com/life/relationships/marriage-isnt-about-your-happiness

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Tradition!

** Please forgive me if the title makes you want to sing show tunes from Fiddler On The Roof.

My daughter is getting married two weeks from today.   Getting ready for the wedding has been an exercise in remembering exactly why weddings are stressful and expensive.  It has also been an exercise in tradition, because weddings are full of traditions.

As I sit and write this, I realize that no one threw a bridal shower for my daughter…but then again, what would we give her for her bridal shower? She hasn’t lived at home for three years.  She has plenty of kitchen utensils and cookware. Her household is already established.  When it came to her wedding registry, she and her fiancé registered at places like REI so that friends and family could get them the things they’d like to have, especially when it comes to camping gear.  So what’s left? Lingerie and marital aids? Can we be honest and admit that she already has plenty of those, too? She’s been living with her fiancé for almost a year now!

So there goes that tradition out the window, at least for this wedding, not that it matters. Some traditions just aren’t that important to me.

That’s a strange thing for me to say, because my family has a huge value for tradition.

In my family, tradition is the way that we remember who we are and what really matters. I couldn’t have explained that to you when I was younger. It wasn’t until I needed tradition to anchor my family during a difficult time that I came to understand what purpose tradition served.  Since then, I have come to value our family’s traditions more and more, not just for the act of repeating the tradition but for what the tradition represents.

My mother’s family is full-blooded Sicilian; they immigrated to this country sometime in the late 1910’s.  My grandparents were both 1st generation Americans, but they were born to families so entrenched in Sicily’s culture that I could swear that my mom and her brother are the 1st generation Americans in their family instead of their parents. Every Christmas, my mom and I (and now my youngest daughter and I) make Cuccidata, a traditional Italian fig cookie.  Cuccidata make Fig Newtons look sad and paltry by comparison, and they are best cookies I’ve ever had.  And cuccidatas aren’t the only thing we make for the holidays, because when it comes to holidays, Sicilians love to cook. Actually, Sicilians just love to cook in general.  The food at our house during the holidays is plentiful, rich, delicious, and did I say plentiful? This is another way we celebrate our Sicilian heritage and part of the reason that most of the women in my family have childbearing hips (what a lovely way of saying ‘Baby got back’) and the men have the tummy that comes with a wife who cooks good food frequently. Our holiday dinners may raise our cholesterol counts a few points during the first few months of every new year, but it’s worth it.

Not all traditions come from generations past.  Every year in December my husband and I take our kids to Flagstaff to re-enact the year that our oldest daughter was in drug treatment. We couldn’t bring her home for Christmas and so we chose to celebrate Christmas in a hotel in Flagstaff during her two day, off-campus visit in December. You might think that remembering such a difficult time in our lives would be depressing, but it isn’t…in fact it’s incredibly joyful.  That first year we sat in the hotel and went through as many family traditions as we could: decorating the tree (albeit a smaller, sparser, fake tree); opening the stockings on ‘Christmas Eve’; going to worship on ‘Christmas Eve’ (an AA meeting sufficed); opening the few presents we brought on ‘Christmas Day’; and spending as much time together as possible before we had to take our daughter back to her treatment facility.  Each year we repeat the exact same things we did the first year, bringing the same fake tree and decorating it; then we declare our first evening in Flagstaff as ‘Christmas Eve’ and go through all our Christmas Eve traditions.  Every year we return to the same hotel, the same restaurants and coffee shops and local stores…and every year we revel in spending time together as a family and remembering that our family is stronger than almost anything that would try to destroy us, including drugs and alcohol.

My family has tons of traditions: opening the stockings on Christmas Eve because Santa always manages to come to our house while we are at Christmas Eve worship; dedicating Memorial Day and Labor Day to spending time with our children, a practice my husband and I started when we were both in graduate school; Friday night ‘date night’ at our favorite restaurant; and a big homemade dinner for the family on Sunday evening.

In a million little ways, traditions remind us of who we are and what really matters.

Sadly, some traditions remind us of who we were and they highlight beliefs that are damaging and need to stop right now.

I’ll give you an example.

