Today my wife and I celebrate 3 years of legal marriage. Though we had been domestically partnered legally for years, we decided that legal marriage would be necessary in order for us to have access to one another should an accident or some other legal issue pop up. One would think that a ceremony and signing our names on a state issued certificate wouldn’t be a big deal since we had already been together for seven years at the time, but it changed our lives and our relationship. Legal marriage and the support of it from family and friends brought further accountability to each other and our community. Our wedding day solidified what commitment means to us, and set us on a path to being a family in a way domestic partnership couldn’t.
In the past, I used to say that federal legal marriage didn’t matter and that everyone should just have domestic partnerships (DP’s) and let marriage be defined for themselves via their church or religious affiliation. And while that’s not the world’s most terrible idea, I now see the folly in such logic. Marriage is different from DP’s in that it is not only a contract between two people, but it is a contract between the couple and society at large. Being married is more than just a new identity of titles (wife, husband, Mrs.) and a pretty ring. It’s a lifelong declaration of commitment to be respectful and loving to not only one’s spouse, but to, as a family unit, society. The fruits of love and respect built on commitment, forgiveness, and patience is what a marriage should reflect to others so that they may learn to embrace more than the fleeting feeling of the moment.
There is no such thing as a perfect marriage
I suspect the reason why there is a seven year itch among married couples; where at such a time the commitment appears to be falling apart, is because for many, the people we were on the wedding day, is different from the people we are after several years. Regardless of marriage status, people change, and adjustments need to be made. Most of us have certain habits or personality traits that never change but we also have aspects of ourselves that do. I’m not talking about cut & paste surgical changes so we can pretend the inside equals the outside. The changes I’m talking about have to do with the cultivation of newer habits, ideologies, and disciplines. These changes can create strife in relationships and either the marriage weathers the storms or not. Anyone who thinks that remarrying will guarantee an avoidance of marital struggle is naïve. No matter who we say we love at a given moment, that love will be eventually tested.
In Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages, chapter 10 is titled Love Is a Choice. He asks: “How can we speak each other’s love language when we are full of hurt, anger, and resentment over past failures?” While I fully acknowledge work with animals is different from marriage, the dogs I work with have taught me a lot about what Chapman refers to as an “emotional climate.” Famous dog trainer Cesar Milan talks about something similar in the concept of energy in the present moment. In a given moment one’s energy, not their past or future mistakes, is what matters. Dogs force us to see past any hurt or anger we have so we can meet them energetically and emotionally. We can do something similar with our spouses. Healing and dealing with the problems between us, if we are willing to meet the moment and re-see the other as more than just their mistakes, requires constant practice but is incredibly satisfying when after all the months or years of trying, smoother interactions increase.
Choosing to meet another’s need for love means sometimes forgoing being right, mad, or vengeful. Making the conscientious decision to stop an obsession with marital justice and start listening to our husband or wife takes a lot of time. Developing new patterns when the inevitable marriage dissatisfaction arrives calls for patience and redemption. In the heat of the moment those two qualities can be hard to access. How do we find a way to have patience and forgive and or admit wrongdoing in the heat of the moment? We choose to. And if we fail, we chose again, and again, and again. While it can be uncomfortable to give up control of a conversation or argument to patience, respect, and service, thus far such acquiescence’s has led my wife and I to cohesion and rest in each other.
What practice looks like
Suzanne Venker’s book The Alpha Female’s Guide to Men and Marriage addresses making the choice to change one’s energy in a number of typical scenarios. This may seem an odd choice as I’m not married to a man but I believe every committed couple could benefit from her ideas. For alpha gals like me, Venker’s ideas can be especially challenging. For example she discusses being vulnerable to your mate. In the past being vulnerable to my wife was difficult. It wasn’t that she was untrustworthy, because she is very worthy of my trust, but it was because I didn’t know how to relax in the moments she displeased me. My wife putting the toothpaste in the wrong bathroom drawer is not an act of conscious or unconscious aggression, but in the past I’d see it as some subtle attack on the efforts I made to make the house clean and function well. Don’t get me wrong, I still sometimes find myself nagging when she does something similar, but since reading the Venker’s book I’ve done it less. When I feel my body tense up with resentment and start to nag, I remember the feeling I had cultivated by actually being calm in a previous incident, and seek to re-engage with that energy.
To begin to practice and actually cultivate more love in the form of patience and forgiveness, I had to be willing to try to react differently. This meant more emotion regulation in the form of being quiet as Venker’s book suggests. As wild as this may sound, it’s simply breathing through, and ignoring the small offenses. My wife doesn’t clean the house like I do. She knows, thanks to Gary Chapman’s book, that my primary love language is acts of service, so she has made effort to help me around the house more. But instead of just letting her do something, I wanted to make sure she did it the right way. Venker’s husband referred to such a tendency as directing his traffic, and that’s precisely what I was still doing, even though she was trying to show me love. After seeing her beautiful face fall from my attempt to override her help, it became clear I needed to choose her and the love she showed me over being right.
