Last weekend I came home from a long shift at the hospital to find Will bent over the toilet with a cleaning brush.
My heart jumped. “I don’t deserve a husband like him,” I thought.
Will has always been a willing participant of household chores, and while I am home more than he is thus much of the housekeeping falls to me, I can’t think of one time that he didn’t pitch in to help without complaining.
We celebrated our fourteenth wedding anniversary this week. I have been thinking about marriage and what makes it work.
When I married at 22, I was a girl with an inquisitive and observant mind, but very indecisive and insecure. I had a good childhood in many respects, but several painful relationships in addition to my hearing loss had beaten me down badly on the inside. I could never be good enough. Loneliness was a constant, heart-and-soul-eating companion.
So something as simple as deciding what to cook for dinner felt scary and threatening to me. If Will asked me what I wanted to do on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I always replied with a question: “What do you want to do?”
Over the years he built confidence in me, and I learned to choose which restaurant I wanted, and to buy myself a toaster or laundry basket without permission. I learned to express how I felt without retreating in pain and fear.
From the start of our relationship, we loved to do things together. We spent many Sunday afternoons playing in the river and weekday evenings at the library. We camped in a tiny tent in Colorado during freezing weather and ate papusas and drank pop out of glass bottles in El Salvador.
When our four children came along, we were no longer quite so free, but we included them in our trips to the river or library. The kids played with hammers while we remodeled houses, and dug in the dirt while we pruned raspberry bushes or picked tomatoes in our garden.
Will and I always loved to talk about ideas and dreams and how the world works.
This togetherness healed many of the broken places in my heart. Still, there were times when old patterns from our childhoods crept in, and we found ourselves slightly and uneasily at odds.
Here are three things I have learned and still am learning about our marriage.
1. When old patterns surface, I need to treat both myself and my husband with honesty and gentleness.
Usually when I am retreating into being indecisive or insecure, or I am unsufferably picky about the housekeeping or anything else, I am acting out of either a deep fear of not being good enough or a fear of being abandoned.
A few years ago, I was delivered from fear in a huge measure, but I still have to ward it off from time to time. If Will would not be gentle in these times, it would only feed the fear.
Often if we talk about what is going on inside of me–instead of pretending it doesn’t exist–the fear recedes. It can be as simple as me saying, “when you are reading while I am cleaning a dirty kitchen, it makes me feel alone,” or “tell me if you like what I am wearing, because when I was a child my clothes were often criticized.”
2. Both willing service and asking for help are necessary in a healthy marriage.
Depending on our personalities or life experiences, either serving or asking for help feels more natural. I’m one who will serve until I drop–which is partly a spiritual gift and how I show love, partly a broken pattern of relating, and partly cultural conditioning. I’m slowly learning to ask for what I need. The vulnerability of asking leads me into deeper places of trusting.
Both giving and receiving are necessary in a wholesome relationship. And forget about mind-reading…it usually doesn’t happen. Will and I have to ask each other for what we need and want.
3. Spirituality is the glue that holds our marriage together.
I’ve heard lots and lots of good marriage advice over the years, and found much of it helpful. Learning each other’s love languages, for instance, helped me know how to love in practical and meaningful ways. But sometimes these books and seminars make a marriage relationship look like a huge to-do list.
In reality, nothing concretes my marriage like spirituality does. Sometimes I need to set aside the marriage to-do list and rest in the love and tenderness of Christ.
God’s working is mysterious and effective. Looking to Him to fill my needs first relieves tremendous pressure off my husband. And listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit as a couple is one of the most thrilling things I have ever experienced.
When Will and I are both close to Jesus, our relationship is incredibly deep and sweet.
I have not arrived at the utopia of marriage. But God is with us and it is very good, for which I am deeply thankful.
What has God taught you through your marriage, or through other close relationships?