Before my wedding, my husband’s groomsmen let me in on a prank they were going to pull on my husband during our reception. They gave me all the details and told me my part in the prank. While it sounded a little silly and kind of sexist, I wanted to be a good sport and it was going to be funny, so I just went along with it. About 60 minutes into the reception, before the dancing was going to start, my husband’s groomsmen grabbed him and lifted him off the floor and attached a ball and chain to his ankle. I had the key stashed in my bra, and I coyly pulled the key from my cleavage, giggling and teasing my husband.  I figured that was the entire joke.  I cannot tell you how disappointed my husband’s friends were when I immediately freed him from the shackle around his ankle and set the joke aside.  They wanted me to leave it on him and make him roam around our wedding with a ball and chain attached to his ankle. And that’s when I realized that I had misunderstood the seriousness of their joke. I thought it was just supposed to be some temporary fun with an old symbol of marriage. The reality made me sick to my stomach. To my husband’s friends, I was a ball and chain.  Did they really mean that?  Probably not…but then why was it important to make him wear a 15 pound ball chained to his ankle for more than a minute or two?  What exactly is funny about making someone actually wear a ball and chain while they are trying to enjoy their wedding and dance with their bride? Nothing…unless you are in it to make a point.  And that’s what made me sick to my stomach.

If anyone pulls that stunt at my daughter’s wedding I will not be so gracious.

The thing about any tradition is that it only has meaning in as much as it represents what we truly believe in, what we deeply value, and what gives us life.

The thing about weddings is that they are filled with traditions that often speak loudly to the idea that our culture thinks marriage is an institution that benefits the bride, shackles the husband, and still represents the transfer of a woman who is property from one man to another.  All we are missing is the bride price and the dowry, and we could easily be back in the old country.

What the heck, people?!

I’m not going all feminist on you here.  Because it’s not just marriage traditions that are filled with not-so-subtle reminders of much less egalitarian times.  You don’t have to look hard to see the evidence of racism and sexism in our society.  Size-ism and body shaming are all over social media and television. Ageism is a major problem both in Hollywood and in corporate America. We have all sorts of behaviors that give testimony to our unwillingness to truly root out the ugly undercurrents of hatred in our society. Even our most hallowed traditions—our marriage traditions—are rife with symbolism that when closely examined, fail to match up to what we say are our dominant cultural values.

So which is it? Are we still sexist and racist and hateful…or are we just slow to challenge old behaviors?

I want the traditions that my daughters participate in as they live their adult life to be much like the ones that they have already experienced in their family: traditions that hold up what is most precious and worthy of respect and honor. Traditions, that when examined, are filled with deep meaning and connect us to the things we value most.  You might be thinking that a cuccidata is just a cookie, but in my family it is the thing we do to remember where we came from and who we are. It connects us to all the generations that came before us. Cuccidata are delicious…and they are living history.

As we head into the holidays, I encourage you to pay close attention to the meaning and the hidden messages in your family’s traditions.  Ask yourself if what you are re-enacting in these traditions is something you actually want to teach the children in your family.  Does it represent your highest values? Does it represent your faith?  If it represents your heritage, does it represent the part of your heritage that doesn’t participate in the oppression of other people?

Don’t just blithely stumble along, doing the things you’ve always done just because you’ve always done them.  A part of moving our culture forward is knowing what part of that culture should be abandoned so that the culture can be refined.

And this isn’t just about ‘culture’ and American society as a whole.

Remember that your life is a story that you tell to the world.  No one else can tell this story, and it should express what you’re worth and what you believe truly matters.

Tell the best story you can, and when the story you are telling doesn’t represent who you are or what you believe, change the storyline until it does.

Here’s to the traditions that color your story bright and beautiful!

I’m Gonna Build Me A Wall

I am one of those people who loves metaphors.

God knows, I am plenty verbal.  (Ask anyone who knows me: I will talk your ear off!) Nonetheless, when I need to learn something or teach something to someone else, I look for images or metaphors that will help explain the concept.  Visual images that represent a concept are great because they can gather meaning as time goes along, representing multiple things as you learn more about the concept/subject.  Images that can do this are “multivalient.”   It’s a bizarre made-up word that I learned in seminary that means “more than one meaning” and it only reinforced my desire to use images to represent concepts.

On to our subject for today: WALLS.

I’m a counselor, and when counselors talk about walls, we are usually talking about emotional blockades that people use to keep others at a distance emotionally.  We talk about refusal to be vulnerable and to “let people in” so that they can know the “real you”.

That’s not what I’m talking about today.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about walls, mostly with the focus of keeping undesirable people OUT; walls as a means of keeping the ‘good people’ safe from the ‘bad people’ who want into our country and our economic system.

That’s not what I’m talking about either.