As I more and more chose to try to keep my mouth shut if she didn’t do something my way, I began to notice we became increasingly bonded. Our bond was no longer based on the fresh flush of desire and hope, but a foundation of mutual respect and compromise. For example, my wife simply doesn’t clean the bathtub like I do. So instead of nagging her or just doing it myself, which is very difficult due to my disability, she does the first overall cleaning, and I do the spots she missed. We both win because she has helped the house and me to function better, and I have a clean tub and happy wife. We both win because we have learned to respect each other not only for what the other does well, but for also our limitations.
Having differences and prejudices about such differences isn’t just an issue for societies but for married folks too. Sometimes the ones we love most, hurt us, and we assume the pain is an indication that marital unity is lost. Many years ago we went through a very tough time. It was a make it or break it moment and the hurt on both sides seemed insurmountable. Fear made it feel like our love was doomed and we almost split up. As main character Elizabeth Bennet in the book Pride and Prejudice learned to see past Mr. Darcy’s character flaws, mistakes, and communication misfires (as well as being accountable eventually for her own), we had to move past the past and not let our preconceived notions of each other based on our bad days, become our destiny. Fear cannot be vanquished and fear doesn’t indicate a lack of faith. For us fear meant we had a choice; we could either change the way we looked at and thought of each other or we could give up and split up.
Instead of us continuing to see to the other as failing to measure up, we chose day by day to try to see each other as children of God who deserved respect and love, regardless of the past. Venker says wisely: “So wipe the slate clean, and start today. Don’t make your husband pay for whatever fears you harbor or for whatever bogus ideas the culture has taught you about men and marriage.” Instead of us expecting the other to fit a vision made up of preconceived notions about marriage (movies, media, parental divorces) we had to start over and have new eyes. I had to learn to have faith rather than expect or demand. I had to learn to appreciate and praise her more and focus on not always being in charge. I’m the boss of the house, not her. She has learned to be less defensive and speak my love language (she also often strives to do things the way I like too). We are not perfect, but we haven’t had a real fight in a long time and when one of us gets in a snit, it ends very quickly and usually with a heartfelt hug and kiss.
Love is not dead!
We’re living in an age where young people are becoming convinced “love is dead” and who could blame them? While certain people have focused on fighting against marriage equality, they have neglected to focus on divorce protection and healthy marriages. While other certain people have chanted “love is love” they have neglected to address the role morality and discipline plays in having a loving marriage survive the constant onslaught of Malthusian decay that is robbing families of cohesion. Either way those ideologies don’t help families strengthen and learn to cope with the disappointment of imperfection. Christians generally believe we humans are fallen, imperfect, and incapable to arriving on a proverbial spiritual mountain top. No amount of the appearance of virtue, whether one is spirituality religious or ideologically religious about social justice, makes one a better spouse. As my mom wisely said many times, charity begins at home. That means home is where we practice the love we’d like to see in the world and home is where we practice the love we’d like to be in the world.
Giving up vengeance as a means for justice within a marriage means understanding our partner (like us) will always be flawed and in need of forgiveness, patience, and service. For my wife and I, faith in Jesus and His word has helped us to have a new kind of sight. Instead of expecting each other to be super human and fulfill all of each other’s needs, we have come to rely on prayer and faith to help us see each other and save us from soul destroying hate. Whether ones object of hate is a bully, political foe, or a spouse; being judge, jury, and punisher to anyone only leaves us with a false sense of justice. It may be easier to love those who curry our favor and walk away from those, including husbands and wives, who challenge us to be something more than hurt or angry victims. But in marriage or life being true to oneself includes faith in more than ideology, but in time and wisdom. For us that wisdom comes in the form of Jesus’ words. Time comes from developing patience and willingness to embrace changing our own energy and focus in a given moment.
When my wife and I have a moment of strife, both of us silently pray for clarity and the ability to respect each other, no matter how mad we may be. When we open our eyes and hearts to each other, sanity and peace return. It’s not about relationship nirvana. Our actions are about fostering a relationship that not only serves to enhance each other’s essential truth but also serves the community we made a commitment in front of. In a world that, as of this writing, seems as if it’s swirling towards madness, with attempts of solving hate with hate failing right and left; loving marriages demonstrate that every day one can learn to settle differences, see through prejudices, and let go of the need to punish. My marriage asks me daily to prioritize my family over the whims of our culture. Our marriage gives us an opportunity to try and fail without one lording over the other to act and speak perfectly.
My wife tells, shows, and gives me her love because she knows how. She doesn’t do it perfectly and neither do I but we have a sanity we can reach for in the midst of societal insanity. We transmit this strength by staying and praying together, and I suspect those in our lives appreciate it. While extremists punch each other supposedly into peace, our marriage serves as a reminder of what forgiveness of imperfection looks like. A solid marriage affirms life and humanity by demonstrating that in spite of life’s many woes…family matters. When two people learn to put prejudice, hurt, and spite aside for something much more lovely – chosen unity – those little daily miracles become a part of the couple’s emotional climate. Their energy, cultivated like a well-tended garden, gives others a glimpse of joy that only a thousand little forgiveness’s can foster. Life and marriage can never be perfect and certainly mine isn’t. But today, on our 3 year wedding anniversary, I’m grateful to say I truly know what it is to love. Love isn’t where we find perfection. Love is where we find each other.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” John 10:18