I’d like to think that my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and 3 years of total immersion soaking in wisdom from the greatest counselors and professors in the area would qualify me to a better understanding of what makes marriages work. What makes them last. But the truth is, knowledge can only take us so far. Besides, the more I learn, the more I realize I have to learn. Now I think that experience and pain are our greatest teachers (when we actually learn from them, that is).
In my 20s, I thought I knew everything and I didn’t yet know how to wield my knowledge with discernment. I even hurt people when I wasn’t careful with how I dispensed my observations and knowledge at times. I was prideful. Proud to finally feel like I knew more than others, proud to finally feel smart after so many years of feeling so painfully average. I never meant harm, but I had blinders on.
Now that I’m in my 30s, I’m ready to shed the layers of false identity that kept me feeling good about myself. Leaving my job, my safety net of feeling important, needed, and wise was, in part, because I knew I was losing myself in it. Caleb’s issues were just a really good excuse to finally feel permission to do what needed to be done. Being needed and important, making a difference in other people’s lives suddenly felt like a noose around my neck. Too much. Not enough. Who am I without this title? Who am I without this respect? I’m still figuring that out, but I welcome this journey with open arms. It is beautifully hard.
Being Caleb’s mom has taught me the importance of staying the course, of continuing to do the next right thing. Even when the results don’t come as quickly as I wish they would, change is happening. Even though we have serious setbacks and relapses, it is improving. Thinking back on where we were when he was 2, 3, 4, 5 years old…I’m better able to realize the progress we’ve made. I have to constantly fight the desire for a “cure” or “fix”. It’s not linear. Life just doesn’t work that way. I have to constantly remind myself, “this is still an improvement!” when he’s having another meltdown, or I’m getting another call from school. Loving my child unconditionally is not something I have to try for, but showing him that I love him unconditionally through my reactions is quite another story. However, the same logic I apply to Caleb must also apply to me, despite my tendency to be really hard on myself. I have improved tremendously in showing Caleb I love him no matter what, even though I fall short at times.
“Progress through something traumatic, it’s not linear. It’s not like we go from unhealthy to healthy, failure to success. I think it’s all circular. You just come back around to the same pain, and the same loneliness. But each time you come around, you’re stronger from the climb.”
I think our biggest mistakes can come from giving up too quickly, or from not learning from our pain. I’ve wasted so much time numbing myself, and avoiding the still quiet voice telling me to come closer and pay attention. (For Lent, I’m giving up Netflix in my bedroom because I have a serious problem, you guys).
I feel the same way about marriage. Somewhere around the 7ish year mark of marriage we start to realize that the problems in our marriage are not getting better, and in fact, they are getting worse. This was true for me. Right around our 7-year mark, I started to realize that my desire to have a deeper, more emotional connection with Josh was not going away, and in fact, it was getting worse. I felt unloved, and questioned whether I was in love. I had always told myself that having a deeper emotional connection wasn’t possible because he wasn’t wired that way. I resigned myself to getting along well and being a good team. I was incredibly lucky, after all. Not all husbands are as wonderful as mine. Was passion really that important? Josh didn’t do anything wrong, he was the same great man he always was, but I was wilting.
Allowing myself to yearn for more in my marriage hurt deeply, but I wasn’t going to resign myself any longer. It took a lot of convincing, prayer, and miracles, but I got him to agree to go to a marriage intensive, which required 8 hours of marriage counseling prior. It was an amazing experience and he broadened his emotional bandwidth a little. We made our connection a little better, but we still didn’t have much passion. But we stayed faithful. We kept investing. We kept trying, and didn’t give up. It was a series of small and big things we did together.
We bought a camper and learned together how to actually do that (ok, we are still learning). It’s been an adventure! We had the amazing gift of my aunt returning to Georgia and giving us a regular date night for the first time in 6 years. When I made the decision to step away from my practice temporarily, I fell more in love with his willingness to let me do what I felt led to do. He didn’t increase his expectations of my culinary expertise once I stopped working, either. I have new eyes to see all the wonderful qualities that he does have. Our conversations were a little more thoughtful and interesting and now, 3 years later and after all that, we are in a season of sustained passion for the first time since having kids. I am more attracted to him, more in love with him, more grateful for him than ever before. I tell you this not to brag, but to encourage you not to give up and to continue doing the next right thing even when it doesn’t seem like it’s working fast enough.
I think a great place to start is figuring out what your expectations are of your spouse. Have a conversation about it, and decide to let them go. When we expect something from our spouse, we forget feel grateful for it. We feel owed, and we mentally tally and weigh the incongruences in our marriage. The thought: “with the exception of fidelity, Josh owes me nothing” has led to a freedom I never expected. Thinking this way has greatly improved our marriage, but it’s a process. Josh actually loves me better when I’m loving him without expectation, and he does the same for me (he always has). Expectations beget resentment and resentment begets contempt. Contempt will take your marriage into a darkness that is very difficult to redeem.
Now it’s up to you to figure out what the next right thing is. It could be something as simple as making a cup of coffee, having a conversation, or sending a text. Maybe it’s thinking about how he or she is feeling, or listening without distraction. Maybe it’s just putting down your phone or turning off the tv. It could be prayer and contemplation about your expectations or the conditional love you’ve been offering. Or it could be as big as counseling or a marriage retreat. The important thing is, you don’t stop doing the next right thing, one thing at a time. Keep going friend, love is never wasted.