I like to talk about walls when I talk about relationships, especially romantic relationships, and most specifically marital relationships.  The reason that I do that is that so many people have misconceptions about what it takes to make a marriage last, to truly succeed as a couple.  I tell the couples that I am working with that a good love connection is going to be a lot like a really good brick wall.

Here in Arizona, most of our fences are concrete block walls or brick walls, so you see freestanding brick walls in almost every neighborhood.  Every now and then you find a block wall that has collapsed, scattering bricks or concrete blocks as well as chunks of mortar all over the sidewalk and the yard.  On a rare occasion you will find bent rebar (the metal bars used to reinforce block walls) still sticking up out of the ground with a few blocks still intact at the bottom, held in place only because of the rebar.  That’s a rare occurrence, mostly because walls reinforced with rebar don’t ‘collapse’ per-se…usually something happens to bring them down, like an uprooted tree falling on the wall.

What does that have to do with relationships?

Well…block walls are usually built of bricks and mortar, and occasionally rebar. Each of those things represents something crucial to a successful marriage. Let’s start with the bricks.

When it comes to relationships, the bricks represent the common morals, values, and priorities of the couple.

It is very important to have shared morals because it means that behavior that is forbidden for one of you is forbidden for the other, and behavior that is considered laudable for one of you is considered laudable by and for the other.  For instance, the animal rights activist is never going to want a fur coat as a gift from their spouse, no matter how cold the climate they live in, or how much of an expression of love their partner might think that would be.  You might think that shared morals is a given, especially when your partner seems like such a good person, but it takes exploration to suss out the finer points of morals.  Do you cheat on your taxes? Do you take office supplies from work?  Do you lie…to anyone? When is that acceptable and why? Do you support abortion rights? Would you ever opt for an abortion in your own life? What do you do if your child is profoundly intellectually disabled? Would you ever put a child in an institution?  What if you become really rich?  Do you give a bunch of money to charitable organizations? Do you ever give money to family members?  What do you think about helping out adult children with financial issues?

See what I mean? Morals aren’t as easily determined by daily behaviors as we think they are.  Of course, your partner’s daily behaviors say an awful lot about who they are and what their morals are, but you have to ask the hard questions…and answer them yourself as well.  I am consistently shocked by the things my clients reveal that they didn’t discuss before they married…and that topic always comes up because of the problems they are having in their marriage now.

Commonly held values and priorities are also important and act as the bricks in your marital wall.  Let’s use work as an example. Work should hold the same value and your careers the same level of priority for both members of the couple.  This doesn’t mean that one of you can’t stay home to take care of the children, because that is another thing entirely and has to do with your beliefs and values (and priorities) around raising children.  However, a lack of common values and priorities around work can lead to one partner frustrating the other by working long hours for an extended period of time, or by repeatedly changing jobs or careers.  The first illustrates a difference in the how work is valued as a priority, and the second a difference in the value of stability and commitment to career.  Money is another area where common values and priorities are really important, because money is frequently a subject of conflict for couples. One partner usually wants to save and invest and the other partner is more prone to spend and the truth is that there needs to be a balance of both saving and spending as well as financial responsibility focused on a saving for retirement and aged years. This kind of stuff can create major rifts for couples and long term resentment, and these are two things you never want developing in your marriage. In the end, having similar values and priorities allows you to act in concert and support each other as decisions are made and changes occur.   Both of you will feel equally respected and equally committed to each others goals, since after all, those goals will be driven by common values and priorities.

So…you’ve got the bricks to build your wall because you share morals, values, and priorities.  Now you need mortar, and sex and intimacy are the mortar in a relationship.  What separates a partnership/ marriage from a regular friendship is the level of intimacy.  Friendships might have a great deal of emotional, intellectual, and spiritual intimacy and the more there is of those three things, the closer and longer lasting the friendship will be.  I frequently tell couples that the best thing they can do is become really good friends as well as lovers, because their friendship will get the relationship through difficult times when they don’t feel as ‘in love’ as they used to be.  The ‘in love’ thing is what brings the flush of sexual intimacy to the fore.  Sexual intimacy takes the other three levels of intimacy and deepens them significantly, and then it ices the cake, so to speak.  Sexual intimacy creates an incredibly strong bond because it’s hard to hide from your partner when you are naked and being sexually expressive. It is the deepest and most private form of intimacy, and I truly believe that it is sacred. Maybe I’ll blog more about that another day, but for now I just want to say that sexual intimacy becomes the mortar that holds all the bricks in place, that brings the wall to a level of cohesion and stability that other relationships cannot reach.

We’ve all had friends who were really good at the sex thing but who lacked commitment to the other person in the relationship. You can call this commitment issues; you can call it “friends with benefits.”  I call this an example of someone trying to build a wall out of mortar alone.  You can do it…you can mound up your mortar and try to build a wall, but it won’t last through any serious storm.  The difficulties that life brings will inevitably cause the wall to slowly disintegrate and crumble.  This is why marriages based in chemistry alone don’t work for very long.  The sex is great and for a while the couple can use the sex to cover up the growing divide between them, but eventually no amount of sex is enough to cover for what isn’t there: real friendship, along with common morals, values, and priorities.

So what’s the rebar for? Well…rebar is there so that the wall can’t be toppled easily.  Like I said, my neighborhood is full of block wall fences, and occasionally they collapse…usually due to harsh weather.  Walls with rebar in them, however, tend to remain standing until something specific happens—something like a car crashing through the wall, or a tree falling in a monsoon, or someone purposely trying to tear the wall down. This is because the rebar is driven into the ground below the wall to anchor the wall and the rebar acts as an internal support for the bricks and mortar.  In a relationship, rebar is made from a common spirituality that often establishes many of the common morals and values.  In my marriage, the rebar is our Christian faith.  When life gets rough, my husband and I turn to God for support and we openly discuss the evidence we see of God’s action in our lives.  We encourage each other in our faith, and when we are struggling, we pray together.  I’m not saying that a couple without a common faith will fail; that simply isn’t true, since those couples have shared values, morals, and priorities and hopefully deep levels of emotional and intellectual intimacy, as well as a robust sex life that builds their wall tall and strong.  However, having gone through quite a few “storms” that tried to tear down the wall of my marriage (a child addicted to cocaine and opiates, the death of both of my husband’s parents, a severely ill child, etc.) I can tell you that a common faith will strengthen the union in ways the common morals, values, and priorities as well as sexual intimacy simply cannot achieve.

Having said all that, my mind wanders to a certain politician that thinks that building a wall will solve some of our problems with Mexico and its citizens. Perhaps he’s right, but only in the sense that focusing on our commonly held values, morals, and priorities might bring us to a much closer relationship that could change everything.  It would be a wall built of bricks alone, as many friendships are…and honestly, it could change everything.   Maybe he’s right. Maybe we should build a wall, one that no one would have to ‘pay for’…but wouldn’t it be worth everything?

All The Things I’d Tell My Daughter

My daughter is getting married in November, and there are so many things I want to tell her about marriage that I don’t know where to begin.  It’s not that she hasn’t been witness to her parents’ marriage for her entire life, but so much of marriage takes place behind closed doors or simply away from the children’s eyes that I’m sure there is plenty that she hasn’t gotten a chance to witness.  I have been trying to write it down in some meaningful narrative, but it isn’t working.  I have tried several times to parse the many things I’ve learned in 28 years into a concise story but I haven’t managed to write anything really meaningful. This morning I thought it might work better if I separated the information into the early years, once we had children, etc.  And so here we have:

The First Year

Everybody tells you that this year will be the most difficult, and they are right, but if you’re lucky it won’t seem that way until you look back after 5 or 10 years of marriage.  The first year is quite a lot of fun but there are a lot of things to work through before you can settle down into the long-term work of marriage, which is staying married. More on that later. For now, it is important to pay attention to a few things that you may not have discussed prior to marriage…things like gender roles.

You moved in together before you got married and you’ve probably fallen into one of the more common expressions of gender roles in dating: she does the dishes and the cleaning and laundry and thinks nothing of it, and he does an occasional load of wash or dishes and thinks he’s Mr. Wonderful because he’s helping.  It can stay this way for years if you let it, but I encourage you not to do that because one day you will have kids and if you think you are busy now…you have no idea.  Spend some time discussing how the work should be divided, and don’t be afraid to be bold when telling him that no, he is actually NOT doing an equal share of the chores.  Men, especially men who didn’t live on their own before moving into a committed relationship, often have no idea what it takes to run a household.  They have no idea what it costs financially and what it costs in time and effort.  He had his chance to live like a bachelor (read this: in filth, eating crap food) prior to his marriage and if he didn’t take that chance, too bad for him.  He’s going to be a married man now and it is time for him to learn how to pick up a rag and clean; how to fire up the vacuum cleaner and sweep; how to run a dishwasher and how to run a washing machine without ruining the contents of either machine. You will be a much sweeter wife if you don’t feel like his maid, and never underestimate how good he will feel when you listen to your girlfriends complain about their lazy live-in boyfriends and then state that you “don’t put up with any crap like that” because your husband is a good man. To quote my mother, “Get ‘em young and bring ‘em up right!”

On the other side of that coin is this: if he is genuinely trying to help you, give guidance but don’t criticize unless he is only giving a half-ass effort.  Many men want to help their wives but find themselves victims of the “can’t do anything right” syndrome that overtakes women when they get used to running a household.  If he loads the dishwasher wrong, so what? If he folds the clothes wrong, re-fold them.  If he folds the clothes wrong and you have to iron the entire load because of that, coach him…repeatedly.  And remind him: if his ‘work’ around the house creates more work for you, that isn’t sharing the load. That’s punishing you for making him do work around the house.  Only the occasional man will be that rude and ignorant, and if yours turns out to be that variety (which I sincerely doubt) you need to kick that lazy bum to the curb.  Otherwise, coach, gently, and thank him for every single thing he does for you, even if it isn’t done the way you would do it.  Be grateful for each and every single thing he does because each and every thing that he does is something that you don’t have to do.  This is how you keep yourself in the gratitude zone.  It’s easy to take your partner for granted, and you will have to work on that the most after the first year, so start early and be grateful consistently, even when he is simply doing the jobs he agreed to do.

Take time to discuss needs for privacy and private time.  No matter how much you love him, you will need time alone.  And I mean, TIME ALONE, not time to be out with your girlfriends. You need time for that kind of stuff too, but time with friends does not substitute for time alone.  The thing is that you and your wonderful husband won’t have the same needs for time alone.  He might not need much and you might need an hour every day.  If you don’t discuss your needs for time alone, he might think that you are being rejecting, or that he’s angered you.  Discussing what you need and how you need it is a great way of putting yourself in context for your partner.  When your father and I traveled to China we were in a tour group and I would get overwhelmed by all the noise and lack of time alone, and so I would put in my earbuds while we were on the bus and zone out while staring out the window. It wasn’t until later that I found out that your poor father thought I was angry with him every single time I put in my earbuds and ignored everyone including him.  No context means no way to understand your partner. You would think that after 20 years of marriage that your father would automatically understand me, but NO…that’s unrealistic. Your father still needs some context to understand me, just like I need context to understand him. Tell your husband what you need and make sure you take time to listen to his needs for time with friends, time alone, and time with YOU.  By the way, no one should have to explain WHY they have a need.  Needs are needs and who cares why?  No one should have to justify themselves unless they are opting for illegal actions…and that’s a whole other topic.

Sadly, it won’t take long for the two of you to get past the initial flush of love and marriage and settle down into the daily humdrum.  Life is boring and mundane; at times life is hectic, chaotic, and painfully difficult.  Those wonderful and intense feelings that you have right now when you are around him will pass, and when they do, you will find yourself wondering if that means something is wrong with the marriage.  The answer is: probably not.  Love, much like life, gets boring and mundane.  Love is NOT a sentiment felt in the heart…at least not for long.  Love starts as a sentiment in the heart, and then love becomes a set of choices you make based on a commitment you made before God and your family. Love is a choice you will have to make again and again, multiple times a day.  Choosing to act in loving ways and choosing to take time to work on the relationship will yield years of joy with each other.   If you don’t put work into the relationship, it eventually will die like an un-watered plant.  The thing about plants is that even when they are well-cared for and watered consistently, most of the time they aren’t in bloom.  There’s nothing showy or eye-catching about them.  The ‘plant’ of your marriage will be much like that, in the sense that you will need to give your marriage daily attention and most of the time it will still feel kind of mundane and somewhat boring…and then there will be seasons where it blooms and your marriage will feel like the most amazing thing ever and all the emotions you had in the beginning will be there and you will feel them as surely as you feel your beating heart. And there’s another great metaphor: your marriage and your heart are much alike.  Your heart beats in your chest all day long and most of the time you don’t really notice it—but fail to take care of it and you will notice it right away!  You will have to devote time and effort to the health of your marriage just like you need to devote time and effort to your own health.  What I’m trying to say is: DON’T JUST BE MARRIED. Actively work to be a couple growing together and you will find that your marriage is one of the most satisfying things in your life.

Shortly before your father and I married, a friend told him that marriage is either the best thing that ever happens to you or it is hell on earth.  On a related note, many of your father’s friends told him that he better be prepared to give up his sports car, his hobbies, and sailing catamarans on Sundays.  Thank God those two messages came at the same time, because your father shared both of those messages with me and I decided two things simultaneously: 1) I was going to have a ‘best thing that ever happens to you’ marriage and 2) that I absolutely refused to make your father give up all the things he loved just because he married me.  That turned out to be a great decision, because many years later your father told me that one of the things that made him happiest in our marriage is that I encouraged him to do the things that he wanted to do: learn to fly a sail-plane; make stained glass windows; go back to get a second master’s degree; learn to blow and fuse glass.  Part of being ‘the best thing that ever happens’ to your spouse is encouraging them to constantly grow and learn; encouraging them to challenge themselves; being their biggest cheerleader; and not holding it against them when they fail.  This doesn’t mean that you give your husband a pass to do whatever he wants no matter what it does to you financially, or that you don’t ever hold him accountable.  That is unreasonable and foolish.  On the other hand, criticizing him for failing doesn’t really change the failure and doesn’t help him figure out how to move on and succeed in the future. Letting your husband explore his interests keeps him interesting to you and encourages him to stay young and keep expanding his life and his mind.  Treat yourself in the same way (and ask him to treat you the same way) and you will have endless numbers of reasons to talk to each other and listen to each other and share your separate experiences with each other.  It doesn’t hurt that your marriage becomes the reason that you do interesting things…because for many people their marriage becomes the reason they stop doing anything interesting at all.

And that’s a bunch of what I learned the first year I was married. Obviously I wrote this for my daughter, but if it helps you or anyone you love navigate the early stages of marriage, that’s great!  I probably left at least 20 things I learned that first year off of this list…mostly because I couldn’t remember them all when I sat down to write this.  You can count on a few more installments on this in the future, although I promise not to post one blog entry for every year that I have been married.  No one needs to read 28 posts on marriage, not even me.

This Is Your Solemn Vow

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,[a] and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”    Mark 10:2-12     (NRSV)

I have been married for 27 years.   A lot of people gasp when I say that because I don’t look like I’m old enough to be married for that long (okay…I think I look old enough but everyone else says I don’t because they don’t know what I looked like ten years ago or how I have resting bitch face that makes me look every minute of my 51 years when I’m not smiling or talking.)  Anyway…I have been married for a really long time.  Long enough that I have been married longer than I was single before I was married…by several years now. I got married about two months before my 24th birthday, and I thought I was so mature and adult and ready to be married.  I realized a few months ago that my oldest daughter will turn 24 in January, and were she to choose my exact same path she would be getting married this November.  My stomach turns when I think of that, and suddenly I am not so sure that I was very adult or ready for marriage at the time I got married, but I suppose that the proof is in the pudding.  We’ve been married a long time and so…it works for me!

Being married a long time makes me think about marriage a little differently than other people do.  Lots of people have been married unsuccessfully.  They have had to divorce.  They know what’s it like to dream of forever and then have to let go of those dreams, have to let go of the person they thought they would spend the rest of their life loving.  I can’t imagine what that feels like.  I can’t imagine the sense of loss, the sense of failure, of being ripped off, of losing the dream.  I can’t imagine how unfair it must seem.  I only know that I have never, in all 27 years of marriage, had to put up with some of the crap my friends and colleagues have had to endure prior to their divorces.

I have never had my dreams or my goals demeaned by the person I love the most.  I have never had my body judged, or my sexual attractiveness rejected by the person I vowed to spend my life with.  I have never experienced what it is like to have my closest friend reject me, or how it feels to be lied to and cheated on.  I have no clue what this is like.

I guess I have to say that I got the winning lottery ticket when it comes to marriage.

We were married for about 8 years when I revealed to my husband that God was calling me into ordained ministry.  Many people, at that moment, are rejected by their spouse.  Lots of people hear the words “I didn’t sign up for that!” when they reveal their call.  Instead, my husband turned to me with a huge smile on his face and asked “Are you going to be a youth minister or the regular kind?”  He was visibly excited about the idea and filled with joy.  He and I had already taught a senior high Sunday School class together and had gotten deeply involved in our student’s lives.  We had spent a great deal of time at church and away from church with these kids, and my husband seemed to love every single minute.  He was as committed as I was to the Church, and so my declaration of “call” was received with great joy.  It’s still the same way now.

My husband willingly committed his saving and his retirement to my seminary education, and when I revealed that God wanted me to spend more years in graduate school so that I could become a licensed counselor and have a ministry in the mental health field, my husband rejoiced that he would never have to move to Ajo, Arizona (**1) and he subsequently forked over another $30,000 to my graduate education, bringing our grand total to $80,000 spent to make me ridiculously over-educated and bi-vocational.

I’m telling you all this to demonstrate the extreme levels of commitment that marriage can demand.  Only my husband can tell you what the payoff has been for his devotion and willingness to put his money on the line to answer God’s call to me…although I’d like to think that he realizes what a critical part he played in God’s will for us as a couple, and how we are blessed because he chose to obey God without question or hesitation.  Not that spending eight (8!!!) years in graduate school wasn’t a sacrifice on my part, but really, what complaints could I possibly have?  Seminary is harder than you can possibly imagine and possibly the most difficult graduate education available (see the story below **2) but honestly, following God’s call was a joy for me.  I got all the benefit, and my husband got the bills.

Why am I telling you this?

Because the lectionary Gospel reading for this week is one of those passages that make me cringe.  Why is God so hard on people who need to divorce?

There are a lot of things I could cite to explain this passage: the way that women were treated in Israeli society at that time in history; the way that divorced women often ended up working as prostitutes because they had no other way to earn their living (the alternative was to be destitute and on the street); the way that women lived in fear that they would displease their husband and be dismissed (and divorced) for the smallest infraction.  There are tons of cultural and historical reasons why Jesus would have reinforced the prohibition against divorce when asked about it by the Pharisees.

But my guess is that God doesn’t favor divorce because God never divorces us.  No matter how difficult we get, no matter how sinful, or unfaithful, or mean, cruel, and unloving we become, God never divorces us.

If you ask someone whose marriage ended in divorce, they will tell you how painful it is, how incredibly agonizing it is to lose the dream of forever that they had built with their partner.  They had dreamed a dream of the future together, and they had fallen in love with each other and with their dream.  Later on they fell out of love with each other, but in losing each other they lost their future.  They lost the dream—and losing that dream is more painful than you can understand until you’ve lost a dream of your own.  For a couple that divorces, the future they had crafted together goes black. It dies, and in the midst of the pain of their divorce they have to craft a new future for themselves; one that features them alone, facing each difficulty without a partner to soften the blow and help them carry the load.  Sometimes I think they mourn the death of that dream more than they mourn losing their partner, because by the time they decide for divorce they usually don’t want to live with their partner anymore…but they can’t imagine life without a future and the vision of their shared future is no longer valid.

I think that divorce distresses God, not because it’s some sort of sin, but because it makes it hard for us to believe in a love that lasts forever, the kind of love that God has for us.  It makes it hard for us to believe in a love that continues despite all difficulties and trials, that stands the test of time and actually endures for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish until death do you part.  This is a very solemn vow, one that sends shivers up my spine when I speak it while officiating at a wedding because it is so very holy to me.

I know what it’s like to live into this vow, what it is like to have a spouse that lives into this vow, and it is the most grounding thing I know.  I wake up every morning in the glow of my husband’s love, even if that glow is expressed with squinty eyes, morning breath, and his customary morning grunts that I’m supposed to be able to interpret. (He’s not incredibly talkative when he first wakes up.) I go sleep in the glow of that love every night, as we settle into another night of reading until we fall asleep and occasionally sharing passages of our books with one another as we toot out what’s left of dinner’s gas.  We have endured all sorts of things together: moving to Arizona (we didn’t have family here), career changes for both of us, graduate school for both of us, raising two girls, dealing with a drug addicted child, dealing with a severely ill child, losing both of his parents, my brother’s mental illness, and my parent’s advancing age and physical decline.  I don’t know that I could have done it without him, and I don’t think he would have wanted to face all that we’ve faced without me there at his side. The best part of all of it is having someone that knows me better than anyone else in the world…and knowing that person loves me despite all my crap, all my failures, and all my obnoxious weirdness.  He does get to celebrate the good parts with me as well.  He even encouraged me to set aside a day to write so that I could share this blog with you…mostly because he knew that God and several of my friends were encouraging me to write more.  I really do have the best man in the world.  Sorry about that…I snapped him up as soon as I found him because he was (and still is) so very amazing.

Perhaps that’s why God votes so much for marriage to last.  I got lots of unconditional love and acceptance from my parents, but I literally am a part of them.  I came out of my mother’s body and am formed from their DNA…I couldn’t be more like them if I tried.  On the other hand, my husband CHOOSE me, just like I choose him.  My parents didn’t get a choice…they got pregnant, and there I was!  My husband fell in love with me as I am: incredibly flawed, crazy, difficult me.  And he has stayed with me for more than 27 years, dealing with my particular ways of being, both good and bad, that entire time.  If anything gives testimony to the unconditional love of God, to the grace and forgiveness that God has for us…it’s successful marriage.  Unlike the experience we have with our children, there is no DNA, no Oxytocin, no genetic material to make us love our partner.  Staying in love is a choice, remaining in the marriage when you’re sick and tired of all the crap is a choice, forgiving is a choice, choosing to do the things that make your partner happy is a choice, honoring their contribution to the marriage is a choice, valuing what they bring to the table is a choice…all these things and many more that contribute to the joy of marriage are choices.

God knows this, and it’s important for us to remember that God chooses US—and there is no DNA, no genetic material, no 9 months of gestation, no Oxytocin to encourage this choice…God chooses us simply and only because God chooses US.  It’s that simple.  God chooses us because God loves us and isn’t interested in not loving us, ever, no matter what we do.  So maybe this passage about divorce is about God wanting us to find out what it is like to choose love…not to have love choose us, but to choose love and choose to stay in love…so that we can understand just how serious and committed God is to us.

It’s kind of hard to believe in love that will choose you and keep choosing you if you’ve never had anyone who made that choice and just kept making it over and over again.  Marriage turns out to be one of those amazing ways that life imitates God so that we can understand who God is and how much God loves us.

If you have been through the pain of divorce and my words are making you ache, remember that God loves you more than you can ever imagine or understand.  I pray that one day you find someone who will make that love as real as possible for you so you can find out just how beloved you are and come to believe that nothing you can ever do will change that truth.

If you are already married to the love of your life, do everything you can to be the unconditional love and grace of God to that person so that they can know just how incredibly precious they are, and so that you can know it in return.

May God bless the union of each and every person who commits to loving for better and for worse until death do you part. This is your solemn vow, and it is truly holy.  Amen.


 

**1  The United Methodist Church practices something called “itinerancy”, a practice that means that ministers are moved from church to church at the will and request of our Bishop.   This practice means that any given appointment to a church is only guaranteed for a single year, and that every April and May we wait for a call from the Bishop that asks us to pack up and move to a new town and a new church.  Only the Elders of the UMC are required to be itinerant, because only the Elders are charged with the administration and leadership of the church.  Deacons in the UMC have specialized ministries (like the one I have in mental health counseling) and we are not required to be itinerant. On the other hand, we are not guaranteed an appointment to a church (like Elders) and therefore we are not guaranteed to have a paying job each and every year.  Deacons find our own employment and are subject to layoffs and reduction-in-force issues just like everyone else who has a job in the secular world.  It’s a trade-off, but it allows United Methodist ministers to respond to the unique call of God and to enter into whatever ministry God calls them to do, no matter where God calls them to be.  It allows the UMC to be flexible and responsive to the needs of God’s children everywhere, at all times.

 

**2  I was a computer programmer for eleven years before I answered my call into ministry.  My last year as a programmer was spent as a contractor for Compuware, a large consulting firm that bought out the tiny, locally owned consulting firm I was working for in 1996.  I remember meeting with my new manager for the first time; he was taking the team of consultants that were placed at “Large Credit Card Firm That I Refuse to Advertise” out to lunch.  I had just started seminary and had realized just how heavy the workload would be; I was really concerned that I wasn’t going to be able to keep up.  During our lunch, I informed my manager that I had just started graduate school and was going to want a reduced workweek during weeks that I had papers due or midterm/final exams—perhaps only 30 hours.  My manager laughed and said “Oh for God’s sake, graduate school isn’t that hard!  Don’t worry, you’ll do fine.  Now…if you want hard, try seminary.  THAT’S HARD.  My brother went to seminary and my God, the amount of work that he had was ridiculous.  I have never seen anyone work that hard.  Trust me, you’re not going to have any problem in graduate school.”  Then my new manager asked me what I was studying.  I told him that I was going to seminary.  He laughed and said “Very funny.  Seriously, what are you studying?”  I told him that I was going to Claremont School of Theology to get a Master’s in Divinity so that I could become a Methodist minister.  He immediately looked at my team lead with a very stern look on his face and said “She needs to only work 30 hours in any week that she has a paper or a test.  Immediately! Do you understand?”  Honestly, I had to work hard not to burst out laughing.  I appreciated his help, but he looked like I told him I was studying to cure cancer.